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Could a Computer Hypnotize You?

Transforming hypnosis from an art to a science.
September 28, 2007

I ran a panel titled “Engineering the Brain” at Technology Review’s EmTech conference yesterday. One of the speakers was Ed Boyden, a new professor at the MIT Media Lab and one of last year’s TR35. He never ceases to astound with the broad range of projects he’s working on–everything from a molecular light switch that controls neurons to a new device to noninvasively stimulate the brain. (See “A Light Switch for the Brain.”) One of Boyden’s latest endeavors is a computer-based hypnosis program that is personalized to the user.

While most people think of hypnosis as an entertaining parlor trick or a dubious way to quit smoking, a smattering of scientific studies suggest that the trance-like state could have medical benefits in calming anxiety and managing pain during medical procedures. According to Boyden, the problem with bringing hypnosis into clinical practice is that it’s something of an art. Standardized scripts for inducing hypnosis don’t allow the practitioner to adapt his or her approach to the patient. When researching the field, Boyden said that he noticed that hypnosis scripts tend to resemble computer programs. So he and his students designed a computer program that uses a quick personality survey to identify what the user finds relaxing; it then generates a customized set of suggestions to induce him or her into a state of hypnotic relaxation. Stay tuned for an online demo now in development!

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