Is Hypnosis real?

January 29, 2017

We all have an image of what a hypnotist does. He says, “look into my eyes” while holding a gold pocket watch, pushing his subject into a semi-sleep, almost zombie-like state. Now the subject will obey everything the hypnotist tells him to do, however evil this may be. This has little basis in reality, but the question of what is going on when we are being hypnotised is, nevertheless, a fascinating one.

The Merriam Webster defines hypnosis as “a trancelike state that resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted by the subject”. Hypnos is the Greek God of sleep and there are many words which have this suffix hypnobate (sleepwalker), hypnagogic (bringing on sleep) and hypnotherapy (treatment of disease by hypnosis).

Can everyone be hypnotised? What the scientific consensus seems to be is that everyone is on a spectrum. Roughly 15% of the population are said to be highly hypnotizable. On the other hand, around 25% are thought to be not hypnotizable at all. As well as entertainers there are many applications. New Age therapists, Past Life therapists and Repressed Memory therapists all make use of hypnosis for their dubious ends.

Hypnosis has been the subject of debate for more than 200 years. Here we have to mention Dr. Franz Mesmer, the father of modern hypnotism, who believed that hypnosis was a mystical force flowing from the hypnotist into the subject; he called it “animal magnetism”. Hypnosis was originally known as mesmerism, after Mesmer, and we still use its derivative, mesmerize, today. As Mesmer turned out to be a fraud, the term hypnotism became the one which was most used.

We see what a person does under hypnosis, but it isn’t clear why he or she does it. This uncertainty is a result of the fact that consciousness and how the human mind works is still in many ways a mystery.  And as I don’t see scientists arriving at a definitive explanation of the mind in the foreseeable future, hypnosis will probably not give all its secrets.

The person being hypnotised is generally very absorbed, relaxed, suggestible and in a state of expectation. The subconscious mind comes to the fore. Your inhibitions are reduced. Some studies say that changes do take place in the brain. However, that’s pretty unremarkable as brain functioning also changes when we relaxed, exhausted or highly attentive. Sceptics tend to argue that hypnotic subjects aren’t really in an altered state of consciousness. Social pressure and the influence of the hypnotist are often enough to convince people that they should act a certain way. When they find themselves obeying they erroneously conclude that they must be in a hypnotic trance. The power of belief is enough to cause remarkable changes in a person. If you think someone is compelling you to act a certain way, then that is how you will act. It may well be what is going in hypnotherapy.  By thinking that hypnosis will ease your pain your mind will bring about this feeling. , It is very much like the placebo effect. Hypnosis and the placebo effect have a lot in common; both rely on the effects of suggestion and belief. Consequently it is really difficult to have an effective placebo control in a study of the effects of hypnosis. I should point out that not everyone agrees with the fakery hypothesis. I just haven’t seen alternative evidence that convinces me yet. It may be forthcoming in the future

The popular stereotypes of what hypnosis is that I referred to in my introduction bear little resemblance to actual hypnotism. In fact, our modern understanding of hypnosis clearly debunks these ideas. Subjects in a hypnotic state are not slaves to their “masters” – they have absolute free will. And they’re not actually in a semi-sleep state -they’re hyperattentive. In no way can hypnotized people be described mindless automatons. People are more suggestible and some inhibitions are reduced. But our safety and morality do not fly out of the window. People won’t do things during or after hypnosis that are out of character. Only in Hollywood can hypnosis turn a mild-mannered person into a cold-blooded murderer.


Michael Lewis and The Undoing Project

January 22, 2017
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky

Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky

I have to admit I wasn’t sure whether to read Michael Lewis’s latest offering, The Undoing Project. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a devotee of Lewis. He has had three films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards for The Blind Side (2009), Moneyball (2011) and The Big Short (2015). He has knack for finding hidden treasure that other writers have missed. He often features mavericks or people who are not normally in the spotlight. His book Liar’s Poker (1989) described bond trader Lewis Ranieri, who revolutionised Wall Street in the 1980s with securitisation. This product was to play a massive role in the Global Financial Crisis of 2007 and onwards. Moneyball (2003) featured baseball manager Billy Beane, a pioneer in the use of sports analytics. But the book goes beyond sports; Lewis was foreshadowing the rise of the quants, the experts at analyzing and managing quantitative data, who would also be involved in the GFC. Another sporting book, The Blind Side, set in the NFL, featured not a glamorous quarterback, but an offensive left tackle. This may be an unsung position, but it is vital for the protection of the quarterback. The player Lewis chose was Michael Oher, who has won one Superbowl and appeared in another one in his eight seasons as a professional. The Big Short dealt with main players behind the creation of the credit default swap market that was a massive bet against the collateralized debt obligation (CDO) bubble. They would end up profiting from the crisis, but I would definitely not blame them for what went down – they had spotted flaws in the system. This is a common theme in Lewis’s work.

The Undoing Project looks at the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who are also interested in human failings. The reason I had doubts about reading this book was that I was already familiar with their work. Indeed, I did a post about Kahneman and his book Thinking Fast and Slow: The irrational world of Daniel Kahneman. I should have had more faith in Lewis. The Undoing Project is a fascinating read. I thought I knew most of their story, but Lewis has found a way to produce an absorbing book about an arcane subject. Lewis has a real gift for explaining complex ideas, but what I liked about the book was the human element. The author provides the human story to the two men who revolutionised the way we think about how people think.

Born in Tel Aviv, British Palestine in 1934, where his mother was visiting relatives, Daniel Kahneman grew up in Paris, where his parents had emigrated from Lithuania in the early 1920s. He was a child of the Holocaust. Between the ages of seven and eleven he and his family were hiding out from the Nazis in southern France. He watched his father die because he couldn’t seek medical treatment for fear of being captured by the Germans. Lewis recounts how at the age of seven Kahneman had been playing with a Christian boy and was caught on the streets after curfew by an SS soldier. He had turned his brown sweater inside out so the man didn’t notice the yellow star. Instead he hugged little Danny and, full of emotion, showed him a photograph of another young boy. Then he gave the boy some money and sent him on his way. Kahneman recalled being fascinated by the complexity of humans.

Amos Tversky was born in Haifa, British Palestine in 1937 to parents who had emigrated from Poland and Russia. He had a happier childhood than Kahneman. His father, Yosef, was a veterinarian and his mother, Genia, was a member of the Knesset from its establishment in 1948 until her death in 1964. What is most striking from his life was his distinguished service in the Israel Defence Forces. Tversky was an officer in the paratroopers, an elite unit. He eventually rose to captain and served in three wars – 1956, 1967 and 1973. It was in 1956, in a border skirmish, that he was awarded Israel’s highest honour after saving the life of a young soldier who had frozen after having lit the fuse of an explosive charge. Tversky, who was a few metres behind him, rushed forward, dragged the young man a few yards away, and then dived to cover him, taking the shrapnel into his own body. The other soldier emerged without a scratch while Tversky had metal in him the rest of his life.

According to Lewis, the relationship between Kahneman and Tversky was as intense as any marriage. And like a marriage, their relationship could be fraught at times. They have been called the Lennon and McCartney of the academic world. Kahneman was the ideas guy, whereas Tversky was the analytic one, able to provide the academic rigour for Kahneman’s ideas. Tversky was once asked if their work had any bearing on artificial intelligence. His reply: “I’m much more interested in natural stupidity than I am in artificial intelligence.” The psychologist Richard Nisbett had a simple one-line intelligence test: “The longer it takes you to figure it out that Amos Tversky is smarter than you, the stupider you are.”

These days Kahneman and Tversky’s views of human psychology have found widespread acceptance. But when they began in the 1970s in the backwater of Israeli academia their theories were new and controversial. The academics would eventually find posts on American campuses. And it was the charismatic Tversky rather than the introspective Kahneman who got much of the fame. Their ideas about human biases are both illuminating and eminently practical. I explore them in detail in The irrational world of Daniel Kahneman.

There is no doubt that Lewis admires the two men and believes they are right about everything important. Someone who has written books like Liar’s Poker, Panic: The Story of Modern Financial Insanity., The Big Short and Flash Boys is not likely to be a cheerleader for rational economic man. But this is no hagiography.

The younger Kahneman is portrayed as a depressive. He is unsure of himself and rather needy. We also see him as envious of all the attention his partner was getting. Tversky, on the other hand is more of an intellectual bully contemptuous of many academics and not one to shy away from an academic spat. Despite their different personalities, they had a fruitful relationship. They would sit together in an intellectual back-and-forth, switching between English and Hebrew.

Like many marriages or Lennon and McCartney, they would endure a painful break-up. They did, however, make up after Tversky was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma. In the end, after many years spent complaining that Tversky was getting all the plaudits, it was Kahneman who won the Nobel Prize for Economics. The award cannot be given posthumously.

I too am a fan of their work. I am fascinated by human decision-making and how we can all go wrong. Perfection in choices is impossible, and uneconomical, just as, in a world of scarcity, developing a perfectly safe automobile is impossible—and uneconomical. We need to take short cuts. If we look at the world, we can see the fingerprints of irrationality everywhere. If I am sceptical, it is about psychology experiments. How accurate are laboratory settings at recreating the information and incentives of real market situation. The story of Kahneman and Tversky’s intellectual love affair is beautifully and vividly told by Lewis. However, I would be surprised if this were made into another film.

Filter Bubbles, post-truth politics and the rise of populism

January 15, 2017

I know that there are other ways of seeing the world, and I’m happy that people have them, but I just don’t want to be in their world.”  Contribution to BBC Seriously podcast – Bursting the Social Network Bubble


What a fascinating time it must be to be studying politics. Although for university academics it must be somewhat disconcerting too. Indeed maybe they well have to bin the traditional textbooks. There is a convergence of factors – filter bubbles, our post-truth world and the rise of populism – that are convulsing modern politics.

I remember hearing about a book called The Filter Bubble when it came out in 2011. Author Eli Pariser’s central thesis was that social media algorithms are selectively shaping what a user sees on their feeds based on information about them. Consequently, we are in a bubble in which the news we receive serves to confirm what we already believe:

The filter bubble tends to dramatically amplify confirmation bias – in a way, it’s designed to. Consuming information that conforms to our ideas of the world is easy and pleasurable; consuming information that challenges us to think in new ways or question our assumptions is frustrating and difficult. This is why partisans of one political stripe tend not to consume the media of another. As a result, an information environment built on click signals will favour content that supports our existing notions about the world over content that challenges them.”

Pariser’s premise did seem to ring true, but I didn’t pay that much attention to it. But the events of the last twelve months have validated Pariser’s work. We have seen the effects of these echo chambers. There are two negative aspects to this phenomenon. Firstly, we are failing to exercise our critical faculties. We do tend to want to only hear views and facts that confirm our worldview. But these filter bubbles go beyond this; opposing ideas are not just wrong, they are totally alien. We just cannot imagine where they could even come from. This is why I criticised the use of safe spaces and no- platforming at universities. This is not just a problem of dumb people being taken in by dumb ideas. Sometimes the worst offenders can be the highly educated. Being articulate, they are better able to justify their prejudices.

In this polarised world we are also have different people accessing different facts. This is what is known as the post-truth world, the realm of fake news. In the pilot programme of The Colbert Report on October 17, 2005, American television satirist Stephen Colbert coined the term truthiness. According to Wikipedia, it refers to a truth that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively from the gut or because it feels right without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts. It may be a fake word invented by a fake person, but it does capture something. Both the Brexit campaign and Trump campaigns were characterised by extreme mendaciousness, but it goes beyond right-wing populism. Liberals and the left can live in a fantasy world too. I did like that quote from Kellyanne Conway, Donald J Trump’s campaign manager:

The most fake piece of news I heard all along up until Election Day and still hear from some people is that Donald Trump couldn’t win. How’s that for fake news?”

Trump is the ultimate manifestation of the rise of populism, especially right-wing populism. It’s not just the Donald and Brexit; Marine Le Pen may yet become the National Front President of France. Similar populist revolts can be seen in Austria, in Germany and the Netherlands. On the left we have the rise of left wing populism in Greece and Spain, and of course the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. It does seem that the right have been more successful at the populist game.

I view populism, whether it be of the left or right, as a nightmare. What I hate about it is the way they peddle simple solutions, a vision of the world which denies the existence of divisions of interests and opinions within the people. It sees a Manichean world of pure people and the corrupt elite. Political opponents lack legitimacy and there are always scapegoats to blame for the country’s ills. Populism tends to get ugly when it gets into power. I have chronicled the horrible failures of Chavismo and Peronism in Venezuela and Argentina respectively. Apart from all the all obvious things to dislike about Trump, I am horrified by his views on trade, many of which he shares with Bernie Sanders. I think the populists will be found out once in power, but they might have done a lot of damage by then

I am a bit pessimistic. There is no doubt that liberal democracy is in crisis. There are problems with globalisation and inequality can have toxic effects on society. You can’t understand the success of Berlusconi and Putin without looking at the chaos and failure that preceded them. Of course there is nothing unprecedented about any of this. Yes, we have new technology but we have still seen many of these phenomena. People have always tended to follow the news that reflects their ideology. Fake news is nothing new. And populist movements have arisen before. The comparison between Trump and Hitler is ridiculous. Historian Niall Ferguson found a better analogy with the now forgotten figure of Denis Kearney, leader of the Workingmen’s Party of California. Kearney belonged to a movement of nativist parties and Anti-Coolie” clubs whose goal was to end Chinese immigration into the United States. Indeed, he was behind the slogan “The Chinese Must Go!” Curiously he was an Irish immigrant himself. But then Trump is he son of a Scottish immigrant and grandson of a German.

I often quote that Chinese curse: May you live in interesting times – I fear that we are about to experience this at first hand.

A couple of videos

January 15, 2017

Here are a couple of videos related to this week’s topic:

Beware online “filter bubbles – Eli Pariser


Johan Norberg – Identity Politics on the Left and Right


More Scorn

January 8, 2017

Before Christmas I featured some insults from Matthew Parris’s Scorn: The Wittiest and Wickedest Insults in Human History. The put-downs were all from the world of politics. Here are some more from the rest of the book:

You could tell by his conversation which volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica he’d been reading. One day it would be Alps, Andes and Apennines, and the next it would be the Himalayas and the Hippocratic Oath. Bertrand Russell on Aldous Huxley

They say Rothko killed himself because he met the people who bought his art. Adrian Searle

I don’t mind. I have gloves on. Mark Twain after running his hand over a Whistler painting, which caused the artist to exclaim: ‘Don’t touch that, Can’t you see, it isn’t dry yet.’

I had not realized that the Arabs were so musical. Sir Thomas Beecham on hearing that a concert by Malcolm Sargent in Tel Aviv had been interrupted by the sound of gunfire directed at the concert hall.

Brass bands are all very well in their place – outdoors and several miles away. Sir Thomas Beecham

Frank Sinatra is a singer who comes along once in a lifetime … why did he have to come along in my lifetime? Bing Crosby

I always knew Frank would end up with a boy. Ava Gardner on Sinatra’s marriage to Mia Farrow

If white bread could sing it would sing like Olivia Newton-John. Anonymous review

I don’t like country music, but I don’t mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means ‘put down’. Bob Newhart

He’s not even the best drummer in The Beatles. John Lennon, when asked whether Ringo Starr was the best drummer in the world.

There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can’t think of them at the moment. Paul Theroux on Bono

She was good at playing abstract confusion in the same way that a midget is good at being shortClive James on Marilyn Monroe

A whole family of women who take the faces they were born with as a light suggestion. Amy Schumer on the Kardashians

Jeremy Clarkson is like Marmite. Disgusting. Peter Serafinowicz

If name-dropping were an Olympic sport, Yentob would be suspected of doping. Henry Mance on Alan Yentob

The shit hits the fan. Headline suggested by Kenneth Tynan after Rex Harrison punched an autograph hunter

A bore is starred. Village Voice review of A Star is Born starring Barbra Streisand

Marie Osmond is so pure, not even Moses could part her knees. Joan Rivers

I like a drink as much as the next man. Unless the next man is Mel Gibson. Ricky Gervais, introducing Gibson onstage at the Golden Globes

Monica Lewinsky has agreed to host a new Fox reality show called Mr. Personality. Lewinsky says this way, when people ask her the most degrading thing she’s ever done, she’ll have a new answer. Tina Fey

To call it an anticlimax would be an insult not just to climaxes but to prefixes. Roger Ebert on the end of The Village

No. Leonard Maltin’s complete review of Isn’t It Romantic?

This is great. When does it start? Groucho Marx, watching a cricket match at Lord’s

If defensive linemen’s IQs were 5 points lower, they’d be geraniums. Russ Francis on American football

Me and Jake LaMotta grew up in the same neighbourhood. You wanna know how popular Jake was? When he played hide and seek, nobody ever looked for LaMotta. Rocky Graziano

Anglers think they are divining some primeval natural force by outwitting a fish, a creature that never even got out of the evolutionary starting gate. Rich Hall

I’ve seen George Foreman shadow boxing, and the shadow won. Muhammad Ali

Beckham? His wife can’t sing and his barber can’t cut hair. Brian Clough

Do you think I would enter into a contract with that mob? Absolutely no chance. I would not sell them a virus. Sir Alex Ferguson, in December 2008, on the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid. Ronaldo was sold the following summer for £80m.

The definition of countryside is the murder of Piers Morgan. Stephen Fry

Of course they have, or I wouldn’t be talking to you. Barbara Cartland, when asked by BBC reporter Sandra Harris in a radio interview whether she thought English class barriers had broken down

She’s been married so many times she has rice marks on her face. Henry Youngman on Zsa Zsa Gabor