Brain zap softens you up for hypnosis

4 minute read

Transcranial magnetic stimulation may help unlock a world of therapeutic benefits.

A very happy 2024 to all our Back Page readers! And a tolerable one to everyone else.  

Your scribe has never undergone hypnosis, for either entertainment or therapeutic purposes.  

The first seems to be, frankly, asking for it. There are videos (available on request) of the Back Page’s significant other on stage at the Adelaide Fringe doing the moves to Walk like an Egyptian, playing air violin and cheerleading with real pink tinsel pom-poms whenever his trigger song Hey, Mickey! played on the sound system.  

All wildly out of character for this person, just to be clear.  

Interviewed afterwards, he said the hypnotism process (which did not seem overly sophisticated) did not so much compel him to mime an airline pilot preparing for takeoff as make it feel like an extremely good and fun idea.  

The Back Page feels we would not be a good candidate and certainly not within the estimated 15% of “highly hypnotisable” people.  

This may be to our detriment, as the claimed clinical applications are many and varied and seem to be gaining acceptance and respectability. They include reducing pain and anxiety and treating sleep problems, addictions, menopause symptoms, irritable bowel syndrome, cancer therapy side effects and many more.  

Some people have even withstood surgery under purely hypnotic analgesia, according to the authors of a paper just out of Stanford published in Nature Mental Health. Given women’s greater resistance to anaesthesia, we may need every trick up our sleeve.  

The Stanford study suggests that a person’s hypnotisability, a supposedly stable trait, can be temporarily increased through non-invasive transcranial magnetic stimulation.  

There’s something quite odd about using such a high-tech method as a fluffer for a much lower-tech and, dare we say it, woo-adjacent main event, but we’re listening.  

The team recruited 80 people with fibromyalgia, a pain disorder “for which hypnosis has been a demonstrated beneficial non-pharmacological treatment option”. 

Based on their previous work linking hypnotisability with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, they hypothesised that inhibiting this brain region would increase susceptibility. This is consistent with two theories of hypnosis they cite, one of which equates it (worryingly) with frontal lobe damage, the other arguing that inhibiting that part of the brain reduces metacognitive awareness of intentions, hence a heightened response to hypnotic suggestion.  

The team randomised half the group to 1.5 minutes of TMS guided by neuroimaging, half to sham TMS.  

The active group had significantly greater change in two hypnotisability scores than the controls, with “medium-to-large effect sizes”, the authors report.  

The effect was fleeting: after one hour, the difference between the two groups was no longer significant.  

But that might be enough for benefits in some areas, such as chronic pain, where hypnosis could displace opioid use to some extent.  

The implications also reach beyond hypnosis, the authors conclude. The ability to modulate otherwise stable neurobehavioural traits with TMS has great potential in mental healthcare – prior work, already replicated, has already achieved this with neuroticism.  

There could also be potential to enhance responses to other forms of psychotherapy, co-lead author Dr Afik Faerman commented: “As a clinical psychologist, my personal vision is that, in the future, patients come in, they go into a quick, non-invasive brain stimulation session, then they go in to see their psychologist,” he said. “Their benefit from treatment could be much higher.” 

Not to mention the entertainment potential.  

Swing a fob watch in front of 

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