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Of Two Minds

6 min

I read a fair amount, but I don't just read - I take many notes and spend a lot of time looking for connections between different books. One of the real pleasures of this reading method is seeing big ideas emerge over time. I never really "plan" for this to happen; I'm not sure I could if I wanted to. It just...happens. Suddenly, you realize that the seemingly random topics you've been interested in are coalescing into some kind of overarching narrative. It's surprising, exciting, and fun.

This has happened to me again recently, driving me in a completely unexpected life direction, namely: I have spent the last several months learning to put people into hypnosis. This is surprising for two reasons: 1.) I had no interest in hypnosis prior to this, and 2.) I was highly skeptical that hypnosis was even real.

Not exactly a prime candidate to become a hypnotist.

There's a conceptual aspect to this story and a personal aspect. I'm going to put off the personal aspect for now because, frankly, it's a lot harder to write about. I feel like I'm still processing my experience.

Let's start with the "big idea" side, as it's a bit easier: I have been slowly but surely moving towards an interest in hypnosis for several years, I just didn't know it.

In 2012, I released a solo ambient/noise/trance record called Deconstructionist.

You can listen to it here:

(Or buy it on Bandcamp for a better audio experience.)

At the time, I was fascinated by trance states, both traditional and modern. There seemed to be something intriguing there, and it was an exciting jumping-off point to see if I could write something that would challenge me musically (the recording, most of which was done live, was a completely different process from my usual) and create a powerful experience for the listener.

I played very fast and loose with the science, but many people reported having significant experiences with the album. Here's a random sampling of the comments on the video above:

It even got a write-up in Wired, which was pretty cool.

I moved on from the subject after that, but trance states lingered in the back of my mind as something interesting and hard to wrap my head around.

With trance as the anchor, I started to come across several books which pointed to....something happening beneath the rational mind:

Subliminal by Leonard Mlodinow:

"Our subliminal brain is invisible to us, yet it influences our conscious experience of the world in the most fundamental of ways: how we view ourselves and others, the meanings we attach to the everyday events of our lives, our ability to make the quick judgment calls and decisions that can sometimes mean the difference between life and death, and the actions we engage in as a result of all these instinctual experiences."

The Power of Your Subconscious Mind, by Joseph Murphy:

"The law of life is the law of belief, and belief could be summed up briefly as a thought in your mind. As a man thinks, feels, and believes, so is the condition of his mind, body, and circumstances."

The threads started to come together in both Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow (with its automatic, emotional, stereotypic, unconscious System 1 and its deliberate, methodical, slow System 2)...

And, most importantly, in Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary and The Matter With Things:

"At the level of experience, the world we know is synthesized from the work of the two cerebral hemispheres, each hemisphere having its own way of understanding the world – its own ‘take’ on it. This synthesis is unlikely to be symmetrical, and the world we actually experience, phenomenologically, at any point in time is determined by which hemisphere’s version of the world ultimately comes to predominate..."
"In general terms, then, the left hemisphere yields narrow, focused attention, mainly for the purpose of getting and feeding. The right hemisphere yields a broad, vigilant attention, the purpose of which appears to be awareness of signals from the surroundings, especially of other creatures, who are potential predators or potential mates, foes or friends; and it is involved in bonding in social animals."

Both of these led me to Freud (here, in The Interpretation of Dreams:

"We should then assume in each human being, as the primary cause of dream formation, two psychic forces (streams, systems), of which one constitutes the wish expressed by the dream, while the other acts as a censor upon this dream wish, and by means of this censoring forces a distortion of its expression."

...and from Freud, of course, it's just a short hop over to hypnosis.

It seems like there's a pattern there, right?

Whether you call it conscious vs. unconscious...

Right hemisphere vs. Left hemisphere...

Apollo vs. Dionysus....

or System 1 vs. System 2...

...all of these models of consciousness describe an interconnected network of two fundamentally different ways of perceiving the world.

The left hemisphere is the part of our brain that thinks and analyzes things. It helps us solve problems, but it can only focus on a few things at a time. The right hemisphere is different. It takes in a lot of information all at once and helps us understand things in a more holistic way. It's like dancing or dreaming. It's not something we consciously think about, but it's always working in the background.

The right hemisphere is actually the part of our brain that drives a lot of our behavior. Even though we think our rational brain is in control, it's really the unconscious part of our brain that's making a lot of decisions for us. This can be a problem if we have negative beliefs or behaviors that we want to change because we can't just tell our brain to change. We have to find a way to talk to the unconscious part of our brain.

To truly change our behavior and outcomes in life, we must work on the level of the unconscious, but in our modern society, we lack a clear way of accessing it.

This model is important to me because it provides a plausible explanation for what hypnosis is and why it might be effective: it's an efficient way of accessing the unconscious/system 1/right hemisphere.

How is this achieved? If you actually try to get at the underlying principle at work in most hypnotic inductions (i.e., the methods for putting people into hypnotic trances), they almost entirely rely on methods of quieting the rational, analytical mind.

Progressive relaxation inductions, for example, focus on making the client so relaxed that conscious, rational thought is extremely difficult.

Confusion inductions work by occupying the analytical mind with tasks that tax its capacity and keep it "busy."

Ericksonian inductions (popularized by famous psychotherapist Milton Erickson) create split-second "pattern interrupts" which so thoroughly disrupt the expectations of the analytical mind that it freezes up, leaving the subconscious open to suggestion....

...and so on.

Again - it feels like patterns are everywhere, starting to line up.

Trance states, the subconscious mind, and dual models of cognition – they all pointed me in the direction of hypnosis.

Our right hemisphere's holistic perception and left hemisphere's analytical processing, Apollo and Dionysus, System 1 and System 2 – I started to see the contours of a plausible framework for how hypnosis might work. It isn't some mystical, ungraspable concept. Rather, it is a tool for accessing the unconscious part of our brain, the part that quietly drives so much of our behavior.

To truly effect change, we need to communicate with that part of our minds. Hypnosis offers a way to quiet our analytical, conscious thought and reach out to our unconscious, to those parts of us that dream and dance and decide.

But...what is that actually like, in practice? In real life? What is it like to learn hypnosis, to perform it, and to be hypnotized? Can it really change us, or is it just an illusion?

Hopefully soon I can share my personal experiences. I'll do my best. In the meantime, I hope there are at least some dots in here you feel like connecting on your own.




Secrets of the Magus.

Have I shared this before? I can't remember, but this old article on the magician and magic historian Ricky Jay is worth reading again. Absolutely incredible. Just read the opening if you're unsure - trust me.

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