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How hypnotizable are you? There’s a test for that.
Ever lose yourself in a great book or movie? This is a form of hypnosis.
I always loved the hypnotist show at the state fair in the summertime. A smooth talking showman usually asks for volunteers from an attentive crowd. Once, I saw the entertainer choose an intimidating, muscle bound man, who quickly became convinced that he was a pretty, little girl. Another, serious and dowdy woman found herself strutting and clucking like a chicken across the stage.
There are lots of myths surrounding hypnosis, such as, that you can only tell the truth when you are under, that you can be controlled, or that the hypnotist can wipe your memory. These are all false. In fact, such fanfare delegitimizes hypnotherapy, as does Hollywood which often portray hypnotists as con men or villains.
In the clinical world, hypnosis has been used to help people quit smoking, overcome phobias, and control pain. But is there really something at work here, or is it all just the power of suggestion? Despite a body of evidence suggesting its validity, hypnotherapy remains controversial. History can tell us why.
Austrian physician Franz Mesmer was the first recorded figure to utilize hypnosis for clinical aims. The 18th century medical celebrity, from whom we get the term “mesmerize," used it to heal all sorts of ailments. The French crown remained unconvinced, and so King Louis XVI assembled a committee to investigate whether hypnosis held any credence. American ambassador Benjamin Franklin was among them, and lent his name to the enterprise. In 1784, the “Franklin Commission" deemed “mesmerism" devoid of therapeutic benefit.
Franz Mesmer demonstrating his ability to hypnotize subjects.
Despite this, hypnosis was used medically throughout the 19th century. For instance, Scottish surgeon James Esdaile is said to have operated on thousands in India between 1845 and 1851, without the benefit of anesthetic. Instead, he used hypnosis, and is said to have successfully controlled patient pain and brought the death rate down to five percent. Today, the death rate from surgery is 1.14%.
Although the Franklin Commission report besmirched the practice for centuries, by the 1950s, researchers had a body of evidence proving its worth, and even discovered ways to measure hypnotizability. Over 12,000 scholarly papers have been published on the subject over the years, according to Penn State psychologist William Ray. This helped restore the practice's credibility. Ray himself has conducted EEG studies on patients under hypnosis.
One of these concluded that the practice can cancel out the emotional aspect of pain. Neuroscientists recently discovered that pain actually travels two channels inside the brain. It first registers it in the sensory cortex, but its meaning is deciphered in the prefrontal cortex. The emotional center within the latter, acts as a dimmer switch, intensifying or muting pain, depending on the person's opinion of it. Stress and anxiety surrounding pain make it worse.
According to Dr. Mark Jensen, a psychologist at the University of Washington, patients under hypnosis told that their pain is only minor, allows them to interpret it differently, lifting anxiety and despair, and making them feel better. Some experts believe hypnosis can have tremendous therapeutic value to those with chronic pain, in a way free of drugs, invasive procedures, or side effects. But there's also bad news.
French first responders deliver therapeutic hypnotism to a car accident victim.
A Stanford University study, published in 2012, found that not everyone is susceptible. Researchers, using an fMRI, scanned the brains of 12 adults who were highly hypnotizable and 12 who were not. Three specific areas were examined, the default mode network—the holding pattern of the brain, the executive control network, which controls brain and bodily functions, and the salience network—responsible for deciding what is important and what isn't.
This study was led by David Spiegel, MD, professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford. In 1972, he made headlines for undergoing shoulder surgery and refusing pain medication afterward. Instead, he hypnotized himself and reportedly felt little pain. One of his previous studies found that painkiller use dropped by half, among chronic pain patients who practiced self-hypnosis. A recent string of research supports this, having found that self-hypnosis can reduce the pain of childbirth.
According to Spiegel, those who can be hypnotized tend to be more intuitive, trusting, imaginative, and are more likely to get caught up in a movie or book than others. They are also less likely to insist on order and logic in every situation. Even so, the ability to be hypnotized was found less to do with personality and more to do with brain structure, what Spiegel calls a “neural trait." He and colleagues found that participants who were hypnotizable showed greater activity between the executive control and salience networks. Those with a low susceptibility however, saw little activity between these two regions.
Researchers found a drop in activity in a part of the salience network called the dorsal anterior cingulate in the hypnotizable. This tells the brain what to pay attention to and what to ignore. When you're worried, it lights up. But under hypnosis, it tends to calm down. The second thing they noticed was a strong connection between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula, which controls heart rate and blood pressure, among other functions. “They fire together, basically," Spiegel said. This means that “your brain in hypnosis is intensifying its connection to your body."
A hypnosis session to help participants quit smoking.
Other regions however saw less activity. The part of the brain responsible for self-reflection, becomes less active. “That's why sometimes people will do embarrassing or silly things in staged hypnosis shows," Spiegel said. “They're not thinking about themselves doing it, they're just doing it." He and his team concluded that, “…altered functional connectivity in [the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex] and [the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex] may underlie hypnotizability."
Take the hypnotism test
Spiegel believes he was on the verge of identifying a brain signature for hypnotizability. About 25% of people cannot undergo hypnosis. There is a test in place to tell, known as the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scales. People are rated from 0 to 12 on responsiveness. One's susceptibility can be low, medium, or high. Around 80% of the population fall in the medium range. 10% are in the high range and 10% have low susceptibility. Just like IQ, hypnotizability remains constant throughout the person's life. Some longitudinal studies found that 25 years later, retested subjects had nearly the same scores.
Of course, you probably experience hypnosis all the time and don't even know it. Have you ever been so sucked into a movie that you don't notice what's going on around you? Technically, that's a hypnotic state. You're so hyper-focused that you block out everything else. Those who are more likely to become engrossed in such things are more susceptible to hypnosis. In such a state, what we call a trance, a person can be led by a therapist through specific tasks or to reflect on certain thoughts. At this point, your subconscious is more open to suggestion. But that doesn't mean you lose your will. Both your will and your judgment remain intact.
By understanding this mental state further, we will likely get a better picture of how consciousness and our perception of reality work, Byzantine stuff that will take a lot of time to unravel. However, the Human Connectome Project and other brain mapping studies are likely, over time, make significant headway.
To learn more about the scientific basis of hypnosis, click here:
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."