Every now and again I come across a book that stops me in my tracks. Trances People Live was one, The User Illusion was another. A few months ago I was given a book by a graduate of ours as a present, which is the best thing people can ever get me (the name of a good book is the second). It’s called the Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton, and, to be honest, as I read the blurb on the back it didn’t inspire me much, but I trusted Katy and so took it with me to a meeting I had, knowing that I’d have an hour to kill in the pub beforehand. The hour flew. In the end I was pulled out of the book by the arrival of a friend and it almost felt that I needed to be, so excited had I become by what I was reading.
I’m on a journey to find out why hypnotic suggestion works. So far the journey has taken about 12 years, and from it I’ve developed Wordweaving, but it’s only the story so far. What Lipton suggests in the first third of his book is a model that, when added to Wordeaving, connects suggestions from the words that are spoken, all the way down to their effect at a cellular level. Let me repeat that. At a cellular level. I’m talking about a model that describes hypnotherapy as a true means of mind/body communication. So I’m a little excited.
Let me start with a précis of Lipton’s theory of where mainstream biology has got it wrong. In cellular biology there exists something called the Central Dogma. Now dogma is a strange word to use in science because its definition goes something like ‘a specific tenet or doctrine authoritatively laid down, as by a church.’ It suggests something not open to question, a received truth, and Lipton makes much of this title, claiming it made him realise, as a lecturer in cellular biology, that he was teaching religion. The term was actually coined by Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of DNA, who later had this to say about his choice,
“As it turned out, the use of the word dogma caused almost more trouble than it was worth…. Many years later Jacques Monod pointed out to me that I did not appear to understand the correct use of the word dogma, which is a belief that cannot be doubted. I did apprehend this in a vague sort of way but since I thought that all religious beliefs were without foundation, I used the word the way I myself thought about it, not as most of the world does, and simply applied it to a grand hypothesis that, however plausible, had little direct experimental support.”
So the label was a mistake, but, as is so often the case, it has tended to be viewed as a truth by many in the field. But not by all, and Lipton doesn’t appear to be alone in his resistance to it being thought of as a settled truth. So what is the central dogma? That DNA controls its own replication and acts as the blueprint for the body’s proteins.
According to the dogma the flow of information is from the DNA, to the RNA, to the protein. The premise is that, as the nature of its proteins defines the character of a living organism, and the proteins are encoded by the DNA, then logically DNA would represent the primary determinant of an organisms traits. This is the wellspring from which flows the idea of genetic determinism that dominates so much of popular opinion. Barely a week goes by without the press reporting the discovery of a gene that causes cancer, or homosexuality, or even a belief in God. Psychologically I can quite see that acceptance of the concept leads to a helpless position where what happens to you is outside of your control – ‘it’s not my fault I’m fat, thin, lazy or violent, it’s in my genes’. Lipton contends that this isn’t just the popularly held view of the way things are, it’s also the prevailing view within biology. As an outsider, and a non-scientist, looking in, I haven’t found the evidence to support this. Certainly the idea of genetic determinism is present – because it does exist. Certain genes do predict absolutely the existence of certain conditions, such as cystic fibrosis and some cancers. But there seems to be a strong presence of scientists within the field who acknowledge other factors beyond the central dogma that exist and influence the growth and behaviour of an organism. It might be that Lipton is guilty of disambiguation – otherwise known as the straw man argument, where you propose a point of view your opponent doesn’t actually hold, and by destroying that point of view enhance your own. If so, I think it’s more in order to be heard to an audience whose attention he’s trying to gain, than to hide any weakness in his own argument, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.
To understand his hypothesis I had to begin in with the basics; what’s the difference between DNA, genes and chromosomes? You can see how much of a scientist I’m not, can’t you?
In a shell belonging to a very small nut, the answer is that DNA is the smallest element of the three. It contains four molecules called bases that combine in different ways to encode the information the DNA carries.
Genes are sequences of DNA that interact with each other to influence physical development and behaviour.
Finally, chromosomes are very long, continuous pieces of DNA (a single DNA molecule), which contains many genes, enveloped in a package of proteins. Every human cell contains 46 chromosomes.
Also contained within the cell are thousands of different proteins. In many ways they can be thought of as engine parts, each with a different job to do to make the engine work, and also combining in different ways to change the function of the cell. Genes are a protein library – a blueprint for making proteins.
Because the nucleus of a cell contains its DNA, and the DNA is responsible for the creation of proteins, it seems to be the general consensus within biology that the nucleus acts as the brain of the cell. This is the place where Lipton begins to swim away from the mainstream. He cites experiments he performed that demonstrated that cells continued to function normally after the removal of the nucleus, only eventually wearing out from the inability to manufacture new proteins. He considers the membrane of the cell to be the brain, and has a detailed model for how it interacts with environmental signals to cause the genes to be expressed. I don’t need to go into detail about this model, thankfully – you can buy the book if you’re interested – it just brings us to the crux of his argument, namely that genes aren’t self-emergent. Something in the environment has to trigger gene activity.
Epigenetics is the study of molecular mechanisms by which the environment controls gene activity, and it has established that DNA blueprints passed down from our parents at birth are not set in concrete. Other influences from the environment, including nutrition, stress and emotions can modify these genes, without changing the basic blueprint. These modifications can themselves be passed onto future generations. Not only does this seem to contradict the central dogma, but also traditional Darwinism, which suggests that evolution takes many generations to have an effect. Evolution can happen from one generation to the next, which obviously has massive implications.
Lipton reverses the Central Dogma by suggesting that it is the environment that causes genes to act. Essentially, environmental signals pass their message through the cell membrane via receptor and effector proteins which cause a gene to be read – essentially it is covered by what is called a regulatory protein until the environmental signal tells it to expose the gene allowing it to be copied. This model he calls the Primacy of the Environment. Gene activity does not happen unless something in the environment requires it to. At a micro level the signals we’re talking about are things like neurotransmitters and peptides, but at a macro level we’re talking about everything that comes through are senses, and from our minds.
The implications of this are massive. According to Lipton only 5% of cancers are genetically determined, which means that, potentially at least, 95% of cancers are caused by a reaction to our environment – or to ourselves. The message Lipton is trumpeting is that genes are not our destiny – which is obviously great news on its own. The reason it gave me the chills, though, was because I recognised there was something I could add to the mix which might help close the circle on the nature of the mind/body connection.
Lipton’s book the Biology of Belief contains a brilliant exposition of cellular biology. He’s one of those rare scientists who render the complex simple. The first 100 pages are quite breath-taking in the way they illuminate a model of genetics that frees us from the determinism that shapes our everyday perceptions. How many times do you hear, “It’s not my fault, it’s a family thing.” “You’re so like your Dad.” “I’m bound to get it, it runs in the family.” Genetic determinism runs through the public consciousness probably way beyond the hold it has over most scientists. For that Lipton has rendered a great service. The second half of the book he runs into a problem common with all of us who are looking to unify knowledge into a coherent ‘theory of everything’. In attempting to create such a model he has, by necessity, to leave his field of expertise and trawl other areas of science and interest to fill the gaps. In his case he finds Quantum physics and some complementary medicine and new age theories. Put together by a man of his intellect it becomes an engaging and plausible model – especially to people less versed than he in the various areas he’s drawn from. The Alternative community has lapped him up.
Personally, I found my highlighter called upon less and less as the book progressed beyond his field. I felt his recourse to Quantum physics, and the idea of thought as energy that can influence the cell was unnecessarily speculative when other explanations are available that I think are more solidly founded. And it’s these other explanations that connect to Lipton’s argument that it’s our environment that causes our actions, from the cell upwards, that I want to pursue next.
I’ll begin with using Francis Crick again, who once wrote, “One thing we can be sure: we do not see things in the way common sense says we should.” And he’s right. Most people think we see the world through our eyes, but we don’t. Nothing travels from our eyes outward, we’re not looking at the world out of them, the world travels in through them.
What actually happens is that light comes in through the eye and hits the retina. It’s converted to electrical signals and shuttled to the brain where it is processed simultaneously by different parts of the visual cortex, parts responsible for movement, colour, etc. The image is re-assembled, predominantly in the part of the brain called the thalamus, which is when we become consciously aware of seeing. However, this begs a big question. If the image is assembled in the brain, how come we see it in front of us? Why not on some kind of screen in our heads? Think about that when you have the time because it’s a big thought. It leads us to conclude that we project onto what is around us what we take it to be. In a very real sense we’re responsible for how things look. Here’s another big thought (actually it’s the end result of the earlier one). On a clear evening go outside and look up at the stars. You’re seeing light from billions of light years away, you’re seeing to the edge of the viewable universe. But that view is being projected from your brain. Your brain is creating the show. You’re walking around in a bubble of reality as wide as the universe that you’re making up.
Here’s an interesting, if slightly geeky fact. There are about 7 million light cells in the eye. So what, I hear you say? Well, you never know it could win you a cheese with Trivial Pursuit, but I mention it because of another even geekier fact; there are 100 million nerve cells in the first visual area the nerve impulses from the eye reach. Does it strike you as odd that there are 100 cells available to process information from every single cell that receives light from the environment? Why would there be this massive overcompensation? The answer is that there isn’t, the processing areas are doing something other than merely making something out of the light sent their way by the eye.
A part of the brain intimately involved in the processing of information is the thalamus. It has been described as the junction box of the brain because information received from the senses is sent to it, and from there it is disseminated to the other areas of the brain responsible for processing it. The key point for our purposes is this; that when these neural messages return to the thalamus they contain 80% more information than when they were sent. Think about that, because the implications lie at the heart of my case. 80% of the world that we become consciously aware of comes from ourselves. We are making up most of the world we live in. In the words of Richard Gregory, “Our sight consists of a hypothesis, an interpretation of the world. We do not see the data in front of our eyes; we see an interpretation.” At a low level of bandwidth – somewhere probably close to the 20% mark – we all agree about what we see. What we don’t agree with is our experience of what we see – and this, I think, is what the apparent surfeit of neural connections (that I mentioned earlier as a geeky fact) is for. The brain is using past experience stored as memory, and anticipatory memory (an imagined future), as the basis for giving meaning to the information that flows into us from our environment. So we don’t see what we sense, we see what we think we sense. And this choice is made for us because when we experience the world around us, for us to experience it, means it’s already been processed – given meaning – by our brain. By the time you perceive an object in front of you the brain has already decided its meaning. So much for reality.
Lipton’s model suggests that our cells respond to messages from our environment that causes the DNA within them to be expressed in order for the response to be possible. At the level of the cell the form of this message is in the shape of neurotransmitters, peptides, hormones etc. At the level of the organism it’s anything that causes our senses to pass the message on to the processing areas of the brain. Now, if our brain creates 80% of our awareness of the environment that our cells respond to, doesn’t that sound like a mind/body connection? It’s a big point, so let me reiterate it. The world we respond to is largely a projection created by the computations of our brain. Every response to the world is ultimately occurring at the cellular level. Therefore, our thoughts are the major events that our cells respond to. I heard on the news today that research has shown that depression is as likely to cause heart disease as obesity or smoking. No kidding. A thought is as much a reason for a cell to respond as a carcinogen in a cigarette, or saturated fat in junk food. It’s all just information for the mind/body to respond or react to.
This synthesis of Lipton’s theory from cellular biology with accepted neuroscience provides us with a useful model for the mind/body connection, but as a therapist what I’m interested in is how knowledge can be used to help our clients. This is where the third strand of my synthesis comes in.
If we accept that we don’t see things around us as they are, just as we know them as a result of our life experiences, the question arises as to how the brain achieves this. How do two brains see the same object but project onto it different experiences? Why does one person stroke a dog and the other run from it?
Now we touch on what was described by David Chalmers as ‘The Hard Problem’. Consciousness. It’s such a hard problem that I’m going to oversimplify my argument to get to what is useful.
Consciousness is what leaves us when we fall asleep, but being awake doesn’t necessarily mean we’re conscious – think about the times you’ve found yourself staring at the TV with no idea what you’ve been watching for the last hour. If we refer to being conscious as being when the part of you that considers you to be you is fully engaged in what is going on in the here and now, research has shown that we’re in that state only 10 % of each day – which dovetails sweetly with other research showing that 90% of our actions are driven unconsciously. The evidence is pointing very strongly to the notion that our mental life is in a state of flux quite naturally, that we move through various states of awareness, often in response to situations around us, or thoughts we’re having. And, when you think about it, it’s not so strange to us. Who doesn’t daydream? Who doesn’t drive for miles without paying attention, or lose themselves looking into a fire or out to sea? The surprising thing is how often we do this – that being conscious is the exception, not being in trance.
Notice I’ve just dropped in the word trance in the middle of a discussion about our mental life. That’s because I’m suggesting that what we label trance is a fundamental part of our subjective experience; in fact, I’m suggesting that trance is the label we give to the way our brain projects meaning onto our environment, it’s how the 80% of information from our memory materialises onto our experience of what is around us and happening to us.
Charles Tart has coined the term ‘consensus trance’ as an alternative to consciousness, because in his view trance is all there is, and consciousness is just the term we give for the bandwidth of experience that we tend to agree about, and that when our experience exceeds that bandwidth it tends to get labelled as something special or abnormal. So when we talk about trance phenomena, we’re just talking about particular labels we give to distortions to our reality that lie beyond Tart’s consensus trance, such as negative hallucination – like when you don’t see something right in front of you even though you’re looking for it, or time distortion where a boring meeting seems to last forever, but an evening you’ve been looking forward to passes in a trice. These phenomena are created by the brain to create a particular way of ‘seeing’ the world that will cause us to respond to it in the way it thinks will serve us best – and serving us best means surviving to procreate, not to make us happy. These ways of ‘seeing’ are called into being in response to particular matches made between past experiences labelled significant to our wellbeing by our brain at the time they happened, and information brought to our attention through our senses in the present. When a match is made this distortion to our ‘seeing’ occurs, and what I call a reality tunnel is created (out of the 80% of information) that moves our actions in a certain direction, often with us being aware of not being fully in control of our actions.
This can be a disconcerting fact, because usually it feels like we’re in charge, doesn’t it? That we’re steering our own boat? Yet time and time again it’s shown that the reasons why we say we do things aren’t actually the reasons why we’re doing them. Indications are that our conscious self likes to feel in charge and so rationalises our actions to give an impression of a coherent personality; in a way we are a story we tell ourselves.
So, things are getting wobbly, aren’t they? I’m suggesting that 80% of what surrounds us is an illusion, and that maybe so are we. The good news is that if life is an illusion, it leaves us free to imagine it and us in any way that we want – because that’s what we’re doing already, it’s just that a lot of the way we imagine the world and ourselves is negative, which leads to the problems and issues my clients bring to therapy. In Trances People Live, Wolinsky first introduced me to the idea that trance states were part of the problem pattern that a client experiences, and that ‘waking them up’ from that state was fundamental to helping them change. Nowadays these states leap obviously from the mouths of my clients, it’s just a question of tuning your ears to them. The trance phenomena they voice as their means of knowing their problem exists are the obvious pointers. A phrase like, “My boss only has to look at me and I freeze” is one of those phrases that could be dropped into a coffee break conversation without it sounding strange to those hearing it, and yet it contains interesting information about this person. Something about her boss – the quality of the look, the fact that they’re an authority figure, something, causes her brain to find a match with something from her past which is threatening, which in turn causes a physical response – in her case, freezing. So, in one phrase we have the initiator of her negative reality tunnel – her boss – which plunges her into an experience where she is no longer in control of her body. Two trance phenomena might be the means by which this tunnel is created – positive hallucination and sensory distortion; positive hallucination is when we project onto our environment something that isn’t there, or that the majority of others wouldn’t agree is there in the form you describe – like the scary appearance of her boss. Sensory distortion is where a sense, other than visual, is distorted beyond an ‘average experience’. In this case her kinaesthetic sense is distorted to make her perfectly healthy body feel frozen. What we often treat as a metaphorical phrase is often describing a literal experience.
For the purposes of this epic blog I hope I’ve gone far enough with my description of trance states and trance phenomena for you to see where they fit in the picture – namely that if our genes are turned on by our environment, and, at a macro level at least, 80% of our environment is an illusion created by our brain, then this illusion must be created by something and I’m arguing that that something is what we’ve come to call trance. Which now brings us to hypnotherapy.
The foundation of hypnotherapy is trance. Hypnosis is the term given to the utilisation of trance states. The fact that I’m now describing such states as naturally occurring brain states rather than a special state of ‘hypnosis’ created by the hypnotist doesn’t change anything other than perhaps the breadth of the remit hypnotherapy could claim. Because, if all problems are problems bound by trance states, then it turns the old bone of ‘is hypnotherapy a psychotherapy’ on its head and asks ‘is all psychotherapy hypnotherapy?’ Guess where I’d fall on that one.
Anyhoo, if hypnotherapy – and here I mean Cognitive Hypnotherapy – is about finding the best ways to use this modern view of trance to help ourselves then it’s a means by which the circle of mind/body communication can be described. Which brings me back to Wordweaving.. If you’ve been to the site before, or read other things I’ve written then you’ll know that it’s a specific model that teaches how to use language to influence the client using the information they provide, which includes the trance states they use to create their problem. Much of the effect of Wordweaving, I currently believe, is based on priming; the fact that our brain brings to our attention what it’s been made ready to expect. An easy example is advertising. Billions are spent every year by companies to get us to unconsciously associate their product with a need we feel we have. As we walk mindlessly along the supermarket aisle we shouldn’t be surprised that a product catches our eye that we’ve seen on the tv. What we don’t think of are the hundreds of other products on the adjacent shelves that haven’t had the benefit of dancing before our eyes every night on our telly. That’s priming. So, at least part of what Wordweaving achieves is to prime the client’s brain to notice things. Traditional suggestion will largely prime them with what the therapist thinks they need to notice to feel better; in Cognitive Hypnotherapy our Wordweaving will prime the client to notice what they’ve told us that would mean they’re getting better. A subtle but fundamental difference.
So Wordweaving primes the client’s brain to bring to their attention whatever the client’s evidence would be for being better. Bearing in mind that 80% of what comes to mind is our own invention anyway, then our deliberate use of trance phenomena is harnessing this to enable the client’s brain to create a positive reality tunnel to replace the one that housed their problem. They begin to create an environment which supports the goals they want to achieve.
As the client experiences this new reality the possibility exists, if Lipton is right, that this enriched environment would then cause a change in the genes that are read and lead to physical changes in us.
We become the person who fits the tunnel; we always have. But now, by creating the best tunnel, we create our best self. From mind to body; from thought to matter, via the magic of words. Well done if you’ve stayed with me this far, I hope you can see why I’m excited.