The Science Of Hypnosis

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By Chantell Williams

This piece was also published on National Geographic.

Hypnosis has been around for centuries. It’s been proven to reduce stress, anxiety and pain. Yet the practice is still struggling for mainstream public acceptance. New research from Stanford University is applying the latest medical imaging tools to figure out the science behind hypnosis, and what makes it work. Youth Radio’s Chantell Williams wanted to know what hypnosis can do for stressed out teens.

First, here’s what hypnosis isn’t: it’s not brainwashing or magic like in the cartoons. Hypnosis is a trance-like state of heightened concentration and it’s more common than you think. Katie Duchscherer, a 21-year-old psychology major at Stanford University, says, “If you’ve ever really gotten into reading a book or watching a television show and the rest of the world around you has sort-of gone away. Hypnosis is very similar to that.”

A team of researchers, including Dr. Spiegel, used fMRI to show the different “brain signatures” of high and low hypnotizable people. They found a higher connectivity between different brain regions in highly hypnotizable people. (Hoeft et al., Functional Brain Basis of Hypnotizability, 2012)

Katie uses self hypnosis to control her anxiety in stressful situations. During a test she takes a few deep breaths, goes to a different place mentally and tells herself, “I’m going to use this adrenaline in my system to feel focused for the test.”

Katie learned to hypnotize herself from Dr. David Spiegel, the Associate Chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. He defines hypnosis as being to consciousness what a telephoto lens is to a camera.

Dr. Spiegel says what Katie’s doing is different from meditation or other self-soothing techniques. She’s easing muscle tension, relaxing non essential parts of her mind, and zooming in on the problem in front of her, leaving only her and the test. Katie has apparently mastered the art hypnosis. But not everyone has the ability to be hypnotized. Dr. Spiegel is using brain scans to research why that is.

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