Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
June 2016

You Are Not "Getting Sleepy"

For the past two months, I've been training for my certification in hypnosis, which has been a part of science fiction since its beginnings. As depicted in SF, hypnosis is largely about mind control, whether the victim knows about the control or not. Perhaps most familiar is the Jedi Mind Trick, which even the President Obama refers to (sort of). That's not what hypnosis actually does, but we'll come back to that in a few paragraphs.

First, I want to ask, Why are we humans obsessed with the idea of mind control? One important reason is that we are constantly doing things that we'd like to blame others for. Another, possibly more basic, reason is that often, we honestly don't know why we do things. (I mean we humans, as opposed to aliens or robots or whatever—hint, hint.)

As humans, our conscious minds are not in control of our behavior. They comment, they explain, they justify. Buddhists talk about the subconscious mind as an elephant and the conscious mind as its rider. The rider might influence the elephant, but the rider can’t force the elephant to do anything it does not want to do. This is why hypnotists call our techniques suggestions and not commands. A good portion of my training as a hypnotist consisted of how to take a good client history, in part to determine whether the client is strongly and honestly motivated, at an emotional level, to change his behavior; otherwise we’re wasting our time.

Neurologists use the word confabulation for cases of explicit brain damage, where a patient gives and justifies verifiably incorrect responses to a doctor’s questions about where they are or why they did something. As a meditator, those patients seem to me just more extreme examples of what happens in my own head all the time. I am constantly telling myself a story about who I am, what I want, what I don't want, and why all this stuff is happening to me.

This story-of-my-life is improvised on the fly as behavior happens. It does not cause behavior, except maybe as part of a feedback loop. The basic impotence of the fantasizing conscious mind is why self-help books are so ineffective, and why hypnotists spend our time speaking to the subconscious mind during trance states, when the storytelling mind is out of the way. (There are other interesting ways to bypass it using the body, but let's maintain focus, shall we?).

So, yes, the way SF has treated hypnosis as nigh-irresistible mind-control is an exaggeration. At the same time, there is lots of evidence that humans are highly suggestible, both as individuals (especially children) and in groups. How do we reconcile these views? I think one answer is context. Some behaviors are more easily triggered than others. Killing members of my own group and stealing all their stuff? Very difficult—for many people, almost impossible. Killing those outside my group? Pretty easy—in the context of an ongoing civil war in Rwanda, reading Tutsi names on the radio and calling them “cockroaches” was suggestion enough. No trance required.

What is a hypnotic trance, anyway? The first thing to know is that you, personally, already experience it several times a day, a few seconds or minutes at a time. Hypnosis is a state of highly focused attention that excludes some sensory information at the expense of other information—either from another sense or from memory.

The textbook example from the National Guild of Hypnotists is arriving somewhere in your car and not remembering the route you took to get there. Another example would be falling into a book and losing a substantial chunk of time, something that has happened to probably every SF reader or writer. The role of the hypnotist, then, is to catalyze and stabilize a natural state of consciousness that is usually more of a transition between other states. On anti-guru Jeff Warren's diagram of states of consciousness this is called the “dissociation zone.”

(An aside: In situations like these, scientists become either “lumpers” or “splitters,” based on our own personalities as much as anything else. Some people focus on the common elements between states and other people focus on the differences.)

In any case, there are a number of states of consciousness beyond simple waking and sleeping. Exactly how many is debatable. Jeff Warren diagrams fourteen states inside the broader meta-states of waking and sleeping. Individual historical splitter hypnotists have offered schemes of thirty states or more. In its training materials, the National Guild of Hypnotists sticks with waking, sleeping, and six depths of hypnotic trance.

  1. Eyelid paralysis (most useful work can be done here)
  2. Arm paralysis
  3. Full body paralysis (stage hypnosis); deepest stage where memory is retained
  4. Analgesia (no pain, yes touch); good enough for dentistry!
  5. Anesthesia (no pain, no touch); positive hallucination (seeing something that is not there)
  6. Negative hallucination (not seeing something that is there)

How these trance depths would fit into Jeff's scheme is not entirely clear. His diagram places three states within his “dissociation zone,” with another, daydreaming, really close by. It's not a question I expect to see resolved soon. Hypnotists seem more interested in practical application than in theoretical elegance, and until very recently, academics had more or less lost interest in hypnosis. According to PubMed, the number of studies peaked in 1965. But studies of mindfulness, #2 on the left-hand side of Jeff's diagram, have exploded since 2005. How much of this is fashion, and how much indicates a real cultural shift towards “spiritual hygeine,” I have no idea.

Perhaps a more concrete way to think about states of consciousness is brain circuits. We've identified the network most associated with daydreaming (#3 in Jeff's diagram). It's (probably wrongly) called the Default Mode Network. Each of the other states runs on a similar, partially overlapping network. These networks tend to inhibit one another so that under normal circumstances, one is dominant for some short period of time, and then another. Given that there are hundreds of brain circuits interacting with one another in flexible and dynamic ways, the number of possible combinations is huge.

Hypnosis, meditation, drugs, neurological sleep disorders, and simple sleep deprivation offer real-life examples of weird mixtures of activity in otherwise separable networks. What could theoretical SF technologies add to the mix?

That’s all the space we have for this month. Next time, we’ll continue with this broad topic, focusing on the other major pop-culture hypnosis trope: memory regression.

Until then, You will Like the PlotBot page on Facebook . . . you will visit it every day . . . you will share every post with all your friends . . . .

Randall Hayes is a neuroscientist who regularly hacks his own brain with decaffeinated coffee, vitamin D, and full-spectrum light. At some point he’ll probably do a hypnotism demo at Greensboro Science Cafe, but don’t worry. It will not involve a Jedi Mind Trick.






This is not the reference you were looking for, Mr. President. Move along.



See Chapter 1.


This book is a comprehensive treatment of confabulation, both in patients and in “normal” humans. The first chapter is here available at the publisher’s website here.




I love the image of William James as a dapper nerd in red checkered pants.



This blog post contains a particularly compelling example of excluding some visual information (language) at the expense of other visual information (color). Make sure you click through to the excellent review by Oakley & Halligan, which is otherwise behind a paywall. Thanks, Scientific American!




In this editorial, Halligan & Oakley claim that interest in hypnosis is growing within the cognitive neuroscience community. I hope they’re right.


The editorial above comes from this special issue of the journal Cortex, with 10 other research articles on hypnosis. Unfortunately, they’re all behind a paywall, so unless you have university-level access, the editorial is all you get.


Peaked at a little over 337 published papers in 1965. Steady at about 200/year since.


740 studies last year alone, and still growing.


Default Mode Network

As a card-carrying neuroscientist, I’m probably legally required to say that obviously this is all work in progress, and that it is subject to change at any time without notice.



The first paper in this series raises the fascinating possibility that people from different cultures might have different default states. Also the idea that Psychology as a field has a default mode of study which is missing important points, an SF idea if I ever heard one.


Yes, I know it’s misspelled. The link works.





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