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Mesmerized!

October 2003
book cover

A review of Robin Waterfield’s Hidden Depths: The Story of Hypnosis.

In the early 1980s I began a personal odyssey into altered states of consciousness. Because I thought I might like to use my brain again, I eschewed mind-altering substances and instead opted for a sensory-deprivation tank (a sound- and light-proof container of warm salt water), sleep deprivation (once enduring 83 straight hours), and even undergoing a series of sessions with a professional hypnotherapist who trained me to go in and out of alpha-wave land at will.

In the water tank I experienced only modest visual hallucinations — dim blotches of color — but nothing to rival the reputed effects of LSD. By contrast, my sleep-deprived brain — the result of racing a bicycle nonstop from Santa Monica to Nebraska as part of the 3,000-mile transcontinental Race Across America — became convinced that the members of my support crew were aliens from another planet attempting to abduct me into their spacecraft. And for a television segment on my preparations for the race with my hypnotherapist, I was so far “under” that she could not bring me out with the usual “awake” command, causing a moment of concern for an anxious Wide World of Sports camera crew.

What does it mean to be “under” in hypnosis? The standard answer — an altered state of consciousness — explains little for a simple reason: we don’t really know what consciousness is, making it difficult to explain what an altered state of it means. Of all the methods of plumbing the depths of consciousness by altering its normal awake state, hypnosis has the longest and most checkered history, with a correspondingly massive and confusing body of literature. Hidden Depths, by British scholar and writer Robin Waterfield, masterfully encapsulates that history and literature through a delightful work of reportage and successfully navigates the treacherous straits between acolyte sycophancy and dogmatic skepticism.

To explain what hypnosis is, Waterfield begins with a discussion of what it is not. Hypnosis is not a state of sleep or unconsciousness. It is not like meditating or being in “flow.” It is not a paranormal or satanic phenomenon. It is not limited to weak-willed or gullible people. It is not a lie detector or memory retriever. It cannot cure disease or guarantee weight loss. It cannot turn people into assassins (ala the Manchurian Candidate) or make them commit acts they would not normally perform (hypnotizing someone to engage in sex). Through a judicious use of history and breezy storytelling, Waterfield demonstrates that it is easier to show what hypnosis is not than what it is. Since Franz Anton Mesmer popularized hypnosis as “animal magnetism” in mid-eighteenth-century France, it has been variously described as monoideism (single focused thought), a form of sleep, passive suggestibility, active selective attention with reduced planning, hysteria, dissociation, Oedipal love of the hypnotherapist (Freud’s theory, of course), a state of inhibition between sleep and wakefulness, task-motivation, imaginative response to test-suggestions, goal-directed fantasy role-playing, and activation of the implicit memory system.

With this obfuscating potpourri of theory, and no definitive experimental test to lead us to a singular consensus, Waterfield wisely concludes: “All of the current theories may be wrong, or none of them may be wrong, while all giving a partial picture.” Even the theory that hypnosis doesn’t exist compels because “no one really knows what hypnosis is.” In the end, “Faced with this welter of definitions, it has to be borne in mind that nothing about hypnosis is uncontroversial, and that these various definitions depend on various theories of what is going on, psychologically and neurologically, and these in turn depend on the approach taken by the particular researchers.”

Still, one cannot write a book about nothing (or everything), so Waterfield offers his readers this concise definition: “Hypnotism or hypnosis is the deliberate inducement or facilitation by one person in another person or a number of people of a trance state … in which a person’s usual means of orienting himself in reality have faded, so that the boundaries between the external world and the inner world of thoughts, feelings, memories and imagination begin to dissolve.”

It is in that borderland between reality and fantasy where the power and mystery of hypnosis lies. Although Waterfield remains relatively neutral in his summary of the various theories and recapitulation of their fascinating histories, he does conclude that hypnosis — whatever it is — is real and serves as empirical evidence of something called mind, distinct from the brain. Here he will find support from many, but skepticism from those of us who believe that mind is nothing more than a product of neuronal activity. The notion of the “ghost in the machine” (the mind in the body) is a chimera, a product of scientific ignorance on par with 19th-century philosophers speculating there was a homunculus (little man) in a sperm cell.

Waterfield contends, for example, that “inexplicable things happen in everyone’s lives” (true enough) and thus it is a fact that “we have all experienced telepathy” means that “anyone with an open mind” should “pause before dismissing the whole domain as fantasy and rubbish.” Wrong. Just because we do not yet have an adequate neurophysiological model to explain hypnosis, or other mental mysteries such as apparent telepathic events, does not mean they are inexplicable, or that they represent metaphysical entities. Here Waterfield distinguishes between paranormal powers (such as ESP, of which he is mostly skeptical but not completely) and supernormal powers (such as the power of hypnosis to attenuate or eliminate pain). “We all have supernormal powers locked up inside our minds; we are all capable of miracles.”

This is sloppy thinking in an otherwise careful analysis. Calling unexplained mysteries supernormal or miraculous explains nothing. In point of fact, there is no paranormal or supernormal, or even supernatural; there is only the normal and the natural and mysteries we have yet to explain. Hypnosis is one of those mysteries that, while real, remains elusive for predatory scientists bent on capturing all mentality in a scientistic net. And we are closing in. Brain scans of hypnotized and unhypnotized subjects, for example, show distinctly different patterns when performing the same task. What this means is not precisely clear, and thus far no specific brain module has been found that regulates the hypnotic state. Nevertheless, at the end of the day neuroscience is where an adequate theory of hypnosis will be found.

It is with hypnosis in particular that I depart ways from many of my skeptical colleagues who argue that it is nothing more than fantasy role-playing, or worse, pure fakery. From my personal experiences with altered states of consciousness, whatever they are, their effects are dramatic and real. The aliens really did speak to me in my sleep-deprived state of mind, an experience as real as the voices of suggestion while in a hypnotic altered state. There are natural explanations for these apparently supernatural phenomena, of course, but that does not in any way attenuate the reality of the experience, even if that reality exists only in the mind.

(Brunner-Routledge, 2003, ISBN 041594791X)
This review was originally published in the Los Angeles Times.

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15 Comments to “Mesmerized!”

  1. Bill Perron Says:

    I have on several occasions induced self hypnosis and while in this altered state I take a lite cigarette and slowly run it up and down my arm with out any burning or blistering. I learned how to do this when I was 18 and in the U.S. Navy, it was taught to me by another sailor. If I tried to do it without the altered state my arm would immediately blister and burn, I have tried it on several occasions with the same results. Why it is this way I have no idea, but a fact is a fact and somethings just defy explanation. So what, big deal, explain love or why there is life, a thought, we all have them but why? See what I mean, or do you?

  2. Mike Says:

    Bill Perron, frankly . . . I do not believe you. Either cigarettes will never cause blisters and you are assuming that they will or you were highly drunk at the time of this demonstration.
    Please have someone record a video of you performing this stunt and send it to Michael Shermer for analysis.

    If you could really do this, James Randi would owe you a million dollars. His money is still safely sitting in a bank account.

  3. Cordt Says:

    I have familiarity with trance. It is a very common error to attribute the supernormal events to trance states for the obvious reason that in inducing trance, one often begins to dream while not fully unconscious.

  4. Jerry Hesch Says:

    Bring on the video!How much pressure is applied on the skin while awake and how much is applied while hypnotized? How long is contact made with the skin in both conditions? great topic, it has me mesmerized!
    Jerry

  5. Jerry Hesch Says:

    Bring on the video “and Bob’s your uncle”! How long is the cigarette applied to the skin while awake versus while under hypnosis? How long is the cigarette applied to the skin? Is it appled to the same area of the skin? I have a few area of my skin such as the heel of my foot that are well keratinized and would probably stand up to minor thermal abuse. How much ash was on said cigarette? what was time of day, ambient temperature and what did the barometer read? The hotter the ambient temperature the more moisture can be held…., ehst sm I missing?
    jerry hesch

  6. Cory Says:

    I wouldn’t take much of what Bill Perron has to say seriously. He and James Randi know of each other quite well. He’s tried for Randis million dollar challenge a couple of times and has come up short.

  7. stan h perkins Says:

    Have you any skepticism on the case of(1)Alex Lenkei and/or(2)Jack Gibson? BBC reported re Lenkei (age 61, a professional hyp)who undersent an 80 minute hand op on Wed 16 Apr at Worthington Hosp in Sussex. David Llewellan-Clark (surg) and Richard Venn (anesth) testified to the intervention, that the patient with auto-hyp but no anesthesia went through the ordeal of having a large piece of bone from his hand sawed off. Then (2), quite another matter, Gibson in Eire, in the 50s and 60s, reportedly performed >4,000 ops using hypnosis.

  8. tps Says:

    I was being prepped to be wheeled into the operating room for short-notice surgery when the anesthesiologist found out I had drunk half a soda two hours earlier. Lots of talk about whether to risk the anesthesia. Surgeon says, “I think we can do this quickly without too much problem.” And they cut into my arm and dug out what they were looking for, then sewed up the hole — while I just gritted my teeth through the worse pain of my life. Operation without anesthesia? Big deal — no hypnosis necessary.

  9. Roger MacDonald-Evoy Says:

    When recovering from a brain injury I recalled football games I saw on televison over thirty years ago as if I was watching instant replay. Or so I thought and truely believed and told anyone who asked my story. Now I know how wrong I was, memory and the brain just does not work that way. You could never tell me otherwise at the time. I had also forgot how to walk, sounds weird but true. I found out about and still can get amazing auditory hallucinations at night.
    I shared an office with another teacher who pushes hypnosis and repressed memory theory in his Psyc classes. This stuff really scares me.
    The mind and its ability to fool us, is a terrible thing to take for granted.

  10. Wild Flora Says:

    I’m perplexed by Shermer’s statement that he would not take mind-altering substances but evidently did consider it safe to try to induce altered states through sleep deprivation, etc. If you are a strict materialist, as he claims to be in this article, surely there is no practical difference between affecting the “mind” by injesting substances and attempting the same by depriving oneself of sleep. Nor is there any reason to assume that one approach would have long-lasting effects but the other would not. This strikes me as an example of an irrational prejudice, the sort of thing a high-profile Skeptic might want to try to avoid.

  11. David Says:

    Just don’t believe it. Anytime requirements for a scientific fact includes our imagination, I think we have to take a pause.

    You are generally a voice of reason in this world, and this is your weakness. Is it possible. Sure. So are visits from intelligent beings from another planet. Unlikely, yes. Highly unlikely. Yes, also.

  12. matt g Says:

    i had an interesting experiance a while back. while at work my pantleg got splashed with a flamible liquid. i realized i had to act quickly to extinguish the flame yet still was burned rather badly. but while i was on fire , about 30 seconds, i felt no pain at all. i think that my mind was so focused on the urgency of the task at hand i just didnt have time to feel the pain. it hurt some the next 2 weeks but i remember it interesting that something that shouldve hurt like hell didnt hurt at all at the time. no need for hypnosis. interesting how the mind works sometimes.

  13. Stefan G Says:

    Last Friday (the 21st of October 2011) a television show was aired on British channel 4 where mentalist, illusionist, and magician Derren Brown apparently wants to give the audience the impression that some kind of hypnosis can indeed be used to turn people into assassins. What confuses me is that Derren is a known skeptic and has previously made documentaries exposing people in the paranormal business. If you have the time please watch “Derren Brown – The Experiments: The Assasin”. (It is available on youtube) Some of my thoughts: Why would Derren give a false impression on this matter and what impact will this have on the popular understanding of hypnosis? I need help on this one.

  14. Milton Milton Says:

    I’ve heard several time about Hidden Depths but have not get any chance to read that story. Can I download it into my android device? Please let me know. I’m very excited now.

    hand pain

  15. Laura Beth Says:

    Michael,
    Have you heard of Mark Yuzuik? He hypnotizes groups of people at the Orange County Fair. He’s been doing this for years – over 20 I believe. Is this an act? I find it hard to believe these people (about 15-17 on stage) will actually be hypnotized to the extent they are, en masse. But to hire people to act like they’re under hypnosis would cost a lot and also leak that it’s fake. What are your thoughts?

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