“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.” - Albert Einstein
Part 1: Why all learning is hypnotic
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?
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Read Prof A.V. Ashok's review of Godhead: The Brain's Big Bang