How Brain Science and Hypnosis Can Change Your Life
When I grow up, I want to be a neuroscientist. I love learning how the human brain works and how that affects the rest of the body, behaviours and life in general. In reality, I jest about the neuroscientist thing, because I actually spend as much time as I have available reading about human biology, including neuroscience, and I love my job, so I feel like I get the best of both worlds. My love of neuroscience doesn’t close my mind to anecdotal evidence, and I enjoy listening to the stories of others. However, below are five commonly held beliefs based on current scientific research that changed the way I think.
The drugs work…unless they don’t
In 2021, Dean Burnett published his book Psycho Logical, Why Mental Health Goes Wrong and How to Make Sense of It. The book covers three strands of mental health: depression, anxiety, and addiction. The reader learns that pharmaceutical companies discovered antidepressants in the late 1940s – early 1950s, when they observed experimental drugs used to treat ailments like TB and surgical shock elevated the mood of the patient. The drugs increase the activity of the monoamine neurotransmitters, which include serotonin, dopamine, adrenaline, and noradrenaline in the brain.
Because of this discovery, some scientists took it to confirm that depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. The problem is, if the drugs do work for this reason, they should start to work immediately. And they do, the side effects appear quickly. However, any reduction in depression takes weeks, if at all. The investigations go on.
There are other types of antidepressants that aim to tackle the problem differently, sometimes working, sometimes not. Burnett hypothesises whether antidepressants do or don’t work throughout the depression section. Unlike Irving Kirsch, who I was lucky enough to see speak at a recent event.
Kirsch’s book The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth explains how Kirsch found placebo to have a greater effect on depression than antidepressants. His belief, based on extensive research, is that there is a great therapeutic response to antidepressant medication. However, the response to placebo is almost as strong, and due to the health risks associated with antidepressants, they should not be the first-line treatment for depression. To enforce the point, this doesn’t mean not using antidepressants. It just means try everything else first, check your nutritional intake, your sleep habits, your daily exercise levels, and speak with a therapist.
Lack of sleep causes rage and anxiety
Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep, conducted a study to determine the effects of a lack of sleep on emotional irrationality. They took two groups of healthy young adults. One lucky group got a normal night’s sleep in the sleep lab, while the other stayed awake all night. The following day, the researchers showed the two groups a range of pictures with neutral to emotionally negative content, while scanning the participant’s brains. Walker says the results revealed the largest effects measured in his research to date (of book publication).
In the sleep deprived participants, there was a 60 percent amplification in emotional reactivity shown in the amygdala. He believes this demonstrates that without sleep, the human brain reverts to a primitive pattern of uncontrolled reactivity, i.e. your instinctual animal brain takes over, and the human rational brain cannot win. Walker explains the reasons why in his book. He also references Japanese studies that replicated the results by restricting participants’ sleep to five hours for five nights. The conclusion is, no matter whether restricted sleep is spread across multiple nights or in one bulk, the results are the same. You can read more about the role of the amygdala in anxiety here.
The Anatomy of Anxiety is a fantastic book on overcoming anxiety. I got the book as part of a live talk package of the same title, which I joined assuming Dr. Ellen Vora would delve into the anatomy of anxiety from a more scientific perspective. I presumed wrong, instead it’s an easy to read, fantastic how to guide on managing, dealing with and even eradicating unnecessary anxiety.
I often find books like this cement my knowledge and give me one gem that changes everything. This book did exactly that with overnight hanger. A common thing that we all refer to during the day yet, completely forget about when suffering with sleep difficulties and night time anxiety (which then increases day time anxiety). If your blood sugar levels drop in the middle of the night, your body will counter it with a stress response. You’ll wake up with racing thoughts and struggle to fall back to sleep. Dr. Ellen Vora’s recommendation is a blood sugar stabilising diet, intermittent fasting, or simply a jar of nut butter that you can eat a small amount of before you fall asleep and if you wake in the middle of the night.
Your problems might have their roots in epigenetics, not your own experiences. Your behaviours and environment cause changes that affect the way your genes work. Therefore, you pass your experiences to your future generations, just as you inherit your ancestor’s experiences. One small but significant study looked at the descendants of holocaust survivors. The study shows how the child of a mother who survived the holocaust is at greater risk of PTSD. Other research indicates that the grandchild of a severely underfed man, before puberty, is less likely to develop diabetes. Contrasting to the grandchild of a severely underfed woman before puberty, who is more likely to develop diabetes. The grandson of a woman who smoked while pregnant is at higher risk of being overweight. This is good research to remember in moments of self-blame.
Your brain isn’t fully formed until age 25
MRI studies show that the human brain does not fully develop until around 25 years of age. Beyond this, it is malleable and continues to adapt to your experiences, but before this, humans do not have a fully developed brain. This might explain some behaviours of young adults, such as risk taking. When you look back on your youth (if you are beyond 25), know, there are some aspects of the way you think today that were simply impossible in those days. No matter how hard you tried, you didn’t have the cognitive ability for some things. If you are not yet 25, give yourself a break, and be kind to your brain, for the way you treat it today will affect its development.
There is little reference in the above article to how brain science connects with hypnosis. However, if you follow the links in the article, all will become clear. Hypnosis is a powerful tool to focus your brain. When you use hypnosis to take control of your life, you give yourself the opportunity for positive change. In conjunction with brain science, your hypnotherapist will help you work on the things that you have the power to change, and muddle through the challenge of accepting the things you cannot.
Burnett, D. (2021) Psycho-logical. Allen & Unwin.
Descendants of holocaust survivors have altered stress hormones (no date). Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/index.cfm/_api/render/file/?method=inline&fileID=0A9A11AD-5C7A-4ACE-8AF4966172D2F855 (Accessed: February 3, 2023).
Kirsch I. Antidepressants and the Placebo Effect. Z Psychol. 2014;222(3):128-134. doi: 10.1027/2151-2604/a000176. PMID: 25279271; PMCID: PMC4172306. Antidepressants and the Placebo Effect – PMC (nih.gov)
Vora, E. (2022) The Anatomy of Anxiety: Understanding and overcoming the body’s fear response. New York, NY: Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Walker, M.P. (2018) Why we sleep: The new science of sleep and dreams. London, UK: Penguin Books.