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Hidden Depths The Story of Hypnosis Robin Waterfield Brunner-Routledge: 464 pp., $22.95 paper

November 02, 2003|Michael Shermer | Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a monthly columnist for Scientific American and author of "How We Believe" and the forthcoming "The Science of Good and Evil."

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 lightproof 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, I was so far "under" that my hypnotherapist could not bring me out with the usual "awake" command, causing a moment of concern for an anxious ABC "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: The Story of Hypnosis," 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 (a la "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 combined with 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-18th 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 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."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 that the power and mystery of hypnosis lie. 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 a par with 19th century philosophers speculating that there was a homunculus (little man) in a sperm cell.

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