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Monday, May 30, 2011

Look into my eyes!

It is the stuff of cheap Las Vegas acts, anti-smoking or weight loss scams, or bogus self-help books. It is ubiquitous and special, wholly inexplicable and near magical. It requires special words and procedures, engages a unique mental state, and allows one to transcend human nature itself. A heady resume for a process that does not exist.

Franz Mesmer invented it, though magnetism was  his thing. An 18th century charlatan, Mesmer  convinced a gullible  public that the newly discovered magnetic force was just the thing to cure whatever ails you. Just pass yourself under a powerful magnet, and a harmonious 'fluid flow' would be achieved, hence removing the 'obstacles' that caused disease. Funny thing though, many of his patients actually found their symptoms alleviated, and more than a few thought themselves cured. Since diseases tend to run their course, treatment or no treatment, and since illnesses tend to get worse if we ruminate about them, it was no surprise that the  resulting placebo effect would be interpreted as representing something much more profound. If Mesmer was known for the placebo effect, his inadvertent contribution to medical knowledge would be much more obscure. However, he included one more element that added his name to the lexicon, and a procedure and process that has retained its credibility to this day.

To be mesmerized, or in more modern terms, 'hypnotized', was an integral part of Mesmer's therapeutic procedure. As an adjunct to the devices (which included magnets and even a glass harmonica!) that helped to achieve the right fluid flow, a trance state purged the obstacles causing the impairment of disease. The delirium and convulsions followed Mesmer's artful suggestions, resulting finally in a relieved patient and a practitioner bowing to applause. This made for great theater, as Mesmer and his patients unknowingly became the precursor to every hypnotic act, both stage and therapeutic to follow.

...before Dr. Phil, there was Mesmer

The postulation of a hypnotic state follows the fact that given the right setting, people can do some remarkable things that cannot be accounted for by the normal mental processes that we believe have governance over our behavior. Indeed, without the novelty and mystery it would scarely be a process at all. Give a suggestion to a family member to mow the lawn, and whether they listen to you or not, it's no great shakes. However, if out of frustration you told some loved ones to jump in the lake or play in traffic, it would be a remarkable thing if they took you up on the offer. Of course, incongruity is relative, as your kin may have their own reasons. But hypnosis is more than a mysterious process that produces mysterious behaviors. Hypnosis also includes a set of procedures that induce it, and a unique mental or 'trance' state that opens the mind to suggestions. But is a trance state necessary for suggestion to take place or be more effective?

Fortunately, this is a very testable premise. Consider a rabbit's foot. If rubbing a rabbit's foot grants you luck, extra motivation, or God's grace, than all you need do to prove the effectiveness of rabbit's feet is to compare one group of people who rub rabbit's feet to another group that does not. It the group that rubs rabbit feet is significantly more successfuly, lucky, or is able to walk on water, then there must be something to rabbit's feet. On the other hand, if there is no difference between both groups, then it is safe to say that rabbit's feet have no special power.

This is precisely the approach the psychologist Theodore X. Barber  employed in a review of an exhaustive series of experiments that controlled for different aspects of the hypnotic induction procedure among thousands of subjects. In his 1969 book 'Hypnosis: A Scientific Approach', Barber found that the sole element that accounted for hypnotic behavior, from seeming past life regression to increased sensory acuity to suggested anti-social behavior, was information derived from the experimental session that translated into positive expectancies  for performance. Barber found thatall of the behavioral phenomena normally associated with hypnosis could be produced among normally awake subjects, given the proper motivation of course. A 'trance state' was simply the behavioral equivalent of rubbing a rabbit's foot, a voluntary hysteria that was no more biologically rooted to extraordinary behavior than the magically productive hysterics of a crying child. 

Although Barber and succeeding researchers on hypnosis demonstrated that information could elicit a staggeringly wide repertoire of behavior, these behaviors often extend beyond the more limited scope of what common sense informs us of our true capabilities. Hypnotic behaviors not only extend to commonplace voluntary behaviors, but to involuntary behaviors that otherwise seem immune to conscious control Suggested physiological effects such as hallucinations, blindness, analgesis, etc. are all beyond the pale of our voluntary control and beyond the scope of common sense. Hence one must either question common sense assumptions about behavior, or defer this complex question in favor of a special process that places an invisible mental gear in one's brain to make it all work. Given a historical ignorance of the neuro-psychological processes that map to environmental information, it has been easy to refer extraordinary behavior to special processes. Thus, hypnotic states come in from the back door as a cipher for special processes that we cannot yet grasp.

So, the invocation of a hypnotic state, like a miracle that saves the equation, allows one to still make predictions, if you accept of course poor predictions. But because it denotes no demonstrable neurological processes, as an explanation it is impossible. Indeed, no neural state has ever been identified that can account for the extraordinary capabilities of people when confronted with information that is phrased just right. Nor is one needed, since the problem, to paraphrase Shakespeare, is not in the stars, but in ourselves, or more concisely,  in the very way we perceive our worlds.

To our common sense time and motion are absolute, fixed things. However, as Einstein demonstrated, this reality is an illusion, since physical constants vary depending upon what observer you measure them against. Thus a car may be moving relative to the perspective of one observer, but is immobile relative to another driver keeping pace. But relative things encompass not just the physical, but the behavioral, as goodness and evil, the extraordinary and mundane are dependent upon your experience and knowledge. The authority of a hypnotist may have an individual run a gauntlet of fire, act foolishly or immorally, and be none the concerned because of it. Yet similar behavior can be similarly produced by authority figures given credence by government or religion, and we likewise would be unconcerned with facts of our behavior that we would otherwise have found repugnant, embarassing, or morally wrong. As authority perceived moves from the implicit and nonconscious (the hypnotist) to the explicit and conscious (a commanding officer, religious leader), behavior itself moves from the remarkable to the commonplace, and the causes of behavior from the special to the mundane. Thus, an individual is hypnotised when indifferent to fear or pain if he runs a gauntlet of fire, but is merely heroic if that same gauntlet is a beach in Normandy in 1944. Remarkable behaviors engender remarkable causes, and just as heroism is not a 'thing'  that requires a special mental process or module, neither are hypnotic events that are essentially as remarkable.

Were these men hypnotized?

When one does not look too closely at behavior, mental processes can multiply like rabbits, an one is forced to confront a verbal zoo of inferred processes from hypnosis to intrinsic motivation to 'flow' that upon closer inspection actually emerge from simpler, more rudimentary events that engage brain and body. The popular acceptance of such simple (and often simpleminded) reasons for behavior don't require much thought, but if we do perchance think about them, our first instinct is to keep hypnotists and psychologists employed, who obligingly sustain our trance of ignorance that ironically needs no special name. Or perhaps, we can use the congealed pudding like stuff between our ears, and think. 

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