Bringing Hypnosis To Life…. With Smells – And The Neuroscience Behind It

Adam Eason 12-17

Following a fascinating discussion with some of my leading peers in the field of hypnosis yesterday, I wanted to share some of the spoils of that discussion.

Recently, I have opened up sections of my garden at home by removing walled off areas and rockeries and replacing them with more lawn. It makes those parts of my garden more child-friendly as my children want to charge around the garden more and with Summer on the doorstep it made sense to do that. Having laid the turf a couple of weeks ago, it has rained fortuitously upon that lawn, the sun has shined upon it too and it has grown in well. Yesterday the lawn got mowed for the first time. The smell of the cut grass immediately transported me back to my primary school days and a really vivid recollection of having grass fights on the school playing fields once the motorised mowers has visited during lesson times.

 Grass

At times it really can seem as if nothing evokes memories as vividly as a smell. We’ve all been reminded of childhood days by smells, haven’t we?

Science now suggests that smells react with specific areas of the brain that are directly related to long-term memory. Recent study findings by Igarashi et al (2014) in a study conducted at the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Norway (I’d like to offer up a childish “yay!” because I am half Norwegian), snappily entitled ‘Coordination of entorhinal-hippocampal ensemble activity during associative learning‘ published in the journal Nature, have been exploring the connections between memory and our sense of smell.

The research was conducted upon laboratory rats and suggested that certain brain wave oscillations were related to the use of memory.

In the same way that recently cut grass stimulated my vivid childhood memory, the researchers had to create pleasant, rewarding memories for the rats and so were given food rewards in combination with certain smells. When they examined what happened inside the rat’s brains upon retrieving the memory, the results were interesting. Igarashi (2014) states:

Immediately after the rat is exposed to the smell there is a burst in activity of 20 Hz waves in a specific connection between an area in the entorhinal cortex, lateral entorhinal cortex (LEC), and an area in the hippocampus, distal CA1 (dCA1), while a similar strong response was not observed in other connections.”

The study highlighted which parts of the brain were responsive and heck, that is not wholly relevant to a hypnosis blog, so shall not go into masses of detail in that regard (you can read the study if you wished to get that detail).

The study also joins a number of others showing how parts of the brain synchronise when exposed to smells and subsequent memories. Another one of the authors states:

This is not the first time we observe that the brain uses synchronised wave activity to establish network connections.

Both during encoding and retrieval of declarative memories there is an interaction between these areas mediated through gamma and theta oscillations.

Together, the evidence is now piling up and pointing in the direction of cortical oscillations as a general mechanism for mediating interactions among functionally specialized neurons in distributed brain circuits.”

Soooo… That’s a lot of terminology that does not usually enter the lexicon of hypnosis and hypnotherapy professionals; yet in that brief flashback to childhood grass fights, this is the accurate description what has been occurring in my brain.

Why am I writing about this in my hypnosis blog today then? Well, as per my discussions with colleagues yesterday; evidence tends to suggest and show that primarily hypnosis amplifies (and can reduce) sensation. Why not promote the imagined smells in hypnosis sessions to elicit more resources from memories and to advance the use of the imagined scenarios in our hypnosis sessions?

I think our work (in the field of hypnotherapy) gets dominated with the use of cognitions (verbalised) and certainly my own teaching on self-hypnosis and within my therapy rooms, there is a lot of emphasis upon mental imagery use within hypnosis sessions. I think if you are going to use evocative imagery techniques within your hypnotherapy work as I do, and/or if you use other types of mental imagery or want to seek out good examples of particular feelings to use in hypnosis sessions, then remembering to use smell as an additive way of eliciting those resources would seem logical and makes a lot of sense.

Of course, we probably are not going to have real-life smells on tap in our treatment rooms, but hypnotised clients receiving suggestions that they can smell the environment of their imagination is likely to help them connect to feelings when it is desired.  Likewise, it can result in mental rehearsal of coping skills having more resources and seem more real when conducted in hypnosis sessions too. The addition of a couple of sentences referring to smells could add some extra impetus at times within your self-hypnosis sessions or for therapists looking to add to their hypnotherapy sessions.

Therefore, all this has resulted in me now planning to incorporate scratch and sniff technology into my next set of business cards. ;-)

Be back soon.


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