Sunday, June 05, 2011

Book Review: "The Hypnotist" by Jake Shannon

"The Hypnotist: Healer, Head-Hacker, & Headliner"

by Jake Shannon

Jake Shannon is a fascinating multi-talented man with a rich and partly enviable life experience. He has also lived through extraordinary pain and illness which were a big part of his initial inspiration for his deep study of hypnosis. As in the life story Dan Ariely, whose life with severe burns helped shape his fascination with psychology, Jake turned to the study of the mind for healing and pain relief. Hypnosis served Jake, as it has served many, as a way to alter the way they experience pain and discomfort.

If "hypnosis" simply referred to a straightforward technique for altering our perception, and that were the end of the story, then Jake's book would have been much more narrow in scope. The intentional structure of the human mind as we understand it pretty much ensures that any any discussion of perception also overlaps with a discussion of beliefs, behavior, communication, and social interaction. This network of concepts has far reaching implications in areas that fascinate all reflective people.

Topics as deep and diverse as the nature of "free will" and responsibility, the sources of extraordinary (and ordinary) human abilities, the role of social compliance in human life, and the malleability of perception all have some meaningful dependence on the ideas that underlie contemporary theories of hypnosis in terms of things like suggestion and expectancy. That interaction, and those dependences, are where the story gets really interesting, and Jake stands out to me in the broad way he has captured them.

Jake surveys the key concepts from a wide range of hypnosis theories, but he does not stop there. He also explores their use in daily life and their implications for social and political issues. When we extend our scientific theories to less directly empirical questions like the implications for social and political issues, of course we tend to incorporate our own distinctive leanings along the way.

Jake's distinctive leanings are strongly libertarian, and libertarian philosophy does not map neatly onto the usual political spectrum but has its own distinct principles. In his book "Justice," Michael Sandel argues that libertarian philosophy revolves crucially on the idea of self-ownership, and I think this is borne out in Jake's perspective on hypnosis. Jake is starting with the central notion that we own the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our role in it, and that we can and should take responsibility for guiding our own self-talk and for filtering the inevitable influences that impinge on it.

For Jake, the crux of hypnosis is entering into and redirecting the conversation we all have with ourselves in our own thoughts, thus shaping the inner stories we tell ourselves. This emphasis on the language aspects of hypnosis are particularly complementary with the communications theories of hypnosis, such as the ideas derived from the studies of Milton Erickson's hypnotherapeutic methods. Jake wants to tie the concept of hypnosis together with a host of other phenomena of importance to self-ownership, particularly social compliance phenomena, so the emphasis on communications and language seems to be strategic.

Hypnotic phenomena are all about changes in our perception as a result of "suggestion," and it is notoriously difficult to distinguish changes in perception from their related mutual influences on belief, behavior, attitude, and emotional associations. So Jake is working from very fertile ground in adopting the broad view of hypnosis as a class of psychological phenomena with interesting social implications. The question that arises about the role of "hypnosis" (in the broad sense Jake uses the term) in human life is whether the sorts of focused suggestions we associate with hypnotism really have a lasting and systematic effect. This is where the topic has historically gone astry in the public mind, with many people attributing much greater and more mysterious power to hypnosis than it deserves, and others attempting to debunk it out of existence as a distinctive class of phenomena of any importance.

Jake would seemingly focus on hypnotic suggestion as a situation where the someone's existing inner conversation is entered into and guided or redirected by the voice of the hypnotist. In the communications view, the explanation for what is going on in the situation (our self-talk about the situation) seems to be a driver for what will follow. We explain the situation to ourself in a particular way, and as a result we act in the situation as if that explanation were true. I think this primacy of the role of explanation in behavior in Jake's thesis is tied tightly to his committment to libertarian self-ownership. It provides a focus point where we can more clearly see how we can influence our own behavior, and how we influence each other. In psychological terms, it centers around *compliance* rather than the _experience_ we have from hypnosis.

Jake's summary illustrates this focus on compliance very clearly: "The hypnotist accesses the subject’s self-conversation through specific rhetorical techniques and subject similar-body language while leveraging the effects of expectation and authority in the subject’s mind in order to achieve compliance."

Explanation is just one albeit critical aspect of human mind, but it clearly isn't the primary driver of behavior in a wide range of situations. Jake refers to the work of John Bargh and others who have demonstrated this experimentally. Jake seems to give the non-language aspects of hypnotic phenomena a secondary role as influencers on our inner dialog. Importantly, he sees hypnosis as "leveraging the effects ..." of expectancy rather than expectancy being the central distinction of effective suggestion.

A less communications-oriented view might see the same situation as if our expectations were altered first, through various language and non-language means, and then our experience and behavior followed our expectations, followed at last by some explanation. In the expectancy view promoted by Irving Kirsch (for example), the explanation for why we responded to a suggestion is an artifact, not a driver of the behavior. We follow a suggestion, and then explain why we followed it. Experiments have sometimes deliberately imposed a conflict between an explicit suggestion and an implicit expectancy, and Kirsch interprets those as demonstrating that the expectancy (rather than the language per se) is what drives the resulting behavior. Jake sees automaticity as "the ability to do habitual tasks with little active thought." Kirsch, in his writings on automaticity, has gone much farther and described it as the default state for daily life, where active thought arises only under limited conditions. The non-communications views tend to focus more on the _experience_ of hypnosis and especially why **our experience of control** differs from situation to situation.

This is to some extent a chicken and egg problem, since we can find circumstances where behavior is more clearly driven by the (potentially) self-owned stories we tell ourselves, and also circumstances where our explanations for our own behavior are completely at odds with a more compelling cause. The stronger-self-ownership view of the mind will of course tend to emphasize the role that we play in guiding it. The stronger-automaticity view emphasizes the small, critical windows where active guidance actually takes place. These are not mutually exclusive ideas, something that I think Jake does manage to get across in his book. Again, though, there is that important difference in emphasis, and the different role of language in the human mind that this difference in emphasis represents.

It seems plausible that we can reconcile these different views by seeing the mind as having multiple different parallel systems, perhaps one speciallized for explanations, and others speciallized for motivating and guiding behavior as such. This is part of the role that Jake seems to attribute to bicameral theories of mind. As good promoters of natural science, we want to somehow try to map the features of the mind onto the brain, and bicameral theories take a big swing at that. I think the process of mapping mind onto brain is, while laudable, problematic in practice for various reasons perhaps better identified by philosophers than scientists. Also I don't personally step onto the train of thought that views the anatomical division of many of the brain's "higher" structures as also being a fundamental infrastructure of psychology, nor do I think it plays a particularly fundamental role in explanations of hypnosis, but I do think it is likely that it plays at least some secondary role. My difference with Jake here seems to be mostly one of emphasis.

I don't criticize Jake for taking on the language-focused view of hypnosis here, and I understand how compellingly it fits into the bigger picture of ownership for our own thinking and behavior. In various notable attempts to naturallize consciousness, various reflective thinkers such as Daniel C. Dennett have also described the meaning-making function of the mind largely in terms of stories we tell ourselves, and this does seem to imply a huge role for language as well.

The remaining question is the relationship between language and experience, and in the case of Jake's thesis in this book, especially the experience of *control* and its relationship to compliance. Understanding the phenomena of hypnosis (broadly defined), Jake empahsizes, can help us gain better control of our own mind, and better understand the influences that others are having. I would say that compliance and self-ownership of our mind is a larger topic than is hypnosis, but that Jake is right on target in pointing out the crucial importance of understanding how our mind is shaped and influenced, and how much we can learn about this from the phenomena of hypnosis.

I would actually go farther and say that I think the phenomena of hypnosis have potentially much more to tell us about the nature of the mind than just about the issues pertaining to compliance and influence. I wouldn't entirely define hypnosis in terms of compliance or language, I would define it more primarily in terms of expectancies, and in revisioning the workings of the mind in terms of expectancies I would expand Jake's thesis to include even broader implications of our shifting sense of control for law, medicine, philosophy, economics, and so on. Still, this is a great start and a very worthwhile research effort with both a depth and breadth of ideas you won't easily find elsewhere and which most people will find surprising, fascinating, often troubling, and most importantly, useful in understanding ourselves. I urge you to learn from Jake's experiences and reflections.


  1. I really like your post

  2. Thanks for your comment.

  3. This was one of the books, that maybe last year I would have loved. This year though, I've read so many grat books that I loved, this one was just average.
    master hypnotist

  4. Glad to hear you've got such a bounty of great books! Thanks very much for stopping by.