I’m a psychologist. This gives me licence to people watch at parties and nod mysteriously when you talk about your mother.
But my real business? Mind control.
My skills reach everywhere: from your living room to the Vegas strip. From Disneyland to the movie theatre. I have the skills, the tools to make you buy, to make you believe, to make you desire.
You don’t have much say in the matter. You are infinitely suggestible, although you probably don’t want to hear that. You probably think you’re less susceptible the the person sitting to your left, or to your right, or the really hot one two rows in front of you. But I have to break it to you: you are susceptible. You will capitulate to the power of suggestion.
You are getting sleepy...
someone describing the experience of being in a trance when in a trance
It was the 1800s. The place was Europe. People were hooked by a new consciousness ever since the modern medical science had definitively made the split between the mind and the body. And hypnotism was the hot fadsweeping through the parlours of the well-to-do, and on the stages of the big cities. Showmen - like this guy, Frank Anton Mesmer - thought it was a brilliant trick to put people - and animals - into a trance for laughs. Frank here’s party trick was something he called “Mesmerism” - yes, after himself - and he claimed it was his charismatic and powerful gaze that manipulated the magnetic fluid in his patients’ bodies that put them into a deep deep sleep.
There was another school of thought making the circuit. One that was entirely rational and based on science.
Take any bright object (e.g. a lancet case) between the thumb and fore and middle fingers of the left hand; hold it from about eight to fifteen inches from the eyes, at such position above the forehead as may be necessary to produce the greatest possible strain upon the eyes and eyelids, and enable the patient to maintain a steady fixed stare at the object.
This is James Braid. And those were his words. He was a surgeon in Scotland, and thought Mesmer’s claims were poppycock. And Briad's hobby was debunking people who, he thought, made shit up.
The patient must be made to understand that he is to keep the eyes steadily fixed on the object, and the mind riveted on the idea of that one object. It will be observed, that owing to the consensual adjustment of the eyes, the pupils will be at first contracted: They will shortly begin to dilate, and, after they have done so to a considerable extent, and have assumed a wavy motion, if the fore and middle fingers of the right hand, extended and a little separated, are carried from the object toward the eyes, most probably the eyelids will close involuntarily, with a vibratory motion.
After extensive experimentation - first on himself, and then on other people, Braid determined that the trance state had nothing to do with magnetic fluids, and everything to do with fascination.
The explanation for the power that serpents have to fascinate birds … is simply this — that when the attention of man or animal is deeply engrossed or absorbed by a given idea associated with movement, a current of nervous force is sent into the muscles which produces a corresponding motion, not only without any conscious effort of volition, but even in opposition to volition, in many instances; and hence they seem to be irresistibly drawn, or spell-bound, according to the purport of the dominant idea or impression in the mind of each at the time.
When you’re in a trance, you are so concentrated, so focussed on a single thing that you go deeply, deeply into yourself. And it’s there that we are at our most suggestible.
James Braid’s method is still used by clinical hypnotists today - 175 years later. And although Braid rejected the circus circuit himself, his Eye-Fixation-Hypnotic Induction Method has been adopted by modern day stage show hypnotists too. Very little about his technique has changed, except that it’s been formalised into something called the Stanford Susceptibility Scale - Version C.
If any of you have been hypnotised in front of an audience, they’re using Victorian-era trance techniques. And they’re getting you to raise your arms and waggle them about, and taste something sour, and hide from insects, and cluck like a chicken when they pick up a pencil. All of this is in the Stanford Scale. Yup, even the bit about pretending you’re a baby.
But when we’re in our deep deep sleep, we’re not play acting. We’re actually participating in a way that Braid and his chums didn’t really get, but that today has never been better understood.
First of all, the attention areas of the brain are the bits here - it’s called the Angular Gyrus, for those who prefer completion. When you’re hypnotised, the electrical impulses in that part are hyper-activated. So trance does focus the mind, just like Braid said.
But there’s another part to hypnosis than just the trance. It’s what happens when you’re there that makes the difference - for the audience watching or for the person who’s trying to stop smoking.
In 2000 a group of neuroscientists at Harvard and the Massachusetts General Hospital in the US were digging around for a neurological basis for hypnotic suggestion. So they hypnotised a bunch of people and suggested that they look at a painting a lot like Mondrian’s but that they see it in greyscale. And the electrical impulses in the part of the brain that processes colour before the hypnosis were completely different from the electrical impulses in the same part during hypnosis. Suggestion worked its magic.
Another group of neuroscientists from Lund University in Sweden took some syntesthetes and hypnotised them. Synesthetes are the people who can taste the colour red or hear the smell of mangoes, and they normally have a pretty weird electro-map up there. While in the trance, the researchers asked them to stop smelling colours or hearing smells, and their brain electricity transformed into a normal person’s.
So something physical is clearly happening up there. When you’re in a trance, you’re neurobiologically convinced by things that defy rationality.
There’s another thing the Stanford Susceptibility Scale measures, and that’s post-hypnotic suggestion.
This trope belies our greatest fear: that we are not in charge of our consciousness. We are a pawn in a larger story - usually, to be fair, some kind of skilled assassin. The master hypnotist convinces us that we want to do what they tell us to do.
So does this mean you can plead guilty, claiming hypnotism made me do it?
Well, no. The reason Derek Zoolander and Major Bennett Marco from Manchurian Candidate and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall and Nicholas Brody from Homeland have all become skilled assassins is because they are intrinsically motivated to do so.
Psychologists know that it’s almost impossible to get someone to do or think something they don’t want to. Normally, you have to be coerced or bullied. And usually, as soon as the pressure is off, you go back to what you were doing or thinking before. So what’s happening here? What kind of mind control did James Braid tap into?
What hypnotists do with their trance technique is to get you into a state where you want to do or see what they suggest. You become motivated to do it - but not through coercion or bullying, but because you’ve decided that this is what you want to do. You are intrinsically motivated. In these kinds of situations, it’s usually waggling your arms around in the air, or seeing the audience naked.
Hold that thought.
This is Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He’s a psychologist. He’s an expert in happiness, and what gives people joy - even when they’re not getting anything back for their efforts, like money, or fame.. or even a smile. He’s spoken with thousands of people - artists, top athletes, musicians, rock climbers, writers, worker bees. Based on their stories, he’s come up with a theory about how people work most effectively. And he’s sold millions of books worldwide, all about the same thing: it’s about getting into a trance-like state so you can be the best Possible You you can be.
Well, when you are really involved in this completely engaging process of creating something new, as this man is, he doesn't have enough attention left over to monitor how his body feels, or his problems at home. He can't feel even that he's hungry or tired.
That's him in 2004, describing a composer in the mental state he calls Flow:
His body disappears, his identity disappears from his consciousness, because he doesn't have enough attention, like none of us do, to really do well something that requires a lot of concentration, and at the same time to feel that he exists. So existence is temporarily suspended. And he says that his hand seems to be moving by itself.
Everyone in this room has been in Flow. You’ve gone for a run and pushed through those first two painful miles. You’ve got lost in the waves when you’re on your surfboard. You’ve discovered hours have passed while you’re putting beads on a string, playing the piano or stuffing envelopes. You are free from everything else. You’re in the zone...
You know that what you need to do is possible to do, even though difficult, and sense of time disappears, you forget yourself, you feel part of something larger.
In Flow, you’re so fixed onto what you’re doing that everything else evaporates. You are the bird fascinated by the serpent. Your internal magnetic fluids are dancing to the beat of Frank Mesmer’s drum.
This is starting to sound an awful lot like hypnotism. And in fact, there is a connection. But maybe not what you think.
In the early 2000s, Brian Vasquez was sports psychology researcher at the University of Washington, working on his PhD. He knew that top athletes - Olympic level is what we’re talking here - get into a flow state when they’re going for gold. And not only are there there, but that is actually the endgame. Winning is just a perk.
He figured that their peak performance was enhanced by being in The Zone: that they did far better when they were in Flow than they would otherwise. But..
if the state of flow is such a positive experience for an athlete or dancer or artist, why do people not enter this state when they want the desired effects? Therein lays the problem. It cannot be completely controlled and cannot be switched on and off at will. ...And like the ever-elusive fountain of youth, the secrets for achieving this realm upon command have yet to be discovered.
But Vasquez thought he might have the key. If Flow is so similar to hypnotism's trance-state, what if he hypnotised them and suggested that they regress to a previous experience flow?
So to test this, he recruited 48 top basketball players from a US University, tested their dribbling, defensive and three-point hoop performance first, then he either gave them relaxation techniques or hypnotised them, and then tested them again.
The results of this study suggested that participants receiving the hypnosis intervention were able to demonstrate significantly higher all-around basketball performance skill scores at postintervention than participants receiving the relaxation intervention.
So to get into the evasive flow state, you might want to look deep into my eyes...
Or you might want to look at a screen.
Woahhhh. Hold on a second. A screen? The pariah of the modern age? The thing we’re constantly told sucks our life away from us? That will bring us to this state of ecstasy?
Well, yeah. Chick-sent-me-high's concept of Flow has appeared in many places, from the board room to the living room. And one of the most important places is how it’s influenced software designers. A whole lot of them. But none more than computer games developers.
FlOw is divided into 20 levels. Each level introduces new creatures with new challenges. Different from traditional games in which players have to complete one level in order to progress to the next one, flOw offers players power to control their gameplay progress. By choosing different food to eat, players can advance to the more difficult level and return to the easier level at any time. The game features a minimal death penalty. If player died in one level, he will be pushed back to the previous level that is relatively easy. Players can also choose to avoid the challenge, skip the level, and come back later.
Jenova explicitly exploited Chick-sent-me-hi’s Flow to tweak and fine tune the game design of FlOw - balancing the correct amount of skill with the correct amount of challenge, and she did it in a way that let the players determine where they wanted to be, allowing them to avoid their own personal thresholds of anxiety and boredom. This is the enigmatic middle ground is at the core of Chick-sent-me-hi’s Flow and it’s what designers of games try to master.
Designing a video game is very much about how to keep the player in the Flow and eventually be able to finish the game. Therefore, the game system needs to maintain different players' experiences inside the Flow Zone.
Now it’s not just games that have this flow mentality. A team of researchers from Vanderbilt University in the US measured the experience of chatting in chat rooms, using search engines and shopping online and found that the services that were the most compelling put users into a state of flow too.
Consumers who achieve flow on the Web are so acutely involved in the act of online navigation that thoughts and perceptions not relevant to navigation are screened out, and the consumer focuses entirely on the interaction.
We become lost to the rest of the world, so deeply in a trance that we will follow the website’s lead down a rabbit hole… for *hours*.
And I reckon that a good proportion of the people in this room - although you probably won’t admit it - would regard Excel or Outlook as your favourite computer game. Mastering spreadsheets and clearing your inbox get more difficult the better you get at it.
Activities done through digital devices are designed to be compelling. They’re designed to get you into a Flow state. Into a trance, where you feel motivated to continue because your skill is matched by the challenge.
We are convinced by the technology that emptying the inbox is what we want to do. We are convinced that we want to stay in front of our screens. We are convinced that the best way to interact with our friends and families is by posting pictures of ourselves on Facebook, and with work colleagues by connecting with them on LinkedIn.
Once again, we are Intrinsically motivated - maybe not to kill someone or take over the world - but nevertpe less, psychology is being built into the apps and services we use every day.
The people who are designing these things want us to be compelled by their creations, but what they’re building isn’t agnostic. They may be taking advantage of our Flow state to - inadvertently - implant some of their own.
Take The Sims, for example...
A simulation of the real world - get a job, raise a family, buy a house and stock it with mid-century modern furniture.
OK, maybe this is my fantasy.
But this is the basis of the game: to succeed in one kind of life. It’s not to set up a market stall in Accra, Ghana and to open an internet cafe for poor gay kids in ebola-struck neighbourhoods. There *are* alternatives to the capitalist, heteronormative life experiences, but by Flowing through The Sims’ reward and punishment state, we’re learning that this is how we wish to be.
Aspiration, reflection and a privileged Western sensibility: we need to think about where the games and software come from to understand that we’re seeing the world through a very specific point of view.
Remember, most people’s jobs isn't to do email. In fact, the email flow state interrupts every other flow state. And if you find yourself going home after a day at the office satisfied because you’ve emptied your inbox - but your job is actually to do something else - you’re probably entranced by the email-based flow.
So when you return to your desks on Monday, think carefully about every activity you find yourself performing as part of your work duties. Are you doing this because it’s useful and productive and the right thing for the business, or because you’re fascinated by the mesmerising eyes of the designers, and you’re now fixated on winning the game?