Mind Magic

Being a psychologist, I’ve done a lot of thinking and studying about the human brain – the organ that makes us “the magic animal.” Humans can not only see things as they are, but as they could be. Our cognitive abilities and our imaginations allow us to create cultures and cities and symphony orchestras and entertaining stories about things that never happened.

It was my privilege, as a therapist, to be a witness to people changing their lives in positive ways. I’ve seen parents become better at raising their children. I’ve seen violent people learn that anger needn’t lead to violence, and learn to control their behavior no matter how angry they got. I’ve seen couples discover deep emotional intimacy while respecting one another’s boundaries. I’ve long suspected that major changes in a person’s behavior patterns (i.e. mastering anger management) was probably causing structural synaptic changes in their brains. Synaptic pathways mediate both emotions and behaviors.

My suspicions have been validated in recent years by research on brain neuroplasticity. Our brains have the ability to reorganize themselves structurally and functionally, by forming new neural connections. Brains can “re-wire” themselves to compensate for injury or disease, and to adjust to new or changing situations. My guess is that the brains of bilingual people have more complex neural pathways related to speech and language than people who only speak one language. I suspect that it gets easier over time for formerly violent people to use their anger management skills, because daily practice creates new neural connections, new reflex behaviors.

The human brain has a wide repertoire  of states of consciousness (SOCs). The very notion of “altered states of consciousness” presupposes that there’s a “standard” SOC – which is clearly not the case. Your SOC is different when you solve a math problem, or listen to music, or perform in front of an audience, or make love. So, I submit that we have a range of standard SOCs, which everyone experiences, as well as a range of alternate SOCs – some of which not everyone will experience. Taking drugs – including alcohol and nicotine – reliably alters consciousness in a variety of predictable ways. I won’t get into drugs as a means of altering consciousness in this post, other than to recommend Michael Pollan’s  book, How To Change Your Mind, which is about the potential of psychedelic experiences to bring about  lasting positive changes in peoples’ lives – even after a single “trip.”

I’d like to briefly share some of the things I’ve learned about our potential to “change our minds” without using drugs. Rational thinking  is a learnable skill. We all have rational and irrational thoughts. Many people can’t tell the difference between  them and sometimes act on irrational thoughts, complicating their lives. Rational thinkers are people who can differentiate their rational thoughts from their irrational thoughts, and make rational decisions. I believe that the brains of rational thinkers are wired differently – through practice – than the brains of those who can’t tell the difference. Active listening is a learnable skill that improves receptivity to nuances of interpersonal dialogue and music appreciation, among other things. Over decades of listening to classical music, I’ve become a better listener. Listening is often a passive process, but active listening is mindful listening, with no intruding thoughts.

Hypnosis is generally understood as a SOC “induced” by a hypnotist, where the brain is receptive to suggestion. People who are good hypnotic subjects can learn self-hypnosis to relieve pain, overcome bad habits, and otherwise improve their lives. Meditation is similar to active listening only in that it involves mental focus. But in active listening, the mind is focused on some external thing, whether words or music. Experienced meditators can maintain awareness,without any object of that awareness. There are things to be learned by simple, sustained awareness that can’t be learned by thinking, or be put into words. Mindfulness is a kind of meditation where the meditator is focused on their immediate experience, to the exclusion of thoughts about what they’re experiencing – especially judgments like good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Walking or chopping wood can be the focus of mindfulness meditation.

Not everyone experiences all of these SOCs; some require preparation and effort. Training that I received from anthropologist and practicing shaman Dr. Michael Harner enabled me to experience the shamanic state of consciousness, in which I’ve had vivid experiences of “journeying” in Dreamtime and encountering spirit animals. You can learn more about the techniques of shamanic journeying at http://www.shamanism.org, the website of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies, which Dr. Harner founded.

While I agree with Michael Pollan that psychedelic “trips” can, under the right conditions, be profound, positive life-changing experiences, I wrote this post as an overview of non-drug SOCs that can change our minds and lives. If you want to know more about any of these tools for personal growth, I’ve written in more detail about psychedelic consciousness, shamanic journeying, rational thinking, active listening, hypnosis, meditation and mindfulness in previous posts. You’ll also find a few entertaining stories about things that never happened.

Your mind is magical.

Hypnosis

Hypnosis isn’t just one thing, but describes a range of mental states in which one is receptive to suggestions. Stage hypnosis and clinical hypnosis aren’t the same phenomenon. There are a number of popular myths and misconceptions about hypnosis, and several models to explain hypnotic phenomena. I learned the basic techniques of hypnosis in grad school and practiced on friends. But since I never got certified as a hypnotist, I limited the use of hypnotic techniques in my clinical practice. I usually only did one “trance induction” per client, when it seemed appropriate, with the goal of teaching them self-hypnosis while they were “in a trance.” Outside of work, I’ve hypnotized friends at their request, for such things as pain relief.

I put quotation marks around trance because trance induction is only one model – the best known – for hypnosis; but no model is perfect for all occasions. (See my past post on the Model Muddle.) Traditional trance induction involves a verbal induction, which may start with something like “You are getting very sleepy . . . .”, sometimes accompanied by a visual stimulus such as a pendulum, whose motion the subject is told to follow with his eyes. But some verbal inductions suggest that the subject’s eyelids “are getting very heavy” and will soon shut. A technique called guided fantasy can also induce a trance, as can a well-told story.

Stage hypnosis is another thing entirely. The silly on-stage behaviors  of the “hypnotized” volunteers from the audience appear to be best explained by a social role model of hypnosis. This role-playing proceeds from one of the popular myths about hypnosis: that the hypnotist can control his “subject’s” behavior. Anyone who comes forward when the stage hypnotist invites volunteers is a wanna-be performer, predisposed to do whatever he’s told. The hypnotist “auditions” the crowd to see which people are the most suggestable, weeding out the less suggestable. The volunteers he selects to go on stage know they’re absolved of all responsibility for any silly  thing they may do, because they’re seen as being under the hypnotist’s control. He earns his paycheck before his subjects are on stage, because he knows the people he’s selected will act-out the role of hypnotic subject, as it’s popularly understood.

Some people are better hypnotic subjects than others, and clinical hypnotists have ways of assessing “depth of trance” before making therapeutic suggestions. They don’t exert control over the behavior of their clients, but help them harness the power of their imagination and will, to bring about desired changes in behavior. A good hypnotic subject is one who wants to experience a trance state, and expects something good to come from it – if only a feeling of relaxation. It helps if the subject thinks hypnosis can help them achieve a desired goal, such as pain control, quitting smoking, or losing weight.

A good subject can be taught self-hypnosis, and learns that any power she’d thought resided in the hypnotist in fact resides within herself. When a placebo pill works to relieve pain, it’s because the person taking it wants and expects it to – another example of how motivation affects perception. People can learn to use trance to re-direct their mind away from pain,  or from nicotine cravings. Naturally occurring events can  temporarily result in relief from pain. If you were flying in an airliner while you had a splitting headache, and the plane experienced extreme turbulence for two minutes and seemed to be falling out of the sky, it’s likely that you’d lose all awareness of your headache for those two minutes. If panic can re-direct the mind away from pain, so can other things.

Post-hypnotic suggestions can help people to change behavior, but there’s nothing magical about their power. A hypnotist working with a client on smoking cessation will give positive suggestions while he’s in trance, then may give post-hypnotic suggestions that he won’t feel like smoking after the session, and if he does smoke, the cigarette will taste terrible. What the hypnotist can’t supply for the client is willpower. If the client takes a puff after the session and throws the cigarette away because it tastes awful, this experience may help him to fight cravings and stop smoking. But if he resumes smoking despite the initial bad taste, the post-hypnotic suggestion quickly fades.

The only “magical” element of hypnosis is the magic of the human imagination. Hypnotic subjects don’t lose control in trance, and can’t be hypnotically forced to do things they don’t want to do. People can’t get “stuck” in trance. While positive hypnotic suggestions can help people marshal their inner resources to change chosen behaviors, there’s no truth to the notion that it can improve memory or sharpen the recall of details of past events. Indeed,  it can encourage the development of false memories.

In a later post I’ll be writing about Ericksonian hypnotherapy, which revolutionized our understanding – and the practice – of clinical hypnosis in the latter half of the twentieth century. Dr. Milton Erikson was a genius psychotherapist, whose influence on the profession is evidenced by the fact that the Milton Erikson Foundation sponsors the Evolution of Psychotherapy conferences – the world’s largest convocation of psychotherapists.