(These are preparatory maquettes I make to help me visualize a painting’s structure. Acrylic-painted card-stock, movable parts.)
Several weeks ago on my zoe-in-wonderland blog, I posted a segment from a Borges story in which there were two worlds, each on opposing sides of any mirrored surface; in that story, those living on one of those sides, as a result of a curse, was forced to do no more than mimic the actions of others. I posited that ours was that side, and that, the more I read on neuroscience and memory and habit, the more it seems that our lives are constant repetitions of habits we began very, very early in life. I also told the story of a Russian reporter identified only as S. by his doctor, A.R. Luria, who unconsciously applied a marvelous technique, pretty much exactly like that recommended by the Ars Memoria, in order to instantly file information for recall—instantly, as it came at him. He did this via vivid symbols, and one of those symbols, a red-orange thread, represented pain. He saw the pain, and then was able to control it by snipping away at the incarnadine thread in his mind until it disappeared, and along with it, the pain.
But he was studied precisely because most of us can’t do that. Because his ability was an anomaly.
Then I came upon the book Monsters and Magic Tricks, or There’s No Such Thing as Hypnosis?, in which the author, Steve Heller, describes the processes by which we learn to move around in the world and memorize facts and form habits as basically variations of hypnosis. He claims that hypnosis is a process we often undergo: imagine yourself, as a small child, your parent squatting in front of you, straightening your collar, telling you very seriously: it is very important to listen to what the teacher says. It is very important that you behave. What your teacher says will embed itself in your brain, even without effort on your part. Even if you don’t consciously remember it.
You learn a vocabulary, a language, methods of communicating both verbal and non-verbal, and you learn how people interact and what is expected and who is important and what kinds of goals to take seriously, all of these things, before you’re even of an age where you can consciously remember any of them. So they are remembered beneath the surface. They affect your behavior without you noticing.
And this idea is supported by study after study being processed now—our conscious decision-making forms a very small percentage of our lives. Most of the time, we are on autopilot. (Now, think again of that yellow emperor).
He gives a very basic example, which can then be broadened to apply to less “mathematical” topics, by asking the question what is 2 + 2?:
“I am confident that you would respond with the correct answer. If you were asked how you knew the answer, you might reply that you learned it as a child. In other words, the question itself caused you to go back into your personal history and find the ‘proper’ associational connection. You would have done that instantly, without conscious awareness of the process.”
The above example also explains why we work so much on auto-pilot: otherwise, we would be constantly over-burdened with very basic things. Instead, we see the red light and automatically stop the car—which is a good thing.
Heller writes that we can counter that automatism, the result of so much hypnosis (even now, as we drool in front of the television or flick through image after image on the internet, barely stopping, taking in information without consciously processing it), with a sort of self-hypnosis. Which is really no more than a very focused form of imagining, using all five senses.
Some examples he gives of working with patients reminded me immediately of the Russian journalist, S:
“For example, a woman was complaining of a severe headache in my office. She said that it was so bad that she didn’t think we could continue our session. I asked her to close her eyes, and see what color her headache was. She looked at me as if I was crazy. Of course, she was right. I just get paid well for it. Finally, she shrugged her shoulders and closed her eyes. After a short time, she informed me that she did have a picture of colors, and that ‘it seems to be bright reds and oranges.’ I then instructed her to listen to the steady sound of her breathing, and with each exhalation, she would breathe more and more of those colors out of her system. She was told to continue until she could see it ‘all’ across the room, as if a painting hanging on the wall. It was several minutes before she signaled that the picture was on the wall. I asked her to see someone walking into the room, taking the picture off the wall, and to hear that person’s footsteps as he walked out of the room. In less than five minutes she terminated the hypnotic state that she had spontaneously achieved, with the headache gone (pp.43-44).”
Now, not only did he hypnotize her, or have her self-hypnotize, and use her imagination to review the pain, he did it in a very specific way: he shifted her ‘feeling’ sense, her focus on what he calls the kinesthetic system, to her visual and audio sense. He moved the pain from a feeling to an image, then added sound to remove it completely. This was not a one-off:
“Case 13: Patient was a 57-year-old male hospitalized with terminal cancer which had metastasized through areas of his skeletal system. He was in intensive care and, in spite of four to five injections of morphine daily along with oral pain medications, he was suffering intractable pain, insomnia and extreme agitation. His physician asked me to see him about pain control as well as reduction of the patient’s agitated state.When first seen, the patient was complaining in a very harsh tone about his pain. He was thrashing in the bed, and generally being verbally hostile to everyone (Which, given his circumstances, was to a degree understandable). I noticed that his room contained a portable stereo, a small radio and a small tape recorder. Based on the way he was using his voice (complaining, harsh tone, using many words), and the equipment I had observed, it would be a good guess to assume that he was highly auditory. Since his cancer was causing him pain (throwing him into nearly constant kinesthetic), I knew I needed to get him back to, and then anchor him into, auditory with his visual as a backup system…After introducing myself and gathering some information about his hobbies (he loved listening to music), as well as some areas he felt competent in (one of which was working with wood), I was ready to proceed… I then asked him to close his eyes and listen to what his pain sounded like. He stared at me in disbelief…”
After some effort, he was convinced, and he soon described the pain as a “terrible grinding sound.” He was asked to (with eyes closed) think of a woodworking tool which sounded like it, and he was able also to do that. He was told to get a very clear picture of it in his mind.
“I then asked him to ‘see’ that tool or machine across the room in his mind’s eye, and to speed it up as fast as he could. Within several seconds, he nodded again. I then instructed him to ‘see’ the tool or machine slowing down, little by little until it had stopped.”
He was also successful in removing his pain, and over the next week came of a majority of his pain medications and was in a much better mood, able to move out of intensive care and soon returned to living at home.
Now for exorcising the demons of bad habits (even if you like them, as I’ve grown inordinately fond of this demon over the last few weeks): altering the habit, being alive instead of automatic, using all your senses as you recreate yourself in your mind into some being that would not even have been possible in your “old” mindset, but is now natural. And then that new you discards its old shell, pushes through the mirror—greatly expanding its universe (possibilities)—and continues on.