<< Back to Blog list

Hypnosis and Free Will

2019-10-21 08:14:05

Hypnosis seems so full of contradictions! You don’t see them if you if you don’t look, but how can anyone justify using this wonderful tool without looking at its science and philosophy? “Don’t worry,” we may say to a new patient, “Hypnosis is an entirely natural state, and I can’t make you do anything against your will.” The implication here is that they have come along of their own free will, and nothing can be done to subvert it. Their ‘free will’ wasn’t up to helping them by itself, nor perhaps was their GP, nor even the CBT practitioner to whom they were referred. Yet, rather quickly, hypnosis starts to bring clear positive results. That’s pretty impressive, and it’s not unusual for people to say that it has changed their life; it certainly changed their brain. Hypnosis has worked where chemical brainchangers and NICE-endorsed mental modification both failed. Surely, a procedure so powerful could defeat the will? It can certainly lead to people doing things they wouldn’t normally want to do, such as when confronting a phobia. Similarly, I have been involved with court cases, where it has been alleged that hypnosis was used to facilitate sexual offences against a client, without any force being used. So, is hypnosis remarkably powerful, or is the will feeble and ephemeral? Although we are making advances in elucidating the neural processes underpinning hypnosis, there is still much that we do not fully understand of this altered state of consciousness. That is in large part because we have not yet unravelled the mysteries of ‘unaltered consciousness’! So, let’s look instead at something that is so often taken for granted: free will. I will take a little while getting there, there’s lots of groundwork to do, so please bear with me.

It is not so long ago that Richard Selley died at Dignitas. Because suicide was once illegal, coroners like to use a humane, white-washing verdict: “He died by his own hand, while the balance of his mind was disturbed.” What does that really mean? I suppose in everyday language it might be expressed as, “You can’t really blame him because he just wasn’t thinking straight.” So, what is it to ‘think straight’; how should we judge when a person isn’t? Given that we all have our different ways of thinking about things it is difficult to establish a norm. However, at any one time the vast majority of us are not contemplating suicide, so we might conclude that for any person to carry out that act is sufficiently far from the norm as to prove that their mind must have been disturbed. Hang on though. What about terminally ill people such as Richard Selley, who decide to travel to Switzerland? Although not everyone would make that choice, their decision-making seems eminently rational. Now, I hasten to make clear that I do not develop this point in order to follow it up by saying that they must therefore be guilty of self-murder! I have taken this topic of suicide in order to question how we reach particular decisions, not to pass any form of judgement.

Now I turn to what might be seen as a more ‘mainstream’ suicide: the distressing case of a clinically depressed individual who finally decides that they can cope no longer. Does the poor person have a disturbed mind? Let’s stop using that unhelpful word (I’ll explain shortly) and ask whether the depressed person has a disturbed brain. Well, they possibly do; levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin may be low for example, although there is a chicken-and-egg issue here. Did the drop in serotonin cause the sense of depression, or did a long period of feeling depressed cause the levels to fall? For the purposes of my argument the direction of causality is not really relevant. It is my contention that these two examples of suicide are not so very different; in one a person feels that they cannot face a predicted future, while in the other they cannot face any more of the present. In these enlightened times we would hope that no one was ever condemned for taking their own life, whatever their motivation. However, in addition I hope I have shown that, even if one intended to discriminate, there are no rational grounds for doing so.

I now want to take this a little further, travelling by way of another legal issue: the case of someone who is, in a sense, excused their wrongdoing, because they are judged not to have been ‘of sound mind’ when committing the crime. Incidentally, I can recommend a helpful examination of these issues at: http://www.lawcom.gov.uk/app/uploads/2015/06/insanity_discussion.pdf

Viewed uncritically, this seems very reasonable. Take, for example, the case of a patient with schizophrenia who attacks someone; he had heard voices incessantly insisting that he should do so. We have some understanding now of what is going on in the brain of a schizophrenia sufferer. From that we can honestly say that it was his brain which made the patient attack someone. (I should point out that, once again, this is just an example. Such patients are far more likely to harm themselves than others.) You will note that here, as in the previous example, the law speaks of minds while I refer to brains. It is time to address this discrepancy, before I continue my consideration of crime and culpability.

There would be no issue at all, if everybody treated mind and brain as synonyms, but they don’t. Some like to use a computer analogy, and see the brain as the hardware and the mind as the software, but this is an unnecessary complication, because the manner in which the software is stored in our ‘computer’ is by modification of the information-carrying synapses, the very architecture of the brain; it’s as if the computer is the program. The strong version of the distinction states that mind and brain are two entirely separate entities. This is really a hark back to Cartesian Dualism. It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now! In the Seventeenth Century it was natural enough to believe in an immaterial spiritual world and a material physical world. The essence of self was seen as spiritual, but for a lifespan we have to inhabit a physical body. Descartes (from whose name derives the adjective Cartesian) subscribed to this view, but he recognised that there was a problem. If we are responsible for our body, in effect making it behave itself, how does the immaterial communicate with the material? How do we instruct the body and how do we get to know what the body is experiencing? Descartes rightly believed that the brain was at the heart of the controlling and monitoring processes in the physical realm, but where was the link to the soul? He concluded that this must take place through the pineal gland, which seemed appropriately located in the middle of the brain. For one who believed in logical, stepwise reasoning, this was (at least by today’s standards) a dreadful cop-out! He should first have demonstrated that body-soul communication was actually taking place, and only then gone on to consider possible mechanisms. Of course, in those days the communication was taken as axiomatic, but we have no such excuse. We also know that the pineal gland is involved in controlling the sleep/wake cycle.

All the evidence now available shows that processing of external or internal events, decision making and acting upon our external environment are all handled by the brain. Of course, there could be a soul which somehow mirrors everything we observe in the brain, but that would be an issue for faith, because there is no scientific evidence for anything of that sort. Faith aside, it is a reasonable conclusion that if there is a ‘me,’ separate from my working brain, then it must actually be lodged within the brain – a special region which does the ‘me thing’. This is the homunculus theory – the little person in the head. There are two problems with this idea. First, in spite of the growing sophistication of our brain scanning techniques, there is no vestige of evidence that any such entity exists. Is it just too small to find? Well no, that is the other problem. The homunculus theory requires the brain that we know about to produce what has been called a Cartesian theatre. The brain would first do the prodigious quantities of complex processing required, in order to reach an understanding of what is going on in its world. Having completed this feat, it stages the details for the ‘me’ to observe, but how will ‘me’ understand it? The homunculus would require its own brain, not just to understand but to do the additional things (whatever they are) that proponents of an inner-self believe it is there to do. There are no ‘nano-neurons’ such as could make a miniature brain; the brain of a homunculus would have to be at least as large as the one we can observe. It is inescapable that our brain is the only mental processor we have, and that it manages all the processing, feeling, deciding and acting of which we are capable.

I will now return briefly to crime and mitigation. Consider once again the case of someone with a known mental condition, who is in some sense excused the crime. Society is saying, in effect, “His brain made him do it.” Quite right too, but what about the rest of us who do things? We all do what we do because our brains make us do so; there is nothing else, there is no one else in our head. Brains do not become culpable only when malfunctioning in the mental health sense. Earlier I omitted one sort of suicide: the suicide bomber. If their brain is not sick what makes them commit such a terrible crime? I am not in a position to explain any specific case, but we all know what the authorities dread: radicalisation. Over a protracted period, the killer hears a particular message and mixes with others who share a particular belief system. That influences their brain, and hence their behaviour, just as our experiences influence our behaviour by way of our brains. You may object to this analysis by saying, “But they didn’t have to give in to the indoctrination; not everyone does.” No, because not everyone has an identical brain. As with every other part of our body, the brain’s design and function is genetically and epigenetically determined. That means it develops under the influence of an individual’s personal set of genes, and then can be modified in its behaviour, depending upon which particular genes are expressed at any one time. That expression can be influenced by environmental conditions. The fact that different people respond differently to what, superficially, may seem similar circumstances, does not mean that there are several alternatives available to any one individual’s brain.

At this point, some people would wish to raise a final objection, that I have omitted to consider free will. Let me just summarise the factors that I have considered. I have explained that our actions, whether benign or malign, are determined by the state of our brain. The state is determined by the current circumstances, but exactly how the brain responds to the situation depends upon its architecture, the nature of its synapses and so on. The final dependency, the explanation for the brain’s structure, is that this is determined by genes and environment. In a nutshell, our behaviour is determined by current circumstances, genes and past experiences. There doesn’t seem to be anything ‘free’ in there. Some people cling doggedly to their experience of having free will. The experience is there, no doubt, but as I hope to explain, in reality the very concept appears to be meaningless.

If all this seems very troubling, then I recommend downloading and reading the following Royal Society document: https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/brain-waves/society-policy/  When I read that paper, I was pleased to see that my views were broadly in line with some very eminent neuroscientists. Consequently, it came as an enormous surprise to read the following blog: https://www.sainsburywellcome.org/web/blog/free-will-perspectives-neuroscience The author asked a number of neuroscientists whether they believed we have free will; a significant proportion replied that they did! They gave reasons for their answers and anyone is free to read them and draw their own conclusions. To be honest, I think some of those labelled ‘believers’ were misclassified by the blogger; they were merely trying to produce nuanced responses. For example, one acknowledged that people certainly feel as if they have free will, but it is a social construct and society needs to behave as if its members have it. That is fair enough, otherwise people might argue that no one should be convicted of any crime, because none of us can help it. So, free will is a pragmatic concept, but that doesn’t make it a reality. Others effectively took the line that the opposite to free will was determinism, and since we cannot predict what people will do, it follows (they claim) that we are not determined, i.e. we are free to choose. This is nonsense. For a start, we are relatively good at predicting what people will do. For example, a spouse might often remark, “I knew you were going to say that.” This is perhaps like predicting when a volcano will erupt. Volcanologists are getting better at predicting within some margin, but a large element of uncertainty remains. Does that mean volcanos have free will? It merely means that we are unable to access and interpret all the relevant parameters. The human brain is enormously more complex than a volcano, in fact it is arguably the most complex device known to us. Inevitably, we cannot predict with certainty what a brain will do. What it finally does do will obviously be determined by the relevant parameters, it would be ridiculous for it to be otherwise – if all that was needed was something to keep others guessing, then a far simpler mechanism could have evolved: a random response generator. The opposites of determined responses are not free responses; they are random responses. Free will is an impossible concept; it implies that something is at one and the same time appropriate yet non-determined. It is as if the brain does half a job, stopping work before a final decision, while two or three alternatives still remain unresolved. Then, some other pristine mechanism steps forward to make its selection, untrammelled by past or present. In fact, so free is this entity, from all the strictures that constrain the rest of the brain, that it might be deemed naive. Notwithstanding this child-like quality, should the choice prove wrong, then it will be castigated, because it had been free to choose and deliberately made the wrong choice! What if it cannot choose? Well, then it can flip a coin. That would be the true meaning of free will: to relinquishing the benefit of using a highly evolved (though fallible) mechanism for making evidence- and experience-based choices, and to rely instead upon a random event.

Sir Tom Winsor, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, recently described our prison system as ‘brutal and broken’. He asserted that too much time and money is spent in catching and imprisoning criminals. He reasoned that it would be so much more cost effective if spent on dealing with the initial causes of the mental states that afflict so many prisoners, issues such as childhood abuse and neglect. Unfortunately, there are few votes available for prison reform, unless it’s in locking up even more prisoners for even longer. “Prison isn’t meant to be nice,” people say, “They had the choice and they chose a life of crime.” There is the problem: the faulty extrapolation from the fact of many potential lifestyles to the fiction that any one brain is in a meaningful sense free to take its pick. This attitude will prevail, until we abandon the fiction of free will. Of course, some people must be locked up, for the good of society and perhaps for their own good too, but we must try to disseminate the truth, that our sense of free will is illusory. In the past, people have mocked miscreants, who blamed their childhoods. Now we must educate people that this not a facile excuse; it is very probably justified.

Mine is not a message of uninspiring mediocrity, relegating the human to no more than a mindless machine, doomed blindly to blunder its course, to whatever end its genes and environment decree. We are unbelievably complex and exciting creatures, and fortunately we don’t have free will. If our choices really were made through that chimeric mechanism, there would be nothing to stop us making the same wrong choice time after time. As it is, our choices come under the influence of our experiences. It is best that those experiences are of the right sort, from as early in our lives as possible, but even in adulthood it is often possible to help a brain damaged by its early environment; it just takes the right experiences.

So, finally back to hypnosis! What can we learn from the above? Hypnosis, as we know, can be a vehicle for generating vividly realistic experiences – even of things not present and never before encountered. By such means it is possible to change people’s brains, making them happier, able to reach better decisions, adopt new habits and simply see the World in a new way. I asked in my first paragraph whether hypnosis was remarkably powerful. Now, in my last I will answer: Yes, I think it is.

Peter Naish      peter.naish@open.ac.uk


<< Back to Blog list