Saturday, 25 January 2014

What is hypnosis? Part 5: Learning versus indoctrination

Here is the final part of our blog series on hypnosis, taken from Chapter 4 of Godhead: The Brain's Big Bang. We hope you have enjoyed this taste of the book, and learned something about hypnosis and the role the REM state has in learning and conditioning.

Part 1: Why all learning is post-hypnotic 
Part 2: How we internalise knowledge 
Part 3: Hypnosis: psychotherapy’s most powerful tool 
Part 4: Conditioning

PART FIVE: Learning versus indoctrination

While all learning is post-hypnotic, it happens at varying degrees of intensity. Brainwashing, for example, also known as mind control or thought reform, is a process in which a group or individual “systematically uses unethically manipulative methods to persuade others to conform to the wishes of the manipulator(s), often to the detriment of the person being manipulated.”

The difference between brainwashing and genuine learning is stark.

In normal learning, the individual is given the opportunity to, at various points in the process, reset the learning in the larger context of their already acquired model of reality in order to evaluate it. In brainwashing, information is implanted by a learning process that requires the victims to be kept in a highly emotional state with no possibility allowed for relating the new knowledge to a bigger context. (Strong emotions narrow our focus of attention, inhibiting critical thought.) In cults, devotees are not given time to question what they are being encouraged to absorb. Objectivity is discouraged. This type of learning is therefore not subject to further modification because the victim’s volition is taken away, even though they don’t realise it.

This is why brainwashed people, however intelligent they are, are difficult to reason with when their beliefs are put under scrutiny. When the pattern of doctrine is summoned up in them, they auto- matically regress into the trance state that the cult leaders put them in and behave as they were instructed to do, which usually involves dogmatically expressing the beliefs they were programmed with. When you closely observe someone enthusiastically evangelising about what-ever he or she was programmed with, you can see that they are quite unaware that they have regressed to an unnatural trance state. Their pupils contract to the size of pinpricks, a strong visual indication that they have been brainwashed rather than that they are espousing real knowledge that they have subjected to evaluation. They are not in touch with outside reality or their own Observing Self.

The term ‘brainwashing’ was coined in 1950, but knowledge about how to brainwash arose around the world through primitive tribal initiation rites that are thousands of years old.25 Originally the objective was to bind people together in whatever belief system the tribe adhered to. Conditioning techniques were developed to ensure group members were submissive to certain rules, and obeyed the chiefs and elders. The process always involved: raising expectancy; a period of withdrawal from the community; generating high emotional arousal for long periods (often maintained by noise such as continual drumming, chanting or dancing); frightening or dangerous endurance tests; humiliation through harangues and threats; symbolic death and resurrection; and maybe a renaming ceremony. Post-hypnotic instructions for awakening the conditioned behaviour at a later date would be given in the form of signals, rituals or phrases.

Broadly speaking, this same methodology was maintained throughout prehistoric and historical times and is still in use today. There are highly profitable cults and ‘self-development’ courses using these techniques around the world. They succeed and become popular because they artificially manipulate people in a highly charged atmosphere to feel better about themselves. They remove people’s volition while claiming they are ‘freeing’ them. Currently the most common form of conditioning usually ends with implanting post-hypnotic suggestions to get others – family members, friends, and colleagues – to attend meetings, convert or ‘do the programme’.

If our attention capacity and its importance was appreciated more by educationalists and others, and this knowledge taught in schools, businesses and mental health services – including how, like other forms of energy, it must be nurtured and used wisely – the human race might become more flexible, intelligent and creative in the ways we respond to other people and react to stress-inducing circumstances.

And if the theory we lay out in this book was more widely understood – that the brain’s big bang in the Upper Palaeolithic period simultaneously released into the world creativity, mysticism, autism, mood disorders and schizophrenia – it could bring about huge improvements in education and the treatment and care of vulnerable people. This is because, up until now, the connection between the REM state, mood disorders, autism, Asperger’s and schizophrenia, coupled with the relevance to attention and learning, has not been sufficiently appreciated. Such understanding might also encourage more humane and intelligent forms of government than the world currently experiences. Good government requires a profound under- standing of complex relationships in human affairs, and it is to this topic – relationships – that we now turn.

For more, see Chapter 5 of Godhead: The Brain's Big Bang

Saturday, 18 January 2014

What is hypnosis? 4: Conditioning

Here is part four of our series of posts concentrating on hypnosis. We have taken these posts from Chapter 4 of Ivan and Joe's book, Godhead: The Brain's Big Bang, so if you enjoy reading these posts, please pick up a copy of your own. All references are contained in the book.

Part 1: Why all learning is post-hypnotic 
Part 2: How we internalise knowledge 
Part 3: Hypnosis: psychotherapy’s most powerful tool 

PART FOUR: Conditioning

What kind of experiences would lay down a memory in the brain to be triggered off later – sometimes years later? For an answer to this we have to return to the work the behaviourists did in the early decades of the 20th century. This group conducted a huge range of experiments showing that conditioning plays the most potent role in determining behaviour in all animals – including us. Strangely, their discoveries are largely ignored now and are not for the most part integrated into modern schools of psychotherapy.

Practitioners of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), for example, put great emphasis on changing thought patterns when attempting to change behaviour, and only pay lip service to the early discoveries of the behaviourists. They play down the fact that there are conditioned patterns programmed into our amygdala by things that happened to us earlier in life which, when triggered in the present, are immediately pattern-matched back to the earlier experiences. As far as conditioning is concerned in such cases, thought is not an intervening variable because the pattern-matches that trigger disturbing emotional responses are unconscious. The problem for cognitive therapists is that their main technique is to use logic to challenge their clients’ thinking and beliefs, but very often the beliefs are the irrational products of underlying pattern-matches and unless you change the original patterns you are unlikely to bring about significant improvement. We know from discussions with patients and clinical staff that, when people who experience strong neurotic reactions arising from emotionally conditioned behaviours go for CBT, maybe for 12 or more sessions, improvement is often only modest at best.

In the 1970s and 80s CBT became more and more entrenched in the US and the UK, largely because researchers found it to be more efficacious than the drug treatments with which it was mainly compared. This skewed ‘evidence base’ gave it a head start over other forms of therapy, such as interpersonal or solution-focused approaches, that were equally or more effective than CBT but against which it had rarely been compared. As a result of this trend, the discoveries about conditioning were forgotten, and more and more emphasis was put on changing patterns of thought, which is one of the main reasons why in practice CBT is a less successful treatment than it might otherwise be. (And when CBT therapists introduce on an ad hoc basis ‘guided imagery’, ‘mental rehearsal’, or an ancient meditation technique known as ‘mindfulness’ into their procedures, it still remains to be demonstrated that this improves their outcomes. These so-called ‘third-wave’ CBT practitioners have not yet generated evidence that doing this makes them even as effective as their predecessors in CBT.)

One of the important things the early behaviourists discovered was that environmental stimuli programmed the hypnotic store via both the reward and punishment and fight or flight instincts. When similar stimuli were subsequently encountered, they would be pattern-matched to the details previously programmed in and this reactivated the earlier emotional response. This is why people can react strongly to apparently inconsequential details when they have a phobia or have developed PTSD symptoms after a psychologically traumatising event. A lifetime phobia of grass, for example, could arise because someone was beaten up on a lawn as a child and developed an aversion to, say, the colour or smell of grass. This is what learning consists of: attention is focused and existing patterns in the brain are expanded, allowing more scope for richer pattern-matches to be made subsequently. In our earlier writings, we have explained that the mechanism underlying this is the orientation response, the neuronal pathway from the brainstem to the thalamus which, when activated, prepares the brain to receive information from each incoming stimulus by triggering off the REM state in which our basic instincts were originally laid down. This focuses our attention on the stimulus: our pupils enlarge, bloodflow to the brain increases.

We’ve also shown that attention has to be focused in order to programme new patterns into people. This means that, whenever the fight or flight mechanism is triggered, or we get rewarded or punished, the orientation response is activated, which focuses and locks the brain’s attention mechanism on the stimulus long enough for pro- gramming to take place or be reinforced. That process occurs via the REM state and is the common denominator of all conditioning variables, and therefore all learning. We can take this one step further by asking a couple of questions. What is it about reward or punishment or fight or flight that does this? What have these variables got in common that triggers the REM state? We think it is the fact that they intensify the focus of attention by firing the orientation response (the brain mechanism that focuses attention) and releasing the required attention energy. If this is so, it is critically important. Consider the underlying neuronal pathway involved in all addictive behaviour: the motivation pathway fuelled by dopamine. These variables all fire off on that pathway because it intensifies the focus of attention.

Indeed, the underlying mechanism of all reward is attention, whether taking hard drugs or alcohol, eating an enjoyable meal or falling in love. In any intensification of experience, pleasurable or otherwise, the underlying mechanism is the process of focusing and locking attention. This is what intensifies consciousness, for good or bad, pleasure or pain, and conditions in new learning, useful or otherwise.

Attention requires energy however. We all know from our own everyday experience that we have a limited amount of attention energy. At the end of an exhausting day, for example, we all find it difficult to concentrate: we just want to relax, chill out and recharge our batteries. Another illustration of this would be what happens whenever one is buttonholed for any length of time by an attention-seeker. He or she quickly drains you of energy; being in their presence is physically and emotionally exhausting. There comes a point where you have no more attention to give until you’ve rested and built up a reserve of it again. So you ‘switch off’, stop listening to them and concentrate on devising a strategy to escape their presence.

More evidence supporting the idea that we have a limited amount of attention energy comes from research into the connection between dreaming and depression. It was found that when the orientation response (technically called a PGO, or ponto-geniculo-occipital, spike) fires off too intensively while we dream, the balance between recuperative slow-wave sleep and energy-burning REM sleep, in which dreaming takes place, is disturbed, people wake up tired, unable to focus and lacking motivation to do anything. This depressed state is caused by excessive worrying (often unconsciously) about one or more innate emotional needs not being met, which generates a large number of stimulations of the autonomic arousal system. When no action is taken to solve the difficulties being worried about and getting these needs met somehow – which would de-arouse the autonomic nervous system – excessive dreaming is the result. This misuse of imagination is why humans are so vulnerable to becoming depressed. Worrying depletes our store of attention energy. It’s a question of balance: we become de-aroused if we take appropriate action in the environment, and remain aroused if we misuse our imagination by focusing on negative fantasies and worries.

So, it is our capacity to give attention that enables us to focus on the world around us and learn. And when conditioning variables are brought in to play we can sometimes be conditioned with inappropriate patterns that, when they fire off, create unhelpful neurotic responses that prevent us from learning. When we use psychological interventions like the rewind technique to release patients from these neurotic responses – frozen patterns of attention in the amygdala – we are simultaneously releasing more attention capacity in them and opening up their potential to understand reality in greater depth. We have heard hundreds of patients who, after being detraumatised, say things like “I feel liberated,” “I’ve become more intelligent,” or “I have more energy to engage with life again.”

The final post: Learning versus indoctrination

Previous post: Hypnosis: psychotherapy’s most powerful tool


Read Prof A.V. Ashok's review of Godhead: The Brain's Big Bang

Sunday, 12 January 2014

What is hypnosis? 3. Hypnosis: psychotherapy’s most powerful tool

Here is part three of our series of posts concentrating on hypnosis.

We have taken these posts from Chapter 4 of Ivan and Joe's book, Godhead: The Brain's Big Bang, so if you enjoy reading these posts, please pick up a copy of your own!

Part 1: Why all learning is post-hypnotic
Part 2: How we internalise knowledge 

PART THREE: Hypnosis: psychotherapy’s most powerful tool

As with any other scientific exploration, a close look at a relevant exceptional phenomenon can provide additional insights. Our field of expertise is psychotherapy, so we will start there.

In the 19th century, the major diagnostic label that was applied to neurosis was ‘hysteria’, which covered a range of psychological disturbance arising from trauma, and manifested in physical impairment, such as paralysis, blindness, deafness or anaesthesia. A physician in 1859 claimed that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria. People who were described back then as ‘hysterical’ were those who often lost self-control due to an overwhelming feeling of fear.

Up until the 17th and 18th centuries, hysteria was thought to originate in the uterus, as its name implies (from the Greek hystera = uterus). Because of the extraordinarily varied nature of their symptoms and the suspected role of the emotions, patients suffering from hysteria and related ‘functional neuroses’ were often thought by both physicians and lay people to be experiencing merely imaginary diseases.

Gradually, however, by the 1840s and 1850s, hysteria had become a serious subject of study. A number of medical textbooks included discussions about it and highly detailed studies focusing solely on the condition were made. One of these was the Traité Clinique et Therapeutique de L’Hysterie, an 800-page tome published by Pierre Briquet, a medical doctor at the Hôpital de la Charité in Paris, in 1859. In it, Briquet presented data from studying 430 hysterical patients at the hospital over a decade. The famous French clinician Jean-Martin Charcot also became interested in hysteria and studied hundreds of patients hospitalised with the condition to try to pin down symptoms and clinical course.

All this interest in hysteria coincided with the beginning of European investigations into hypnosis. There were a number of researchers, including John Milne Bramwell, Pierre Janet and Josef Breuer, a colleague and mentor of Sigmund Freud, who demonstrated clearly that 50% of humanity are highly susceptible to hypnosis and a further 15 to 20% are capable of going easily into very deep trance states. It was further recorded that those suffering what they called ‘hysterical’ symptoms, for example hysterical blindness or paralysis as mentioned above, or multiple personalities, were only found among the subgroup of deep trance subjects. And it was discovered that if you put patients with hysterical symptoms into trance and had them recall the experience that triggered off the hysterical symptom, they would subsequently lose the symptom.
Josef Breuer’s patient, Bertha Pappenheim – ‘Anna O.’
Breuer, for example, reported this observation: “When, as a result of an accidental and spontaneous utterance ... a disturbance which had persisted for a considerable time vanished – I was greatly surprised.” Apparently a patient of his, Bertha Pappenheim, whom he referred to as “Anna O.” in his case notes, had suddenly found it impossible to drink water. But one day, under hypnosis, she recounted with anger and disgust how the little dog – “horrid creature” – of her lady companion had drunk water out of a glass in her presence. Pappenheim had said nothing at the time out of politeness, but after she expressed her feelings, including the disgust that she had held back, the symptom disappeared. Breuer and Pappenheim seized on this strategy and were able to dissolve a number of her distressing symptoms. “Each individual symptom in this complicated case was taken separately in hand; all the occasions on which it had appeared were described in reverse order ... When they had been described the symptom was permanently removed."

Freud was incredibly impressed by all of this, and thought he could perhaps build an entire psychology around it. For a while he used hypnosis with his patients and wrote a book with Breuer about their success. But Freud soon ran into problems when trying to cure people’s neurotic, phobic and trauma-induced symptoms in this way.

First, Freud wasn’t a good hypnotist, he didn’t understand that any method of focusing attention is hypnotic, so he could only get deep trance subjects into hypnosis with the crude directive methods he used such as getting patients to lie back, close their eyes and putting pressure on their forehead with his hands. Because he wasn’t getting the sort of quick cures that had occurred with Anna O., who was a deep trance subject, he became disillusioned with hypnosis as a mechanism for explaining what is going on in a human personality when problems emerge. Secondly, even when he did succeed in getting people into a degree of trance, very often his ‘one size fits all’ technique for helping forgotten memories rise to the surface again simply didn’t work. For many of his patients, whom he instructed under hypnosis to recover traumatic memories, such memories failed to readily emerge, so he couldn’t make them conscious of the origins of their symptoms and thereby effect a cure. Yet Breuer and other great experimenters with hypnosis at that time, being more skilled at inducing trance, did produce cures this way and had far more success with it than Freud ever did. Freud was, however, right in his observation that the majority of people don’t easily get into a sufficient depth of hypnosis where they can recall the experiences underlying their neurotic symptoms.

Freud gave up hypnosis, including the concept of self-hypnosis, although it is now widely appreciated that the ‘free association’ technique he developed to access and influence the unconscious was trance-inducing: “... the mechanism of hypnosis is so puzzling to me that I would rather not make use of it as an explanation.”

Because psychoanalysis didn’t seem effective, American psychologists who had been studying how to modify animal behaviour developed a school of psychotherapy based on the notion that problematic symptoms occur because they are conditioned behaviours programmed into our brain. This was behaviourism, launched on the world in 1913 by John B. Watson in an article in the Psychological Review, ‘Psychology as the behaviorist views it’. The programming, behaviourists said, was the result, primarily, of either reward or punishment, or sometimes by what they called aversive conditioning, which is when you remove yourself from an unpleasant experience – such as by running out of a supermarket because you were having a panic attack. The behaviourists found that they could often ‘decondition’ behaviours and had more success in treating people than Freud and his followers ever had.

However, leaving the behaviourists aside for now, imagine yourself in Freud’s shoes for a moment. When he found that hypnosis was not helping the majority of his patients, what was he to do? In facing this question he hit upon the idea that hypnosis wasn’t really connected to why people get neurotic symptoms. Instead, he decided, it must be because they were repressing unpleasant feelings and those feelings festered inside them in their unconscious mind. His suggestion was that neurotic symptoms came about when those festering feelings, by circuitous and devious routes, finally emerged.

It was this idea that led him to develop free association, whereby he encouraged his patients to maunder on about whatever came into their head. Every so often, the perceptive psychoanalyst, he believed, would be able to spot in some spontaneous utterance a connection to his theories – wish fulfilment, castration fears, mother-loving desires and so on. And then the psychoanalyst could feed back to the neurotic patient that this was the real cause of their problem.

Of course, as most people now know, that didn’t cure neurotic patients either. Even Freud admitted that his psychoanalysis made no difference for most clinical problems and that the best that such an approach could really aim for was perhaps to produce some measure of reduction in his patients’ suffering from “hysterical misery into common unhappiness” (a curious sort of promise to attract so many followers). We would now say, of course, that when he did seem to help someone it was more likely to be because he was simply giving them concentrated attention, which in itself is known to be therapeutic if the therapist is sincere.

Thanks to our greater knowledge about the way emotions arise, we know why Freud, and the many well-intentioned schools of psychoanalysis that followed him, were barking up the wrong tree. Despite making useful observations – about how the way children are brought up has an influence on later behaviour, for instance, and how many of our behaviours are driven by processes of which we are not conscious – psychoanalysis didn’t seem to be very efficacious, and the world still lacked an explanation for neurotic symptoms.

It was the early French hypnotherapists in the 19th century who were on the right track when they discovered that profoundly disturbing symptoms could easily be induced in the 15 to 20% or so of people who are good hypnotic subjects. These symptoms arose when they went into hypnotic states in unpleasant situations or when they perceived something happening to them as being life-threatening, resulting in the cluster of symptoms we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, since the majority of people don’t appear to go into that depth of trance so easily, or far enough to summon up the feelings on which their symptoms were based, it still did not explain how the majority of people get neurotic symptoms. And, perhaps more importantly, it didn’t explain how to cure them.

Brilliant though these pioneering hypnotherapists were, we can now see what it was that stopped them from making a breakthrough with this question and thereby massively improving psychological interventions for patients in treatment. They were confusing two different things: the ability to go into deep hypnosis as their hysterical patients did, and the ability to go into spontaneous hypnosis at the occurrence of symptoms.

There are good reasons to suppose that these are two entirely independent traits. You can be a poor hypnotic subject, for example, and yet be profoundly susceptible to hypnosis in certain situations if the right fight or flight trigger is fired (due to some perceived danger) or a particular reward or punishment trigger is given. All of us are deeply susceptible to falling into hypnotic states when certain environmental conditions are present. (Think of how easily a little craving develops and saliva is generated in the mouths of millions of us simply by hearing the word ‘chocolate’!) We only differ in the degree to which we can spontaneously do this to recall the founding memories that started the symptoms off in the first place.

In other words, everybody has a storehouse of memory patterns hypnotically programmed into us that impacts on our daily lives. Deep trance subjects just find it easier to access these than the rest of us. Hence, when Breuer and his colleagues put people into trance and told them to ‘remember such and such an experience’, most of them couldn’t. But this does not prove that the hypnotic store where salient memories are programmed deep inside our brain does not exist. It most certainly does, in all of us.

Nature evolved our memory system as a protection, a survival mechanism, because anything that gives rise to the fight or flight response is potentially significant and memories associated with a pattern-match might be life-saving. So lots of times when we get angry, hyper-vigilant or frightened, the pattern-match is perfect. Our ordinary life experiences teach us that there are times when we should get angry or anxious, or at least become very, very careful. However, it is also clear that a lot of patterns that were coded in when we were young, or when our emotional brain misunderstood a situation, will later make unhelpful pattern-matches. When this happens, the pattern-match is too crude to match closely to later circumstances; but the emotional brain misunderstands the situation and, instead of conjuring up appropriate reactions, produces neurotic ones.

In treatment for neurotic symptoms with patients who are not good hypnotic subjects therefore, we can’t do what the early hypnotherapists had hoped would work and just say to a person, “Your reaction to this stimulus is excessive. Go back to the memory that caused it.” Although a patient can go into a relatively light trance state, that in itself doesn’t automatically open up the hypnotic memory store. That can only be done with deep trance subjects who are easy to hypnotise.

Next post: Conditioning

Previous post: How we internalise knowledge

Read Prof A.V. Ashok's review of Godhead: The Brain's Big Bang

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

What is hypnosis? 2. How we internalise knowledge

Here is part two of our series of posts concentrating on hypnosis.We have taken these posts from Chapter 4 of Ivan and Joe's book, Godhead: The Brain's Big Bang, so if you enjoy reading these posts, please pick up a copy of your own.

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” - Albert Einstein

PART TWO: How we internalise knowledge 

Learning always involves matching up an outside stimulus to an internal response and then internalising a coordinated pattern by repeating the process: to improve your piano playing, you keep practising. Once you have really learnt a piece of music you don’t have to consciously read the music when you play it again; in fact, it is better if you don’t, because to play anything well you have to get into ‘flow’ and let it float out of your unconscious uninhibited by consciousness. This applies to all learning. When any learning becomes unconscious it has reached a stage where it can now generate internally the external input, so it doesn’t need consciousness to do it anymore. This is hugely energy-efficient.

Prior to the development of warm-bloodedness, the Sun gave creatures the energy they needed directly: they were cold-blooded, and so, like reptiles today, totally dependent on sunlight to warm them up. For warm-bloodedness to develop, organisms had to learn how to maintain a constant body temperature. But anything that goes on inside an organism is not the original stimulus; it is a simulation of the original stimulus.

This key insight is an ancient one beloved of philosophers. For example, if we look at a bowl of fruit, we don’t see it directly. The different colours we see in the scene are not objectively there: they are just various surfaces reflecting different wavelengths of light. Nonetheless, our perception of colour is immediate and vivid. We ‘see’ because photons striking the receptors in our eyes generate electrical currents and chemical changes in our brain that create responses inside ourselves: perceptions.

The effects of outside reality that we ‘see’ are therefore a simulation that our brain somehow manages to make that has a correspondence with the outside world. So what every creature with a brain does is somehow generate a simulated model inside its brain of what’s outside it. A dog sees a reality different from yours because its brain creates a different simulation: it is primarily a nose on legs. (Science has no idea as yet about how a brain assembles all the incoming information into a coherent sensory experience.) The example of warm-bloodedness reveals another form of simulation, which was a great leap forward for life on Earth: learning to do without energy from the Sun to stimulate the internal chemical changes needed to regulate body temperature.

This internalising process is exactly what we do with anything that we learn from a previously unfamiliar aspect of reality. We take stimuli linked with the environment and find a way to simulate them internally. From then on we can make the pattern-match unconsciously because we have both the stimulus and the response inside ourselves; learning is stabilised and we no longer require consciousness with regards to that bit of learning to maintain it. Consciousness is always about unravelling the unknown.

The fact that we switch consciousness on in the face of the unknown is most starkly apparent when our lives are directly threatened and we are ignorant of the outcome. In the split second when we realise we are about to be involved in a high-speed car crash, for example, our brain freezes in the REM state. For a moment we are highly conscious as our brain instantly does a pattern-matching search for any piece of information that might contribute to saving it before switching on the fight or flight response. This is because we don’t know whether we will still be alive in the next few seconds. People who have survived such events (as both of us have) typically describe the rapid pattern-matching feeling by saying, “Time seemed to slow down – my whole life passed before me!”

But this process is also at work every time we develop a new skill, albeit not at such a heightened level of intensity. Suppose you decided to learn to play golf. At first you have to stretch yourself by being intensely aware of every aspect of how you swing the golf club to hit the ball. Your attention is totally focused and your brain is highly activated and burning energy, but, after a while, your brain internalises that movement and you can do it without thinking. As we’ve said, it has learnt to produce internally the stimulation that was once external and so it no longer has to generate consciousness for that particular task. This frees up your consciousness: it can now take in even more information from the environment and help you learn other things. So the REM state is involved in all learning because it is the means through which pattern-matching occurs.

There is more to this wonderful evolutionary development. When consciousness is generated as a brain makes new connections to the world, prior to learning going unconscious ... the experience is made pleasurable (endorphins are released). Nature rewards us for struggling to learn. But she doesn’t let us rest on our laurels. Once we have inter- nalised that connection and learnt something – she begins to turn the pleasure off so that we will apply ourselves to learning something else.

It is as though Nature is continuously putting our brain to sleep until the next learning opportunity. This is why we have to work hard to stimulate and stretch ourselves; this activates consciousness and fosters our development. Without this stimulation, our consciousness remains switched off and we operate at a much lower level of awareness. Self-development is all about overcoming this mechanical ‘sleep’ state by getting a taste for awakening our consciousness and cultivating it.

What we often do when we are not involved in stretching ourselves is to try and cheat the brain’s motivational system by artificially generating pleasurable ‘highs’ without making the effort of learning. Then, as Nature turns the pleasure down to encourage us to move on to something new, we experience withdrawal. Unaware that this is a natural process – albeit such ‘lows’ can be intensified by artificially cranked-up ‘highs’ – many are driven to repeatedly access the pleasurable feelings. That’s how addictions develop: by perverting the brain’s learning mechanism – its motivation and reward circuits.

To develop, any organism with a brain must simulate a pattern for growth internally by continually generating a series of expectations from inside itself that were once generated externally. We see this happening when we look closely at a life form unfolding: its cells are guided to multiply and shape organs by knowledge coming from a hidden internal level of its being. Somehow cells know what to do, guided by signals that turn them on and off. The process is always triggered externally, whether by fertilisation, heat from the Sun, rain, food and so on. The external world sends signals to cells that direct them to behave in certain, internally generated, appropriate ways.

All growth involves expectations. It’s not just that the internal knowledge of where and what to link up to is contained in cells; there is an expectation, directed to the cell from the environment, guiding it on what to do, where and when.

A simple experiment shows this happening. Birds do not have teeth. However, from about 150 million years ago, their ancestors did. The eventual evolutionary loss of avian teeth about 65 million years ago corresponded to the formation of the beak that is present in all living birds. When scientists transferred mouse cells to a bird’s beak in a developing embryo, instead of developing a normal beak, the bird grew teeth. That showed that it wasn’t the environment in which these cells were growing up that contained instructions for creating a beak, it was the genes inside the bird that contained information from 150 million years ago about how to make teeth. When a new signal came from the environment, via mouse cells, asking for teeth, the cells in the bird’s beak said in effect, “Yes! We can pattern-match teeth,” and opened up genes that had been closed down for many millions of years to do so.

Biological growth never arises from one signal alone: it always happens from pattern-matches to various expectations, a process of internalising the external environment. It is such shared relationships that unfold a living form, and a shared relationship is a sharing of knowledge.

It seems, then, that most of our behaviour is the result of knowledge internalised in the REM or hypnotised state. This is why we are all so easily conditioned to react automatically in certain ways, even though we like to tell ourselves that we have ‘free will’. It is a well-established observation that our skills, knowledge base, likes, dislikes, prejudices and beliefs are all artificial constructs programmed in to us by peer groups, the cultural milieu we inhabit and chance events. Given that most people only dimly understand this, it is a pretty random process. Since we all go in and out of focused REM states – hypnotic trances – all day long, could the brain’s pattern-matching processes and the REM state underlie all these phenomena?

Next post: Hypnosis: psychotherapy’s most powerful tool

Previous post: Why all learning is post-hypnotic


Read Prof A.V. Ashok's review of Godhead: The Brain's Big Bang

Saturday, 4 January 2014

What is hypnosis? 1. Why all learning is post-hypnotic

Welcome to our first human givens blog post of 2014, which is looking to be an exciting year with new Human Givens College training courses and the human givens conference coming up on the 14th and 15th June (more info on that soon!).

The topic for the first series of posts is hypnosis, learning and conditioning. We have taken these posts from Chapter 4 of Ivan and Joe's book, Godhead: The Brain's Big Bang, so if you enjoy reading these posts, please pick up a copy of your own.

Little Nemo: The incredible Windsor McCay cartoon about a small boy's REM state induced adventures

PART ONE: Why All Learning is Hypnotic:

Whenever we recognise something, it is always because we are making a pattern-match between what is out there and an internally stored pattern. With the shape of a familiar beer bottle, for example, the image we see is pattern-matched to the stored template for the bottle in our memory.

 Ordinarily, this process is automatic and we don’t register it consciously. We only become conscious of the process when we see a bottle in an unexpected context – decorating a flowerbed, for example – or if it is ambiguous in some way, as when a realistic trompe-l’oeil painting of it fools you for a moment into thinking you are looking at a real bottle. Whenever such things happen we momentarily switch off our awareness of the outside world and, in our imagination, experience comparing the information coming in from the stimulus to the memory pattern we hold of the bottle and wondering if the pattern-match is sufficiently good.

All learning invariably involves such uncertainty. So when we learn something, we experience ourselves going into our imagination and introspecting about the pattern-match – in other words, accessing our imagination in the REM state. And, since hypnosis is the word used to describe any artificial means of accessing the REM state (where attention is focused in the imaginative mind), this means that all learning is post-hypnotic.

As we have said, people’s minds read context in order to process their expectations more realistically. When we select a particular possibility and focus attention on it, an emotion is generated, ready to fuel an action of some sort. It is impossible to separate expectations from emotions.  

Positive expectations draw us through life, stimulate creativity and prompt us to make efforts and take constructive actions. Negative expectations do the opposite. They inhibit positive actions and can keep people locked in varying forms of emotional distress for long periods of time. That is why changing negative expectations into more hopeful ones that inspire positive activities is the essence of effective psychotherapy for depression and anxiety disorders.

The following case involving psychotherapeutic treatment for a young man with a vomiting phobia is a good illustration. He had become depressed because he was worrying about feeling sick whenever he ate in public. When he left secondary school to go to university he was sure it would go away: that was his expectation. In fact, it didn’t go away and because of this he fell into an even more severely depressed state and became suicidal. During a session with a human givens psychotherapist, he was helped to see that the problem was not a big one at all: it was time limited because it affected less than 1% of his life. By reframing the situation in this way, the therapist changed the young man’s expectation by helping him to remember that, despite his phobia, he could still play soccer, do exams, have a laugh and a good time with his mates – all of these things and more.

The severe depressed state left him as soon as he stopped worrying about being totally controlled by the expectation that his life was ruined because his fear of vomiting hadn’t gone away. Once he saw the problem reduced from an insurmountable mountain to a climbable hill, he felt more relaxed about it and knew he could live with it and work to improve his situation further. Now he feels totally different about his life. But all that had happened was that his emotionally charged view of what he thought was going to happen – his expectation – had been changed.

Essentially, what all good psychotherapy does is change a client’s expectations. But this knowledge about expectation has ramifications far beyond psychotherapy – it embraces the very nub of how evolution works and how living organisms develop and grow.
Next post: How we internalise knowledge


Read Prof A.V. Ashok's review of Godhead: The Brain's Big Bang