Assessment of the physiological effects of physical and emotional stress has been hampered by a lack of suitable laboratory techniques. Since hypnosis can be used safely to induce specific emotional states of considerable intensity, we studied the effect on distal colonic motility of three hypnotically induced emotions (excitement, anger, and happiness) in 18 patients aged 20-48 years with irritable bowel syndrome. Colonic motility index was reduced by hypnosis on its own (mean change 19.1; 95% CI 0.8, 37.3; p less than 0.05) and this change was accompanied by decreases in both pulse (12; 8, 15) and respiration (6; 4, 8) rates (p less than 0.001 for both). Anger and excitement increased the colonic motility index (50.8; 29.4, 72.2; and 30.4; 8.9, 51.9, respectively; p less than 0.01 for both), pulse rate (26; 22, 30; and 28; 24, 32; p less than 0.001 for both), and respiration rate (14; 12, 16; and 12; 10, 14; p less than 0.001 for both). Happiness further reduced colonic motility although not significantly from that observed during hypnosis alone. Changes in motility were mainly due to alterations in rate than in amplitude of contractions. Our results indicate that hypnosis may help in the investigation of the effects of emotion on physiological functions; this approach could be useful outside the gastrointestinal system. Our observation that hypnosis strikingly reduces fasting colonic motility may partly explain the beneficial effects of this form of therapy in functional bowel disorders.