Brain researchers now understand how we generate internal experiences

on 05 December 2017
The creativity of the brain

Is hypnotherapy real, can it be felt, can it be proved? It has long been the case that the efficacy of Hypnotherapy is difficult to prove, if only from a scientific perspective, but then so is the existence of God . . . but do we know why? 

We know what our mind wants us to know!

Essentially it is because the process we call hypnosis (trance), is one that can only usefully be explained through introspection and therein lays the rub. Introspection was the very method William James used to demonstrate the presence of human psychology, if only from a cognitive perspective. This was also the very same method that was, at that time, derided by scientists and led to the rise of the behaviourist movement. It is not to say that the behaviourist movement was bad or wrong but I think it fair to say that its denial of the emotional, feeling and cognitive brain certainly put the brakes on the pace of neural development?

When it comes to the matter of if or how effective hypnosis is, then I can only say this. Anyone, perhaps other than scientists, who have tried and experienced the effects of hypnosis, would be the true advocates of hypnosis and in a far better position to give their understanding of its presence and effect. Albeit that, that would be difficult to measure scientifically!

From an empirical perspective, there is an overwhelming body of worldwide testimony that supports both the efficacy and beneficial effects of hypnosis (upon which a whole industry has grown). So, it would be wrong to assume that science has disproved the validity or presence of such phenomena. In fact, if you try to consciously observe the process, as it happens, that is more likely to prevent it from doing so! That is why certain clients, who may be sceptical, nervous/fearful or even anxious about undergoing the process, will often have either a poor quality of experience or maybe no experience at all? 

However, far more important than the argument of whether hypnosis is a real experience, or not, is the understanding of how the professional hypnotherapist applies its magic to each client's individual difficulty with life.

As a hypnotherapy practitioner, with many years of experience, I have developed a pragmatic approach to hypnotic healing. That just means gaining a fundamental grasp of the root cause(s) of the client's issue. To expand on this further. As we grow and develop, we convert experience (almost exclusively subconsciously when young) into a cause/effect type of memory. Each successive related experience adds to the strength, intensity and diversity of the memory. So, in that sense, every traumatic or intense sensory response (memory), is merely the re-enactment of a previously stored emotional experience and strategic successful response. By successful, I mean one that allowed you to survive! When it comes to survival, the body's defence system cares little or nothing about the quality of your life, merely the continuity of it. And that is why most anxiety disorders are progressive in nature and lead towards avoidance strategies, e.g. if I don't do this . . . . that won't happen!

So, whilst science may have some difficulty with proving hypnosis, its continuing ability to discover the science behind what happens during hypnosis comes as no surprise to the hypnotherapeutic community, especially myself! What is of most note in the research below, is in how the subjects were observed to be using three different brain systems to recall past memories of their lives. This describes precisely what happens during hypnosis, i.e. the client is guided to specific memories (sometimes unwittingly and now known to be indifferent regions) and these memories are then reconsolidated (changed). This process creates a difference in the way the memory expresses the experience. A different expression means a different outcome!

Developing this argument further, it is my, unproven, contention that each of our senses records its own version of the sensory experience. These are then processed by convergence zones within the brain. Akin to five individual experiences being shared with a mentor (the convergence zone), collated and then disseminated to each sense. At that point, sight knows what sound is heard, touch felt etc.. but they lack the emotional intensity. So, it is when we are later presented with multiple sensory stimuli that the stronger emotional responses happen! Hence why we often say "for no reason I just . . . "

The process of consolidation and reconsolidation also occurs naturally within the brain, grief is a good example. The memories created on the passing of a loved one evoke all sorts of intense emotional responses. However, over time, those memories change and the intense responses following the death, subside and normal life, albeit a very different one for some, resumes. Some trauma-based memories, which have no known or obvious cause, are unable to proceed through this grief type process and thus remain alive and kicking, at least until some form of therapeutic intervention is applied. That is why hypnotherapy is the perfect answer to finding closure for difficult life experiences; why not try it? 

To find out more, why not call +65 9186 3575 to make an appointment for a Free Consultation; you've got nothing to lose; except your problem!

The Research: Our mental life is rich with an enormous number of internal experiences. The diversity of these experiences is astonishing. We can vividly recall an episode from childhood as well as what we did just five minutes ago. We can imagine and plan in detail our next vacation. We can be moved to tears by the story of an absolute stranger or even of a fictitious character. How does the brain achieve this magic?

A new study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour may bring us closer to understanding this challenging phenomenon. The study was carried out by Dr Vadim Axelrod and Prof. Moshe Bar, from the Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center at Bar-Ilan University, and Prof. Geraint Rees, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.

"We have a subjective impression that each of our internal experiences is a unitary, indivisible entity. Yet the brain, according to prevalent view in the scientific community, realises each of our experiences through a combination of different components," explains Dr Axelrod, the principal investigator at the Gonda (Goldschmied) Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center and the lead author of the paper. "When we recall a recent birthday party, for example, the brain likely activates a number of different systems, such as a system that is responsible for retrieving memory of events, a system that is responsible for building a vivid scene in our mind, and a system that is responsible for moving back in time. In our study, we aimed to test this hypothesis."

The researchers scanned forty-one healthy volunteers using functional MRI. The participants took part in four different experiments. The authors used three of the experiments to identify three brain systems. The main result was that these three systems were active at the same time during the fourth experiment. In other words, the researchers showed that internal experiences, such as recalling personal memories, are associated with the simultaneous activity of different cognitive systems.

It might sound like science fiction that it was possible to see separate components of the internal thoughts of the participants as they were lying in the MRI with their eyes closed and recalling their personal lives. "Obviously, our internal experience is mediated by much more than three cognitive systems. We hope that the approach we used will help in the future to identify additional systems," summarise the scientists.

Story Source:

Materials provided by Bar-Ilan UniversityNote: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Vadim Axelrod, Geraint Rees, Moshe Bar. The default network and the combination of cognitive processes mediate self-generated thoughtNature Human Behaviour, 2017; DOI: 10.1038/s41562-017-0244-9