Hypnosis and placebos

May 29, 2010

I’m fascinated by the mystery—or mysteries—of how our minds work, and I love reading about new research that helps us understand more about the brain. I’m fascinated, and of course I have the ulterior motive of always looking for insights or information that will work well with hypnosis, so I can better help clients with their concerns.

I’ve just been reading Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide, which looks at research on decision making, particularly at what science now tells us about the difference between intuitive and rational thinking.

He talks about the common belief that rationally-made decisions must be better than instinctive decisions, pointing out that people who trust their instinctive reactions to products tend to be happier with the choices they make.  People who over-analyze tend to forget the most important points about the choices they are considering.

He goes on to look at the placebo effect.  (How interesting that a placebo is hands-down the best drug.)  What surprised me about the research is that the site of the brain that is active when the placebo affect is operating is the prefrontal cortex:  the part of the brain that has most to do with analysis and reason!

So, in a situation when our intuitive responses tell us to expect pain, it’s the appeal to reason that can intervene and give us relief.  This is a bit of a reversal, isn’t it?  In this case, our rational selves are persuaded to believe what we want to believe.

I thought about the placebo affect in relation to what I know about hypnosis and burns. As an intervention with burns, a timely hypnotic suggestion can interrupt the immune system response that takes a burn from mild to severe.  This is a well-established phenomenon, though not well-known or well-understood.

It’s clear that we have a lot to learn about how hypnosis works.  But regardless of our ignorance about how it works, let’s celebrate what we know:  it does work!  And if it’s “just” a placebo, well, if we have harnessed the power of the placebo, it’s time to celebrate!

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