Scientists at Stanford University have discovered how to use magnetic pulses to more easily induce hypnosis, a fascinating study published in the journal Nature Mental Health claims.
To be clear, the method — clunkily dubbed the Stanford Hypnosis Integrated with Functional Connectivity-targeted Transcranial Stimulation, or SHIFT for short — doesn't do the hypnotizing. Instead, SHIFT seeks to facilitate an individual's response to hypnosis, especially in cases where a patient was previously resistant.
Hypnosis isn't just a circus hustle; as The New York Times reported in 2023, several science-backed studies have shown hypnotherapy to have promising health benefits in the realms of pain management, mental health, addiction, and more. But as Stanford psychiatric researcher and lead study author Afik Faerman told The Daily Beast, "only about 20 percent" of the human population is uniquely susceptible to hypnosis — and thus, to its potential health benefits. The introduction of a method like SHIFT, then, could make noninvasive hypnosis therapy more feasible for the remaining four-fifths of the world's humans.
"Hypnotizability, one's ability to experience cognitive, emotional, behavioral and physical changes in response to suggestions in the context of hypnosis, is a stable neurobehavioral trait associated with improved treatment outcomes from hypnosis-based therapy," the researchers write in the study. "Increasing hypnotizability in people who are low-to-medium hypnotizable individuals could improve both the efficacy and effectiveness of therapeutic hypnosis as a clinical intervention."
Per the study, SHIFT applies targeted transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) — in short, a nonintrusive form of electric brain stimulation achieved by administering repeated magnetic pulses using an electromagnetic coil— to certain areas of the brain closely associated with susceptibility to hypnosis. It's a simple hypothesis: artificially stimulate these cranial regions, the researchers posit, and the newfound brain activity might cause a patient to be more receptive to hypnosis treatment.
To test that hypothesis, the Stanford researchers recruited 80 study participants suffering from fibromyalgia — a chronic disorder associated with often debilitating musculoskeletal pain, among other symptoms. These patients were also all judged to have low-to-medium hypnotizability.
"We tested SHIFT in people with fibromyalgia," Faerman told PsyPost, "because hypnosis has been shown to be effective in reducing pain, and higher hypnotizability is typically associated with better outcomes."
Each patient underwent a short, minute-and-a-half SHIFT treatment session, albeit with one catch: some patients were randomly selected to receive a placebo treatment, while the rest indeed received 800 magnetic pulses to the brain. The Stanford team was ultimately able to determine that the magnetic zaps were "associated with increased hypnotizability," as Faerman told the Daily Beast, "while the sham stimulation did not."
"It was also interesting that participants' guesses as to whether they received active or sham treatment were not associated with the change in hypnotizability," the study leader added.
In other words? The SHIFT treatment appears to have held its own against a placebo control, and may well pave the way towards noninvasive and drug-free therapies. To put such an outcome into context, a wider implementation of drug-free hypnosis treatments could in theory mean a reduction in the wider use of addictive pharmaceuticals like pain-relieving opiates. That hypothetical outcome is still a long way off, but it's an enticing vision nonetheless — and the folks at Stanford certainly seem hopeful about the electromagnetic treatment's potential future.
"My vision, as a clinical psychologist, is that patients will have a brief stimulation session to increase the effectiveness of treatment before their therapy appointment," Faerman told PsyPost.
"This will allow us to offer effective drug-free treatments and improve our patients' well-being," he added, "and also to save time and money for our patients and the healthcare system."
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