5 Myths of the Mind


I wrote a post a while back about six persistent brain myths that has some overlapping relevance to this one.

5.) A person is a unitary actor (the spherical cow of social sciences.) When I was a graduate student studying International Relations, a popular theoretical assumption was that nations were “unitary actors.” This meant that no matter how schizophrenic a government (and a nation’s civic institutions) might appear, they ultimately always pursued a national interest via a solitary hand. Like physicists assuming spherical cows, this makes life easier — even if it bears little resemblance to reality.

The full extent of the folly of the rational unitary actor assumption became apparent when I discovered that an individual isn’t even a unitary actor systematically pursuing its best interest. An individual is a collection of impulses, thoughts, feelings, etc. that seems like its under the command of a central authority only because that “central authority” [our conscious mind housed in our Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC)] is really good at forming post-hoc rationalizations and making up stories that let us feel unitary. The reader may think I’m just talking about some slim segment of the population with a multiple personality disorder, but no. I’m talking about anyone who has ever agonized over whether or not they should have an ice cream treat or take the healthy route. At the end of an internal battle that ends with the levers of action being operated by parts of your nervous system beyond your conscious control, you walk away with your conscious mind building a nice story that explains how it chose to either treat its taste buds or take it easy on its pancreas by keeping insulin production stable.

To consider how the conscious and subconscious mind can be on two entirely different pages on a subject, we’re going to veer into controversial and provocative territory. [So be warned, and if you’re sensitive about sexuality and particularly coercive sexual fantasy, you may want to skip down to the next paragraph.] Across a series of studies, an average of 40% of subjects (generally, or maybe exclusively women) admitted they’d had a fantasy about being raped. Many readers will react with incredulity, perhaps suggesting that there must be something wrong with such a person. However, obviously numbers like that aren’t describing a lunatic fringe. The next response one might here is, “Why doesn’t a person with a rape fantasy know how horrible and decidedly unsexy rape is?” If you’re following my gist, you know the answer is that said person knows very well. Consciously, she is aware that rape is violent and horrific, and moreover she probably even knows that it’s about commanding power rather than sexual desire for the rapist. This knowledge doesn’t undermine the fantasy [unless, perhaps, she really forces herself to think about it intensely] because the arousal is driven by a more visceral part of the mind that FEELS that the act is about the rapist being overwhelmed with sexual attraction even though the person KNOWS that that’s not the case.

[Note: I do realize that it might theoretically be possible that a much more complex collection consisting of many individuals and organizations might behave in a more unitary fashion than an individual. That is, even though a nation his made up of many non-unitary actors, perhaps the nature of the game forces it to behave in a unitary fashion. I don’t buy it. I’ve been reading a great example in a biography by Ingrid Carlberg about Raoul Wallenberg where both the Soviets (who had Wallenberg in custody but wouldn’t admit it) and the Swedes (who didn’t know whether Wallenberg was alive and sent mixed signals) were befuddled by varying actors sending mixed messages and collectively behaving ineffectively. It’s hard to come away thinking that Stalin and his Ministers had a rational and unified decision process. Instead, it seems like a perfect storm of incompetency and incorrect assumptions resulted in an outcome that wasn’t ideal for any of the parties.]


4.) Everyone can be hypnotized via instant induction and then commanded to do anything that’s asked of them.  Hypnosis is among the most misunderstood activities around. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that hypnosis is a favorite device in movies and fiction, and people draw information from these fictitious sources. The “Now You See Me” movies (see above) offer many such displays of a person being instantaneously hypnotized against his will even when the person is an expert himself, and made to do things against his interests. Misconception also flowers when people hear real or fictitious accounts of Cold War programs like America’s MK Ultra or the Soviet’s psychotronics. The lesson to be taken away from those expensive and morally-dubious programs is that it may be possible to break a person’s mind, but you can’t force someone to do something they abhor while programming them to forget all about it afterwards.

Another reason for the misunderstanding, is that there’s a disreputable group of stage hypnotists and others who love to spread these ideas because it’s more intriguing if people think they can do it to anyone at any time than if they understand that their subjects have been carefully selected to be among the more readily prone to achieve trance states and to be responsive to suggestion. It’s true that most people are hypnotizable and will respond to suggestions to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do (as long as it’s not something that they don’t want to do.) But highly hypnotizable individuals are only about 15% of the population, and there’s another 15% at the other end that are virtually impossible to hypnotize. The video below has more detail on the science.


3.) One has no access to one’s subconscious mind. The conscious mind is like the loudmouthed drunk who swears he invented the potato chip bag clip, the envelope-wetting sponge, and Velcro. That is, it’s hard to hear over the din of incessant yapping, and since the conscious mind claims credit for everything, it’s easy to be fooled that there’s nothing else to listen to in the mind. However, if you can knock the drunk out, you start to become aware of what the subconscious has to say. Those who don’t meditate may be aware of subconscious imagery as they are falling to sleep (the hypnogogic state), as they are waking up (the hypnopompic state), or sometimes even during dreams (i.e. so-called lucid dreams or dream yoga.) Those who do meditate will be well aware of images that spontaneously form and fade in the meditative mind, and which can give rise to conscious thoughts if left unchecked.


2.) Memory is a recording of life events.  I’ve been reading Julia Shaw’s “The Memory Illusion” recently. It’s a fascinating look at false memories. There are many famous cases of false memory, but what is most interesting is Shaw’s success in planting false memories of criminal activity. “Planting” isn’t the best term to describe this. It’s more about getting the subject to visualize events such that they create the false memory. While I stand by what I said about the myths of hypnosis, there have been a number of cases of false memories being implanted while an individual was in a hypnotic trance, and so one shouldn’t disregard the power of hypnosis altogether.  The fact of the matter is that what we remember isn’t the occurrence of the event itself, but the last remembrance of said event. This means that there’s a great deal of room for memory degradation over time, and for a false transcript of events to form in the mind.


1.) Emotions get in the way of good decision making. I just posted a review of Antonio Damasio’s book “Decartes’ Error,” which examines this subject in great detail. Damasio found that patients who had damage to parts of the brain responsible for emotion often became victims of paralysis by analysis. That is, without emotion to give them a kick, they can’t make decisions. Reason doesn’t always provide a clear answer because the world is filled with uncertainty. When there’s not enough information, we still need to make decisions, and this is accomplished by emotional “gut instincts.”

BOOK REVIEW: Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

HallucinationsHallucinations by Oliver Sacks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


Hallucinations are among the most captivating, yet misunderstood, phenomena of the mind. In the popular imagination, they are synonymous with losing one’s grip on reality and are considered evidence of a full-blown psychosis. However, there are a great variety of causes and forms of hallucination, many of which occur among the sane. What Sacks provides in this book is a survey of the forms of hallucination through exploration of cases and anecdotes. To emphasize the point that hallucinations aren’t just for the insane, Sacks doesn’t arrange the book around the idea sanity and insanity. Cases of mental illness are peppered throughout, but there are even more cases of people who fully realize that their hallucinated sensory experiences aren’t real. In fact, he starts with Charles Bonnet Syndrome, hallucinations among blind individuals who are often scared to discuss the phenomena for fear they will be labeled insane even though they know they aren’t really seeing anything. (The brain’s abhorrence of under-stimulation is a recurring theme in the book.)

As mentioned, the approach of the book is to discuss cases of hallucination, and not so much to delve into the research on causes and treatments. This anecdotal approach makes the book readable and offers a unique and intimate insight into hallucination, but it doesn’t drill down into the brain science as much as some might like. This will no doubt be a positive for many, and a negative for others. The author describes several of his own hallucinatory experiences related to drug use, drug withdrawal, and migraine headaches. As I understand it, that level of candor was par for the course for Sacks (though this is the first of his books that I’ve read.) At any rate, his personal experience offers a particularly vivid portrait, and moves the book beyond the sterile feel often found in scientific works.

The book consists of 15 chapters, organized by types / causes of hallucination. After an introduction and the aforementioned chapter on Charles Bonnet Syndrome, there’s a chapter on sensory deprivation hallucinations that’s aptly entitled “the prisoner’s cinema.” Chapters three and four are on olfactory and auditory hallucinations, respectively. The fifth chapter focuses on cases of hallucination experienced by those with Parkinson’s Disease. Chapter six is entitled “Altered States,” but it deals largely with drug-induced hallucinations (it should be pointed out other “altered states” of consciousness, notably sleep, are dealt with in other places), and it’s where Sacks’ personal story begins to be detailed. The next chapter deals with migraine headache related phenomena, and—as the author suffered from such headaches—his story is also imprinted on this chapter.

Chapter eight deals with epilepsy, and, like the Sam Kean book that I reviewed yesterday, is entitled “The Sacred Disease.” That name derives from the fact that those who develop temporal lobe epilepsy are sometimes known to become spontaneously hyper-spiritual in the process. In fact, many scientists now believe that Joan of Arc, Saint Paul (the Apostle), and [for my Indian readers] Ramakrishna were afflicted by this ailment. (Not based on their high degree of spirituality, but rather on accounts of sensory phenomena they were said to have experienced.)

Chapter nine examines cases related to hemianopia—a situation in which one occipital lobe is damaged resulting in a kind of “blindness” in half one’s visual field. While people think of blindness as being a problem with the eyes, it’s possible to have perfectly good eyes and optic nerves and be blind (on a conscious level) due to brain’s incapacity to process the input it is receiving. (Incidentally, in his book “Subliminal” Leonard Mlodinow describes engrossing cases of people who were blind due to brain damage, but–owing to a redundant subconscious systems–they could walk around without running into obstacles.)

Chapter ten describes cases associated with delirium, a common cause of hallucinations that can be the side-effect of any number of physical problems including fever, blood sugar imbalance, and liver failure.

The next two chapters are about sleep-related sensory imaginings. Chapter eleven details cases of hypnagogic and hypnopompic imagery, which are what we see as we are on the edge of falling asleep or awaking, respectively. Hypnagogic hallucinations may be as simple as shifting shapes, or more elaborate. If you’ve gotten this far in the book without any experience that corresponds to what Sack’s is describing, you’ll almost certainly have some experience with hypnagogic images. If not, you should stop consciously counting sheep (or whatever other daydreaming you do as you fall asleep) and just watch what your mind projects. You’ll know it when you see it because you won’t be able to control the imagery (though you can distract over it with conscious thought) and—as in dreams—it probably won’t make a lick of sense. Hypnopompic images are quite different, less widely experienced, and often more disconcerting. Chapter twelve presents cases dealing with narcolepsy (random spontaneous falling asleep) and sleep paralysis, a common experience on the trailing edge of sleep in which one can’t move and which often comes with imagined sensations of a more nefarious variety—hence the widespread lore of night hags and the like.

Chapter thirteen scrutinizes cases that are associated with traumatic events from one’s past. These can involve sightings of ghosts of departed loved ones or replays (flashbacks) of the traumatizing event. This chapter, in a discussion of dissociation, also foreshadows the phenomena of out-of-body (OOB) experience that’s dealt with in more detail in chapter 14. The theme of that penultimate chapter is seeing oneself. Beyond OOB, it deals with a variety of hallucinations of oneself, including those in which one’s body appears distorted (i.e. so-called “Alice in Wonderland” Syndrome.)

The last chapter discusses hallucinations in the tactile domain, and, specifically, the most widely investigated form of these phenomena—the phantom limb. Phantom limb syndrome is experienced by amputees, many of whom can still feel the lost limb. This has resulted in nightmarish scenarios in which an awaking patient complains of an itch on the sole of his or her foot only to be shown that they have no legs from the knee down.

There are no graphics in the book, but, because it’s based around cases, it doesn’t need them for clarification of complex ideas. There are footnotes, as well as a bibliography.

I found this book to be absorbing, and I learned a great deal from it. I’d recommend it for anyone who seeks greater insight into hallucinations or unusual mental phenomena more generally.

View all my reviews