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.

My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. III [Meditation]

This is the third installment in a series of posts on my study of altered states of consciousness. The January and February posts described my experiences with psilocybin mushroom tea and a sensory deprivation float tank, respectively.

This month (March) I’ve stepped up my meditation practice to at least an hour per day, every day of the week. (As opposed to a couple of one hour sessions as well as a couple of shorter sessions per week.) Meditation might seem tame in comparison to the previous practices (and some to come.) However, if one can quiet the mind, one experiences some of the same phenomena as are had during more dramatic practices, as well as other events that are too subtle to notice in other states. It’s easy to get more excited about practices that dial an experience up to eleven than ones that require one to listen carefully and patiently, but that’s a mistake.

Immediately after I completed the Vipassana ten-day course, I maintained a practice of this intensity for a brief period of time (as is the recommendation) before it became a bit cumbersome.  (My discussion of the Vipassana course can be found here.) For readers unfamiliar with the practice, Vipassana practice uses bodily sensations as an anchor for the mind. One repeatedly scans the body, observing any sensations that one feels along the way without judgement. It’s technically a Theravadan Buddhist practice, but is taught in a secular way. By “anchor” I mean some “object” that the awareness can be directed toward so as to make it more readily apparent when one’s mind wanders and easier to bring it back because there is something to direct the attention. Besides bodily sensation, some of the common anchors include: breath, mantra, visualizations, or external objects.

This doesn’t mean that every meditative practice requires an anchor, and the practice I’ve been using this month (by-and-large) did not.  I use an anchor (most often breath awareness) to achieve stillness of mind, but then switch to observation of what thoughts or imagery pop to mind. One might call this an anchorless meta-cognitive meditation. One just watches the mind, becoming witness to whatever arises, noting it, letting it move on, and resuming the watch. For yoga practitioners, this equates to the early stages of antar mouna, through and including chidakasha (watching subconscious imagery pop up.)

One notices many things about how the mind operates during meditation. The coarsest way of differentiating what I find arises in meditation is the distinction between conscious thoughts versus the subconscious imagery. Typically, I don’t observe the latter until the former have subsided. Conscious thoughts are often verbal as well as visual, but the subconscious matter is virtually all imagery.

One also realizes the crucial role played by memory. Often what I see is a memory residue of an image that arose. I’ve become very aware of essential memory is in our human style of consciousness. While in meditation one wants to reduce or eliminate the mental activities that come in tow with memory (i.e. analysis, making connections, elaboration, etc.,) one can’t help but notice how central such activities are to language and other learning that make us uniquely human.  Then there is recognition of the limits of memory. Just as one sometimes has an inkling of the substance of a dream, but can’t pull front and center in one’s mind, there is often the inkling of an image — gone before it registers.

If one is wondering why pick a one hour practice, it’s in part about the maximum my body is capable without needing a break to move lymph about and restore blood circulation to normal. During the Vipassana course, one has about ten hours a day of scheduled meditation, but I still needed a walk at least every hour or so. As for why not do smaller time chunks, I’ve found that I experience some phenomena past a half hour that I don’t recall experiencing in shorter practices. It takes some time to relax to a point at which one’s conscious mind stops trying to make plans or otherwise go off on tangents. Feelings of euphoria, oneness, and ease of mental quietness tend to come beyond a half of an hour for me — when they come.

I was disabused of any notions that a daily meditative practice over such a short period would lead to heightened mental clarity and emotional control. I’ve done 26 days out of 31 as of this writing, and have been as wild-minded as ever, and certainly more than the preceding months. I can’t say that this has anything to do with meditation one way or another. Perhaps, I’d have been even worse, given the nature of life’s ups and downs, if I hadn’t been practicing as such — but, of course, I can’t make such a claim — not meaningfully.

That said, I think I’ve made some interesting observations about how my mind works and what its limits are. I can’t say I experienced any wild mental phenomena, not of the nature I experienced during the long meditative days of the Vipassana course. However, I have been able to observe some fine detail about the sensation of shifting into a hypnogogic state, and other curious experiences that interest me. Subtle shifts of mind states have been a major point of curiosity for me. 

Next month, I’ll be attending a workshop on hypnosis, and the next post will be on hypnotic trance states.

My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. II [the Tank]

Source: Wikipedia via Floatguru

This is the second installment in my series of posts examining experiences with altered states of consciousness. This month I visited a float tank, what would have at one point been called a “sensory deprivation chamber” or an “isolation tank,” but now days they are called by more soothing sounding names such as R.E.S.T. [for “restricted environmental sensory therapy”] chamber. I like “flotation tank” because it’s the most neutral term, but it doesn’t necessarily convey what this technology does — which is to place one in body temperature water loaded with Epsom salt (increasing buoyancy) and cut out as much light and sound as possible by enclosing one in an insulated pod.

[Before I proceed, those interested in reading the first installment of this series, describing my experience with psilocybin mushroom tea — and which lays out my plan for the year — can find that post here.]

Withdrawing from sensory stimulation has a long history here in India. In yoga, it’s called pratyahara, and it’s one of the eight limbs of yoga described by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras that date back to around 400 CE (that’s AD for the old school.) Of course, back in the day pratyahara was practiced in a cave or other isolated spot that cut one off from light, heat / cold, and sound as much as possible.

However, the technological approach is quite new in India. I visited 1000 Petals in Bangalore, which — as far as I know — is the first commercial float tank in India, and is — excepting the one at the company’s newer Mumbai (Bombay) location — among the only commercial tanks in the country as of now. [By “commercial” tanks, I mean only those that customers from the general public may visit. Who knows how may private tanks exist among India’s spice, coffee, and industrial barons? However, it’s an expensive piece of hardware for a private individual to own and maintain.]

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but had some basis for guesses. The general expectation is that with less stimulation, the brain both dials up awareness of the limited available input and may even start to create false signals. I’ve had experiences during meditation with under-stimulated sensory systems “acting up” in the face of reduced input — though this has primarily been during extended sessions of meditation. During the Vipassana 10-day meditation course, I frequently had morphing shapes play out scenes on the inside of my eyelids  — purple on a black background — and on occasion heard vivid music in my head (but which I knew was solely in my head.) Also, on a number of occasions during the Vipassana course, I had sensations that my body was stretching toward the ceiling.  I once even had an intense flowery scent that I’m not sure was an olfactory hallucination or a combination of the wind blowing just right to bring pollen into the meditation hall and my sensory attentiveness being dialed up to eleven due to under-stimulation. With possible exception of the flower smell, I never had any experience that would meet the common conception of a hallucination — i.e. sensory experience that I couldn’t tell whether was real or false. [Except in as much as I have only a vague notion of what being “real” means. An approximation suitable to getting through life in polite society.]

The question of the moment is whether the experience matched or defied my expectations? The general answer is, “both, in some measure.” Where it matched my expectations was in the fact that it was extremely relaxing. I spent much of the hour in a hypnogogic state (the state on the edge between wakefulness and sleep) and came out of the tank in the comfortably numb state that I associate with a good massage.  Unlike meditation, where one starts to have back aches and leg pains that detract from comfort, keep one awake, and eventually cause endorphins to surge through one’s system, the flotation tank makes one as comfortable as one can be from the outset. This doesn’t mean that the tank cuts one off from all tactile sensation. Just because the temperature matches one’s body and one is floating so as to not be in contact with anything but salty water, doesn’t mean one becomes completely numb. Sensations do arise, and, even though they might be so subtle that they ordinarily wouldn’t draw one’s attention, one becomes aware of them because one’s mind is so yearning for input.

The biggest way in which the flotation tank defied my expectation was the utter lack of response to the dearth of visual signal. At one point I realized I could get a little of that purple on black shape-shifting that I experienced in Vipassana, but only if I consciously turned my attention to the underside of my eyelids. It didn’t force its way to the center of my attention like it had during Vipassana. There are several factors I can imagine playing into this disparity. For one, the float tank session was just one hour, where as the Vipassana course days lasted about ten hours on the mat. For another, the float tank was pitch black or as near to it as my eyes were capable of discriminating, whereas the mediation hall had windows and was merely dim. A more personal possibility is that, having done a lot of meditation in the intervening time, my mind isn’t as distressed by a lack of sensory input as it once was.

I can’t say that my mind didn’t respond to the lack of sensory stimulation at all. It just didn’t seem to respond to the lack of visual input. I didn’t opt to wear ear plugs (which were available,) but the water went into my ears and — except for some initial sensation while settling in — there was very little to be heard. Mostly, I could hear my own breathing and occasionally hear / feel my pulse. [I found I could dully hear external sounds in the bass range such as construction workers pounding or a helicopter flying over, but not at a level that was distracting, and my mind didn’t  do anything with these stray sounds.]

As there was no smell to speak of and I could only taste the inside of my mouth if I turned my attention to it, this left tactile sensation as my primary source of stimulation. It’s funny, there is little to feel it would seem, but because one’s nervous system dials into what’s there, it begins to feel like one is laying in a perfectly form-fitting solid rather than on a liquid. And I became acutely aware of any sensations that came along. I didn’t have any strange “Alice-in-Wonderland Syndrome-eque” sensations like stretching or melting that I’ve experienced to a limited degree in meditation (possibly because those experiences may have resulted from an endorphin dump.)  I did have a couple instances of leg twitch in the hypnogogic state, and I couldn’t feel the twitch at all because the leg wasn’t against anything solid, but I knew it happened from the ripples lapping up against my torso. 

So, long story short, my mind didn’t behave strangely when subjected to an hour of sensory reduction. It was very relaxing and brought about an extended hypnogogic state — oddly without the imagery that I usually associate with that state.

Looking ahead: Next month, I’m going to be in the more familiar territory of meditation. However, I’ll be looking to see if ramping up the intensity of my practice to at least one hour every single day, produces any interesting outcomes. In April, I’ll be attending an introductory level workshop of the Institute for Clinical Hypnosis and Related Sciences (ICHARS) to learn how to extend my familiarity with hypnotic trance induction from self-hypnosis to working with others.

POEM: Consciousness

it’s a lighthouse in the wilderness

shining a spray of consciousness

over all that is surveyed


experiencing the world through a window

framed by this meat machine,

which is optimized for chasing down prey

over long stretches of African savanna


maybe there is so much more

as so many boldly claim to know

but neither they nor i have the mechanism to know it

— even if we have a masterpiece mechanism for believing it —

so, i’ll not yet extend my footings into the darkness

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.


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.

5 Haiku on Consciousness

thoughts form & float,
reflections of a gliding bird
over murky pools.

sleeping deeply,
universe? where art thou?
do you rest too?

within my dreams,
i feel the familiar,
but see the strange.

images gel,
but seeking sense in them
sends them hiding.

next car rolls fore,
i yank the parking brake,
halting false back drift.

BOOK REVIEW: Conversations on Consciousness ed. by Susan Blackmore

Conversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be HumanConversations on Consciousness: What the Best Minds Think about the Brain, Free Will, and What It Means to Be Human by Susan Blackmore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


Blackmore gathers together interviews from a veritable who’s who of consciousness experts from neuroscience, philosophy, physiology, psychology, and physics. While the interviews are in part tailored to tap into the special insights of the given expert, a consistent series of questions is asked of each of the interviewees. Each expert is asked what they think is challenging about consciousness, what they think about the feasibility of philosopher’s zombies (a popular thought experiment about an individual who seems to behave like an ordinary human but who has no conscious experience), what they think about the existence of free will, what happens to consciousness after death, and what got them interested in the subject. This makes it easy for the reader to see not just differences in thinking across disciplines, but also different schools of thought within disciplines. There’s enough variety to make for intriguing reading. There is also a mix between individuals who have experience with meditation (e.g. the interviewer) and those who don’t, and so it’s interesting to compare views of those with such insight to those who study consciousness entirely abstractly.

I won’t list all the authors, but they include: David Chalmers (who famously coined the term the “hard problem” of consciousness, which is one of the most widely discussed ideas in the book), Francis Crick (of DNA fame who later shifted focus), Daniel Dennett (a well-known philosopher), V.S. Ramachandran (a neuroscientist famous for work on phantom limbs and behavioral neurology), and Roger Penrose (a physicist who believes that quantum mechanics may prove crucial to figuring out consciousness.)

It’s a straightforward book. There’s an Introduction by Blackmore and then the 20 or 21 interviews (one “chapter” is a married couple – Pat and Paul Churchland — whose insights are presented together.) The only back matter is a glossary, which is quite in-depth and which helps to clarify the many confusing concepts from various disciplines. There are a few cartoon drawings that lighten the tone, but serve no essential purpose.

I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking. It’s quite old at this point – having come out in 2005 – but since consciousness is so intractable, it’s not like any of the questions have been cleared up. (If it were a book on AI, I’d probably say it was worthless at this point, but not this book.) I’d recommend it for anyone looking to understand the lay of the land with regards thinking about consciousness.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Spread Mind by Riccardo Manzotti

The Spread Mind: Why Consciousness and the World Are OneThe Spread Mind: Why Consciousness and the World Are One by Riccardo Manzotti
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page


Manzotti puts forth a bold and intriguing hypothesis that one’s mental experience is the physical world and not a model or representation of the world. Unfortunately, his book doesn’t make a compelling case for “The Spread Mind” (as he calls it) over its competition. Consciousness is one of those still dim corners of our world that isn’t yet fully understood by anyone, and this has spurred many competing ideas ranging from: a.) it being illusory; b.) it being purely a construct of a complex brain; c.) it hinging on some quantum mechanical action not yet understood; d.) panpsychic (all-pervading consciousness) arguments that may or may not resonate traditional Indian / Eastern conceptions; and e.) this idea that consciousness is identical with the physical world of which one is conscious.

However, for simplicity’s sake, one can contrast Manzotti’s idea with the most widely accepted view offered by science, which is that our brains construct mental models of the world often based on [but not identical to] sensory information they take in. (If my statement isn’t clear, you can check out neuroscientist Anil Seth’s TED Talk on “how our brains hallucinate reality,” which is as diametrically opposed to Manzotti’s hypothesis as one gets – and which, unfortunately for Manzotti, also makes a more cogent argument.)

At first blush, Manzotti’s idea might look appealing. It does, after all, simplify the picture. It eliminates the middle-man of mental models and seemingly solves the mind-body problem. The mind-body problem is how to reconcile how the body (wet, physical, objectively observable matter) relates to mind (intangible, subjective, ephemeral thoughts and feelings,) — if it does. Descartes famously suggested that mind and body were simply two separate things (i.e. dualism), and while that notion has remained popular with homo religiosis it’s all but dead in the world of science. However, there is no one monism that has unambiguously replaced Cartesian dualism. The most popular variant among those who study the brain is that some action in / across neurons creates a series mental imagery, internal monologuing, and emotional sensations that make up our mental experience. The mechanism by which this could happen is still not understood, but it’s an inherently hard problem to peer into because on can’t observe mind states directly and the best tool for studying it – i.e. functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is only a couple decades old (and it’s still looking at brain blood flow and not consciousness, itself.) [I defend that this mechanism isn’t yet explained because one of Manzotti’s points seems to be: neuroscience hasn’t yet explained how neurons produced mental experience so just believe in my hypothesis which offers not even a hint of a mechanism by which it could work.] Manzotti’s is also a physical monist argument, but one that denies the mind is anything more than our experience of the physical world. In other words, there is a spoon, but there’s no mind separate of it.

So, what’s the problem? The reader may have already thought of some challenges confronting Manzotti’s hypothesis, and many of the most common ones the author refutes in the middle portion of the book. Dreams, hallucinations, fantasies, and even memory (certainly false memories, which we know are a wide-spread phenomenon) should utterly destroy the Spread Mind, given the simple definition we’ve given so far. After all, if your mental experience consists entirely of the physical objects that you are exposed to, then how does one explain the doughnut-shaped, sprinkle-breathing dragon that you hallucinated when you did ayahuasca on your trip to Iquitos? OK, you say you’re not such a wild child? Alright, how do you explain your detailed remembrance of putting that water bill into the mailbox, but then finding it under the seat of your car after you got a late notice from the water utility? If our mental experience is identical to the physical objects we experience, mentally experiencing things that don’t exist or events that never happened should never occur.

Manzotti elaborates upon Spread Mind to fend off these crippling attacks to his “theory.” (I use quotes because a theory is usually defined as “a well-substantiated explanation of a phenomenon” and it doesn’t seem to me there’s much in the way of substantiation of this idea.) There are two main prongs to his defense, one of which is unproven but soundly stated and consistent with the thinking of many physicists. The other defense seems to simply be a post-hoc rationalization used to make his “theory” work. Even though these ideas are presented in the opposite order in the book, I’ll deal with the first one I mentioned first because it’s relatively simple to cover. That’s the idea that past and present all exist always and at the same time. That may seem like an out-there idea because we can only ever be in touch with a moment we think of as the present and everything else is memory or fantasy /forecasts. However, it’s not exactly a rogue notion in science, especially once one starts thinking about making sense of Einsteinian Relativity. So, without this idea, if Spread Mind was correct, we could never have that fond memory of Mr. Fluffers, the pet we had in first grade who died decades ago. If our mental experience is Mr. Fluffers and not our mental model of Mr. Fluffers, we can’t have such an experience so long after he passed away. But if all time exist simultaneously, then one can conceive of how such a remembrance could happen. The only thing special about the present in Manzotti’s conception is that it’s the time during which we can interact with objects that also exist in the same time. This may or may not prove to be true. If it proves false it will kill Spread Mind, but if proves true the theory still has many questions to answer to prove itself worthy.

The second, and far less well-supported, defense could actually be divided in two ideas, but I’ll deal with it as a unit for simplicity’s sake. The parts of this defense our: a.) misbelief about our mental experience can happen, somehow [potential mechanisms by which this might occur are not described and that’s a huge problem for the author]; b.) objects we’ve experienced can be reshuffled to make objects appear to be entities that we know do not exist [Again, the mechanism by which this could occur is never explained or even seriously speculated about.] Let me give an example to explain how these defenses work. Say you drop a tab of acid and are having a hallucination of a dragon flying through the sky. Manzotti’s idea is that you are experiencing a reshuffled creature consisting of legs, a serpent, maybe some fire, a backdrop of sky, and you have a misbelief that all these constituent parts are in the present and co-exist together in space and time (as opposed to being disparate objects from varied past times.) This is a very convenient idea for Manzotti’s “theory” but it’s not really clear why we should buy it. In the competing notion that a mental model is built, one can imagine how the mind might construct something that doesn’t exist due to neuronal cross-firing or something like that. (The bigger question, in fact, might be why it doesn’t happen more often.) However, if our experience consists of objects that we’ve shared space-time with at some point, how and why should such weirdness occur? If the author made a compelling attempt to explain how this occurrence is reasonable, one might leave the book thinking his “theory” is – in fact — a theory and give it equal or superior footing to other approaches to consciousness, but as the book mostly offers gratuitous statements telling us to accept this all as a given, it’s not very powerful.

I’d like to get into one crucial example where I think Manzotti’s thinking is flawed in a way that could prove devastating to the Spread Mind. The author admits that an extraordinary hallucination would kill the Spread Mind. He defines an extraordinary hallucination as one consisting of objects that are non-existent in our world. Earlier, I used the example of a dragon which we know doesn’t exist, and we can be reasonably certain never existed. However, Manzotti would say that it’s just a reshuffling of parts like legs and snakes that we do know exist, combined with a misbelief about when these objects exist and that they co-exist in the same time. Manzotti says that there is no evidence that a hallucination that can’t be explained by reshuffling and misbelief ever existed. I have no doubt that if one read accounts of hallucinations; one could come away with that conclusion. However, I think it’s more convincingly explained by the nature of language as a unit of communication (hence necessitating common vocabulary.)

Example: Let’s assume for a minute that I had an extraordinary hallucination, and I decide to document it. I could take one of two approaches. On one hand, I could describe every completely novel element with a new word. I could say I saw a gruzzy-wug which had three separpals and a florgnak and a long and bushy krungleswam. Of course, I’m not communicating at this point because communication requires common vocabulary. Manzotti would likely argue that I’m just reshuffling letters [linguistic objects] to make up non-sense. On the other hand, as soon as I use a common vocabulary and analogy saying such and such is “kind of like a leg, but sort of with a curly-cue spiral and a mouth on top” Manzotti would say, well it’s a reshuffling of a leg and a pig’s tail and a mouth all of which the individual has seen before.

However, an even more devastating oversight is ignoring vast tracks of what most people would consider their mental experience. It’s the penultimate chapter before the book even touches upon emotion, which most would argue is a huge part of mental experience. Throughout most of the book, one is left wondering whether the author thinks of such things as emotion and language as part of consciousness. One imagines Manzotti’s experience of the world is one physical object after the other (mostly red apples with the occasional pink flying elephant – examples he uses ad nauseam) without any conceptual experience. Manzotti does explain that one must revise one’s conception of an object to think in terms of the Spread Mind, and one can see how this might explain language – which has a huge and powerful role in one’s mental experience and which is left unexplored by the book. But while language could arguable be explained as consisting of objects, emotional experience seems hard to fit Manzotti’s hypothesis.

The book consists of nine chapters. It has graphics and bibliography as one would expect of a scholarly work

I think most readers will find this book to be repetitive and frustrating in its lack of explanation. It’s not that it’s speculative; it’s that it just bludgeons the reader with gratuitous assertions that we expect will pay off in at least a hint of how the Spread Mind could work, but it never does. (For example, I greatly enjoyed Max Tegmark’s “Our Mathematical Universe” that speculates that our world is a mathematical structure – not that it can be described mathematically but that it fundamentally is mathematical.) Spread Mind is an interesting idea, but I can’t say I’d recommend the book unless one is really interested in knowing all of the varied lines of thinking about consciousness that exist out there. I must say it was a beneficial read because it made me consider some interesting ideas, but nothing in it swayed my thinking.

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5 Essential TED Talks on Consciousness

5.) Anil Seth: Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality

4.) David Chalmers: How Do You Explain consciousness?

3.) Max Tegmark: Consciousness is a Mathematical Pattern

2.) Antonio Damasio: The Quest to Understand Consciousness

1.) Oliver Sacks: What Hallucination Reveals about Our Minds

BOOK REVIEW: The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons by Sam Kean

The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and RecoveryThe Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness, and Recovery by Sam Kean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Once upon a time, our knowledge of what the brain did, how it worked, and the degree to which its parts were specialized came from observing people who had brain injuries or a disease of the brain. Kean’s book examines the evolution of our understanding of the brain by way of investigations of historic cases. Looking at damaged brains is obvious not the ideal way to study the most complex system in the known universe—accidents and brain-eating diseases aren’t discriminating. Still, over time, a few conscientious [and sometimes warped] doctors and scientists pieced together important clues. From the rudimentary observation that people conked on the head often pass out temporarily, doctors began to learn about the degree to which brain parts were specialized and how changes in the brain effected beliefs, memories, and behavior.

Kean’s book is in part a history and in part a work of popular science, and the cases selected are often of interest both as history and as science. We learn about the damaged brains of kings, assassins, soldiers, adventurers, and those with more mundane jobs but no less fascinating brain trauma (e.g. Phineas Gage, one of the most well-known cases in the book, a construction foreman who had a steel tamping rod rocketed through his skull.)

It’s this historical approach that builds a niche for Kean. There have been a massive number of popular science books on the brain in recent years. (You’ll note that I’ve reviewed many of them.) While other books discuss many of the same intriguing neuroscientific phenomena (e.g. synesthesia [mixing of sense and / or mental data, e.g. people who see colors with musical notes or even with numbers], phantom limbs, epilepsy’s effect on beliefs, and the brain’s role in aberrant behavior) most of them are rooted in the mother-lode of discoveries that have come out of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and other modern technologies. Even the works of V.S. Ramachandran, which largely deal in discoveries rooted in low-tech but exceedingly clever science, are placed in the context of present-day science. (You should read Ramachandran’s book “The Tell Tale Brain” also.)

Kean’s book is complementary to the body of works on popular neuroscience. While some of those books mention the same (or similar) cases as Kean, they do so to illustrate the Dark Age origins of many of these questions. Kean delves into the intriguing details of such cases. On the other hand, while Kean is dealing in the historic, he brings in modern science on occasion to give the reader insight into what ideas have been confirmed and which overturned. That’s important as Kean is often telling the reader about the opposing theories of the day—as the title suggests.

The book contains an Introduction and twelve chapters that are arranged into five parts. The book’s organization is by brain structure and key (interesting) functions tied to those various parts. It’s logically arranged, starting with a question as crude as the skull’s role in brain injury and ending on a topic so challenging that there remains a great deal of mystery (and controversy among scientists) about it, i.e. consciousness. In between, we learn about neurotransmitters, neuroplasticity, and the brains role in sensory processing / presentation, bodily awareness / movement, emotion, belief, delusion, and memory—as well as the degree to which the two halves of our brain are independent and what severing the connection does.

The book is end-noted and has a works cited section, but it has a couple other noteworthy features. A fun feature of note is that each chapter begins with a rebus, a kind of word puzzle that relates to an anatomical part relevant to that chapter. There are also graphics in the form of both diagrams and black-and-white photos, and they are interspersed throughout the book with the relevant text (as opposed to in special sections.)

I’d recommend this book for individuals not only interested in neuroscience, but in the history of science generally. Even history buffs who don’t think much about science will likely learn a thing or two from Kean’s presentation of the cases—e.g. there is much discussion of Civil War wounds.

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