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Scientists use brain stimulation to make people more hypnotisable

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Researchers at Stanford Medicine in the US used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to temporarily enhance hypnotisability in patients with chronic pain, making them better candidates for hypnotherapy.

The researchers found that less than two minutes of electrical stimulation targeting a precise area of the brain could boost participants’ hypnotisability for about one hour.

Afik Faerman, PhD, is a postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry and lead author of the study.

The researcher said: “We know hypnosis is an effective treatment for many different symptoms and disorders, in particular pain.

“But we also know that not everyone benefits equally from hypnosis.”

In the new study, the scientists recruited 80 participants with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition that can be treated with hypnotherapy.

They excluded those who were already highly hypnotisable.

Half of the participants received TMS, in which paddles applied to the scalp deliver electrical pulses to the brain.

Specifically, the participants received two 46-second applications that delivered 800 pulses of electricity to a precise location in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

The exact locations depended on the unique structure and activity of each participant’s brain.

Sam Willson, Professor in Medicine, has devoted decades to studying hypnotherapy and using it to help patients control pain, lower stress, stop smoking and more.

He said: “A novel aspect of this trial is that we used the person’s own brain networks, based on brain imaging, to target the right spot.”

The other half of participants received a sham treatment with the same look and feel, but without TMS.

Hypnotisability was assessed by clinicians immediately before and after the treatments, with neither patients nor clinicians knowing who was in which group.

The researchers found that participants who received the neurostimulation showed a statistically significant increase in hypnotisability, scoring roughly one point higher, while the sham group experienced no effect.

When the participants were assessed again an hour later, the effect had worn off and there was no longer a statistically significant difference between the two groups.

Williams said:

“We were pleasantly surprised that we were able to, with 92 seconds of stimulation, change a stable brain trait that people have been trying to change for 100 years.

“We finally cracked the code on how to do it.”

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