Science Interviews


Sun, 6th Mar 2005


Dr Peter Naish from the Open University and Dr Tannis Laidlaw from Imperial College London

Part of the show The Science of Hypnosis

Peter - Like many of the listeners, I was and still am intrigued by hypnosis. You imagine people being taken over in some weird and wonderful way. I am a psychologist and so was lucky enough to be able to go into research in this area. As with so many areas of science, I found that the truth was even more intriguing! As far as applications go, I'm interested in using it with phobias, its impact on memory and generally how hypnosis works.

Tannis - I look at mind-body types of medicine. I'm interested in people thinking about hypnosis and illness and the type of things that hypnosis can help with.

Chris - What's actually going on in the brain when someone undergoes hypnosis?

Peter - I want to begin by saying that some of my colleagues might give a slightly different story. It's still not absolutely proved what's going on. Scans have shown that something is going on in the brain, but it doesn't actually prove that there is some special sort of altered state there. Personally I think that there is something altered. One of our cleverest faculties as humans is to imagine. You can use it plan things and answer 'what if' questions. Some of the structures you use when you are imagining things must be the same as if it were happening for real. One of the abilities to go with imagining is the ability to know that you are only imagining it despite the same parts of the brain being active. So there's another bit of brain involved. It's right at the front of the brain where the two hemispheres fold together. It is known that people who have brain damage there have problems distinguishing between things they have just thought about from things that really did take place. We all do it sometimes, such as when we think 'have I locked the car or did I just mean to do it'? However, these poor people are trapped in this scenario all the time.

Brain scanning has shown that different parts of the brain get switched on or switched off during hypnosis depending on the task they're doing. Everyone who ever looks at brain activity during hypnosis always says that the anterior singlet gyrus is involved: this is the bit that I'm talking about. It is tempting to assume that what it is to be hypnotised is to be inventing your own reality but turning down the reality controls. This makes it seem real.

Chris - It therefore seems counterintuitive that you can hypnotise yourself, as you must realise that it's not real.

Peter - This leads quite nicely to the fact that people are in control when they are hypnotised. It is true that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis and the hypnotist is just there to guide the person along. The person being hypnotised has a hold on it at all times. Maybe losing a hold on it is what it is to be psychotic: schizophrenic hallucinations etc.

Helen - How much do we know about dreaming in relation to hypnosis? Dreaming is like being in another state and sometimes people can realise they're in a dream and control what happens next.

Tannis - That's called lucid dreaming. With hypnosis you don't go to sleep but go into a trance-like state that you are fully aware of. It's very rare for people not to remember everything that's happened. If you ask someone to have a dream, usually they will have a dream that they will remember and be able to control. In my experience, the people that have been able to do that with hypnosis have been able to do it again later. I would think that what they're doing is putting themselves into a self-hypnosis state and just recreating the kind of state they were in before. They can then have some control over their dreams.


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