Hypnosis and Meditation as States of Heightened Brain Plasticity
Seven Pathways to Higher Nervous System Function
by Gérard V. Sunnen, M.D.
BACK TO HOME
The concept of brain plasticity is one of renewal and hope. Not so long ago, neurons in brain and body were thought to be as solid transistors, fixed in numbers from birth, hardwired and permanently lost when injured. Discoveries combining all brain sciences have increasingly removed us from old notions of the static brain - and thus the static mind – as a set organ incapable of undergoing any meaningful change.
All that has been upended. Now, appreciated is that the brain’s neurons - as all neurons and all brain neuronal networks - and, in unison, the mind that binds to them, are amazingly adaptive, never static, always changing in their configurations, forever in motion and growth. Thus brain life flows from moment to moment at the genetic, molecular, cellular and holistic levels.
Great networks of neurons coalesce to form connectomes. As constellations of cells ranging from a few hundred to several billion, they are dedicated to given functions. Some specialize in the generation of movement, as others in visual perception, in language, in forethought and imagination. Other connectomes create consciousness (Sporn 2012, Laureys 2016, Sunnen, “The Neurology of Awareness”).
Certain states of mind can seed the terrain for the formation of new circuitries in the brain. Hypnosis, as one such state, is useful in the therapy of numerous medical and psychological conditions (Meares 1972, Nash 2012, Sunnen, “What is Hypnosis?”). Beyond medical uses, certain hypnotic states can enhance all manner of human performance to the outer limits of their possibilities. Included here are the expressive arts, sports, as all higher order human endeavors that ask for focus, concentration, memory and creativity.
In meditative mind states, as in hypnosis, selected brain connectomes are enlivened while others are subdued. Consciousness pathways in the brain are invited to shift course. Suggested is that these special mind states represent reshaped awareness dynamics that, coaxed away from their usual routes, are directed to novel destinations.
New configurations of brain processing enable us to achieve what we ordinarily could not. Hypnotic phenomena, for example, can be as dramatic as they are still unexplained. Anesthesia deep enough to sustain major surgeries, heart rate and blood pressure regulation, all-systems relaxation, regression far in the timeline of one’s life are only a few examples. Hundreds of therapeutic applications for hypnotic states applied to medicine are gathered in the academic literature (DeBetz 1985, Yapko 2014).
The brain’s plasticity can be appreciated through the looking glass of different perspectives. The repair of nervous tissue, as in injury or stroke, depends on the ability of remaining neurons to take stock, adapt, and regenerate. A great deal of research explores the properties of neuronal stem cells for rebuilding. The physical healing of nervous tissues, however, has its proprietary laws that often present frustrating time constraints (Costandi 2016).
Brain plasticity can also be approached via its software side, the mind. While the brain’s hardware, as any bodily tissue, has an optimal pace of healing, the mind, proportionally, has much more leeway for self-enhancement. One question beckons: Can the mind’s push toward wellness prod the brain’s hardware to accelerate its own healing?
The mind can endlessly transcend itself. Encouraging brain’s plasticity, as approached from the perspective of the mind, entails working with one of the most mysterious dimensions in the universe: Consciousness.
Waking awareness and the quest for higher dimensions.
Our waking state of mind contains a miracle of attunement to the world, capturing the wonderment and intensity of its messages. Via sights, sounds, scents and all interactions with things living, every individual distills a unique and proprietary experience of personal aliveness. This is our “normal and usual” waking state, so familiar throughout our life’s course, as a composite essence made of myriad contributions of melded brain circuits. Many of these circuits, however, become fixed by rote use. Thus, we often think of the same thoughts, have unwavering opinions about many issues, and have predictable ongoing feelings about many people.
Our usual state of sentience, despite its static tendencies, can fortunately expand, embracing other mental landscapes. Openness to change facilitates this process, as does recognition that creative personal forces are demanding expression. The terrain is thus prepared for self-expansion. How does an artist complete a new canvas, a musician an original song, a writer a visionary novel, a philosopher an inspirational view of life? All have extricated themselves from their usual patterns of brain/mind circuitry to open new avenues of plasticity capable of spawning personal breakthroughs.
Expanding our awareness connectome.
The great universe of neurons whose electro-chemical properties somehow connect to the formation of consciousness is malleable. From its site of origin, consciousness can be dispatched omni-directionally. Close your eyes, for example, and move your attention into the substance of your right hand; then, into your left hand, and continue onward with full freedom to travel anywhere within your bodily schema. As each stop along the way becomes lit in consciousness, keep adding illuminations until your whole body is in full sentience.
Somewhere – and in some unknown fashion - in the maze of consciousness networks, identity forms, expressed as a kaleidoscopic experience of self and personhood. This magical creation of the brain evolves over time into the formation of a persona that embodies a unique style of interacting with the world, and with itself. In its lifetime growth, the persona requires continuous adjustments and modifications, thus the need for brain plasticity.
Within that context, and importantly in working with awareness, another distinctive brain property is evident: The ability to launch decisions and to engage in willful action, both vital executive functions of the mind. Only now are we able to trace, via imaging, the genesis of decision-making and volition, from their initial sparks in the brain’s depths, to their outflow trajectories far into the nervous system.
Willful intention recruits and activates consciousness neurons. When actuated, these specialized cells generate greater presence in the nervous system. Robust connections build from central awareness connectomes to their destinations. The benefits are many. Directed to bodily networks, sentience extends ever further into dimensions that hitherto had been outside its reach. Infused far into the body, awareness links to biological energies, guiding the organism toward higher intensities of health, for which there are no limits.
Directed to home unto themselves, awareness neuronal networks claim ever-larger brain territories and consequently, unlock parallel dimensions in the mind. Layers of complexity are added to existing psychological functions. New qualities of selfhood emerge that may include greater aplomb, keener emotional sensitivity to self and others, and changes in processing the world that imply maturity, intuition and even wisdom. At times, these experiences take on unexpected directions that can be called transcendent (Zinberg 1977, White 1972, Tart 2001, Sunnen: ”Spiritual Epiphanies During Hypnosis.”).
Seven pathways to higher brain system function:
The following practices of body/mind unfolding possess the capacity to activate neurological systems in the direction of wellness and personal expansion. A central vector in these techniques recruits the star ingredient in the nervous system, and one whose nature still humbly defies all scientific explanation: Awareness. Willfully focusing consciousness creates beams of awareness that carry currents of nervous system actuation.
The practices below can be approached with or without accompanying sentience. Without it, they still yield benefits. They may limber the body, increase stamina and encourage harmony of organ systems. But it is the addition of awareness that makes them capable of reaching new levels of self-expansion.
Awareness is difficult to sustain in a continuous unwavering stream. Keeping its thrust focused, much like contemplating a candle’s flame, is challenging for most. Always ready to distract, but still capable of learning to behave, are the “monkeys’ antics,” a metaphor for the jumping thoughts that consistently attempt to derail attention’s resolve.
- Conscious breathing. Ever since the beginnings of meditation’s evolution thousands of years ago, the breathing process has held high esteem for its unique properties. Indeed, breathing is a gateway to owning the body’s nervous system because it embodies the very interface between willful voluntary pathways on one hand, and self-regulating autonomic pathways on the other (the ANS). Voluntarily, one can stop breathing as one can resume breathing. Hyperventilation or hypoventilation can be fully willful. Alternatively, one can allow the breathing process to run by itself, robotically, without paying it any mind.
Consistently applied to ongoing breathing cycles, awareness beams into the sensory neurons of the respiratory tree and to motor neurons activating the muscles of the chest wall, the abdomen and the diaphragm. The mindful ebb and flow of inspired air fosters a grounding rhythm, resonating into the entire body. Organs functions are reset by deepest tranquility. Sentient ripples become wavelets, then waves, progressively meshing into a primal cycle. Sustained awareness of breath leads to experiences of fusion: The sense of self merges with this ancient metronome. Ongoing motion blends with stillness. In tandem, the brain’s plasticity comes alive.
- Consciousness-enhanced physical activity. Any physical motion or activity can be performed robotically. Or, it may be imbued with various degrees of “being in the moment.” Instead of walking at a usual brisk pace try walking in extreme slowdown mode, in a safe place, eyes closed. Or, do the same with a mundane movement, performed daily and taken for granted, like picking up a glass. As the gesture is made in sightless slow motion, awareness illuminates all manner of muscle and joint movements, mostly unknown to the wakeful mind in busy daily life. The internal workings of the body suddenly come into view. The feeling of internal space expands. The conscious discovery of one’s body mechanics can be an endless source of wonderment and self-knowledge. But more than that: It adds a dimension of self-perception and sensitivity that gradually comes to merge into a newly dynamic expanded body schema, where every motion is endowed with fluid awareness.
- Autogenic Training (AT). AT is a century-old European method of bodily exploration that can be called Western yoga. Designed to replicate the experiences commonly reported in hypnosis, AT first dispatches awareness to nervous system channels that induce relaxation, then further on, to channels having to do with the enhancement of awareness. Try assuming a balanced bodily position where the urge to move is nil, close your eyes, then send your feelings into the substance of one or both arms. Start with your hands, imbuing them with sensations of heaviness and pleasant warmth. Progressively extend these sensations to your arms, legs, back, and entire body. Feeling of lightness may then merge, as may sensations of body volume expansion. Autogenic Training progresses from here (Luthe 1969; Sunnen 2013: “Tummo Meditation Versus Autogenic Training.”).
- Dynamic mental imagery. Mental imagery becomes dynamic when it invites the involvement of the brain’s capacities for composite mental representation. We think of imagery as primarily visual, yet visual mental images can be enriched with sound, movement, and especially, emotion. Imagery thus attains the capacity to become maximally transformative as it attempts to involve the greatest number of brain connectomes in order to replicate reality.
Suppose, for example that someone wishes to overcome incapacitating social anxiety, a most common affliction. In a relaxing therapeutic milieu, deep body détente is first achieved using progressive relaxation techniques or self-hypnosis. Once attained, composite mental images of target social situations are invited into consciousness. But instead of tension, they are now evoked with bodily sensations of profound relaxation paired with feelings of self-confidence, assertiveness, and charisma. The images can be as vivid as dreams. With repeated reinforcement, the transfer to reality becomes automatic: The nervous system has thus been progressively re-programmed, now endowed with newly shaped neuronal wiring.
- Self-hypnosis. Learning to experience hypnosis can be a valuable life tool. Relaxation, for example, offers all manner of health benefits. The brain plasticity induced by self-hypnosis allows for amplifying positive feelings such as optimism, and nurturing desirable behaviors. Similarly, negative feelings such as anxiety and anger progressively loosen their hold. Self-hypnosis is mastered by pairing relaxation with progressive directives pointing the way to a mental state receptive to beneficial affirmations.
- Meditation. Meditative practices, numerous and varied in style and teachings, aim to bestow the practitioner with gifts relative to body and mind. The first task of the meditator is to find a meditative routine that personally resonates with one’s constitution and uniqueness. Meditation should not be arduous or tedious, but rather, enjoyable and a pleasure to anticipate.
There is a unifying principle in meditation: It is mindful, meaning that awareness is involved in all aspects of its practice, ideally at all times. Meditation is primarily an exercise in deploying awareness. Differences among meditative practices have to do with how and where awareness is directed, with the knowledge that it can involve centering on a bodily function like breathing, a movement, a posture, a sound, a visual image, a spiritual concept, or a feeling, such as peace.
- Yoga. Many variations in Yoga are practiced. Finding a style of Yoga best suited to one’s constitution is a first task. Yoga means a melding of mind with body, into an experience of unified inner communication, teaching that awareness, the mind’s distillate, can cross mind-body boundaries and implicate itself in the most distant and subtle bodily process.
Classical Yoga makes use of postures called asanas that guide the body to assume special configurations, each assigned to bring focus to a selected internal network. While many seek to attain perfection of form in their expression of asanas, it is the awareness infusing them that powers their transformative capacity.
All bodily systems cross talk, and not one bodily system is ever independent of any other. Just as all cells, including all neurons are connected in some manner, be it by direct apposition or by distant chemical messaging, all organ systems engage in dialogue. But they must learn to do so, often a long tedious process. Yoga is the art and science of developing - and accelerating - body-mind cross communication so that one is eventually rewarded with experiencing balance and wholeness.
The great universe of brain neurons specializing in the making of consciousness can be directed to push ever further into the domains of other nervous system networks. Invited to course through the body’s organs, awareness can harmonize bodily functions, energize physiology, and assert itself as a force in healing.
Directed to course through the brain’s psychological connectomes, awareness can promote the integration of mental functions, and be a force in solidifying emotional balance.
Invited to flow unto itself, awareness cumulates its own essence, both in the physicality of its neuronal cellular architecture, and in the energy that it expresses.
Nature has bestowed the phenomenon of consciousness across the spectrum of living organisms. Its dynamics are intensively researched even though its very essence remains totally unexplained. Meanwhile, humans have highly developed a unique attribute: The ability to be acutely aware of their own consciousness. Harnessing this gift, as in the methods described in this article, provides a special opportunity to shape one’s destiny.
References and suggested readings.
- Alter T, Howell RJ. Consciousness and the Mind-Body Problem. Oxford University Press, 2011
- Beauregard M, O’Leary D. The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul. Harper One, 2007
- Brown KH (Ed.) Handbook of Mindfulness: Theory, Research and Practice. Guilford Press, 2015
- Cavanna AE, Nani A. Consciousness: Theories in Neuroscience and Philosophy of Mind. Springer, 2014
- Costandi M. Neuroplasticity. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2016
- Cvetkovic D, Cosvic I. States of Consciousness: Experimental insights into meditation, waking, sleep and dreams (The Frontiers Collection). Springer, 2011
- DeBetz B, Sunnen G. A Primer of Clinical Hypnosis. PSG Medical Publishers, Littleton, MA, 1985
- Dehaene S. Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts. Viking, 2014
- Denes G. Neural plasticity across the lifespan: How the brain can change. Psychology Press, 2015
- Doidge N, The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity. Penguin, 2016
- Fox K, Nijeboer S, Dixon M, et al. Is meditation associated with altered brain structure? A systematic review and meta-analysis of morphometric neuroimaging in meditation practitioners. Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews 2014; 43: 48-73
- Gage FH. Temple S. Neural stem cells: Generating and regenerating the brain. Elsevier, 2013
- Greenberg J, Reiner K, Meiran N. “Mind the Trap”: Mindful practice reduces cognitive rigidity. PLOS One, 15 May 2012
- Gross CG. A Hole in the Head: More Tales of the History of Neuroscience. MIT Press
- CRC Press, 2015
- Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, et al. Mindful practice leads to increases in regional gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. Jan 30, 2011; 191(1): 36-43
- Kandel ER, Schwartz JH (Eds). Principles of Neural Science, Fifth Edition. McGraw Hill, 2013
- Laszlo E, Peake A. The Immortal Mind: Science and the Continuity of Consciousness Beyond the Brain. Inner Traditions, Canada, 2014
- Laureys S, Gosseries O, Tonono G. The Neurology of Consciousness. Second Edition. Academic Press, Elsevier, 2016
- Lazar SW, Kerr CE, Wasserman RH, et al., Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. Nov 28, 2005; 16(17): 1893-1897
- Luders E, Kurth F, Cherbuin N. Forever young(er): potential effects of long-term meditation on gray matter. Frontiers in Psychology 2015; 5:1551
- Luthe W, Schultz JH. Autogenic Training. Grune and Stratton, Inc., New York, 1969
- Meares A: A System of Medical Hypnosis. New York, Julien Press, 1972
- MØller A. Neural plasticity and disorders of the nervous system. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010
- Murakami H, Nakao T, Matsunaga M, et al., The structure of the mindful brain. PLOS One, 28 Sep 2012
- Nash M, Barnier A. The Oxford Handbook of Hypnosis: Theory, Research, and Practice. Oxford University Press, London 2012
- Panksepp J, Biven L. The Archeology of the Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions. Norton, 2012
- Ropper AH, Samuels MA, Klein JP. Adams and Victor’s Principles of Neurology. 10th Edition, McGraw-Hill, 2014
- Rosenblum B, Kuttner F. Quantum Enigma: Physics encounters consciousness. Second Edition. Oxford University Press, Inc., 2011
- Schmidt S, Walach H (Eds). Meditation: Neuroscientific approaches and philosophical implications (Studies in Neuroscience, Consciousness and Spirituality) Springer, 2014
- Sporns O. Discovering the Human Connectome. MIT Press 2012
- Sunnen G. “What is Hypnosis?” In: Temes B. “Medical Hypnosis: An Introduction and Clinical Guide,” published in the “Medical Guides to Complementary and Alternative Medicine” Churchill Livingstone, New York, 1999
- Sunnen G. Spiritual Epiphanies During Hypnosis. 2013.
- Sunnen G. “The Neurology of Awareness.” www.triroc.com/sunnen
- Sunnen G. “Hypnosis and Self-hypnosis in Healing” Cancer Forum: Publication for the Advancement in Cancer Therapy. Vol 18, No ¾, Oct 2008
- Sunnen G. “Medical Hypnosis in the Hospital” Advances: Journal of the Institute for the Advancement of Health, 1988; Vol 5, No 2
- Sunnen, G. Speed Hypnosis Versus Meditative Hypnosis in Clinical Care. www.triroc.com/sunnen
- Sunnen G. Tummo Meditation Versus Autogenic Training: Visceral Nervous System Regulation, East and West, and Implications for Integrative Psychotherapy, 2014
- Tart C. States of Consciousness, iUniverse 2001
- Vincent JD, Lledo PM. The Custom-Made Brain: Cerebral Plasticity, Regeneration, and Enhancement. Columbia University Press, 2014
- Vestergaard-Poulsen P, van Beek M, Skewes J, et al., Long-term meditation is associated with increased grey matter density in the brain stem. Neuroreport; Jan 28, 2009; 20(2): 170-174
- Westphal J. The Mind-Body Problem. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2016
- White J (Ed). The Highest State of Consciousness. Anchor Books 1972
- Yapko M. Essentials of Hypnosis. 2nd Ed. Routledge, 2014
- Zeman A, Coebergh JA. The nature of consciousness. Handbook Clinical Neurology 118: 373-407, 2012
- Zinberg NE (Ed). Alternate States of Consciousness: Multiple Perspectives on the Study of Consciousness. The Free Press, Macmillan Publishing Co. 1977
Gérard V. Sunnen M.D.
200 East 33rd St.
New York, NY 10016
Board Certified in Psychiatry and Neurology.
BACK TO HOME
(Ret.) Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Bellevue-NYU Medical Center, New York