Jean-Martin Charcot proposed the radical hypothesis that similar brain processes were responsible for the unexplained neurological symptoms of ‘hysteria’, now typically diagnosed as ‘conversion disorder’ or ‘dissociative (conversion) disorder’, and the temporary effects of hypnosis. While this idea has been largely ignored, recent cognitive neuroscience studies indicate that (i) hypnotisability traits are associated with a tendency to develop dissociative symptoms in the sensorimotor domain; (ii) dissociative symptoms can be modelled with suggestions in highly hypnotisable subjects; and (iii) hypnotic phenomena engage brain processes similar to those seen in patients with symptoms of hysteria. One clear theme to emerge from the findings is that ‘symptom’ presentation, whether clinically diagnosed or simulated using hypnosis, is associated with increases in prefrontal cortex activity suggesting that intervention by the executive system in both automatic and voluntary cognitive processing is common to both hysteria and hypnosis. Nevertheless, while the recent literature provides some compelling leads into the understanding of these phenomena, the field still lacks well controlled systematically designed studies to give a clear insight into the neurocognitive processes underlying dissociation in both hysteria and hypnosis. The aim of this review is to provide an agenda for future research.
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