I took part in further hypnosis research this morning, and very fascinating it was too. The first part, if you recall, demonstrated that I’m highly suggestible, the second that I’ve got great frontal lobes. This, well, I’m not sure what part three showed other than that I might be a suitable candidate for an fMRI scan.

The inducement of a possible brain scan all of my very own (or rather the hope of a digital image of the result) was what got me involved in the first place. And of course nobody can promise anything. But I live in hope. I also await the assessment which will determine whether my “maintenance” dose of Citalopram will disqualify me from taking part. Oh, the agony! Imagine, so near and yet so far. I’m booked in for a scan this coming Saturday morning but unsure whether it will happen…

Even more tantalising is the discovery that the scientist in charge of the neuroimaging part of the study is – wait for it – a meditator. And extremely interested in the neuropsychology underlying meditation. And any links there might be between hypnotic and meditative states. Hot, hot, hot, hot damn. I would absolutely definitely stop taking my maintenance dose, if that prevented scans, in order to have something to do with *that* research. After all I only take it because the doctor suggested it was a good idea, not because I feel I need it. (See how keen I am?)

So. Today. It was at the Psychology Department at University College London and involved being hypnotised by a professor there in a space the level of shabbiness and disrepair of which (tiles hanging off the ceiling etc etc) I’ve come to expect of our prestigious centres of excellence (sigh). Then a series of very small movements of one hand under various different suggested conditions.

I’m not sure I’m qualified to say what it’s “like” being hypnotised, having only been so twice recently and once a couple of decades ago. But so far I would say it’s unlike any other experience I’ve had. It’s not like any meditative state I’ve achieved, that’s for sure. There’s an extraordinary passivity about it which, possibly because it’s so far from my normal mode of curious engagement, not to say ornery cussedness, I find rather delightful.

So the hypnotiser says “just sit there”, or words to that effect, and I just sit there. The thought passed, fleetingly, through my mind “how long might I just sit here entirely motionless other than breathing? how many hours?” but it passed and disappeared and I just sat there, how long for I have absolutely no idea. It’s the nearest experience I’ve had to being a machine, operated by someone pushing buttons. I’ve been *treated* like a machine, more than once and in several different circumstances, but this is qualitatively different, because I *choose* to allow it to happen under certain clearly defined circumstances over which, ultimately, I feel as though I have the ability to change should I wish to do so.

Anyway, enough of that. Navel-gazing taken to a new level! I still await the scanning-suitability-questionnaire and the results thereof. However even should I not be able to have a scan the other research tasks are more than fascinating enough to keep me coming back for more. If asked.

Hypnotic earworm

by the sea - blue

Why would this image have anything to do with an earworm?

It was the teacher’s suggestion to use blue ink to make the print. Inspired. Now the water and foam look both like water and foam and also sky and cloud. And the moon floats serenely in both.

(Let me link yet again to the absolutely brilliant poem the image was originally created to go alongside.)

Sky and clouds feature as a metaphor for conveying how we might still our minds during meditation:

The mind is like space or like sky, completely clear, not solid, and vast, spacious and unlimited.

Try to get a sense of how your mind is like that, like this clear, vast, spacious sky.

The things that we are aware of, the thoughts, images, memories and so on, are similar to the clouds that pass through the sky.

They’re not always there but they appear and after a while they disappear.

If there are thoughts appearing in your mind while you are sitting here doing this meditation, thoughts, memories, images, or if you hear sounds or feel sensations in your body, think that these are just like clouds, passing through this space or clear sky of your mind.

Let them come and let them go, realise that they are only momentary and not solid, they just come and go.

Let them go and return your awareness to the mind itself, which is like the clear spacious sky.

“You can be above your thoughts and watch them as though they were clouds below you in the sky” said my teacher.

I have a huge problem with this, though. Absolutely massive.

The problem is that the first time I was introduced to this way of conceptualising the activity (or lack of activity) someone in the group, who shall remain nameless but never forgotten, started singing Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchel:

I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all.

And every single time, yes, every. single. time. I meditate in this way I have to listen to Joni and her little ditty.

This has been amusing. Also infuriating. Boring. Enraging. Irritating like a shirt label rubbing the sensitive skin on the back of your back. Painful as an ill-fitting shoe rubbing a raw patch of skin. Frustratingly circularly self-referential as a small dog chasing its docked tail.

No doubt this is highly revealing in some way about the crapness of my mind but don’t ask me how. Nowadays I just let her twitter on, secure in the knowledge that there’s nothing I can do about it and trying to makes it worse. Maybe one day it won’t happen… and I’ll notice. And then maybe, one day, it won’t happen… and I won’t notice!

After producing a permanent pictorial reminder of a meditation closed-loop I trundled down to the IoP to take part in Dr Bell‘s research into the neuropsychology of suggestion and dissociative disorders, which was remarkably similar to the Joni effect.

I used to believe myself highly susceptible to hypnosis since a friend at university, who’d done a day’s course, managed to make me offer the assembled company hot chocolate in midsummer as a result of post-hypnotic suggestion. Of course I only have everyone else’s word for it that I was acting in a pre-programmed way since I remember nothing other than making the offer and everyone falling about laughing.

This time it was different. Although I believe I was probably hypnotised because I couldn’t, for instance, bend my arm when told it was stiff there was part of my brain which was observing everything as though from a distance. Looking at clouds from both sides now, as it were. So while I couldn’t bend my arm when told it was as stiff as a bar of iron there was part of my brain saying “hmmm, interesting. You’re trying really hard to bend your arm, genuinely trying, but you can’t. However you know that you haven’t lost the ability to move. You could do it. But you won’t because you’ve been told you can’t. Hmmm. Interesting.”

Most interesting was the post-hypnotic suggestion. I remember being told that I was going to forget everything I had been asked to do while hypnotised and then remember everything when I prompted by a certain set of words. I think I was told that I was also going to forget what I had been told. But the cloud-watching part of the brain was busy telling me that this was obviously the post-hypnotic suggestion part of the plan and was keeping tabs on what was going on.

When we were “woken up” we were asked to write down on a piece of paper what we had been doing while hypnotised. I knew that I’d been told I wouldn’t be able to remember, I also knew that I almost certainly could, but – and here’s the interesting bit (for those of you who might not find this blow-by-blow account entirely riveting) – I couldn’t activate the part of my brain necessary to recover the memory in order to write it down. In the end I had to write “I was told I wouldn’t be able to remember but I can’t remember whether I was told I wouldn’t be able to remember that or not”.

Doncha just love the human brain?

I fear my failure to be deeply hypnotised will rule me out of further opportunities to take part in the research and, most important of all to me, have a brain scan image all of my very own to play with. Rats.

So now I’m wondering what effect, if any, practising meditation has on ones suggestibility for hypnosis and whether this particular sort of dissociative activity (“mind observing mind”, unlike the pathological dissociation experienced by people with PTSD and, let it be said, certain forms of depression) is useful or otherwise.

Rhetorical wonderings, of course. But I’m glad I went and I’m glad I have the print which so serendipitously reminds me of the experience.