Time and again, we hear the question, what is hypnosis really and is it even real? A brain signature of being hypnotized was first seen in 2012 through functional MRI (fMRI), a kind of MRI showing brain activity with respect to changes in blood flow. Parts of the brain connected with executive control and attention were proven to have a role.
In particular, hypnotized subjects exhibited stronger co-activation between components of the executive-control network (manages basic cognitive functions) and the salience network (decides which stimuli should receive attention). In their brains, both networks were activated simultaneously. Those who were not hypnotized did not exhibit this connectivity.
What drove these experiments to a higher plane is that researcher used fMRI to see which parts of brain get triggered as hypnotized subjects analyzed colors. The color realms in both left and right hemispheres were excited when the subjects were instructed to perceive colors. The researchers agreed that hypnosis is indeed a one-of-a-kind psychological state and definitely doesn’t come from adopting a role.
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Another newsworthy observation from such experiments were the variations between the hypnotized and non-hypnotized brain. When non-hypnotized subjects were instructed to perceive colors on a greyscale photograph, only right hemisphere was triggered. Only during hypnosis would the left hemisphere (center of reason and logic) respond.
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Another experiment used positron-emission tomography (PET) to examine cerebral blood flow in hypnosis. The hypnotic state was in relation to activation of many mostly left-sided cortical regions, plus a few right-sided areas.
The trend of activation shared a lot of similarities with mental imagery, from which it showed differences by the relative deactivation of the precuneus (handles visuo-spatial imagery, episodic memory retrieval and self-processing operations of the brain). The trend of activation had plenty of similarities with mental imagery, from which it proved different by the relative deactivation of the precuneus, the part of the brain that takes care of the brain’s visuo-spatial imagery, episodic memory retrieval and self-processing operations. Some scientists believe that under hypnosis, the subjects simply activate, to a significant extent, the brain sections used in imagination, but without actual perceptual changes.
Another functional MRI study showed limited activity in both anterior cingulate cortex, which affects emotions, learning and memory, and visual areas under hypnosis. The findings hints that hypnosis impacts cognitive control by regulating activity in particular brain areas, including early visual modules.
In various studies, hypnotizable subjects revealed significantly more pronounced brain activity in the anterior cingulate gyrus, which affects emotions and behavior, compared to non-hypnotized subjects. The anterior cingulate gyrus reacts errors and assesses emotional results. Prefrontal cortex is related to with higher level cognitive processing and behavior.
Comparison of findings from several studies also puts contradictory results to fore. Several areas of the brain appear to be responsive in various experiments. This can be related to various experimental techniques, both in terms of hypnotic approach and equipment used for the studies.