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Discover: ‘You’re getting sleepy' — the amazing science of hypnosis

Trance states can be fun when you’re on stage, but they can also have profound effects in relieving pain and changing behaviour

When you hear the word hypnosis, you may be immediately reminded of that stage show you saw, and the man that had a great time clucking like a chicken on command. Perhaps you think of being out of your own mind, unable to control your body, and something you never want to experience. 

But the thing is, you probably already have. Ever fallen into a trance watching the snow come at the windshield? So engrossed in a book or movie that you forget the world you’re in, felt the relaxation of a flickering flame, or even, the calm meditation of the Zamboni making its rounds? 

And you know everybody watches the Zamboni – you can’t take your eyes off it. 

All of these times, you have been in what’s really, at its base level, a trance. It is this state – whether it is an altered state of consciousness or simply a relaxed one (this is still up for debate) – that allows the power of suggestion to work to its true potential. And in the right hands, that could mean that changing your perception of the world while in this state. 

Hypnotherapy, the practice of accessing the subconscious mind in order to change behaviour, has been around for some time – more than 200 years really. And though it began as a pseudoscience, without much in the way of standard practice and some outlandish theories to say the least – how’s the idea of disease called ‘animal magnetism’ featuring an internal liquid magnetic force – it has now been shown not only to have an effect on the subconscious mind, but a measureable one. 

A landmark study in 1999 by Pierre Rainville from the University of Montreal tested pain response in conjunction with hypnotism. In the study, hypnotized participants briefly placed their left hand in water – one heated to a painful 116 degrees Fahrenheit (46 degrees Celsius) and the other left at room temperature. Some participants were instructed that as they put their hand in the water they may feel some pain, but not a bothersome amount. For instance, if the usual pain register would be a ten, then they might only feel it as a five. 

The participants had neurological scans while the test was happening, and there were remarkable results. Those who put their hand in the 116-degree water but were told the pain would be less showed less activity in their brains. Specifically, less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, associated with pain processing. 

A more recent Stanford university study in 2016 found changes in the brain’s functions as well. Dr. David Spiegel, professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, and his colleagues screened 545 healthy participants and found 36 people who consistently scored high on tests of hypnotisability (your ability to follow orders and pay careful attention), as well as 21 control subjects who scored on the extreme low end of the scales.

Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) to measure brain activity, each person was scanned: while resting, while recalling a memory, and during two hypnosis sessions.

What they found — and what they found only in the patients who scored highest on the hypnotisability test, and only while they were in one of the two hypnosis sessions — was three distinct changes.

First, they saw a decrease in activity in the dorsal anterior cingulate, part of the brain’s salience network, which detects behaviorally relevant stimuli and co-ordinates the brain's neural resources in response to these stimuli.

Then, an increase in connections between two other areas of the brain — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula. Spiegel describes this as a brain-body connection that helps the brain process and control what’s going on in the body.

Finally, Spiegel’s team also observed reduced connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network, which includes the medial prefrontal and the posterior cingulate cortex. 

This decrease in functional connectivity could potentially be the disconnect between someone’s actions and their awareness of their actions.

When it comes to weight loss with hypnotherapy, small scale studies are showing it could be a more effective long-term weight loss tool, and highly complementary to other behavioural changes. Other small studies seeking to show if hypnosis can help with smoking, treat a drug addiction, or even self-hypnosis in order to avoid relapse have found it is a very viable therapy. 

One of the most fascinating aspects though, is hypnotherapy’s potential within healthcare.

There is beginning research into hypnotherapy as a complement in treating Pediatric Crohn’s Disease

As well, Montreal Children’s Hospital Interventional Radiology department took part in a pilot project to better understand medical hypnosis. More than 120 children and teens have now undergone medical hypnotism, and the results are astounding.

Patients who were hypnotized prior to procedures rated their discomfort at an average 1.4 out of 10 for pain – those without rated it a 5.4. The use of medical hypnotherapy is now resulting in the use of less or no sedation for procedures that previously depended on the time, cost and risk of anesthesia. As well, as children are known to be medical ‘wigglers,’ the hypnotic state is allowing the medical professionals to better and more easily perform the required medical procedures.

Imagine making the life of a child in pain better, without needing to do more than to teach them to relax.   

But if you’re a skeptic, you might still wonder about the placebo effect. Well, you’re not wrong. The thing is, the placebo effect can be quite healing. 

In her book, Cure: A Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, journalist and author Jo Marchant details the placebo effect, and the fact that the brain is still responding in the desired capacity. For instance, she notes that a placebo painkiller can actually trigger the release of the same pain-relieving endorphins that pain medication would. Or patients with Parkinson’s disease can take a placebo pill and still feel the same release of dopamine that they would if they took their actual medication. 

That is, of course, unless the patient knows it’s a placebo. That is one of the stickier issues when it comes to studying the effects of hypnosis. In order to accurately capture it, the study participant can’t know it’s happening. And that can make for an ethical dilemma. 

Using the method as treatment however, requires you in the driver’s seat, says Gilles Brideau, Sudbury-based registered psychotherapist and practitioner of hypnotherapy since 2002. 

“What hypnosis is really like,” he says, “is like we're driving in a car, and I have a map.” While he can gently advise you that your turn is coming up — because his map says so — you can still drive right past. It’s this choice, this free will, which will help your experience with the process as well.

According to Brideau, the success of hypnotherapy comes from your brain’s inability to distinguish what is happening now, and what you are imagining is happening. 

“I’m sure you’ve had a dream,” says Brideau, “a very vivid dream in which you were being chased. If you wake up and you do a carotid (pulse) check, your heart would be racing. But what were you doing? Laying down, resting. We get a physiological response to an action that wasn’t taking place, because your brain perceived it to be real.”

It’s this power to bring the brain into a moment that hasn’t happened yet that allows for help during medical procedures, hypnobirthing, even upcoming medical procedures that are causing anxiety for the prospective patient. 

The session would begin with some questions, mostly geared to your desired outcomes. Then, some helpful tool of distraction. A pair of glasses that flash small lights in your eyes at a quicker pace before slowing, as well as a noise-canceling headphones that only allow the chosen musical cues and the voice of Brideau to enter. “My clients laugh and say ‘you’re in my head.”

It’s then that Brideau uses not only his training as a psychotherapist to determine his plan of action, but also his background in cognitive behavioral therapy, and other modalities. While it’s easy to get someone into a trance, the rest takes a skillful hand. 

Then, it’s a matter of practice makes perfect. If you are terrified of airplanes, your time spent taxiing should not be the moment where you try to deal with the fear for the first time. With hypnotherapy, you could begin your journey 10-20 times before setting foot in the airport, simply by practicing with a hypnotherapist to help to access a calm state, and listening to their hypnotic suggestions.

Suggestions are made based on the desired outcome of the client, says Brideau, but if it is not their true desire, it won’t work, says Brideau. 

“So if I get a wife who would really like her husband to quit smoking, but he doesn’t want to, it’s not going to work,” he said. 

The outcome is discussed in detail in advance of any sessions, and very often scripted according to protocols from other eminent sources. There is one for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) that Brideau often employs, as well as also working with the clients to refocus on positive outcomes. “It’s not ‘I want to be 150 pounds,” says Brideau. “It’s about what is going to happen, will you be able to stop eating and feel full sooner, will you be able to choose foods that are better for your health.”

And while there are no regulatory bodies governing hypnotherapy, the training in other areas will tell you when you have found someone you can trust. Hypnotherapy should be but one tool of an educated professional. 

But if you’re still worried about being made to bark like a dog, know that hypnosis cannot make you do anything you’re not open to. When you see someone acting like a fool onstage, know that they are having a great time, because that was their desired outcome. 

“You go to a stage show to have fun,” says Brideau. “A lot of times, because I've done a stage show, it's kind of like ‘I can't believe I'm doing this but I don't really care.’ Because you're aware the whole time. In that moment, I want to live, I want to have a good time, I want to enjoy myself right now.”

So whether you are interested in hypnobirthing, help for a medical procedures, easing fears or anxieties, trouble with relaxation, smoking, and weight loss – even animal noises – then a hypnosis session could be of interest to you. While there are no large-scale, long-term studies at the moment, there is the beginning of fascinating research into the field, and a new understanding of the brain. 

Jenny Lamothe is a freelance writer, proof-reader and editor in Greater Sudbury. Contact her through her website,


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