In 2005, Dr. Amir Raz, a Columbia professor, asked patients to complete a simple task. Four words were written in block letters – GREEN, BLUE, RED, and YELLOW. But the colour of ink used for each was incongruent from the word written. For example, BLUE would have been in red ink.
When asked what color the word BLUE is written in, our brains automatically want to say blue, even though the correct answer is red. This is known as the Stroop Effect; i.e. the incongruent ideas get crossed and it takes us longer to answer.
Dr. Raz then hypnotized subjects and told them they would see words as gibberish on a screen, and their task would be to identify the colour of the ink. Not only did the hypnotized subjects complete the task without delay, but using brain imaging, the area of the brain that decodes written words was not activate.
In other studies, patients have seen colour images as black-and-white, with a similar effect of the brain’s area that notices colour being inactive. These and other studies suggest that, in fact, hypnotherapy works by altering our state of consciousness.
Habitual Patterns vs. Reality: What Our Minds Believe
What Raz’s study shows is that habitual patterns influence our perception. His subjects expected to read gibberish words, and therefore, the area of the brain that would have normally recognized the word BLUE did not activate.
That idea forms one main reason of how hypnosis works so effectively.
Our minds have deeply embedded habitual patterning. And these thought patterns are developed over lifetimes. Memories, assumptions, negative experiences, positive experiences – they all help to form and reinforce these patterns and beliefs.
In other words, what we hear, feel, see and assume to be true, isn’t always correct. Instead, our conscious thoughts – what we think is true – are shaped by continually evolving brain networks that interpret sensory data. It has been found that 50 per cent of what we remember from our past is not real it is just a perception.
This is called top-down processing. In top-down processing, the information flowing from the top overrides and informs lower-level processes.
Here’s an example: Say you see a red car. Visually, your eye captures sensory data about the car. This data is sent to higher brain processing levels, where the shape and color are deciphered. Then, this information goes to higher functioning levels where the color and shape help us discern the car’s make and model.
The data flows up, but at the same time about 10 times the amount of feedback flows down. This top-down feedback – which is determined by our unconscious thoughts – tells the brain how to interpret sensory data.
And this explains why hypnosis works. By overriding the top-down processes with new, more helpful suggestions, subjects are able to perceive the world through new eyes.
Just look at the Stroop Effect. It’s difficult to say “red” when looking at the word BLUE, because our brains automatically read the word blue before we encode the color of the ink. But when we perceive the words to be gibberish, we’re able to bypass the critical and answer the question without delay.
That’s the key to overcoming bad habits and achieving self-improvement. We must get down to the root cause – our negative assumptions that are keeping the bad habit in place – and override them with better, more helpful information. Therefore, you can overcome your brain’s learned top-down processes – i.e. when you feel stress, you crave sugar – and replace this thinking with a more helpful response.