My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Part VII [Lucid Dreaming]

Lucid dreaming is the act of becoming aware that one is in a dream while dreaming. It’s called “Dream Yoga” in some Eastern traditions (most notably, Tibetan [Vajrayana] Buddhism.) Many people pursue lucid dreaming because they find it just too cool to experience the world of dreams consciously, but — for those who don’t — the natural question is “why bother?”  Well, it gives one an unprecedentedly vivid insight into one’s subconscious mind. [For those who are still wondering “why?” This post is probably not for you.]

Since I was young, I’ve occasionally experienced lucid dreams. But it wasn’t until recent years that I began a dream yoga practice — which I had discontinued until resuming it for this month’s study. Those unfamiliar lucid dreaming might wonder how one “practices” becoming aware that one is in a dream in the midst of dreaming. If one didn’t come to the table with a talent for lucidity in dreams, one can’t exactly do anything about it in the middle of REM sleep (rapid eye movement, when the bulk of dreaming occurs.)  A dream yoga practice consists of actions one takes during the day to help facilitate becoming lucid during one’s dreams. These actions include:

  • Journaling one’s dreams (i.e. writing down whatever one remembers of one’s dreams as soon as possible so that one builds the capacity to remember dreams, which can be ephemeral.)
  • Doing reality checks in waking life whenever one notices anything that has an unreal quality about it. This is done in an attempt to train your brain’s BS detector — that’s obviously not how neuroscientists refer to it, but in waking consciousness we have a potent ability to notice and focus our attention on apparent incongruities. The parts of the brain that manage that responsiveness tend to be down for the count during sleep. Hence, in a dream one can walk out of one’s bedroom onto the Serengeti Plains without a second thought. So you are attempting to train your brain to become aware when the anomalous takes place. If it works right, you will begin to do the reality checks in your dreams as well. Of course, real life offers much more subtle seeming incongruities, hence the need to be on the look out for them. There are two approaches to reality check with which I’m familiar. The one I use is to count my fingers, and then flip my hand over and count them again. In a waking state, I always have five digits during counts. In dreams, my hand does some funky stuff. An alternate method is to look at a clock or watch, look away, and then look back at it. In real life, only a second or two will have passed, but in a dream the times will likely be entirely different.
  • Bedtime resolutions to remember one’s dreams and to become lucid during them. For yogis and yoginis, this is like a sankalpa, a resolution that one repeats during yoga nidra (“yogic sleep,” a yogic relaxation and mind development technique that — ironically — doesn’t involve sleep but rather a prolonged hypnogogic state [between waking and sleep.]) The resolution should be a short statement without negation that is repeated exactly the same way several times.
  • Meditative practices that recall dream settings. One practice that I stumbled onto is done in a meditative state. When my conscious mind quieted and I was experiencing subconscious imagery, I found that I could remember many more of the settings in which dreams take place. I have a lot of recurring settings for dreams. [Typical of dreams, these places don’t always look exactly the same, but they feel like they are meant to be the same place.]

Long story short, one is doing two basic things in the practice of dream yoga. First, you’re trying to remember your dreams better. As I suggested, you could be becoming lucid in dreams every night, but if you don’t remember them you’re not gaining any conscious insights from them. Second, you’re trying to recognize the dream state by way of the bizarre incongruities that take place in dreams.

I should point out that mine is a bare bones practice, there are other activities one can do as well. Really hardcore practitioners set alarms in an attempt to wake themselves up in the midst of a dream. This allows them to remember dreams better and to help them become aware they are in a dream when they return to the dream after going back to sleep. This isn’t so far fetched as it might sound. We tend to dream in cycles of around 90 minutes and proceed through the same sequence of mind states from waking consciousness through hypnogogic state through various stages of sleep into a hypnopompic state and the back to waking consciousness. So, there is a degree of predictability on which to base one’s alarm estimate. I’m not so keen on disrupting my sleep. [Part of the reason that I discontinued practice is that I found I really only remembered lucid dreams when my sleep was troubled. (Usually it is not so much “troubled” as I when I’m sleeping lightly because I’ve slept longer than usual — e.g. occasionally oversleeping on the weekend.)  If I sleep like a baby, I typically don’t remember lucid dreams — that doesn’t mean I’m not having them, but I wouldn’t know if I did.]

Even though a dream yoga practice has often seemed to have little influence on my having [or, perhaps more accurately, remembering] lucid dreams, this month I’ve had five that I remembered — a couple of which I only remembered the in-dream reality check (counting fingers.) [A warning to would-be lucid dreamers, its possible to wake yourself up with the excitement of becoming aware that you are in a dream.] I’ve been consistently journaling and have picked up doing more reality checks. [Bangalore is a great place for this because it’s in constant flux, so I’m forever having “was that there yesterday” moments and “has that looked like that for the past five years” moments as I move about the town.]

It’s been fun coming back to this practice. I’m one of those who doesn’t really need another reason for trying to dream lucidly other than the fact that I’m so in awe of being in a dream and knowing that anything my mind can conjure might come next. Still, the lucid dreams I’ve had this month have offered some interesting features to contemplate the meaning of, including: faceless people, being on some kind of backward moving speed-walk while I tried to go investigate a scene in front of me, and something akin to being in a video game.

I’m leaning toward doing a short stint of sleep deprivation for next month, if I can find two days or so to safely give it a try (i.e. no need to drive or do anything else requiring fresh faculties.) I’ve gone about 54 hours without sleep before (not for its own sake, but because of the situation at hand,) and know it can have some interesting effects.

BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Monsters by Meg Hafdahl & Kelly Florence

The Science of Monsters: Demystifying Film’s Most Notorious Vampires, Witches, Zombies, and MoreThe Science of Monsters: Demystifying Film’s Most Notorious Vampires, Witches, Zombies, and More by Meg Hafdahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Scheduled Release: October 1, 2019

Monsters, especially movie monsters, and science don’t seem like peas in a pod – one being fictitious and favoring the outlandish and the other insisting on firm roots in reality. Still, the supernatural creatures that enter folklore or mythology (and many movie monsters derive from these sources – whether loosely or closely) often arise because of some real world phenomena, e.g. genetic conditions that cause one to grow hair everywhere or – conversely – that make one pasty complected and sun-avoiding. It’s these kernels of truth as well as the limits of what is possible that form the core of this book. It considers a wide range of “monsters” from psychopathic humans to mythical monsters to ghosts to aliens to mysterious creatures of unknown origins.

The two focal points of a book like this (e.g. monsters and science) are seldom equal. A popular class of nonfiction books has arisen that exists to convey scientific ideas by exploiting pop culture for examples. This isn’t that kind of book. I don’t say that as a criticism. There is room for both types of books. But in this one, the science is secondary to giving readers interested in movie monsters some context and background. This stress can be seen in the book’s organization (i.e. each of its chapters features a different horror [or horror-adjacent] film and its monster) as well the authors’ expertise (while they consulted scientists, the authors are more knowledgeable about horror movies.) Also, the focus is tighter on the type of monster under examination, and the discussion of science roams through different scientific disciplines (including social sciences and even humanities – and, in one instance, pseudoscience) as it discusses what Hafdahl and Florence are interested in, which is any real word bases for the plausibility of these monsters.

Again, the last paragraph isn’t so much a criticism as a statement of what kind of book this is — and isn’t. (Needless to say by this point, it’s also not a book about the science and technology of making credible monsters for movies [e.g. CGI or the anatomy of a credible kaiju,] which is another worthy topic of discussion for another book.) The fact that the book is inclusive of discussions beyond biology and physics and which range into the social sciences and other disciplines offers the reader interesting insights. The exploration of what makes an entity terrifying was fascinating to me, and there is a significant art, science, and psychology to that subject, itself.

I will say that there was at least one time when I couldn’t really grasp how the science under discussion was relevant to the topic (i.e. monster) under discussion. It seemed as though the authors had succumbed to a common ailment of writing – that is, the inability to pitch material that is good, hard worked for, but ultimately irrelevant.

All in all, I enjoyed this book. I learned about how the monsters of the silver screen relate to happenings in the real world. There were several references to how quirky little news stories influenced screenwriters and directors to come up with some of the iconic horror and dark sci-fi movies. If you are interested in the origins of monsters, I’d recommend you check this book out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the WorldReality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The provocative title of this book captures why people are so drawn to games while they are, simultaneously, discontented with their real lives. McGonigal argues that all aspects of human activity could benefit from gamification, and that we should stop thinking of games as trivial endeavors to be engaged in in our spare time. After reading the book, I have a much better understanding of how turning activities into games can increase motivation, productivity, and – if done right – even human interaction. That said, I remain unsettled as to whether her overall thesis is sound.

On one hand, games are unambiguously motivating and captivating. To see it, one needn’t look further than the people playing games for free with at least as much (re: more) enthusiasm and attentiveness as they do those activities for which they are paid a salary. The mechanism by which games spur us is understood. Considering the question from the perspective of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow” (as McGonigal does in ch. 2) we can see that constant feedback and an impetus to reach ever beyond our current capacity make games Flow-prone activities. Given that Flow is associated with both high productivity and positive mental states, that’s a sound argument in support of McGonigal’s ideas.

That said, I’m afraid that the need for constant, instantaneous feedback and the inability to remain mentally engaged for long periods when one must focus on something dull could have dire consequences for our species. Homo sapiens once had to follow wounded prey for days with constant vigilance, without instantaneous feedback, and with the possibility that the payoff could be lost at any moment. We developed attentiveness and mental discipline in the face of unstimulating conditions at great cost, and it has helped us to achieve great things. What will happen to our mental machinery when no one can pay attention for two minutes if there isn’t the possibility of an instantaneous virtual reward for it? To be fair, McGonigal does acknowledge — and to some degree discusses — these issues, but fails to take on such questions in much detail or with much objectivity. (It should be noted that she does extensively challenge the belief that gaming leads to lonely people living on their couches and never talking to real people in the real world.) The book is extremely thought-provoking, but shouldn’t be taken as an unbiased examination of the rise of gamification.

The fourteen chapters of the book are divided into three parts. The first part (ch. 1 through 6) both introduces what games are and offers insight into what they do for us. This includes an examination of what positive psychology (e.g. Csikszentmihalyi, as mentioned) has to say about games, as well as how games can foster collaboration and give us the ability to take on problems bigger than our individual capacities would allow. Chapter four offers one of McGonigal’s most powerful arguments: that games are a way for people to learn to fail with grace and resilience. Adult humans tend to be severely averse to failure. (There’s a great meme featuring a baby sitting like she just plonked down on her butt, and the caption reads, “What if babies decided after four or five falls, ‘This walking thing just isn’t for me?’”)

The second part (ch. 7 through 10) is entitled “Reinventing Reality,” and it considers how games can be brought into real life to make reality more invigorating. A great example of this can be seen in the discussion of “Chore Wars,” which is a game designed to take household chores out of the realm of mundane drudgery and to make them a competitive activity that excites people. McGonigal uses the story of real games that have been developed for various purposes extensively in both part II and part III. Another example is the “Tombstone Hold ‘Em” game that was designed to address the problem of declining visits to cemeteries. While there are games that address less unusual topics, these two examples are insightful in that they show how virtually any endeavor can be gamified.

The final part (ch. 11 through 14) suggest how games can be used to take on large and difficult problems. Such challenges often remain insufficiently addressed (or unaddressed altogether) because of a lack of immediate motivation to take them on or a structure to organize activities – games can help provide both the motivation and the organization. Readers learn how the wisdom of crowds can be harnessed, as well as how incentives to change behavior can be created. In this section, McGonigal highlights games such as one designed to help humanity move beyond our oil supply.

The book has a few graphics and appendices, and is annotated to support the author’s thesis.

I found this book to be thought-provoking and insightful. As I mentioned, it doesn’t address my fears that humans will become incapable of sitting down and reading Joyce’s “Ulysses” or weeding a garden if we tread the path needing some sort of Pavlovian pat-on-the-back every time we do anything. (Again, to be fair, the author does suggest that one limit time devoted to gaming – e.g. Appendix 2.) The book does do a good job of showing how games can be used to make people more motivated, productive, and happy. I would recommend it for people considering that question, as well as those trying to figure out how they might go about gamifying some activity that they think needs to be more motivating.

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My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets: Pt IV [Hypnosis]

Une_leçon_clinique_à_la_Salpêtrière; Source: Wikipedia

Welcome to the fourth post on my experiences with altered states of consciousness. This past weekend, I completed the contact hours for the Level I course in Cognitive Hypnotic Coaching and Psychotherapy (CHCP) conducted by the Institute of Clinical Hypnosis & Related Sciences (ICHARS.) Over the course of three days, I had several opportunities to be hypnotized as well as to hypnotize classmates, and while it was sometimes a fumbling learning experience for me, I did gain some insight into trance states. The course focused on teaching a few methods of hypnotic induction, how to deepen a trance state, as well as the basics of how to use hypnosis for coaching or therapy. Last year, I took a quick class on self-hypnosis, but this was my first experience with hetero-hypnosis (trance induced by a hypnotist), and – unlike last month’s topic of meditation, for which I had a substantial background – this was a subject for which I was a babe in the woods.

 

Hypnosis is probably the most misunderstood territory I’ll travel over the course of this project (psilocybin is the only other that comes close.) Because the realm of consciousness involves subjective experiences, there’s always room for misunderstanding. Plenty of people leave their first experience with meditation thinking, “That isn’t at all what I expected it to be.” However, hypnosis presents added layers of confusion.

 

First, if a person has ever witnessed hypnosis, more often than not, they’ve done so via stage hypnosis. Stage hypnosis conjures images of cape-wearing Mesmerists forcing subjects to cluck like a chicken, but this isn’t at all a typical experience of hypnosis. [Achieving a deep trance usually takes much longer, people will only do what they are willing to, and the ease of trance and what kinds of suggestions will be honored varies radically from person to person.]  In stage shows, subjects go through a twin-pronged selection process. The first part of the selection is via “convincers” (e.g. rubber band fingers, raising arm, stuck eyelids, etc.) which themselves serve a dual purpose: for one, they allow for audience participation and reduce the crowd’s overall level of skepticism,  and, also, they allow the hypnotist or his crew to see which audience members are most susceptible to hypnotically-induced trance. The second part selects for gregariousness, and often this can be done by merely asking for volunteers. People who are more comfortable getting up on stage will be less resistant to acting the clown for the audience’s amusement. The rule of thumb is that a hypnotist can probably get a subject to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do through suggestion, but he or she won’t be able to make a person do anything they don’t want to do. Therefore, the stage hypnotist wants outgoing people on stage rather than shy participants because people who like to clown around are more willing to do a wide range of activities in front of complete strangers.

 

Second, even the experts don’t agree on what hypnosis is (or even if it is – meaning some experts on the mind don’t believe a trance state is a unique state of consciousness and some even believe that suggestibility is more or less “playing along” or faking. However, it’s been well-documented that many surgeries – including limb amputations – have been conducted with only hypnosis as an analgesic, so if you believe a soldier in the Civil War (or a patient of Dr. Esdaile in India) could “play along,” faking a calm detachment, as a bone-saw ripped through his femur, I’ve got some lovely beachfront property to sell you.)

 

At any rate, there is wide disparity in beliefs about hypnosis, even among psychologists. For example, many clinicians, particularly followers of Milton Erickson, believe that all willing subjects can be hypnotized. (They base this belief on the fact that everyone seems to move in and out of trance states, unprompted, in daily life.)  However, scientific researchers in the field find that about 10 to 15% of subjects cannot be hypnotically induced into a trance. [Note: Erickson was a controversial figure, but I can’t say whether that’s because he one-upped his professional colleagues or because he engaged in dubious practices both with respect to patient ethics and reporting of results.]   I also don’t have much of a dog in the fight about whether all willing people can be induced into a trance through hypnosis. However, – in general — I favor peer-reviewed research over logical statements that seem sound, but which may not reflect the whole picture. (I’m once bitten twice shy from statements like, “You should eat what cavemen ate because that’s the diet your body is evolutionarily optimized toward.” [Sounds reasonable, but scientific studies show it to be wrong on several fronts.]) And all this controversy is without even getting into the claims of the hypnotic imperialist lunatic fringe, meaning this is more-or-less the mainstream disagreeing.

 

So what was my experience? I found it very relaxing, and, yes, when given suggestions that I wouldn’t be able to open my eyes or that my arm would raise, my eyes wouldn’t open and my arm would raise, respectively. And, no, I wasn’t playing along, at least if playing along means my conscious mind was voluntarily directing the lack of movement or movement, as the case may be. Does that mean the hypnotist had complete control of my mind? No. I feel pretty confident that I could have snapped my mind out of the state, if I had any compelling reason to do so. And, no, I wouldn’t have clucked like a chicken, though the suggestion might have resulted in uncontrolled giggling as (like one sometimes experiences in meditation) there can be feelings of euphoria in these highly relaxed states that are almost akin to intoxication. As I believed I mentioned in the post about my psilocybin mushroom experience, there’s a very subtle state-switching process that goes on all the time without one’s conscious awareness.  If the researchers’ bell curve is correct (i.e. 10-15% can’t be hypnotized, 10-15% are super susceptible to trance and suggestions, and the rest are at various points on the middle ground,) I’m somewhere in that meaty middle. I haven’t experienced trance amnesia, and remain aware of what happens throughout the process, even if I go pretty deep, but physical suggestions take eventually.

 

This is a skill I’d like to continue to develop. During the workshop, it was hard to observe the signs of depth of trance because – having not yet memorized the scripts – I had to frequently refer to the script. Mind and eyes can’t be two places at once, at least not productively so. I also have a lot to learn about voice modulation, which seems to be an art unto itself, but which is also difficult to master while one is working on just getting sequences down and trying to avoid pitfalls that may snap the subject out of trance prematurely.

 

All in all, I feel I developed a better understanding of the mind during this course, and believe I’d like to continue to build the skill as there is much more to learn that can only be learned through practice.

 

Next month I’ll be returning to meditation as my altered state, but with a technological twist. I’ll be using an EEG headset to see whether the ability to visualize brain wave states can help me to better control my mind.

BOOK REVIEW: Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I think it can be argued that this will be one of the most influential nonfiction books of this decade (it came out in 2012.) I say that not only as an introvert, but as one who has seen how confused and muddled introversion has been – not only among extroverts of the general public, but also among those who should have a firm grasp on the subject, namely psychologists and introverts, themselves.

Introversion is frequently confused with a number of different conditions and temperaments with which it may or may not occur in large overlap. The most common mix up is with social anxiety, which can occur in conjunction with introversion but can also occur in extroverts. While social anxiety may be more common among introverts, it’s important to note that – like any anxiety – it’s possible to reduce it through various approaches (but one will still be introverted if one was to begin with.) I believe Cain’s book (and the wave of books and talks that have come since) has done a great deal to reduce the confusion about what characteristics are in fact highly correlated with introversion and which ones are just lumped together in the public consciousness because they seem to involve being less adroit in social situations (i.e. everything from shyness to Asperger’s.)

There is a growing change in approaches to introversion, and I think it owes a lot to this book. The go-to advice for introverts of: “just behave more like an extrovert” is on the decline, and is increasingly being replaced with a clearer understanding of how introverts should manage their time and efforts to get the most out of life. [It should be noted that, if one is talking about pretending to be more extroverted for a short time frame and for a particular purpose, said advice is not so bad.] However, as advice for how to arrange and conduct one’s life day in and day out, it’s a recipe for disaster. And it’s not just a disaster for the introverts. If one is responsible for leading or managing a business, it’s a recipe for under-performing a firm’s potential. If you’re a teacher, it’s a recipe for turning smart kids off of school. And, if you’re a parent, it’s a recipe for handicapping your child. More and more, business leaders are beginning to realize that there are gains to be had from allowing employees to tailor their work schedule and mode of conducting business to their temperament. Educators are finding that a more balanced approach to lessons reaches more students with greater effectiveness.

The book is organized into eleven chapters. It begins with an introduction that not only sets up the topic but also tells the story of Rosa Parks – one of modern American history’s most well-known introverts. [The story of this civil rights leader is no doubt told in part to try to break the stereotype of the introvert as a milquetoast person lacking lead in his or her pencil.] Cain employs stories about renowned introverts from Albert Einstein to Mohandas Gandhi to Steve Wozniak to Brian Little. The latter might not be so renowned outside of academia, but he’s included because few who attend the lectures of this award-winning professor would suspect he’s an introvert.

Chapter one discusses this world made for extroverts that introverts find themselves living in. The second chapter rebuts the myth that leadership and extroversion are inextricably linked, discussing examples of introverts who excelled in leadership (of course, there are no shortage of examples of extremely charismatic and gregarious individuals who’ve once and truly run enterprises into the ground.) Chapter three discusses the breakthroughs that have often come about through solitude and a work environment that allowed individuals to focus on tasks for long periods at a time without interruption or distraction (instead of the standard work approach that involves a constant refrain of “collaboration” and which breaks up work days willy-nilly with meetings of dubious usefulness.)

Chapters four and five focus on two lenses through which researchers have investigated introversion. Together, the chapters ask whether temperament is destiny, and, if not, to what degree and how one can move beyond it. The first lens is “sensitivity.” In this case, the word sensitivity is not being used as it’s most commonly used these days – meaning becoming highly emotional about trivial events. Rather it’s about how aware one is of subtle stimulation, and – given there are limits to processing stimuli – how prone one is to becoming overstimulated (since one takes in more.) The second lens, which one might relate to the first, is “high- versus low-reactivity.” That is, chapter five focuses on a study that observed how responsive children were to stimulation and what influence that had on the children’s temperament. [Note: it should be pointed out that these factors aren’t considered synonymous with introversion, and there are some who bemoan the fact that they have become so with the popularity of Cain’s book.]

Chapter six explores a famous mixed couple (extrovert and introvert,) Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. While Eleanor was highly introverted, she is often considered one of the most influential first ladies of the twentieth century. (Which isn’t to comment on the controversial claim that toward the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, she was running the show because he was ill and lacked the energy to comply with the intense energy demands of the Oval Office.) The contrasting nature of this power couple yields interesting insights.

Chapter seven shows how an introvert’s more cautious approach to risk and reward often leads them to come out on top in turbulent times, while more reward chasing extroverts may get stuck in a cycle of buying high and panic selling low. The 2008 economic downturn was clearly fresh in mind when Cain was preparing this book, and there was lots of material about those who best weathered the storm and why. Warren Buffett, a noted introvert famous for his cautious but profit-making investment strategy, is used as an example.

Chapter eight shows how the extrovert’s world is not universal while discussing Asian approaches to education. This chapter shows the inversion between Eastern and Western approaches. Famously, there is Laozi’s saying: “He who knows, does not speak. He who speaks, does not know.” This is in stark contrast to modern American institutions, which often overestimate the intelligence of those who yammer and underestimate the intelligence of those who hold their tongues.

Chapter nine explores the question of when and how introverts should behave in a more extroverted way. This is the chapter that discusses Brian Little – the Professor who is a veritable scholarly rock star but who knows how to manage his introversion. His story provides a nice example of how introverts can get the job done without necessarily appearing awkward, overwhelmed, or run down — if they learn how to manage their time and interactions. Chapter ten discusses the differences in approach to communication and how it can be managed.

The last chapter may be the most important. It’s about recognizing introversion in children and helping them get the most out of a world in which the decks remain stacked against them. The chapter is titled “On Cobblers and Generals,” which refers to a story that begins the chapter. In the story, a man who enters heaven asks St. Peter if he can speak with the world’s greatest General. St. Peter points out a man who the recently departed man happens to recognize as a man who mended shoes for a living. When the man points out that there must be some mistake, he’s told that the cobbler would have been the greatest military mind in history if only his talent had been recognized and nurtured.

As is no doubt clear, I found this book to be tremendously well-written and beneficial. I would recommend it for anyone who is a leader, a parent, a teacher, or a person – be they introvert or extrovert – who would benefit from knowing how a misunderstood segment of society clicks.

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BOOK REVIEW: Anxious Joseph E. LeDoux

Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and AnxietyAnxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety by Joseph E. LeDoux
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book examines the neuroscience of anxiety, though psychology also makes a prominent appearance in the discussion – particularly toward the end of the book. It’s written by one of the top researchers in the field emotional neuroscience, though LeDoux discusses the work of other labs, comparing and contrasting their work with that of his own, and thus giving an idea of the fault lines in the field. (By that I mean more the questions that remain in dispute, not who hates whom.)

The book addresses a number of key questions such as: How does brain activity result in the emotional experience? How do conscious emotional feelings relate to and interact with non-conscious responses to threatening stimuli? Is the human emotional experience a hand over from animal ancestors or a uniquely human condition? How effective are drug-based versus psycho-therapeutic approaches to anxiety disorders? What has been learned about extinguishing anxious responses to threatening stimuli? Needless to say, this book doesn’t answer all the questions, as many of the questions – particularly those regarding consciousness – remain to be definitively answered. It does offer a great overview of the state of understanding in the present day.

I won’t present a chapter by chapter outline, but rather a look at the book’s general flow. LeDoux starts by laying groundwork, and in this case that means clarifying the relationship between fear and anxiety. While the former often captures the imagination because of its dramatic and traumatic causes, the latter is more of a concern as its grinding long-term effects can cripple the immune system and have other adverse effects. The early chapters also discuss what has been learned about how emotions are formed in the brain and how views about this have changed over time.

Chapter five is where LeDoux explores the relationship between animal emotionality and human emotional life. This is an important subject as it relates to the question of whether research with animals can teach us anything relevant to the human experience. As it has become progressively more difficult to conduct any research that causes human subjects any emotional distress, this question may be instrumental to making progress in the field.

Chapters six through eight are interconnected by the question of consciousness. Chapter six discusses the nature of consciousness, which remains one of the most slippery and least understood concepts in the natural world. Chapter seven delves into memory and consciousness – an important topic as anxious responses can be viewed as learned responses and this begs the question of unlearning. Memory will later be revisited with respect to the question of whether it’s possible to erase painful or anxiety-inducing memories (ala, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) – based on work that came out of LeDoux’s lab – and, if so, whether it’s a good idea. The final consciousness chapter gets into consciousness of emotion, specifically (as opposed to all the other thoughts and feelings of which one can be consciously aware.)

The last three chapters are also interconnected by movement from the question of how is anxiety felt / experienced to the question of what one can do about it. The first of these chapters discusses an epidemic of anxiety (entitled “40 million anxious minds,” and that refers to the US alone) and what has been learned about drug-based treatments. As it happens, drug-based treatments haven’t proven reliably effective, leaving plenty of room for other approaches, e.g. psychotherapy. This fact is the basis for the last two chapters that discuss different approaches to extinguishing the connection between a stimulus and the anxious response. The first of theses chapters (ch.10) is more general and the last chapter dives deep into the research that has been done in recent years. Chapter 11 also offers a nice discussion of how breath exercises and meditation can be instrumental in reducing the adverse effects of anxiety.

As would be expected of a scholarly work, the book is heavily annotated, has an extensive bibliography, and uses a great number of graphics in an attempt to lend clarity.

I would put this work in the same category as the works of Robert Sapolsky. That is to say, it resides in a space between the level of detail usually seen in works of popular science and that which is seen in textbooks for specialists. That is to say, LeDoux does get into some detail and this isn’t a light read for anyone without a heavy-duty background in biological sciences. That said, if you have a basic scientific literacy (and / or don’t care too much about the fine detail), it’s by no means impossibly dense. When it’s not diving into the various brain regions and neuronal pathways, it’s quite readable.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in a detailed look at how anxiety arises and how it can be quelled.

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BOOK REVIEW: Psychotherapy: A Very Short Introduction by Tom Burns & Eva Burns-Lundgren

Psychotherapy: A Very Short IntroductionPsychotherapy: A Very Short Introduction by Tom Burns
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The word “psychotherapy” conjures images of a patient on a burgundy recamier-style couch, a psychoanalyst in a matching stuffed armchair, neither one looking at the other as the analyst uses terse questions and monosyllabic acknowledgements to coax out the patient’s problems through interrogation about his or her childhood. While that approach, Freudian psychoanalysis, stubbornly maintains a following, there have blossomed many other varieties of therapy using talk as a tool to ease maladies of the mind. This “Very Short Introduction,” put out by Oxford University Press as part of a large and diverse series with the same subtitle, presents an overview of the various approaches to psychotherapy and its less formal cousin, counselling.

The book consists of eight chapters, and begins with a preface. The preface covers various and sundry topics useful for the reader, but most importantly it takes a step back from psychotherapy to situate this therapeutic approach in a context of psychology and psychiatry, which are subjects often confused in the popular mindset.

Chapter one continues with the basics by defining psychotherapy and offering a thumbnail of the various approaches that will be expanded upon throughout the book. The second chapter pays homage to Freud and his psychoanalytic approach. The authors maintain a diplomatic approach to psychoanalysis though it has fallen on hard times for a number of reasons, both practical (e.g. it’s a huge drain on time, often involving five hours a week for months or even years) and theoretical (e.g. it places a great deal of emphasis on the past, whereas many currently popular approaches favor the present as the relevant time.)

Chapter three explores a number of post-Freudian psychotherapists including Jung, Adler, and Erik Erikson. Chapter four moves on to what is called “Time-Limited Therapy.” As suggested in the preceding paragraph, psychoanalysis placed huge demands on a patient’s [and therapist’s] time and could go on and on with no end in sight. Time-limited therapies focused more on finding a present-day solution for the current problem, and not so much ceaselessly trolling one’s distant past for traumas.

Chapter five is about counselling, which is very much related to psychotherapy in that it involves getting a person to talk out his or her problems. The difference is that it needn’t necessarily involve a therapist with extensive training, but rather someone briefed and / or sensitive enough to know how not to become sidetracked into dangerous territory. Chapter six discusses cognitive behavioral therapy, its principles, and its variations (such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy [MBCT], which combines elements of Buddhist mindfulness with the cognitive behavioral therapy approach to form a popular and successful therapeutic approach.) Cognitive behavioral therapy is rooted in the premise that distorted thoughts cause emotional and behavioral problems, and that one must address the thought to change the outcome. It also famously requires “homework” to be done between sessions rather than the work being contained within sessions.

Chapter seven moves away from the one-on-one therapy discussed so far, and investigates the various ways in which therapy can be carried out in groups. Groups can be beneficial because they allow the patient to see that they aren’t unique in their woes, which people often believe themselves to be. Family therapy is also discussed as it all allows family members to chip away at their problems as a familial unit. Also, there are numerous interactive forms of therapy in which patients might use various art forms to work out their problems.

The last chapter looks at where psychotherapy stands, and where it appears to be going. One of the important considerations discussed is the influence the advance of neuroscience is having on therapy. For few decades since the famous decade of the brain (i.e. the 90’s,) neuroscience has dominated the discussion of the realm of the mind. There has been less-and-less thinking in psychological terms and more and more in physiological terms. However, there still seems to be a widespread belief that solutions need to combine a recognition of both areas.

Like other books in the series, this one employs a variety of graphics (cartoon, photographic, and diagrammatic), and it also presents brief references and further reading sections to help the reader continue his or her study through other works.

This book offers a solid overview of the various approaches to psychotherapy. I would recommend it for neophytes who need to start with a concise outline of the field.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hypnotism for Beginners by B.V. Pattabhi Ram

Hypnotism for Beginners: Easy Techniques to Practice HypnotismHypnotism for Beginners: Easy Techniques to Practice Hypnotism by B.V. Pattabhi Ram
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Dr. Pattabhi Ram provides a concise and accurate overview of the basics of hypnosis. There are a lot of books on hypnosis in publication, but – unfortunately – it’s a subject for which there is a lot of chaff to shift through to get to the grain. Many of the books that address the subject with scientific accuracy are dense scholarly tomes unsuitable for the average reader. And many of the books that target hypnotic neophytes are filled with erroneous statements which contribute to the perpetuation of myths. This book strikes a nice middle ground for those looking for an introduction to hypnotic trance that isn’t too dense, but yet is rooted in scientific findings on the subject.

The book consists of twelve chapters. The first two chapters examine the development of hypnosis as a subject of scientific inquiry. This isn’t to suggest that there was no application of hypnotic trance earlier, but it fell more into the realms of religion and spirituality. The first chapter considers the history of hypnotic science, focusing on major figures such as Franz Mesmer (as in “mesmerized,”) James Braid (the one who coined the term “hypnosis” and moved the subject away from the ethereal approach of Mesmer,) as well as other early influencers, namely John Elliotson and Jean Martin Charcot. The second chapter investigates the legitimization of hypnosis tied to its recognition by governments.

The third chapter explores the varying levels of hypnotic trance, dividing them into light, medium (hallucinatory), and deep (somnambulistic [sleep-walking].) Here the reader learns what differentiates varying degrees of trance.

Chapters four and five offer brief overviews of neuroses and phobias, respectively. As hypnosis is about tapping into the subconscious mind, these are domains in which the technique is particularly likely to be of assistance.

Chapter six is where skeptical readers will begin to doubt what I have said about the scientific legitimacy of this book. It is entitled, “Hypnotism and Occult,” and for one thing it inquires into the evidence that hypnosis can contribute to extra-sensory perception or other super-normal abilities. However, to be fair, the author doesn’t suggest that there is evidence of such a connection, merely that it’s a claim that has often been made. If there is truly an offense to science, it’s more in the later portion of the chapter, which deals in Freud’s ideas about dreams and their interpretation (which is generally discredited in the scientific community, though it maintains a large following among psychoanalysts.)

Chapter seven deals in another common [and controversial] claim, that hypnosis can be used to improve memory. One thing I would have liked to see a little about in a chapter on memory and hypnosis is discussion of inadvertently planted false memories as has now been well established in the literature. There have been a number of cases in which it seemed hypnosis had turned up a repressed memory, but under investigation it was discovered that the memories were false. (It should be pointed out that it needn’t require a diabolical intent for this to happen. It seems likely many of the therapists who suggested visualization in the hypnotic trance state genuinely believed they were helping, but failed to realize that a visualization can become indistinguishable from a memory under the right conditions.) At any rate, that isn’t addressed in this book. However, to be fair, the book is several years old at this point (I read a 2010 edition that I suspect wasn’t the first edition), and a lot of these findings are relatively new.

Chapters 8 and 9 form the heart of the book, teaching the reader how hypnosis is done. The first of these chapters focuses on the script and technique by which a hypnotist would induce a hypnotic trance in a subject. Chapter 9 is an overview of self-hypnosis. A truism in the field is, “All hypnosis is self-hypnosis,” and so it makes sense that this subject is addressed – especially given the self-help nature of the book.

Chapter 10 explores smoking, and how hypnosis can be used to break that addiction. This is one of the areas in which the usefulness of hypnosis has been most clearly established. The chapter is specifically geared toward smoking addiction, but an astute reader could apply the script to dealing with other addictions. The penultimate chapter explores the use of hypnosis and self-hypnosis as a means to overcome stress. This, too, is a major area in which hypnosis has shown itself to be helpful for a large number of people. The book focuses heavily on mental conditions, suggesting that hypnotism shouldn’t be considered for physical conditions. In this sense, I feel it may take too conservative a stance as it tries to avoid being accused of “hypnotic imperialism” (i.e. the suggestion that hypnosis can be used on anyone for any purpose.) Hypnosis as an analgesic (pain-reducer) is extremely well-established.

The last chapter is a bit different, and it focuses on how to do demonstrations of hypnosis. In India, where this book was published, there are laws regulating such shows in response to a lot of charlatanism. So, some of the chapter deals with legal issues that may or may not apply to you, depending upon where you reside, but it also deals with the general flow of a stage show for demonstration.

The book has black-and-white graphics (photos and drawings), but doesn’t provide much else in the way of ancillary material. Where references are made, they are in text – i.e. there is no bibliography. Footnotes are used rarely. The edition I read does have some typos here and there, but not at a distracting level.

My biggest criticism of the book would be that I couldn’t quite grasp the logic of its organization – particularly through the middle. Chapters 1, 2, and 12 make perfect sense, but the other chapters seem like they might benefit from being rejiggered with the how-to / technique chapters (8 and 9) moved closer to the front and the topics regarding afflictions and their treatments being more tightly grouped. That said, this wasn’t particularly distracting or detrimental while I was reading.

I would recommend this book for someone who is interested in learning the basics of hypnosis.

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2019: A Year Finding Out How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt I [The Mushroom]

For the past five years, since I moved to India, I’ve been studying what my mind is and what it’s capable of. I’ve used tried and true methods, including: yogic dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) techniques, Vipassana meditation,  dream yoga/ lucid dreaming [albeit, with limited success,] and the practice of self-hypnosis.

In 2019, while continuing the trend, I’m going to get into the weeds and see how strange the mind gets. I was originally going to entitle this “My Year of Exploring Varieties of Conscious Experience,” but that sounded punishingly boring. The current title may come off as frivolous, but I hope is more intriguing as well.

The year has begun, and so has my year of exploration. January was the month in which I first experienced psilocybe cubensis — what the kids call “magic mushroom” or “shrooms.” I should point out that — besides alcohol and caffeine — this was my first experience with any mind or mood altering substance. [With the exception of one afternoon thirty years ago when I was prescribed Tylenol with Codeine after having all four wisdom teeth pulled — an event that probably remains the most bizarre mental experience of my life.]

I’d like to be able to say that I’m the type who boldly tries out new things with derring-do, but those who know me know I’m the kind who reads hundreds of pages of research and commentary and then cautiously dips a toe into the waters. Among the extensive pre-experience reading I did was Michael Pollan’s excellent book, How to Change Your Mind and a study finding psilocybin mushrooms to be the safest of the mind and mood altering substances. (Yes, that includes being much safer than alcohol — a finding, the veracity of which, I have not a doubt. Those curious about this topic are encouraged to see Drugs without the Hot Air by David Nutt, which delves into how society’s approach to such substances can be absurd and without merit in logic. Nutt was famously fired from a government position in Britain for openly stating that alcohol and nicotine are both considerably more dangerous /damaging than a number of prohibited substances)

What was my experience like? Strange and fascinating. However, even at the time, I found myself wondering whether I was cursed with knowledge. How much did all that reading and research influence my experience for the good, the bad, or the indifferent? I don’t know, perhaps a lot, but maybe not at all. I’ll give some examples. One of the early and persistent effects was seeing the world overwritten in prismatic geometric forms. The closest I could describe this is to imagine the shapes seen in jaali — the latticed windows seen in Indo-Islamic architecture — but with a repeating “echo” of lines and a kind of rainbow prismatic effect.

Jaali

I suspect this is a neuro-chemical effect of the substance on one’s brain, but I couldn’t help but wonder whether my experience was trained by having read Aldous Huxley’s descriptions of “sacred geometries” during his own experience. (Of course, it also makes me wonder what Indo-Islamic craftsmen and architects might have been taking.)

As I mentioned, I could see where prior knowledge could have both positive and negative influences on the experience. I’ll start with an example of a possible positive effect of prior knowledge. One thing the reader needs to understand is that the physicist’s conception that things at rest will stay at rest and things in motion will stay in motion doesn’t hold in the mental world of psilocybin — everything goes into motion. It could be the breathing letters of a word on the page or the gentle writhing of a house plant, but not much just sits there. As I stared up at the ceiling, the staples that held the cable to the ceiling fan in place became blocky ants on the march, and soon any dot anywhere became an ant on the move. Now, I can imagine how this might stir in some people a “bad trip,” freaking out about the infestation. However, my mind always somehow recognized that the animation of those still objects was in my brain and not in the room. I was trained to think of these experiences as the effect of a serotonin mimic going hog-wild inside my brain, and I never thought that maybe I’d kicked open Huxley’s famed “Doors of Perception” and something real was now on display to me that I couldn’t ordinarily see. [Though I can’t eliminate that possibility.]

However, I also must wonder whether I might have had a grand breakthrough or experience of enlightenment (probably little-e) — as many claim to have had — if my experience wasn’t so grounded. I scribbled about seven and a half pages while I was “tripping,” and I was very curious about whether it would be gibberish or pure illumination. It was neither. About half my sentences broke off about 2/3rds of the way through, but those that I could make out were not wide the mark of my day-to-day philosophy. It reflected the diminished self and euphoria of the experience (which I’ve  also experienced in meditation), but wasn’t otherworldly. I will say, my psilocybin self was a wee bit bolder, realizing that — like a dog chasing its tail — if I ever captured the understanding I seek, the fun would be blanched from life. The closest thing to a revelation was that I needed to embrace my ignorance — a conclusion my sober self had already come to acceptance of in its bolder moments.

What are my recommendations if you plan to partake of a cup of mushroom tea? Make sure your environment is not overstimulating. Make sure there is nothing fear or anxiety inducing in the area (perhaps including knowing the legal status where you are.) Have a calm state of mind. Realize that for about 30 for 45 minutes you will think the tea had no effect upon you and the strangeness will come on gradually. Some people say you should have someone around. I don’t know that I’d say it’s necessary, (unless you have anxiety issues and then you might not want to partake without seeking medical advice)  but if you do make sure it’s not someone who gets on your nerves.

So what is next? February will be the month in which I try out a sensory deprivation float tank. In yoga, one of the legs of practice is pratyahara (withdrawal from the senses.) I’m fascinated to see what effect the body temperature Epsom salt water has — if any — over and above closed-eye meditation in a dim room.

My tentative schedule is:

January  —  Mushroom — check

February — Sensory Deprivation Float Tank

March — 30 days of hour-long meditations

April — Hypnosis (attending an intensive workshop)

May — EEG feedback meditation

June — Tummo / Wim Hof Method / Holotropic Breathwork

July — extensive Yogic dharana  and dhyana practice

August —  resumption of dream yoga / lucid dreaming practices

September — periodic fasting (and, maybe, controlled sleep deprivation)

October — Biofeedback pranayama (breathing exercises)

November — Poetry of the Subconscious Mind

December  — mixed practices, putting it all together

I plan to keep up documentation of my practice, and hope you’ll follow along when I post something. I’m also interested to hear about the experiences of others regarding these and other consciousness related practices. I don’t know how strange it’ll get, but things might get pretty weird.

BOOK REVIEW: Hidden Depths by Robin Waterfield

Hidden Depths: The Story of HypnosisHidden Depths: The Story of Hypnosis by Robin Waterfield
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Hidden Depths” is a history of hypnotism in the Western world from speculative discussion of its use in the ancient world through its employment for self-improvement in the modern era. It’s a bold undertaking. For one thing, hypnotism as we know it today given the insight of modern science is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, what we call hypnotism has existed variously in the domains of religion, spirituality, pseudo-science, entertainment, and outright fraud. For another thing, the hypnotic trance is a subjective experience and an individual’s susceptibility varies greatly, leaving some scholars to doubt to this day that a hypnotically-induced trance is a real thing. Added to all that, another aspect of confusion is that there are few activities that are so firmly wrapped in misconceptions in the popular mind as hypnosis. The hypnosis of fiction and film is different from the practice as it exists in the real world.

Waterfield takes on the aforementioned difficulties throughout the book. He tends to error on not calling any practice hypnosis unless the descriptions of it in historical documentation are quite explicit on a range of criteria we currently associate with hypnosis. I was ambivalent about this skew. On the one hand, I sometimes wished that Waterfield had more expertise in hypnosis (as a practitioner rather than as a historian) as it might have given him greater insight into hypnotic activities before that word (or its predecessor “mesmerism”) evolved. It seems dubious that all mentions of hypnotic activities are going to be described in a way that makes the state of consciousness readily identifiable to a lay reader, and some reading between the lines might be of benefit. On the other hand, I’ve read books by hypnotists who are what Waterfield (quite properly) calls “hypnotic imperialists” – i.e. individuals for whom any activity that involves suggestion or persuasion is hypnosis. So, it is easy to go to far, and to start calling everything hypnosis. While at times I thought Waterfield suffered from that chronic malady of historians (i.e. thinking that a thing never existed before the first mention of it in the earliest texts they can find), ultimately, I think his approach was sound in that he presented the thoughts of other authors about what activities constituted hypnosis and then offered his reasons for discounting (or not discounting) them. That seems to be a sound line to take.

The first couple chapters discuss this complex question of what hypnosis is and how we can tell it from other states of consciousness (if we can) and they also refer to the earliest mentions of activities that may (or may not) have involved hypnotically-induced trance. It is only when we get to chapter three that we get onto terra firma on the history of hypnosis. That’s when Franz Anton Mesmer enters the picture. Some credit Mesmer with inventing hypnosis. [Note: It wouldn’t come to be called “hypnosis” until a surgeon by the name of James Braid later coined that term. It did become known as “mesmerism,” reflecting Mesmer’s role in development of the technique and / or his fame. Personally, I always cringe when I hear someone in the modern world credited with “inventing” mental and physical techniques that require only a body and conscientiousness, rather than a particular state of technological advancement. It stinks of what a beloved professor of mine used to call the “outhouse fallacy” – the idea that because earlier people had no indoor plumbing that they were complete blithering idiots.] Mesmer was a study in contrasts. He thought himself a man of science and railed against the accusations of false science, but he also wore a cape and engaged in bizarre showmanship that one wouldn’t want to see if one went to one’s doctor’s office for a check-up. While it turned out that the hows and whys of Mesmer’s method are generally considered pseudo-scientific quackery (Waterfield is more diplomatic), it seems clear that the man had a gift and /or a skill for inducing trances.

There are chapters on the early use of hypnosis in both the United States and the United Kingdom, including by both doctors and religious men. There is also a discussion of the early debate about whether hypnosis presented a public safety danger. While the consensus view today is that a hypnotist can get most people to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do, he or she can’t make them do something they don’t want to do, at the time there was a concern that nefarious hypnotists might use hypnosis to prey on women or even to make an assassin of an unwitting stooge. There is a lot of interesting legal history to be discussed involving individuals who pled non-guilty by way of mind control. The discussion of hypnotism for nefarious purposes is revisited in chapter 12, which deals not only with persuasion by advertisers but also [unsuccessful] government attempts to make Manchurian Candidates (programmed assassins who would kill on command, but have no recollection of it in a state of ordinary waking consciousness.) The idea that a hypnotist could make a subject do anything they wished is a notion that has died hard, but remains alive and well in fiction. I should point out that Waterfield addresses many of the more prominent fictitious applications of hypnosis, and – as an avid reader – I found this to be of literary interest, while as a person interested in human behavior I was intrigued by the influence of fiction on people’s decisions and behavior.

The middle of the book also has a chapter that discusses a widespread notion that hypnosis was key to unlocking super-normal skills of extra-sensory perception (ESP.) While that part of the chapter might not be of much interest to the skeptically minded reader, chapter 8 also addresses the fascinating and well documented phenomena of false memories. The book devotes a chapter (ch. 9) to Freud, another individual who went from being at the top of his field to being widely disregarded by modern psychology.

Chapter 10 elucidates the debate over whether the hypnotically-induced trance is actually an altered state of consciousness, distinct from other states. As I said, there are many psychologists today who believe that it’s just suggestible people in a state of waking consciousness. This chapter lays out the arguments on both sides. While the author argues for the considering hypnotic trance a unique state, to his credit he gives fair hearing to the opposition.

Chapters 11 through 13 consider hypnosis in the modern era as a tool used in medicine, mind-control, and self-improvement. The first and last of these applications are alive and well. Attempts to use hypnosis for mind-control seem to have been written off with the debacle of MK-Ultra. However, that chapter (ch. 12) also deals with hypnosis related to sales and persuasion. However, use of hypnosis as drug-free analgesic as well as for other medical purposes, as well as to quit smoking or stick to diets is alive and well. The final chapter is a short plea to keep interest in genuine hypnosis alive. The book has illustrations, annotations, and a bibliography.

I found this book to be interesting and thought-provoking and would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about hypnosis — particularly its history in the Western World.

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