Cognitive Neuroscience and Hypnosis

Dissociation in hysteria and hypnosis: evidence from cognitive neuroscience. Vaughan Bell,1,2 David A Oakley,3,4 Peter W Halligan,4 Quinton Deeley1

Jean-Martin Charcot proposed the radical hypothesis that similar brain processes were responsible for the unexplained neurological symptoms of ‘hysteria’, now typically diagnosed as ‘conversion disorder’ or ‘dissociative (conversion) disorder’, and the temporary effects of hypnosis. While this idea has been largely ignored, recent cognitive neuroscience studies indicate that (i) hypnotisability traits are associated with
a tendency to develop dissociative symptoms in the sensorimotor domain; (ii) dissociative symptoms can be modelled with suggestions in highly hypnotisable subjects; and (iii) hypnotic phenomena engage brain processes similar to those seen in patients with symptoms of hysteria. One clear theme to emerge from the findings is that ‘symptom’ presentation, whether clinically diagnosed or simulated using hypnosis, is associated with increases in prefrontal cortex activity suggesting that intervention by the executive system in both automatic and voluntary cognitive processing is common to both hysteria and hypnosis. Nevertheless, while the recent literature provides some compelling leads into the understanding of these phenomena, the field still lacks well controlled systematically designed studies to give a clear insight into the neurocognitive processes underlying dissociation in both hysteria and hypnosis. The aim of this review is to provide an agenda for future research.

Find whole study and references here: J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry-2011-Bell-332-9

Extracts:”…in a modern context, Kirsch 2 notes that “Hypnotised subjects are asked to experience paralysis, amnesia, anaesthesia, involuntary movements and hallucinations. In fact, hypnotisability is measured as the number of conversion and dissociation symptoms that the person is able to display. Central to Charcot’s explanation was the concept that symptoms could derive from unconscious ‘fixed’ ideas based on suggestions or autosuggestions“ remaining isolated from the rest of the mind and expressing them-selves outwardly through corresponding motor phenomena” (quoted in Ellenberger1). Recent advances in cognitive neuroscience provide an opportunity to evaluate Charcot’s hypothesis.”…

What is meant by “hysteria: “This review focuses on ‘hysteria’ which classically describes the presentation of medical symptoms without evidence of tissue pathology that can adequately explain the impairment, and its relationship to the effects of hypnosis. While the concept of hysteria has historically varied,3 this review focuses on aspects of the condition which have been modelled using hypnosis; to date, these typically include conditions that would be diagnosed as conversion disorder and affect voluntary motor or sensory function or would be diagnosed as psychogenic, functional or dissociative amnesia.”

“THE NEUROPSYCHOLOGY OF HYPNOSIS: In contrast to hysteria, we can be more confident about the sequence of events, at least in the procedural sense, leading up to the ‘end states’ associated with hypnosis. The content of the suggestion is key to determining the nature of the ‘hypnotic’ phenomenon (eg, leg paralysis), which can be described as a form of dissociation (or ‘compartmentalisation’).3 Although the brain mechanisms underlying this process are still far from clear, it is known from neuroimaging studies that altered patterns of brain activity accompany the focused and absorbed ‘hypnotic’ state and there is particularly strong evidence that distinct brain changes are associated with each of the hypnotic phenomena so far studied.”

According to this study, hypnosis can stimulate the dissociation of particular muscle and nerve groups in order to provoke hypnotic phenomenon such as catalepsy or paralysis. The hypnotic state may also have the potential to affect a particular group of muscles which may be provoking undesired behaviours, such as dystonia, dysphemia, bruxism, enuresis, eritrophobia, etc. A number of conditions caused by a particular way of functioning of the autonomous nervous system by which it gives subconscious orders to specific parts of the body. In this way, hypnotherapy may be able to act upon those nerves and muscles and encourage the modification, alteration and/or disappearance of a particular behaviour which may be interfering negatively in our lives.


About Anna Pons

Certificat (CPPD), Post Graduat Certificat (PGCert) i Post Graduat Diploma (PGD) en Hipnoteràpia Clínica, London College of Clinical Hypnosis (LCCH) i Universitat de West London (UWL)
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