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This Is What Happens in Your Brain When You’re Hypnotized

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THURSDAY, July 28, 2016 (HealthDay News) — Skeptics view hypnosis as a little-understood parlor trick, but a new study reveals real changes occur in the brain when a person enters an hypnotic state.

Some parts of the brain relax during the trance while others become more active, said study senior author Dr. David Spiegel, associate chair of psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

“I hope this study will demonstrate that hypnosis is a real neurobiological phenomenon that deserves attention,” Spiegel said. “We haven’t been using our brains as well as we can. It’s like an app on your iPhone you haven’t used before, and it gets your iPhone to do all these cool things you didn’t know it could do.”

Hypnosis was the first Western form of psychotherapy, but little is known about how it actually works, the authors say.

Hoping to learn more, Spiegel and his colleagues selected 57 people for this study out of a pool of 545 potential participants. Thirty-six of the 57 displayed a high level of hypnotic susceptibility, while the other 21 did not appear to be very hypnotizable.

Using MRI, researchers measured the subjects’ brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow. Each was scanned while resting, when recalling a memory, and when exposed to a message intended to induce a hypnotic trance.

People highly susceptible to hypnosis experienced three distinct brain changes while hypnotized that weren’t present when they were out of the trance, the study reports. These changes weren’t detected in the brains of those with low hypnotic capability.

People in a trance experienced a decrease in activity in an area called the dorsal anterior cingulate, part of what’s called the brain’s salience network. “It helps us compare context and decide what is worth worrying about and what isn’t,” Spiegel said.

Hypnotized people also experienced an increase in connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula. The prefrontal cortex helps us plan and carry out tasks, while the insula helps the mind connect with the body.

“In hypnosis, we know you can alter things like gastric acid secretion, heart rate, blood pressure and skin conductance,” Spiegel said. “Your brain is very good at controlling what’s going on in your body, and the insula is one of the pathways that does that.”

Finally, people in hypnosis also have reduced connections between the task-oriented dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the brain’s default mode network, a region most active when a person is daydreaming rather than focusing on the outside world.

This decrease in connectivity likely represents a disconnect between someone’s actions and their awareness of their actions, Spiegel said. Such a disassociation allows the hypnotic subject to engage in activities suggested by a hypnotist without becoming self-conscious of the activity.

Taken together, these brain changes match well-known outward effects caused by hypnosis, Spiegel said.

A hypnotized person is intensely focused but not worried about what they’re doing. They are not worried about evaluating instructions, but are simply following those instructions, and they have a more direct connection between their minds and the physical function of their bodies, he noted.

“This is the first time that we’ve shown what’s going on in the brain when a person is hypnotized,” Spiegel said. “This is a natural and normal brain function. It’s a technique that has evolved to enable us to do the routine things routinely, and deeply engage in the things that matter to us.”

Based on this knowledge, doctors might be able to enhance hypnotic response in ways that better help treat medical conditions, he said. Already, hypnosis has been proven to help people quit smoking or cope with pain and stress, the authors noted.

This study provides “important evidence” that could help convince skeptical patients of hypnosis’ potential benefits, said Guy Montgomery, who specializes in integrative behavioral medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

Dr. Alan Manevitz, a clinical psychiatrist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, agreed.

“Hypnosis has been around for a long time, but people have looked upon it as quackery,” Manevitz said. “This demonstrates it’s a legitimate neurobiological phenomenon, by revealing the brain activity that underlies the hypnotic state.”

However, Montgomery added that it will take further research to make this specific knowledge directly useful in daily medicine.

“How would I use this information to enhance procedures for patients?” he said. “I don’t really know.”

The study appears July 28 in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

More information

For more on hypnosis, visit the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

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Vietnamese Mango & Chicken Pizz’alad

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Vietnamese Mango & Chicken Pizz’alad Recipe
Vietnamese Mango & Chicken Pizz’alad
This sweet-spicy salad pizza recipe tops a crisp pizza crust with a salad of crunchy cabbage, mango and chicken tossed with a Vietnamese-inspired dressing made with fish sauce and lime juice. Be sure to serve the pizza right after you add the salad on top to keep the crust from becoming soggy. Using bread flour gives the pizza crust a crisp and sturdy structure, but all-purpose flour works well in its place. For a gluten-free pizza crust variation, see Tips.


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Can Virtual Reality Meditation Get You Closer to Mindfulness? I Tried It to Find Out

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I’ve been meditating, off and on, for the past 14 years. The technique I learned in meditation class many years ago is old-school and austere: Find a place to sit, close your eyes, feel your feet on the floor, and focus on the in-and-out breath at the tip of your nose. No music, no mantras, just the moment-by-moment struggle of bringing your attention back to breathing every time your mind wanders away (which is just about every time you breathe). The point, and the challenge, is to train your mind to let go of distraction, to detach from thoughts, to simply “be here now.” 

Mindfulness meditation is a welcome (some say necessary) respite from the hustle and stress of modern life, and from the incessant pings, buzzes, and chimes of personal technology.

So I was intrigued when I received an invitation from the folks at Oculus, the virtual reality shop at Facebook, to test out the latest application for this booming technology: guided meditation. I wondered: If being mindful requires disengaging from the diversions of modern life, can we truly meditate while mind-melding with state-of-the-art computer processing power? Is it possible to “be here now” if that “here” is a digitally-synthesized someplace else?

At Oculus’ pop-up showroom in New York City, I was first given a quick tour of the capabilities of their high-end Rift system.  I was menaced by a life-size Tyrannosaurus Rex (cowering in virtual terror as the beast stomped past/through me) and dropped onto the ledge of an 80-story Times Square skyscraper (dropping reflexively to hands and knees and crawling backwards to safety). 

RELATED: A Meditation to Start Your Day

After the stress test warm up, I strapped on the Samsung Gear VR, for a downshift into Oculus’ meditation offerings.

The Guided Meditation VR app, developed by Cubicle Ninjas, gives you a choice of environment, voiceover, and chill-out music. I picked a fall foliage setting called "Autumnshade" to start, and the "Relaxation" audio track. 

The 360-degree view was splendid: Crisp brown leaves floated from trees between shafts of golden sunlight. In the narration, an English woman likened our thoughts to hummingbirds, and indeed, my mind was flitting from voice to scene (with multiple perspectives available at the push of a button) and back again, with nary a thought of my breath.

I switched to a tropical seaside setting ("Costa del Sol"), with waves sloshing on the shore, then toggled again to an icy mountain ("Snow Peak"): Blood red sky reflected in an iridescent blue lake. Somewhere behind me I heard a crunching sound, like the calving of icebergs (or the footfall of a hungry snow leopard). Each time I picked a new setting, the device asked me to press my finger to a sensor to measure my heart rate, part of the app's biofeedback feature. I started out around 76 beats per minute, and hovered in that range throughout the experience.

RELATED: Wait, Congress Has a Meditation Guru?

I shifted one last time to a sunny bamboo grove ("Hanna Valley"), leaves swaying in a gentle breeze, a pagoda in the near distance. There was even a pudgy panda dozing on the rocks behind me to add to the snoozy vibe.

Now that I’d found a calm setting, I turned on the lulling “Loving Compassion” voiceover, which was much more conducive to  relaxation than the hummingbird talk, and more in keeping with my own experience practicing loving-kindness meditation. A voice urged me to think about a loved one with the following recitation:

May you be safe / May you be peaceful / May you be healthy / May you live with ease and wellbeing.

Good food for thought, yet I still found myself dazzled by the scenery, looking out and around rather than inward.

My Oculus friends urged me to try another app, so I dove into Perfect Beach, developed by nDreams, which offers a choice of four seaside views with an audio track. The most interesting feature here is that the app lets you select a lower torso (customizable by sex and skin tone) as part of your view, presumably to help you locate your floating head in the VR space. That idea makes sense, given that groundedness is one of the starting points of most any meditation practice, though I found it gave me yet one more thing to look at: undulating waves throwing flecks of golden sun, plus a pair of nicely tanned legs and muscular pecs, just below my line of sight. 

RELATED: Meditation Might Work Better than Painkillers for Chronic Low Back Pain

After an admittedly brief tour, I yanked off the headset and defogged my glasses. The verdict: Is virtual reality immersive?  Of course. Diverting? For sure. Is it relaxing? It would be, if you had enough time to steep in the experience.

Is it meditative? That's a tough one, and it depends on one’s definition of meditation. If by “meditation” you mean getting outside of yourself for a few minutes to zone out, decompress, and escape, then virtual reality would do the trick. If you’re new to meditation, and don’t have access to a class or a teacher, and you’re looking to learn some of the basics of a guided practice like loving-kindess, an app like Guided Meditation VR (as a kind of jacked-up audio program) would help.

But if you’re trying to meditate in the more orthodox, hard-way-in style—to tune in rather than out; to be here, right now; to wake up into reality—you run into something of a conundrum. It seems that a technology that pries your eyes and ears wide open to absorb as much sensory input as possible is working at cross-purposes with a discipline that asks you to forgo distraction, to close your eyes and direct your attention inward.

RELATED: Memory Failing You? Study Suggests Meditation May Help

Oculus’ VR meditation is a fun trip, no doubt, but if I could design a setting, it might look and sound like the classroom where I first learned how to sit: careworn wood floors, mismatched chairs, a rattling air conditioner, with a teacher at the front of the room offering terse instruction and then… silence.  Maybe this dazzling technology, confident enough in its verisimilitude, could also be humble enough to slip into the background, so you'd have no qualms about missing out if you just closed your eyes, and tuned in to the real.

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