BLOCKING PAIN, Part IV: Putting the mind “to sleep”

One of the most remarkable ways to block pain is exemplified by people who go under the surgical knife hypnotized. Hypnosis was originally called Mesmerism after Franz Mesmer, an 18th century Austrian doctor. Mesmer’s bizarre claims about maintaining the “invisible body fluid balance with magnetic rods” were proven unscientific and the hypnotist became a stage figure of a man dressed in black who would wave some shining pendant in front of the immobilized audiences and order them to do stupid things. It took many years for hypnosis to be recognized as a real tool against pain and other ailments. While a British surgeon, Dr. Esdaile described eloquently the amazing details of surgeries he witnessed under hypnosis in his marvelous book published in 1846, only in 1958 the American Medical Association recognized hypnosis as an acceptable form of pain control.

When I started researching the scientific basis of “altered states of consciousness” including hypnosis, to my amazement I came across two unbelievable scientific papers published in 1917 and 1946 in LANCET, one of the most notorious international scientific journals in the world. Two British physicians described their experiments with hypnosis. The first physician reported formation of skin blisters in a man under hypnotic suggestion and concluded that the power of suggestion can create remarkable body changes. The second physician hypnotized patients who had repressed and locked in their unconscious some serious emotional and physical traumas for many years. To his amazement, he then witnessed the appearance of rope marks, bruises, swelling and bleeding, similar to the original injuries many years ago. He concluded that under hypnosis the original injury which “lived in the memory, was recreated in the body”.

In the 1950s hypnosis became the object of serious scientific studies in the Stanford Laboratory of Hypnosis in the United States. From this laboratory in 1974 Dr. Ernest Hilgard reported a ground-breaking experiment on a young woman who immersed her left hand in freezing water while deeply hypnotized, and was told that she would not feel any pain in this hand. She was able, however, to record her pain with the right hand in a piece of paper. Here she was, marking rising levels of pain with the right hand while she never pulled out her left hand from the freezing water, nor did she display any distress. In other words, this woman had a “hidden observer” in her body telling her about pain, though she felt no pain at a conscious level. Dr. Hilgard suggested that part of our “old” brain (the brain that was formed early on in our evolution) could receive and recognize an injurious stimulus, but our evolutionary younger conscious brain is never reached by the pain signal.

Today, scientific studies of the brain (some of which have been conducted by my colleague Dr. Bushnell in McGill University) have shown remarkable changes under hypnosis. We know now that hypnosis is an altered condition or state of consciousness and blocks pain via several mechanisms. First, it suppresses pain by “splitting” consciousness in two levels, as Dr. Hilgard suggested. It also activates special neural circuits in the spinal cord that block pain. Finally, it changes the “meaning of pain”, making it less unpleasant. Clearly, hypnosis does not work through release of endorphins or change in brain waves.