Hypnosis and Meditation

When I explain hypnosis to people who don’t know or understand much about it, I am often asked if it is the same as meditation, and in this post I plan to address this question from more of a biological perspective than a psychological one.  People have a tendency to assume that they are the same because the procedures can be similar and the effects are often comparable; however, studies suggest that each activity produces a different neurological response.  

Before I get technical, I first want to establish the definitions of hypnosis and meditation in a scientific context and why it can be difficult to draw comparisons between the two.  Back when I started my blog I discussed the ugly semantics involved in defining hypnosis, but for now the following parameters will be set: “Hypnosis is seen as either an altered state of consciousness or a cooperative interaction in which one person, the subject, becomes highly focused and receptive to verbal suggestions given by another person, the hypnotist” (Dumont 2012). The same paper gives a rather broad and comprehensive definition of the different subtypes of meditation, but the basic idea is that one main variety focuses on passive observation of intrusive thoughts and another involves directing one’s attention to specific sensory stimuli or singular thoughts.  The broad scope in the definition of meditation is owed to “conflating aspects of different meditation techniques into a single construct or qualitative description which, in actuality, does not exist” due to the expansive methodology of the practice (Grant 2012).  

Comparing meditation and hypnosis from a scientific standpoint is more difficult than it may appear to be.  From a methodological perspective, it can be concluded that the two are fundamentally different because “the essential nature of hypnotic response, that which makes it hypnotic at all, is a strategic self-deception with respect to ones intentions…by contrast, an essential component of meditative practice is mindfulness, seeing plainly what is there” (Semmens-Wheeler 2012). However accurate this may be in theory, scientists appreciate experimental data and tangible results. Grant discusses four main issues with comparing meditation and hypnosis in his 2012 paper, the first of which is the loose and broad definition of meditation alluded to earlier.  In addition, meditation requires a certain level of training and practice that is not required of the hypnotic subject (in other words, entering a true ‘meditative state’ is deemed more complicated than entering a ‘trance state’).  The paper goes on to mention more ways that drawing comparisons could be difficult, including sources of suggestion and interpersonal interactions involved, but since this is a blog post and not a research paper I will not discuss them at length.  The point I’m making here is that thanks to standardized research and cool brain imaging technology, comparing and contrasting hypnosis and meditation from a biological perspective has been made possible and credible, which is actually pretty exciting!

Functional magnetic resonance imaging, often called functional MRI or fMRI for short, allows neuroscientists to view areas in the brain that are receiving the most blood flow (i.e. where the brain activity is distributed at a given time).  Studies using fMRI to study hypnosis and meditation reveal that there is a substantial difference in brain activity between the two.  Generally speaking, Dumont et. al. concluded that hypnosis produces decreased activation in brain areas such as the pain matrix and prefrontal cortical areas, whereas meditation increased activity in the same regions.  In regards to the default-mode network, a different region of the brain, a myriad of different levels of activity were seen in a meditation study and “The processes through which these outcomes are reached likely vary depending on the type of meditation and the experience of the meditators” (Dumont 2012).  This validates the concerns posed by Grant in his paper, discussed previously.  

Despite these preliminary conclusions, “Direct comparisons accounting for a wider range of variables would be required in order for neuroscience to really determine and compare the processes at work in hypnosis and meditation” (Dumont 2012).  As both fields become more scientifically accepted as biologically of interest, research will continue to draw comparisons and contrasts between the two and maybe someday decisively define the relationship between them.  While more information is needed to confirm suspicions, it would appear that meditation and hypnosis are neurologically different.

Bibliography (in APA format this time!)

Dumont, L., Martin, C., & Broer, I. (2012). Functional neuroimaging studies of hypnosis and meditation: a comparative perspective. The Journal of Mind–Body Regulation2(1), 58-70.

Grant, J. A. (2012). Towards a More Meaningful Comparison of Meditation and Hypnosis. The Journal of Mind–Body Regulation2(1), 71-74.

Semmens-Wheeler, R., & Dienes, Z. (2012). The contrasting role of higher order awareness in hypnosis and meditation. The Journal of Mind–Body Regulation2(1), 43-57.


This is the radiologist’s version of photocopying your face at work.

These MRI scans show what an artichoke, a head of broccoli, and the human brain look like on the inside. Magnetic resonance imaging scanners, or MRIs for short, let us see internal anatomy at high resolution. When we put a set of MRI images in sequence, we get crazy pictures like these. Cool, huh?

Learn about MRI scanners and the future of brain imaging>> 


Heartbeats under magnetic resonance imaging.

We seldom consider the force with which our hearts beat through every moment of our lives. Most of us will only ever feel the dampened strength of these muscles at the arteries of the wrist or neck, perhaps through a stethoscope or in moments of excitement, exertion and fear. Take a moment to consider it now, if you will. 

Credit to the VCU Medical Center for these images.

A three-year-old girl had a hemispherectomy to treat Rasmussen syndrome. This MRI scan was taken in 2002 after she had turned seven.
The right hemisphere of her brain, which was completely removed, contained the language center and motor control for the left side of her body, and today she has very minor issues controlling her left arm and leg. However, she is fully bilingual in Turkish and Dutch and leads an otherwise normal life. 


An MRI cross-section of someone’s mouth and throat while singing “If I Only Had a Brain.” According to the description, this is a new MRI technique that scans at the rate of 100 frames per second rather than the typical rate of 10 frames per second, which gives you this really nice and detailed video. 

Things to look for: the lips closing for bilabial sounds, such as the /b/ in “brain”, the velum opening for nasal sounds (at the top of the throat, leading into the nasal cavity), such as the /n/ in “brain” (although it actually opens slightly before the /n/, because vowels nasalize before a nasal consonant in English).