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The Hypnotized Society
If you're preparing for an unmedicated childbirth, chances are you'll encounter a method called hypnobirthing, meant to help women better manage their psychology during the experience. Hypnobirthing is exactly as it sounds: using guided self-hypnosis to rewire one's brain to perceive pain as pressure, fear as joy, anxiety as excitement, and thus facilitate an "easy, comfortable childbirth."
I'd never been hypnotized before. My only prior exposure was sitting in the audience of those flashy stage performances. Despite having the opportunity to be hypnotized, the thought of being mesmerized into doing silly things before a crowd has never quite appealed to my subconscious self.
The prospect of giving birth without medication, however, was motivation enough to embrace the journey of letting go, in the comfort of my home. So, for six weeks, I read a chapter of my hypnobirthing coursebook and listened to the accompanying audio tracks. I didn’t know what hypnosis would feel like, but I imagined being completely zonked out, my mind vacated, my body jerking around, zombielike, under the dictation of some sober mastermind.
My hypnobirthing class disabused me of these notions in my first week. Its authors claim that the hypnotic state is much more common than we think – in fact, we enter hypnosis multiple times a day:
Have you ever had the experience of driving along the highway and suddenly realizing that you passed your exit several miles back? Or been so caught up in a book or movie or video game that you don't even realize that someone has been speaking to you for the past several minutes? THAT is hypnosis...So you see, when a hypnotist guides you into hypnosis, you are not being asked to experience anything strange or that you haven't experienced before.
II. Bicameral Mind
Julian Jaynes, who introduced the concept of bicameral mentality in his 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, proposed that humans only became conscious 3,000 years ago, and that this was not a biological evolution, but a learned behavior. Before we became conscious, the right hemisphere of our brains (interpreted as hallucinations, or a god) "spoke" to us, while the left hemisphere listened passively to its commands.
During this time, humans had no notion of themselves as individuals: we were simply servants to the voices inside our heads. However, this was not a primitive state by any means. Jaynes posits that entire civilizations were built with the bicameral mind, including ancient Greece, parts of Mesopotamia, and Egypt. "These gods...pushed men about like robots and sang epics through their lips...They were noble automatons who knew not what they did."
Jaynes devotes a entire chapter to hypnosis, which he files under "vestiges of the bicameral mind in the modern world." During hypnosis, the subject is lulled into an unconscious state, while simultaneously listening to an external guiding voice - in this case, the hypnotist. "He does not introspect as we do, does not know he is hypnotized, and is not constantly monitoring himself as in an unhypnotized state."
Jaynes' theory didn't make much sense to me – how can one be asleep, but awake, in all their daily activities? – until I finally experienced hypnosis myself. In my very first session, I slumped into a state that felt like sleeping, while listening attentively to a woman's trancelike voice. My thoughts would occasionally drift to other places, but her voice would always bring me back. I was there, but I was happy to be a guest in my own mind. At the end of each session, I'd re-awaken at her count of three, feeling energetic and refreshed.
There is something strangely addictive about hypnosis, like doing a drug. Hypnosis feels like taking a vacation from my conscious brain. It feels good to give myself up to this disembodied voice, who had only positive suggestions for my life. It feels good to follow and not always have to lead, to make a million little micro-decisions at every other point in my life.
Like the authors of my hypnobirthing class, Jaynes uses the car metaphor to describe what it feels like to be in a trancelike, bicameral state:
In driving a car, I am not sitting like a back-seat driver directing myself, but rather find myself committed and engaged with little consciousness. In fact, my consciousness will usually be involved in something else, [such as] a conversation with you...My hand, foot, and head behavior, however, are almost in a different world....Now simply subtract that consciousness and you have what a bicameral man would be like.
Both Jaynes's book and my hypnobirthing class were published well before the dawn of social media. If they were to write them today, I wonder if doomscrolling would've replaced driving as the canonical example.
I can recognize, now, when I'm entering hypnosis at various points throughout my day. It's that "zoned out" feeling, where my mind is thinking one thing and my body is doing another.
The positive version of this sensation is what’s been trendily referred to as flow state. Writing often puts me into that state; so does working out, cooking, or listening to certain types of music. I'm not quite operating consciously, but my body knows what to do, and the sensation is peaceful and relaxing. In a deep flow state, I can operate for twelve hours straight and not look at the clock – much longer, and always feeling more refreshed, than when I've consciously toiled at that same task for, say, two or three hours.
Then there are times when I'm zoned out in a neutral sense, such as watching TV, playing video games, or doing some other mindless activity at the end of a long day. I'm already mentally drained, I don't want to process any more information, so I let my body take over, while my mind takes a break. I don't usually come out of this state feeling refreshed, but I don't necessarily feel badly about it, either.
Finally, there are times when I'm zoned out and feel negatively afterwards, and that's when I'm trapped in a doomscrolling cycle. My body is doing something I don't want to be doing. I didn't choose to enter this state, the way I chose to write or listen to music. I kinda just found myself there when I picked up my phone to do…something else, now long forgotten. I want to stop, but I can't. So I keep scrolling, until finally my active brain grabs ahold of the controls again and forces me to close the app, breaking the hypnotic loop.
Doomscrolling is often likened to addiction, but I think addiction only describes the allure of the activity. Addiction is something that happens to individuals; it destroys lives. But doomscrolling as hypnosis reveals something more about its dangers – not just on an individual, but on a collective level.
IV. The Hypnotized Society
As far as I can tell, there are three stages to being hypnotized. The first is simply breathing, relaxing, and clearing one's mind, to begin to detach oneself from the outside world.
The second is entering a deep, trancelike state, which is achieved by a "trigger" that you learn to create, repetition and countdown exercises, and "testing" (ex. trying to open your eyes and being unable to), which sends you deeper into hypnosis. I don't know what portion of my hypnosis sessions is devoted to these first two stages, but I would subjectively guess that half or two-thirds is just priming my brain for suggestion.
The third part of hypnosis – once your brain is lulled into a pliable, obedient state – is actually receiving external suggestions. If parts one and two are like prepping a patient for surgery and giving them anesthesia, the third part is where the surgeon (i.e. hypnotist) actually gets to work, rewiring her patient’s body and mind, telling them how to think and feel, before closing everything up again.
If doomscrolling is a form of hypnosis, it's not just the fact of being mesmerized, or “addicted,” that's concerning. It's that we're putting ourselves into an unconscious state that makes us highly receptive to the ideas and information we're ingesting, and that we're ingesting it from rather...unclean sources.
This is, of course, not a new concern, but it's worth considering how our prescribed solutions might change if we understand ourselves as not truly conscious in this state. Encouraging "responsible" social media use, for example, means nothing to someone while hypnotized, who has no perception of self and cannot introspect upon his or her supposed "responsibilities."
The other, bigger question is: if everyone is constantly tethered to their phones and feeds, what percent of our time these days is being spent in a prolonged unconscious state? And how does that affect our resilience as a society?
Returning to the analogy of our bicameral man in the driver's seat, Jaynes imagines what would happen if such a person suddenly encountered an unfamiliar situation on the road (emphasis mine):
The world would happen to him and his action would be an inextricable part of that happening with no consciousness whatever. [If] some brand-new situation [were to] occur, an accident up ahead, a blocked road…behold, our bicameral man would not do what you and I would do, that is, quickly and efficiently swivel our consciousness over to the matter and narratize out what to do. He would have to wait for his bicameral voice which with the stored-up admonitory wisdom of his life would tell him nonconsciously what to do.
Bicamerality can be more powerful than consciousness – as hypnosis demonstrates – but without clear dictation, it is also brittle, limited to operating within a certain scope of familiar scenarios: after all, the "god" we’re listening to is not really a god at all. Jaynes believes that these limitations are what led to the breakdown of ancient bicameral civilizations, whose members were unexpectedly thrust into new situations that they didn’t knew how to deal with. Their gods failed them, and rather than adapt as a conscious person would, they simply let their lives waste away, like helpless children.
Jaynes' depiction of the ancient Greeks as "noble automatons" comes with a caveat that, of course, "the soldiers who were so directed were not at all like us." Over and over, Jaynes describes these bicameral civilizations – not without a touch of pride – as distinct from how we operate today: we, who are now conscious, active individuals with a distinct sense of self.
But the world does not look like it did half a century ago. And when I read Jaynes' description of bicameral societies, and I think about how frequently and easily we slip into hypnosis every day, I wonder whether we are, once again, reverting to a bicameral civilization: one in which we recursively take dictation from the internet's hive mind, our thumbs flicking in an ever-upward direction to maintain a trancelike state.
Mimesis is not conscious behavior. Quote-tweeting is not conscious behavior. And, just as entire civilizations were still built by bicameral minds, today we are constructing entire industries centered around ever-changing crises – fake news, totalitarianism, having too many children, not having enough children, the fiery destruction of our planet, death by artificial intelligence.1 We are the Mesopotamian slaves again, building ziggurats to the quivering annihilations that our gods command us to recognize and worship.
And this eternal crisis mindset is no longer really a crisis anymore, but a comforting place to be. It distracts us from being able to see the future for what it really is – a blank page – instead of as an inevitable disaster, to figure out what we’d actually want to build. Today, we are stronger and more connected by technology than ever, but perhaps we are also as brittle and docile as the ancient Greeks, incapable of acting nimbly in the face of novelty and uncertainty.
If we are now re-entering an age of bicamerality, then it is more important and powerful than ever to remain agentic, to retain our individual sense of self. To be agentic is to be godlike. Per Jaynes: "It is the self that is responsible and can debate within itself, can order and direct, and...the creation of such a self is the product of culture. In a sense, we have become our own gods."
Even as I type this, I wonder if my screed against the crisis mindset is, itself, the articulation of yet another crisis.