The science of the brain, its functions and mechanisms, has come a very long way in recent decades. We should note a new understanding of the complex biochemical ‘kitchen’ of the brain, the creation of an elegant theory of the perception and processing of visual information, the development of a science of sleep and the different functions of the major hemispheres of the brain, and the possibility of observing directly the activity of different brain structures at work thanks to emission tomography, to mention only the most significant discoveries.
Progress continues in all these fields. However, some researchers now believe that the next breakthrough in the study of the brain will only be possible if we pay very close attention to some phenomena of the human psyche which until now have been shrouded in mystery, and which have not been subjected to serious, systematic scientific analysis. These include special states of consciousness, the actual existence of which is beyond doubt, as well as parapsychological phenomena such as telepathy, so-called ‘remote viewing’ over hundreds of kilometres and precognition of the future, phenomena which, at best, raise an ironical smile in most serious scientists.
Such a reaction is, indeed, justified. The basic prerequisite of scientific research is the existence of a fact that needs an explanation. If the very existence of the fact is open to question, if it is supposed there is a mistake in the observation or, even worse, deliberate falsification, then any self-respecting scientist will immediately lose interest in the problem. There is too great a risk of falling victim to a hoax and wasting time, energy and resources on studying something which does not exist in nature. Unfortunately, parapsychology provides ample grounds for such caution: the field is packed with people who lack a solid scientific reputation, who have not done any recognised systematic studies, who are inclined to wishful thinking, to trusting their own impressions and intuition without strict methodological controls, or who simply want to create a sensation and publish deliberately falsified material. Scholars who value their reputation are scared off. They retreat to tried and trusted, but often less interesting, areas of study. The result is a vicious circle, in which mysterious aspects of the human psyche are increasingly left to the mercy of amateur enthusiasts with a dubious reputation or blatant charlatans and fraudulent hucksters. Meanwhile, genuine progress in this field could lead to a revolution in the science of the brain and of man, and it is vitally important it should find its place in the research of serious scientists.
What is to be done? I believe that the first step should be to engage in more active and profound study of at least those phenomena the existence of which is beyond doubt, which have already acquired a certain status in academic science, but which remain as mysterious as ever. Above all, this means hypnosis.
In 1971 a guest from the USA, a specialist in the study of sleep, visited us at the physiological laboratory of the 1st. Moscow Medical Institute, based at the Clinic for Nervous Diseases. He spent a month at the laboratory, taking part in the research and the discussion of scientific problems, but just before returning to America he told me in confidence of the real reason for his visit. He wasn’t interested in our research into sleep, which had only just begun and not yet produced any significant results, but in making contact with some Soviet parapsychologists who were not recognised by academic science. Then, after he had told me about some of his encounters, our guest, Dr. Max Toth, suddenly asked me: “Would you like to meet a very powerful hypnotist, Vladimir Leonidovich Raykov?” I was young and not so very concerned about my scientific reputation. (Actually, I wasn’t too much worried about it later, otherwise I would never have dared publish some very speculative ideas.) I met Raykov, listened to him and looked at some of his experiments, which I will describe in a moment. Then I persuaded the head of our laboratory to invite Raykov to deliver a paper.
When he came, Vladimir Leonidovich was accompanied by several of the people who were the subjects of his research and at the start he proposed they take neurological tests. My colleagues and I satisfied ourselves that his subjects showed no signs of abnormality in the working of the brain. Then something very remarkable happened. Raykov brought a subject into a state of deep hypnosis and then pronounced a ‘magic spell’: “You are two days old”. He spoke in a voice of thunder, roared like a lion, and his spell produced an amazing effect: the subject displayed the neurological reflexes of a newborn child (absent in adults), he started crying like a new baby and, most surprising, his eyes started moving in a random, uncoordinated way. When we lifted the subject’s closed eyelids, we found one pupil was looking straight at us, while the other was floating far upwards. A healthy person cannot do that with his eyes at will, and the laws of neurology rule out the possibility of such disco-ordination: it is the norm only in babies, before the development of the nervous apparatus regulating vision.
Since I had already met Raykov, I was morally prepared for such a blow to my neurological preconceptions, but for my colleagues it came as quite a shock. They sat for a time looking utterly perplexed, until somebody plucked up the courage to ask Raykov how he explained this very interesting experiment. And Vladimir Leonidovich, without a second’s hesitation, launched into an explanation.
Of course, he was unable to explain anything, since even today we have difficulty in coming to grips with these phenomena. But Raykov rattled off a confident, yet totally superficial manipulation of some fairly primitive ideas on the working of the brain as taught at the time to university students.
My colleagues heaved a collective sigh of relief: “So, he really doesn’t know anything. Is it worth wasting our time on this?” Naturally, I couldn’t let such an opportunity slip. “Colleagues”, I said, “your reaction reminds me of that old English joke. ‘Jim, I just met your horse. It told me it finished Cambridge.’ ‘It’s lying. It’s never finished anything.’ Colleagues”, I continued, “you’re like the man in the joke. You don’t care the horse (here I gestured towards Raykov) can talk. All you care is that it didn’t finish Cambridge. But the horse can talk, and even if it can’t explain how it did it, we, who claim we are scientists, still have an obligation to do so. Since we now know this phenomenon exists, we have to think about it and study it.” At that time my plea fell on deaf ears, and this reaction was typical of the scientific community’s response to a new and astounding fact: can we not, under one pretext or another (in this case, the inadequate scientific expertise of the hypnotist), sidestep around this challenge from nature and preserve the scientific status quo? In science, taking the easy route of intellectual comfort all too frequently gets in the way.
As it happens, even at that time we were able to make some worthwhile observations. Attempts to give direct instructions during hypnosis, along the lines of – “Now move your eyes in different directions at the same time”, met with failure. The subject showed no reaction to instructions like this. The whole complex of ‘newborn symptoms’ appeared only when a whole, integral image was suggested to the subject, such as the image of a two-day-old child. This was characteristic of all the other experiments we did with hypnosis. If the image of a six-year-old was suggested, the subject wrote like he did when he was six. But nothing came of a direct instruction to the subject to write like when he was six.
Raykov made a name for himself by developing his subjects’ creative abilities under hypnosis. After several sessions their talents as painters or musicians improved significantly. But even this only happened after being suggested the image of a great artist or performer whose work they knew well. “You are Repin” or “You are Rachmaninov”, Raykov would tell them, and then give them an open, undisguised instruction: “Paint” or “Play”. This did not mean that the subject would start to paint in the style of Repin or imitate Rachmaninov’s technique. Not at all. Their creativity reflected their own personal inclinations, or even those of Vladimir Leonidovich, who was himself a painter and exhibited his work. Nevertheless, the degree of self-identification with a great artist as a personality was impressive.
When one female subject who had been suggested the image of Repin (the sex of the subject made no difference in these experiments) was asked to complete a psychological questionnaire, she put aside as incomprehensible questions with references to details of modern life which had not existed in Repin’s time, like television. When a student was told he was from England and Max Toth rattled off questions in English (naturally, the boy could speak the language a little), his answer to an unexpected question – “Do you like pivo?” (pivo being the Russian for beer), was no less unexpected – “What do you mean, pivo?”. The degree of association with the suggested image was so great the boy ‘forgot’ the meaning of simple Russian words. When it was suggested to one subject that he was the great American chess player Paul Morphy and offered a match, his first reaction was to demand a substantial fee, a million dollars. He was handed a wad of plain paper and told that this was the sum requested. At that moment the encephalograph registered a powerful surge of electrical activity on the skin, a sign of a strong emotional reaction. Incidentally, this subject played games with Grandmaster Mikhail Tal both under hypnosis and in his normal state. Photographs show clearly how confidently the subject behaved when he believed himself to be Paul Morphy, to whom the name of Tal would have meant nothing, and how timidly he shrank back into his chair when he was in his normal state and knew his opponent’s real level of skill.
Interestingly, Tal observed that though the subject’s play under hypnosis wasn’t at Morphy’s level, it was still roughly two grades higher than when normal. A few months later he was asked by a reporter which of his recent games had left the strongest impression on him. Tal replied, his encounter with Morphy, and then had to explain to the astonished reporter that he was not yet completely gaga.
It is the suggestion of a complete, integral image under hypnosis that enables the unveiling of unique capabilities which the subject himself has no inkling he possesses. Of course, these abilities are revealed and not induced by the state of hypnosis. Hypnosis cannot provide something which is not already contained in a person’s life experience, something which has no basis in the potential resources of the brain (which far exceed our wildest imaginings). In this sense a story Max Toth told is very instructive. He also experimented with suggesting early infancy and one day even dared to cross the boundary and suggested to a subject that he was not yet born. “I never did it again”, Toth said, “I got such a fright. The client stopped breathing, though the heart carried on beating (like a fetus before birth). I felt I was losing contact with the subject (maybe oxygen starvation was setting in). Fortunately, at that moment the subject came out of the trance spontaneously.” At the same time, nothing came of efforts to suggest a subject was dead. The subject would just lie flat with his hands folded across his chest, the way a corpse is supposed to look. Unlike birth, the majority of us, happily, have no direct experience of death.
Experiencing a suggested image has enormous power, probably because it includes all the potential of thinking in images which in our culture we use very little in ordinary life, except in dreams. It is used much more widely in Eastern civilizations by yogis and others. But the intriguing story of the essence of thinking in images is the subject of my next chapter, while I want to end this one with a funny incident, which is not so much characteristic of thinking in images as the primitive thinking of the people who used to run the Soviet empire.
For you to fully appreciate the humour of this story, I have to begin with another episode connected with Vladimir Raykov. One day he came to see me at the laboratory, sat down, crossed one leg over the other and announced: “Yesterday they offered me the post of Interior Minister, and I accepted”. This was long before Gorbachev and perestroika, after which anything was possible, so I cautiously began to probe whether he had come to see me in connection with his mental health. But it turned out that it was the role of Interior Minister he had been offered, in Elem Klimov’s movie about Rasputin Agoniya, and he was actually pretty good in the part.
And now for the incident which characterises the thinking of the USSR’s top bureaucrats during the empire’s death agony. Not long before perestroika Raykov asked me to go with him to the Scientific Council of the Ministry of Health to help support his project to set up a laboratory for the study and development of creative talent. I was happy to do so, because hypnosis, like other special states of consciousness, is a wonderful method of activating creative potential. The Deputy Chairman of the Scientific Council read the proposal and said: “This is most interesting. But to be frank, Vladimir Leonidovich, you won’t get anything for developing the talents of writers, artists and musicians. They’re not on our agenda. But could you see a way of applying your methods to raising labour productivity across industry as a whole?” I glanced at Raykov. His eyes were staring and his jaw had dropped. I had never seen him so nonplussed, not even when he was busy improvising explanations for the mechanism of hypnosis, about which he knew nothing. I could feel he was about to say no, so I jumped in quick: “Of course he can. His method is perfect for increasing productivity in manufacturing and the whole of industry generally”. The Deputy Chairman beamed with delight: “Bring me back a project for that and we’ll give you all the backing you need”.
Once we left the Ministry Raykov turned on me: “What did you mean by that? What the hell was that stuff about industry and productivity?” “Calm down, Volodya”, I replied. “First of all, you know nothing about the way science is organised in this country. When they give you your laboratory, you’ll do what you’re best at, and the original purpose will be completely forgotten. And second, where’s your sense of humour? You played a walk-on part for Klimov. Now they’re giving you the big one. They want you to play Rasputin, to save the country using hypnosis. How can you turn that one down?”
In the next chapter we’ll discuss seriously the question of thinking in images and its role in understanding the mysteries of the human psyche.