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
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.
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
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
(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.
- Eyelid paralysis (most useful work can be done here)
- Arm paralysis
- Full body paralysis (stage hypnosis); deepest stage where memory is retained
- Analgesia (no pain, yes touch); good enough for dentistry!
- Anesthesia (no pain, no touch); positive hallucination (seeing something that is not there)
- 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
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
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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
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
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.
Read more by Randall Hayes