I have been interested in Hypnosis for a long time. However, I have come to realize that it can be both an effective tool in leading us down the path of scientific discovery of the brain as well as a tool that can lead us on a wild goose chase. The problem is determining at any point in time, which path are we on.
A few years back, my wife and I met a hypnotist at a Las Vegas show. He was sitting in the table next to ours and due to my habit of opening up conversations with complete strangers, we soon were chatting away. Of course, when he told us his profession, I had to dig deeper. Sure enough, the next night, my wife and I ended up at his hotel room for a hypnosis session. I had never been hypnotized and wanted to know if it is something real or not.
My friend first told me that me being an engineer would make it harder for me to end up in a hypnotic state. He explained that people that are logic oriented do not hypnotize well. I did not know if that was a "way out" for him should he fail, or if indeed it is true. But it does make sense to me that scientists, engineers, and mathematicians all would be more resistant to letting another person enter their private mind. Let me explain why I feel this way...
You might read my previous post to better understand the role of the Frontal Cortex (what I refer to as the "Good Sense Filter") of our brain. It's role is to filter out any subconscious ideas or solutions or decisions that do not make sense for our own good. This prevents us on acting on a stupid idea. The "Good Sense Filter" is the barrier between the conscious and the subconscious. Scientists, engineers, and mathematicians are very rule-based people and thus more "black and white" than grey. I would expect that they are generally less creative and as a result have very strong "Good Sense" filters that weed out more solutions or ideas that are nonsensical than the average Joe or Jane. I believe that in addition to the strongly pre-filtering of all ideas and solutions on the output, their "Good Sense Filters" also strongly resist relaxing itself enough for a hypnotist to enter into the subconscious. In a sense this "Good Sense Filter" is there to protect the conscious from the subconscious and the subconscious from the conscious.
Well, in reality, my own post-analysis of my hypnosis is that I do not believe I was truly hypnotized. If I was to any degree it was very shallow. If the results were more fantastic, I might think differently, but in reality, the session was very boring. Of course, this just matches what my wife says of me too!
However, let's imagine that instead of me being an engineer, let's image I was an artist. How would my hypnosis session have turned out? I believe that artists in general have weaker "Good Sense Filters" (aka Frontal Cortices) than most everybody. It explains their creativity (please read the my last posting to understand why). So an artist would have no problem in allowing his Frontal Cortex to go "offline" during a hypnosis session. Once the Frontal Cortex is offline, then essentially the hypnotist has free access to the subconscious. This allows the hypnotist to access recorded memories of the past even those that the Frontal Cortex may have programmed itself to ignore (aka "forget"). This is where the true value of hypnosis is... in accessing memories that have been suppressed (by the Frontal Cortex).
There is though a possibility that what is accessed is not really a memory at all. There is the possibility that what is thought to be memory is in reality a fantasy. To understand this, we need to remember of another time the Frontal Cortex is taken offline and what happens as a result...during dreaming! Remember that when we sleep at night, our Frontal Cortex goes offline as a pre-requisite to REM dreaming. Without the Frontal Cortex active, our dreams (or thoughts) at night appear to be random (however, I believe they are pseudo-random and I will discuss this in a later blog). And we dream of things without any control whatsoever. We dream of things that have occurred in the past and of things that never have occurred (aka fantasies). We even dream of things that can NEVER occur such as flying in the air (my favorite dreams). These are all thoughts and stories that play out in our mind at night when our Frontal Cortex is not active to suppress them or filter them from our conscious thought. What concerns me about hypnosis is that it can just as easily reproduce these fantasies we have when we dream as well as access true memories from the past. And how does the hypnotist know what is fantasy and what is reality? Of course, if the "memories" that are accessed are of a nature so bizarre as to be impossible, then we can conclude it is fantasy. But what of the fantasies that are more plausible? Indeed these can be concluded as true memories instead of fantasies.
Unfortunately, in hypnosis sessions, the hypnotist most often asks the person to "imagine" floating in a cloud, or "imagine" sitting in an empty room with multiple doors, or "imagine" something else in order to relax the person into the hypnotic state. In other words, to get the person into the hypnotic state, he is asked to begin the process of fantasizing. At what point then does the fantasizing stop and the recalling of true memory begin?
Another problem with hypnosis is in the way our brains organize memories. Our memories are not stored in time sequential order or in some easily addressable fashion as a computer memory is. Instead, our memories are stored and linked to in an ASSOCIATIVE fashion. So let's imagine I have a memory of myself in school learning advanced physics. The memory of myself in the classroom will be associated with my memories and conceptual learning of the advanced physics itself. These in turn may have an associative link to a section of my mind that remembers a TV show I saw on the possible physics involved in Extra Terrestrial aircraft. This in turn has an associative link to the stories I saw of Extra Terrestrial kidnappings on the X-Files. While in a dream state, I don't care what is reality and what is not... But what I am sure does happen in dreams is that associative links between memories are followed. And this makes sense from a neural perspective. As certain neural nets are activated as part of a dream, the axonal connected neural nets naturally get activated as well. And then a chain reaction of associated memory link activations happen and that in itself plays out in our mind like a story. If I were dreaming it may start with my physics class but it may end up with my being kidnapped by aliens all thanks to the chain reaction activation of associative links in my brain. Now, if this can happen in a dream, can in not also happen in a hypnosis session?
Now please do not think I am bashing Hypnosis or trying to discredit it. I honestly think that it is a valid science and should be pursued and studied. But I also think the output of hypnosis needs to be carefully studied and the possibility of that output being fantasy as opposed to real memories needs to always be considered.
And then... there are studies of people who have through hypnosis spoken languages that were never known or learned by the person. Reality or Fantasy??? These are definitely outliers and VERY INTERESTING! Fantasy cannot explain them. Reality cannot explain them either. So something else is going on that explains these cases... And maybe this can be discussed in a future blog.