In an investigation of hypnosis being conducted at Harvard, early signs are that brain function changes under hypnotic suggestion. Since the discovery of hypnosis, the question of what a hypnotic trance really is has remained unanswered. Skeptics have claimed that subjects were simply fakers, and that there was no such thing as hypnosis. However, brain scans of subjects while under hypnosis have revealed that the brain does function differently.

As reported in the New Scientist (July 4, 1998), the Harvard group found that subjects hypnotized into believing that they were color blind showed altered brain function in areas of the brain associated with color perception. Earlier experiments using the PET scanner to observe the degree with which pain was being communicated to the brain showed that hypnosis is an effective means of pain control.

Subjects were asked to place their hands in hot water and told that it was either more or less pleasant than it really was. Brain scans showed that the hypnotic induction caused big changes in the brain’s anterior cingulate, which lines part of the cerebral cortex. This area of the brain appears to modulate emotional reaction to pain, and is one of the areas that would become active if pain perception was being altered.

It seems clear that what hypnosis does is to increase suggestibility, sometimes to a dramatic degree. This means that subjects being asked to narrate buried memories might become at once extremely capable of doing so and also highly vulnerable to the slightest suggestion, readily distorting and coloring their memories to fit their own expectations and perhaps even the unspoken expectations of the hypnotist.

Even as these studies seem to verify the potency of hypnosis, they throw up a major flag of caution: is it possible to accurately uncover buried memories using this method? The new studies make it clear that great caution should be exercised.

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