Book Review: “Battle for the Mind”

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I first heard of Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brain-Washing in a sermon that was addressing the godly and ungodly choices one can make in life, as well as the things that influence us.  The preacher let us know that this controversial work had made quite a stir since its first appearance in 1957, but that it since had been “discredited.”  Far from discouraging me to forget the title, this only made me more determined to find out what this book was all about and why people were upset to the point that they wanted to discredit it.

One clue was the subhead on the cover, which reads “How Evangelists, Psychiatrists, Politicians, and Medicine Men can change your beliefs and behavior.”  The idea that evangelists and psychiatrists–people with respectable and sometimes laudable credentials–should be lumped in with politicians and medicine men–whose credibility and intentions may be seriously in doubt–certainly could ruffle some feathers.  And it just didn’t make any sense on the face of it.

The author, William Sargant, himself a highly controversial figure, is described by one web site as being “perhaps the foremost face of British mind control experimentation.”  His basic premise in the work under discussion is that brain-washing–in this case, the radical shift from even core beliefs to different beliefs suggested by someone else–is accomplished by bringing the subject to a state of complete nervous, and often physical, exhaustion–or what today we would refer to as “trauma.”  Modern referents would be terms like battle fatigue, shell-shock, or PTSD, but Sargant makes clear that such breakdowns may also occur due to administration of drugs, electro-convulsive therapy, fear of punishment (proximate, as in torture, or future, as in the prospect of eternity in Hell for sinners), and even continued exposure to rhythmic sounds such as are present in voodoo ceremonies or while dancing to rock and roll.

Sargant’s explanation of this begins with records of experiments on dogs by Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist famous for his work on classical conditioning with salivating dogs.  When Pavlov’s dogs were accidentally traumatized by nearly being drowned in his flooded laboratory, he noticed significant changes in their behavior.  They seemed to have forgotten their recent conditioning and were even observed to have reversed their training in some cases.  They also seemed to show a dislike for human keepers whom they had previously liked.  In short, they lost their previous thought patterns.

Sargant then goes on to postulate that this inducement of trauma, whether deliberate or accidental, is the key method used by the various groups mentioned to influence behavior and change thought patterns.  The weakness in his argument lies in the fact that he applies it too far afield, perhaps revealing his own personal prejudices rather than proven facts.  His examples run the gamut, and in many cases the connection is obvious–as in the tortures used to elicit confessions during the Spanish Inquisition and in the jails and police stations of Communist states who were hell-bent on wiping out all ideological opposition.  In some cases cited, individuals were subjected to so much pain, monotony, and physical deprivation that they would have confessed to anything.  Ironically, however, Sargant points out that it was not uncommon for these individuals to later insist on their guilt as wrongdoers (despite there being no evidence) and on their allegiance to the new state, the new religious teachings, or the new way of thought.  They had truly been brainwashed.

But is this what happens in a psychiatrist’s or psychologist’s office?  Certainly, an effort is made to convince patients that certain behaviors are constructive and others destructive, yet we see none of the continued deprivation, torture, and threats to life and family experienced in the cases mentioned above.  Even a more extreme measure like ECT, which has been shown to be highly effective in reversing some symptoms of certain mental illnesses, is generally aimed at resetting the brain function to a calmer level and not at implanting new thoughts.

Then there are the evangelists.  There are definitely “hell and brimstone” preachers who will bring up the threat of eternal punishment for unrepentant sinners, but elevating the fear of eternal punishment to the level of the fear of losing one’s present life is, for most of us, a non-sequitur.  To be sure, the idea of being thrown into a lake of fire for eternity is a powerful argument for faith, but for non-believers, Hell is not an issue.

My readers may wonder how the practice of hypnosis–erroneously thought by some to be a form of brain-washing–fits into this picture.  The answer, according to Sargant, is that it doesn’t. He does cite instances in World War I in which hypnosis was used to help battle-scarred individuals to mentally (and safely) relive their traumas in order to deal with them in therapy. This is hardly the same, however, as deliberately invoking a disabling mental crisis.

On the other hand, it is not difficult to imagine that the relentless drumming and exhausting dancing for hours that is part of some voodoo rites does indeed leave the individual in a dog-tired stupor–a state in which minds may indeed be influenced and declarations of voodoo practitioners believed.  Whether or not the same effect is produced by dancing to rock and roll seems questionable at best.

All this being said, there is definitely value to realizing that thoughts and even core beliefs may be changed by traumatic experiences or treatments.  It is important to note that Sargant is not advocating such experiences; he is merely explaining what he believes to be the mechanism and method for changing thoughts and, perhaps, behaviors.

This is a fascinating book, but the reader should be aware that descriptions of some methods of brain-washing are disturbing to read.  Whether you credit or discredit all or parts of this book, it certainly offers some interesting explanations for changes that we sometimes find inexplicable.

If you read, or have read, this book.  Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions here.

 

 

Hypnosis Q&A: Can Hypnosis Really Recover Lost Memories?

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The answer to this question depends on what kinds of memories we are talking about.
For example, one of the most controversial uses of hypnosis has been in the so-called recovery of “suppressed memories” of traumatic events.
There was a time not so long ago when it was believed that the subconscious mind records an exact record of everything that happens to a person, and that if hypnosis could tap this record, even long-lost memories could be recovered.  This technique has been famously used to allegedly help victims of psychological and physical trauma to recover memories of what was done to them long in the past, and by whom it was done.  The idea is that the memory has been suppressed by the unconscious mind because it is too painful for the conscious mind to deal with.
Unfortunately, this way of recovering “memories” rests on a false premise: namely that what the unconscious mind records is an exact record of what went on–similar to a video recording.  Research has shown, however, that this is simply not so.  What the mind remembers is its own “story” of what happened, and this story–told by an individual to himself or herself–has many contributing factors, such as the emotional state of the individual at the time of the event, the ability of the individual at that time to understand what was happening, the influence of those attempting to recover the memory, and the desire of the individual to change the story to make himself or herself appear more heroic or blameless.  Readers interested in this subject should consult Elizabeth Loftus’ groundbreaking work “The Myth of Repressed Memory.”
The key point is that what is “recovered” could certainly be tainted by a number of factors to the point that it is far from a factual representation of any situation remembered.  I have yet to see any convincing evidence that exact memories of past events can be extracted by hypnosis, but I have seen that an individual’s feelings about such events can be uncovered by reliving the the events under hypnotherapy.  This can be highly useful in therapy.
Other memories, such as the location of a lost object, can indeed be recovered, but this is more a case of the individual concentrating on the object–aided by hypnosis–and simply accessing information already contained in the mind.  This information is usually not of a traumatic nature, so suppression for that reason is not a factor.
To be sure, this is a very complicated subject, and we have barely scratched the surface here.  It is worth remembering, however, that hypnosis–while it may look like magic–is not.  Helping the mind to relax and focus is sometimes all that is needed to retrieve the “lost” information sought.
Please keep your questions and comments coming!

Hypnosis Q&A: Undue Influence?

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Q: Isn’t hypnosis just a way to take over a person’s free will and make him or her do whatever the hypnotist wants?
A.  Fortunately for all of us, the answer is no.  People who are given hypnotic suggestions that are contrary to their deeply held beliefs and desires will simply reject such suggestions.  In our clinical setting, of course, patients are only given positive, healing suggestions–many of which are agreed upon by the patients in advance of the hypnotherapy session.  Not surprisingly, such suggestions are almost always welcomed.
Hypnosis, then, acts as a magnifier of these positive suggestions, as the patient is able to focus clearly on the positive changes desired, while ignoring other thoughts that could interfere with such healing.
Yet almost every media and cinema representation of hypnosis involves some nefarious individual bent on bending the will of some poor victim through hypnosis. This perception has become ingrained in our public consciousness over the years to the point that the average person assumes it is true.  This is most unfortunate, because most clinical hypnotists–like others who practice healing arts and sciences–are interested only in helping individuals to marshal their own subconscious resources to affect positive change and healing.
This is not to be confused with stage hypnosis, whose end is to entertain an audience.  I will have much more to say on that in answer to future questions.
Meanwhile, please rest assured that hypnosis cannot subvert the strong will of the individual.  In fact, it is primarily because hypnotherapy patients have such a strong will to change and heal that hypnosis is such a wonderful and effective treatment modality!
Keep those questions coming!

But HOW Does Hypnosis Work? (Part 1)

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In our last post, we looked at the question of whether or not hypnosis or hypnotherapy actually works, which it undoubtedly does.  But that begs another, perhaps more interesting, question: Just how does hypnotherapy work in the mind to affect desired changes?
First, let me state that no one actually knows the answer to this question, although there are many interesting ideas.  If this surprises you, think about the fact that there are a number of drugs that share this same mystery; that is, they do work for the prescribed conditions, but doctors are not sure exactly how working works!  Science has not yet caught up with real world functionality.
So what follows is my own opinion about how hypnosis enables individuals to make changes, based on my training, my research, and–most important–my experience as a clinician.  It should also be stated that I am taking a broad overview of hypnosis as a practice, acknowledging that there are many differences in therapeutic modalities while at the same time stating that most forms of hypnotherapy share the same basic factors.
Most hypnosis clinicians agree that hypnosis involves the unconscious mind.  According to SimplyPyschology.org, “the unconscious mind comprises mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgements, feelings, or behavior (Wilson, 2002). According to Freud (1915), the unconscious mind is the primary source of human behavior. Like an iceberg, the most important part of the mind is the part you cannot see.”
Freud said this part of the mind is filled with images and thoughts that, if known by the conscious mind (the part we use during most of our waking lives), might prove disturbing or upsetting.  Be that as it may, our unconscious thought processes can exert a powerful influence on our perceptions and behaviors.  These thought processes are often blamed for otherwise inexplicable things, such as unreasonable fears or habits that seem to arise out of nowhere.
The unconscious is also thought to be expressed in the realm of dreams, which suggests that the understanding of our unconscious mind is far different–and usually far less logical–than that of the conscious mind.  It is for this reason that dreams, when remembered, often seem to be nonsensical to our conscious minds.  To put it another way, the unconscious mind has a language and symbolism of its own–an idea advanced famously by the noted psychologist C. G. Jung.
Since most of us acknowledge that the unconscious mind has the power to influence behavior and perception, it follows that influencing or changing what goes on in the unconscious mind itself can and will bring about positive changes, whether the problem is a phobia, a bad habit, anxiety, or your errant golf swing.  This is the task of the hypnotherapist: to access the unconscious mind, to see how that mind is influencing or causing undesirable feelings and behaviors, and to change or repair thought patterns to yield more positive and helpful results.
In our next posting, we will discuss how the hypnotherapist works with the unconscious mind to achieve those desired results.
Meanwhile, your comments and suggestions are always welcomed.