Is Hypnosis Real? Evidence From Neuroimaging And Brain Activity.

Is Hypnosis Real? In the past, scientific studies on the effectiveness of hypnosis had to rely upon the verbal reports of those who had undergone hypnosis – in other words, the researchers relied upon the subjective account the person who had been hypnotized gave of his/her experience (which is not an ideal way of accruing scientific data).

However, due to the great advances in technological innovation, scientific research into the effects of hypnosis can now make use of a completely objective method of investigation into this fascinating phenomenon, by using brain scans to study how hypnosis affects brain activity (this is also known as neuroimaging).

The great importance of these studies is difficult to over-state. Essentially, they have been able to provide evidence that the subjective effects of hypnosis reported by the hypnotized person are objectively verifiable, strongly suggesting that the answer to the question ‘is hypnosis real?’ is a resounding ‘yes’.

Brain scanning, or neuroimaging, has been used to study the effects of hypnosis in three main broad categories of experiments. I briefly detail these below ;

1) Scans of the brain at rest versus scans of the brain in the hypnotic state

2) Scans of activity in the brain caused by hypnotic suggestion compared to scans of brain activity in response to non-hypnotic suggestions

3) Scans of the brain when a person carries out a task under hypnosis compared to scans of the brain when the person carries out the same task in a non-hypnotic state

All 3 types of experiments show marked differences in brain activity between the hypnotized and non-hypnotized states.

Irving Kirsch of Havard Medical School states that the effectiveness of hypnosis has been widely researched and it is a legitimate, supplementary form of therapy for a range of conditions. Kirsch’s own research has included a study into the effectiveness of hypnosis for the treatment of obesity. He conducted a study involving 2 groups:

GROUP 1: Received cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) alone for weight loss

GROUP 2:Received cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) combined with hypnotherapy for weight loss

He found that those in Group 2 (who received hypnosis) after about 6 months, had lost on average about 20 pounds whereas those in Group 1 (who did not receive hypnotherapy but just CBT) over the same time period, lost on average only about 10 pounds, suggesting that the addition of hypnotherapy in the treatment of obesity is highly effective. Furthermore, an 18-month follow-up showed that those in Group 2 tended to maintain their weight loss whereas those in Group 1 had tended to put the weight back on.

Hypnosis And Childhood Trauma :

Although hypnosis has been used for a very long time to treat the effects of trauma (for example, it was used effectively to treat soldiers who were traumatized by their experiences in both World War One and World War Two), in the 1990s its use became controversial and misunderstood. This was due to the fact that there had been some cases in which hypnosis was used to try to recover painful memories that traumatized individuals were thought to have buried in their unconscious.

Recovered Memories :

However, it was later found out that these ‘recovered memories were false. Despite this setback and because far more care is now taken in considerations of whether hypnosis should be used in an attempt to recover memories, hypnosis is enjoying something of a renaissance. It is increasingly being argued that hypnotherapy can be very effective in the treatment of trauma, especially in relation to facilitating the individual’s processing of (genuine) traumatic memories. Many believe that it is necessary for traumatized individuals to process their traumatic memories properly in order to gain relief from the anxiety they cause. Indeed, hypnotherapy is being increasingly used by adult survivors of childhood trauma.

Dissociation :

One particular benefit of the use of hypnosis in the treatment of trauma is that it can give rise to feelings of DISSOCIATION which can help an individual protect him/herself from the full impact of the shock which would otherwise have been caused by the particular traumatic event which has occurred. It is a flexible therapy and is being used in innovative ways.

There is some debate about whether hypnosis should be seen as a treatment in its own right, or whether it should more accurately be seen as a procedure that, used in combination with other therapies, can augment the positive effects of those therapies.

The debate has not been fully resolved, but hypnosis is increasingly being used as an ADJUNCT to other therapies, enhancing their effectiveness and, as we saw above with reference to Kirsch’s research into treatments for obesity, hypnotherapy is now used effectively in combination with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to give a therapy called cognitive hypnotherapy. It has also been used in combination with psychodynamic therapy (known as psychodynamic hypnotherapy). Initial results are encouraging and research is ongoing.


Kirsch, Irving, Montgomery, Guy, Sapirstein, Guy as an adjunct to cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy: A meta-analysis.
Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 63(2), Apr 1995, 214-220


David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


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