Good Question

Is Hypnosis Real?

What research says about how it works in the brain — and the many conditions it may be useful for

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
5 min readMar 23, 2021

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Photo illustration: Save As/Medium; Source: Bonerok/Getty Images

Welcome to my new column for Elemental. Each Tuesday, I’ll attempt to answer a thought-provoking health question with the help of one or two experts. If you’d like to suggest a topic, please email me at goodhealthquestion@gmail.com.

Hypnosis has long struggled with branding issues. For many, the term still conjures visions of swinging pocket watches and charlatans incanting, “Look into my eyes.” (No thank you.)

Jessie Kittle wants to dispel all those old associations and misconceptions. “The idea that you can take over someone’s brain and run them around like a puppet against their will — that doesn’t happen,” says Kittle, who is a doctor and a clinical assistant professor of medicine, psychiatry, and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.

Kittle has published several papers on hypnosis. When I spoke with her, she told me that she gets asked all the time whether hypnosis is real. During her early days as a hospital physician, she wondered this herself. To find the answer, she started digging through the published scholarship. “I found this ridiculous amount of medical literature going back decades and all of these clinical outcomes showing hypnosis to be effective for many different conditions,” she said. “It blew my mind.”

I asked her what hypnosis is, exactly, and she told me that it’s a brain state in which a person has the ability — usually with an administrator’s help — to assume some control over mental processes that we tend to think of as uncontrollable. “You can think of hypnosis as a way to align your conscious intention to feel better with your subconscious mind’s ability to make you feel better,” she explained.

The science-supported concepts that underlie hypnosis can be abstruse. But the basic idea is that conscious experience — what we each think of as reality — is an invention of the brain. That doesn’t mean it’s fake; the reality that the brain makes is usually based on objective information. But take 10 people and expose them to the exact same situation — whether it’s a needle poke, a public-speaking engagement, or a roller coaster ride…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.