Would you subject yourself to hypnosis to improve your health? I’m not sure I would. I don’t like the idea of submitting my mind to unconscious suggestion. But I have been challenged to think again. In her excursion into the science of mind and body, the science journalist Jo Marchant has discovered some surprising therapies involving hypnosis, and growing evidence of its effect.
Traditionally, hypnosis has been used by psychotherapists to influence patterns of behaviour. But physicians have begun to recognise that it might also influence physiological processes. Professor Peter Whorwell from Wythenshaw Hospital, Manchester UK has demonstrated significant improvements in irritable bowel syndrome through the use of hypnosis. There are also programmes for pain management that benefit from this technique, particularly in treating burns victims.
So what might be going on while a person is in a trance? The pioneering work of neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene confirms that we are only conscious of a modest amount of what is happening within ourselves. The myriad interactions between brain, organs, limbs and systems are well below our conscious radar. The impact of hypnotic suggestion might be to influence some of these unconscious interactions to clear pathways for healing.
Naturally we are a long way from determining how to map the person as a dynamic system incorporating all processes and structure of brain in body. So there is considerable space for uncertainty and an inevitable reliance on empirical observation. Scientists try a technique, register some effects and then seek out what mechanisms might be creating those effects.
Marchant points out that we have got used to biochemical interventions that influence our health, even though their effects are uncertain and prone to downsides. Why not then allow for healing influences through our minds?
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