Psychology Melbourne Blog

News and Insights from the Science of the Mind

Psychologists get more serious about hypnosis

Edited by Jill Wright,

Psychologists tend to have mixed views of hypnosis. On the one hand, Sigmund Freud used it with his early patients as he developed his theories on the unconscious, before switching to free association and "the talking cure". On the other hand the decidedly unprofessional antics of stage hypnotism make many psychologists more than a little wary.

As the American Psychological Association points out, however, scientific research supports its clinical effectiveness in treating a wide range of conditions, including pain, depression, anxiety and phobias. As Dr Michael Yapko, a fellow of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis puts it, "Hypnosis ... really does help people."

He points out that hypnosis is not a therapy in and of itself. But it can create a highly relaxed state of inner concentration and focused attention which can make it a useful tool for clinicians using an array of treatment methods, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

And patients can also be taught self-hypnosis to reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, or to alleviate some symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Other research has debunked suggestions that hypnosis can precipitate suicide or psychosis in depressed patients. And it has exposed one of the popular myths of police procedurals: hypnosis can actually be detrimental in the realm of retrieving memories.

Joseph P. Green, PhD, a psychology professor at Ohio State University at Lima, has researched how hypnotic suggestions can produce distorted or false memories. He also found that people may believe hypnotically induced memories are more reliable.

Now the British Psychological Society's Research Blog reports hypnosis is being recognised as an important aid to cognitive neuroscience

The partnership is throwing up a good deal of new information on how hypnosis works. 

British researchers say that brain imaging experiments indicate that hypnosis is a distinct form of consciousness. After successful hypnotic induction, participants show reduced activity in parts of the brain's default mode network, and increased activity in prefrontal attentional systems. 

While the widespread belief that good hypnotic subjects tend to be more intelligent might not be true, it seems that there is a correlation between suggestibility and creativity, empathy, mental absorption, fantasy proneness and people's expectation that they will be prone to hypnotic procedures. And it's heritable.


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About the editor, Jill Wright

Jill Wright (MAPS, AAFT, AICD) is the Director and Principal Psychologist at Psychology Melbourne. Jill was twice elected General Director of the Australian Psychological Society and established the Study Group Network. Find out more about Jill Wright.