Mind hacking: understanding how our mind works
TL;DR: I explain very superficially how our minds work, starting from our body, following with our sense of reality, and ending with our states of consciousness and personalities. I dive briefly into dreams and hypnosis, paving the road for a future article.
I’ve started taking an interest in lucid dreaming around 2013, self-studying and training in various kinds of hypnosis from 2015 to 2020, and been working as a hypnotherapist since 2016 up to now. I started and am still studying work psychology since 2016, which had me take introductory classes in clinical and cognitive psychology.
I’m not a psychologist, a psychiatrist or a cat, so take this article with a grain of salt.
About this article
I attempt to explain, from a very macroscopic perspective, my understanding of how the mind works, based on my studies, observations or personal experiences through lucid dreaming and hypnosis sessions.
This article doesn’t contain revolutionizing new ideas, you may in fact recognize bits of work from Charcot, Janet, Breuer or even Freud, though these bits may not exactly reflect their work as I don’t necessarily share all their views, and adapted them to how I understand the mind works.
This is a vulgarization that takes voluntary shortcuts to convey its main ideas in their simplest form, it is by no mean an exhaustive explanation as each single concept could easily take pages of detailing. I’ll be more than happy to expand upon each of these concepts in the comments or as follow-up articles.
Bottom line: do not assume all of this article to apply as is to everyone, particularly to people with disorders that affect their sense of reality or personality/ies, this is not an exact depiction of how things work for everyone.
We are organic computers
We are organic computers resulting from the combined specifications of two other organic computers. The specifications determine how we’re built, how we look like, and some of our aptitudes and limitations, but not how we process the world, not how our operating system works.
We interface with the world through many sensors, called receptors, that are spread in our eyes, ears, tongue, nose and below our skin to capture visual, auditory, gustatory, olfactory and kinesthesic signals that are then interpreted and allow us to see, hear, taste, smell and feel elements of our environment. These receptors all compose our sensory apparatus, what we call our senses.
These receptors are part of what developers would consider an API. They are the only interfaces that can perceive input signals from the environment, allowing our operating system to translate them into sensations and encode memories. Without receptors, no signal would enter our system, and we’d live a very dull life of nothingness. Luckily for us, we have receptors in our eyes to see a white chocolate bar on the table, in our hands to feel when we grab it, in our nose and tongue to smell and taste it, and in our ears to hear someone ask where did the chocolate bar disappear. Oopsy.
Because our senses are our only input interfaces, everything that we ever know about our environment comes from them. Our knowledge didn’t just appear in us, it was inserted through our senses, either because another organic computer sent us a signal to share information, or because we interacted with our environment and received a signal as a feedback.
Most signals are discarded unless we pay extra attention as they are irrelevant to our current activities, like the tick of a clock that we hear but forget as if it was no longer there… even though it still really is. Many signals are processed at a low-level subconscious layer and recorded for future use, like the earlier thought of a white chocolate bar that maybe we kinda want now. A few signals are processed and made available to our immediate knowledge so that we can act upon them, such as this highlighted text which immediately catches our attention.
These receptors are what help us develop and customize our operating system from scratch. They make information available to us about our reality, which changes the way we process our environment and interpret new signals. Our operating system basically builds an understanding of the world through a sensory feedback loop.
It may seem strange to discuss the concept of reality in an article about how the mind works but it isn’t. We live in a reality and everything we do is relative to it: we come to life in it, learn its rules through trials and errors, then develop thoughts and behaviors that seem adapted to it. We can’t begin to comprehend how our mind works if we don’t understand how we perceive reality… because how our mind works is derived from that perception.
When we think of reality, we usually think of a unique single reality, THE reality, then we split the world in two: on a side are those that share the same reality as us and are considered sane, and on the other side are those that don’t and are considered insane. If someone mentions seeing flying pigs over our heads and we don’t see them when we look up, we recognize that their perception of reality is inaccurate because the flying pigs aren’t there. We expect people around us to experience reality as we do because, if there’s only THE reality, then there can’t be two contradictory events happening simultaneously.
However, it’s not always that simple.
We all get different glimpses of reality and develop a very unique sense of it based on our own perceptions, even if we still share a large part of it with other living beings. We may live in the same reality, however mine is different from that of a color blind person whose visual signals are translated differently, and even more different from that of a blind person whose visual signals are lacking. We may live in the same reality but we experience a different reality… because reality has multiple dimensions.
The objective reality
The reality within which we exist is the objective reality, one that is factual and bound by the laws of physics, one where things exist and happen even if we’re not aware of them. This is THE reality most people think they experience, a unique reality that is the same to all of us. It encompasses all that’s ever been, all that is and all that will ever be.
All that exists anywhere in the universe, from every star in every galaxy to every grain of sand on our planet, is part of the objective reality and exists regardless of our ability to interact with it or knowledge that they exist. All events that happen anywhere in the universe are part of the objective reality and exist regardless of our ability to observe them. They exist and happen factually, wether we know it or not.
In the objective reality, if I tell you that I once ate 1kg of white chocolate, it doesn’t matter that you believe me or not, there’s a factual truth: either it happened or it didn’t. If we disagree, then one of us is wrong. There’s no room for debate in this reality.
The signals that our senses perceive from the environment originate from the objective reality, they are factual and don’t carry subjective meaning. In the objective reality, white chocolate has a smell that can be perceived by our receptors, but that smell is neither pleasant or unpleasant, it just exists as a signal which may be translated and interpreted by someone.
The subjective reality
The objective reality is infinite and complex, and we are only exposed to an infinitesimal portion of it so we never experience it as it really is. Instead, we experience a dumbed down version that only contains what we were exposed to and what our senses can perceive out of it… a version that’s different for everyone.
This is the subjective reality, an inner representation of the objective reality that’s affected by our perceptions, and which tries to fill the gap of missing informations by interpreting, guessing or extrapolating from past individual experiences. It is subjective because that reality differs from a person to another, it is not a factual reality.
If I told you that I ate 1kg of white chocolate, maybe you would believe me because you once did too or maybe someone else wouldn’t because that seems a lot. In the objective reality, either I did or I didn’t, but we have two subjective realities for two different persons: one where I did and one where I didn’t. Within each of these realities exists a different version of me, one that tells the truth and one that lies, which leads to a different treatment of information when it originates from me and depending on who receives it. People live in the same objective reality but can see it in conflicting ways.
This does not mean that everyone has a radically different reality, we still live in THE objective reality where the laws of physics apply and where we receive the same signals. If we watch the same show, we will see the same images and hear the same dialogues, we may have subtle differences because we pay more or less attention to details, but we should have about the same experience. The divergences appear where we lack information and are forced to fill the gaps with interpretations, guesses or extrapolations, rather than actual perceptions.
Further in this article, whenever I use the term reality without more precisions then it means subjective reality, as it is the one we tend to refer to when we talk about reality.
While realities can vary from a person to another, we can have reasonable expectations regarding realities of others because we all share the objective reality, we’re all bound to the laws of physics.
If you and another person watched me throw a rock, I can expect that you both saw it fall down and not disappear mid-air, float above my head or fly to the moon. Maybe you didn’t pay attention and missed details, maybe you think you saw me throw a can instead and the other person thinks I threw a coin. You may both disagree about details but, if you observed the same event, you should have seen more or less the same thing as you should only interpret, not transform, the objective reality. If that wasn’t the case, the gambling industry would fall apart.
An alternate reality is one that is incompatible with the objective reality and, by extension, the realities of most people. If someone really perceived images of the rock levitating when I threw it, then his reality would be incompatible with the objective reality by defying the laws of physics, and also with the realities of others as everyone else saw something falling.
originate from other dimensions in quantum phy…
no, wait no, that’s the synopsis of Sliders.
An alternate reality is if someone tells me that she’s Cleopatra, ruler of the Kingdom of Egypt, and that we’re currently sitting by the Nile in 40 BC. We may disagree or not over the fact that she’s Cleopatra, ruler of the Kingdom of Egypt, but there are multiple incompatibilities between our realities that makes them impossible to coexist in the objective reality: either we’re in 40 BC or in 2021 AC but it can’t be both, either I’m in France or in Egypt but it can’t be both. At least one of our realities is incompatible with the objective reality and is de facto an alternate reality. To both of us, our subjective realities are the ones grounded in the objective reality, it is the other that is living in an alternate reality.
This can be much more subtle than the caricature above. Conspiracy theorists, such as flat earthers or some of the anti-vax crowd, have a most of their realities compatible with the objective reality… except when it comes to parts revolving around the conspiracies. It is only when these topics are discussed that conflicts and incompatibilities come to light, in which case they must work very hard to preserve their alternate realities from shattering.
Alternate realities are not only experienced through pathology, they are something we all experience frequently.
Every day, we go to sleep and our dream character dives into alternate dream realities, ones that have no grounds in the objective reality. They may be very similar or very different, realistic or strange but, as far as our mind is concerned, they are alternate realities that replace our reality until we wake up and are conscious again.
This is also what happens to people under sombnambulic states of hypnosis, hallucinating objects or acting as if they were someone else. They are instructed to switch their reality with an alternate one, similar to a dream world, until they are waken up from hypnosis. As far as their mind is concerned, they are in an alternate reality during that experience.
What sets apart dreamers and hypnotized people from pathology is that their alternate realities don’t persist. When we wake up from our dreams or states of hypnosis, we recognize the alternate reality as being unreal and reconnect to our actual reality, the alternate reality doesn’t remain our subjective reality.
The ordinary state of consciousness (OSC)
Every day, we wake up and start getting back in touch with our reality.
As we connect back with it, we enter our ordinary state of consciousness (OSC), a state in which we’re aware of the environment and able to interact with it in ways we understand. The OSC is the state in which we feel… normal, or at least familiar. It is the state in which we most usually function and interact with the environment, the one which we’re the most used to spend time in when we’re awake.
Some people dislike this notion of OSC as it seems to imply that we’re the exact same person every day, but this is an inaccurate way of understanding things. The OSC is not a static state, it is a dynamic one that encompasses various levels of consciousness from being tired to being extremely active, it is just a state within which our conscience of our environment takes most of the mental space. We’re awake, aware and alert.
An OSC implies that there’s at least one non-ordinary state of consciousness, an understatement as there are really many altered states of consciousness.
Altered states of consciousness (ASC)
When we mention altered states of consciousness (ASC), many people assume that we are in the realm of hippy new age theories, but we all enter observable and recognizable ASC on a daily basis.
An ASC is simply a state in which we’re not in our OSC, nothing more: no chakras, no energetic forces, no nothing.
Some of these states are triggered voluntarily by our own actions, such as when we get drunk by absorbing alcohol or when we get high by consuming drugs. The term “under influence” itself implies that our state of consciousness was altered, that the actions that we did “under influence” were not that of someone under an OSC.
ASC can also be triggered by events causing us to shortly exit our normality, like for example when we enter a state of shock after being involved in an accident, or when we’re euphoric after achieving something extraordinary. These events cause us to temporily switch to an ASC that’s more or less distant from our OSC.
More frequently than getting drunk or in a state of shock, the circadian rythm of alertness causes us to enter an ASC on average every 90 minutes, lightly losing awareness of the environment and being absorbed in our thoughts, while the circadian rythm of sleep causes us to enter several ASC, roughly every ~24 hours, as we fall asleep.
Most of these states are measurable or observable, either through EEG measurements or through visible physiological changes. No one could argue the ASC tied to the sleep cycle are similar to the OSC, they exhibit differences in both EEG measurements and visible changes.
The main personality
From early age, we start experimenting with everything and observe the outcome of our actions, we get told to do things and not do others, we abide or disobey, we succeed, fail, get hurt, love, hate, experience pleasant and unpleasant feelings, and all of this affects how we face similar situations or how we approach new ones.
These experiences are internalized and becomes part of our identity, we build a personality whose traits are inherited from all of them, a personality that is our natural one when we’re in our OSC, it is our main personality. It is the one that describes us, and even if we fake aspects of it when confronting other people, that faking is also one of its traits: we know when we’re pretending to be someone else.
This main personality is what characterizes us, what describes us as a person when excluding our physical traits. We may be shy or extravert, joyful, pessimistic, adventurous or anxious. It drives our decisions and actions, and people who know our personality can infer some behaviors based on how they align with it. If you know my personality and recognize that I’m generally anxious, you will probably infer that I’m unlikely to do something impulsive without thinking it through.
This main personality is what makes our reality subjective: the interpretations of our reality are shaped by our personality. It is because it has certain traits that we interpret things in a certain way, that we don’t pay attention to some details and extra attention to others.
Among all our experiences of reality, some are integrated to our main personality and some aren’t. Sometimes, they aren’t relevant to us or we weren’t conscious of them, or sometimes they’re incompatible with our reality and would risk its stability, so we deny and repress them consciously or not. We still experience them, accumulate and record informations, we just don’t integrate that to our main personality.
In ASC, when we dream or when we’re under hypnosis, alternate subconscious personalities can be created that take these informations into account. They don’t risk shattering our reality or main personality, we’re temporarily in an alternate reality, a safe place where the worse that could happen is that we wake up realizing it wasn’t real.
Our subconscious mind can make use of these personalities to organize, classify or even cope with informations that couldn’t be integrated in our main personality. However, because of this access to unusual informations, the alternate personalities exhibit all kinds of traits and behaviors that make them behave funny, strange or erratic… ways that are not always implausible but that are often really different from our main personality. Our dream character or our hypnotized body is not directed by our main personality, so when we look back at how it behaved, it is as if it was controlled by someone else and we were spectators.
Unless we suffer from a personality disorder, these alternate subconscious personalities don’t usually share existence with our main personality. They would instead appear in dreams or under hypnosis, when we’re in an ASC and our main personality goes away with our consciousness, and would disappear when we wake up and enter our OSC again with our main personality.
Stages of sleep
Out of all ASC, stages of sleep are particularly interesting because we all experience them daily, and we can all relate to them. No one doubts falling asleep or that when they’re asleep, they’re no longer in the same state as when they’re awake. It is a set of ASC that we undisputedly all share in common.
I won’t deep-dive into the stages of sleep as they are already heavily documented, however I will lightly explain their relation to ASC.
First of all, the circadian rythm of sleep-wake sends us the signal that we need to sleep roughly every ~24h.
As we fall asleep, we progressively lose awareness of our environment and start transitioning to an ASC. At this stage, we’re not completely detached from our environment, we’re just losing consciousness.
It is an ASC because we lose awareness of the environment, which is what defines the OSC.
Then, during the stage of light sleep, we switch to a different ASC within which we are unconscious and detached from the environment, but still subjected to perceptions that can easily bring us back, such as noise, light changes or even someone touching us.
We know it is a different ASC because there are visible changes to the physiology, and we can measure specific brain waves.
Later, during the stage of deep sleep, we switch to yet another ASC within which we are not only unconscious and detached from the environment, but also detached from most perceptions, requiring insisting signals to bring us back.
We know it is another ASC because, just like for light sleep, there are visible changes to the physiology, and we can measure specific brain waves.
REM (rapid eye-movements) or paradoxical sleep
Finally, during the stage of REM sleep, we switch to another ASC within which we are not only unconscious and detached from the environment, similarly to the stage of deep, but an alternate version of us is projected in the alternate reality of a dream world.
The stage is called paradoxical because we exhibit characteristics from a waken state while being in a sleep state. Brain measurements show the activity of a waken state, and if it weren’t for muscle paralysis, our body would mimic our dream actions as can be observed on people with sleep disorders affecting paralysis.
We are seemingly both awake and asleep at the same time.
Why are these stages of sleep interesting ?
First of all, the paradoxical sleep state is something we all experience, and it is a showcase of all the notions discussed in this article. Within it, we experience ASC that replace our OSC, alternate realities that replace our realities, and alternate personalities that replace our main personalities.
Approaching an understanding of how the mind works through paradoxical sleep state is the way of least resistance, the concepts can be explained without relying on theories by pointing to what people experience, everyone knows how dreams work even if they don’t often recall theirs.
Then, they share a LOT of similarities with the hypnotic states that I’ll describe in the next section, so much actually that we could say they’re essentially the same states triggered through a different path.
This is important because the most efficient gate to the subconscious is hypnosis, and when we understand that it works through the same mechanisms as sleep, we also understand that not being receptive to hypnosis makes as little sense as not being receptive to sleep, and resistance is caused by other reasons.
Hypnotic states (trances)
Hypnotic states are ASC that are between the OSC, when we’re conscious, and the the state of sleep, when we’re unconscious. They imply that our level of consciousness is reduced in comparison to our OSC. There are three categories of hypnotic states, or at least three that are significantly different and observable, each with their own characteristics and physiological changes.
The ordinary trance, or daydreaming
We’re in an ordinary trance, or daydreaming, when we temporarily disconnect from our reality to enter an inner alternate reality. This is what happens when we realize that we’ve flipped pages of a book without actually reading… because we were absorbed on inner thoughts unrelated to our environment and what we were doing. This very light trance happens naturally as a result of the circadian rythm of alertness.
When daydreaming, we are slightly more suggestible as we continue perceiving signals from reality, but our conscious mind is not around to do the filtering it usually does. This doesn’t mean that all suggestions are accepted, but that there’s least resistance to suggestions that would otherwise be reject right away. They may be recorded and affect later thoughts.
If I hear a commercial suggesting to buy snack bars while I’m daydreaming, I’m more suggestible to this idea than if I’m paying attention and careful not to be tricked into it. This slight suggestibility increase may play a role in my decision making later, getting me to buy one because I’m not opposed to the idea, even though I wasn’t initially planning to.
The stuporous trance
In the stuporous trance, we’re progressively disconnected from reality, very similarly to the light and deep sleep stages. We undergo similar physiological changes, including calmer respiratory and cardiac rythm changes.
In a light stuporous trance, we are relaxed and pay less attention to our environment, detaching ourselves from reality but still able to reconnect easily if our senses are stimulated.
As the trance intensifies, we detach more and more as we lose interest in reality to focus on an inner alternate reality. This loss of interest for reality includes what happens to the physical body, we don’t care if there’s discomfort, pain signals don’t make it to the inner alternate reality, which is why pain management techniques often uses a “safe place” stuporous trance.
The trance can be intensified until hypnotic sleep or hypnotic coma is reached, a state where we temporarily lose all interest for reality as we’re fully absorbed in our inner alternate reality.
When we read about surgeries under hypnosis, or dentists using hypnosis, or even when we see a hypnotist put someone to sleep in a show, they all exploit this trance to varying degrees.
The somnambulic trance
The somnambulic trance resembles paradoxical sleep. We slide into an alternate reality where feet can be glued to the ground when fingers are snapped, where things can appear out of thin air, or even where our subconscious can be summoned to take over and control our body it as if it wasn’t ours. It is similar to an awaken dream where things happen and we don’t really see a reason why they wouldn’t, the inner alternate reality simply replaces our reality.
In a light somnambulic transe, the main personality shares the mental space with an alternate personality. It accepts that there are two personalities within the body, itself and the alternate personality which we often personify as the “subconscious mind”, and that they both have a degree of control.
As the somnambulic trance intensifies, the alternate personality takes more and more control, up to dominating the main personality, until it eventually takes over control of the entire body and causes the main personality to disappear.
This is what happens when you see a hypnotist tell people to do surreal things, which they do, before they wak up and don’t seem to remember what happened. Their main personality was away and an alternate subconcious personality did the things on their behalf, which is why they don’t remember.
Dreaming is an essential function as it helps emotions and stress, as well as the recording and categorization of memories, as has been shown in experiments involving paradoxical sleep deprivation. Everyone dreams, wether they recall it or not, because dreams are a byproduct of these activities we all go through daily.
Freud viewed the dream as a harmless psychosis which withdraws you from the external world temporarily then disappears, and while I’m not a huge fan of all of his work, this is a very logical way to understand dreams in light of what I wrote above:
During the dream, an alternate personality takes over your mental space in an alternate reality that has no grounds in the objective reality, until the dream ends and both the alternate personality and alternate reality disappear, as your main personality connects back to your reality.
A lot of things have been said about dreams, their meanings and their interpretations, but I don’t think we can interpret them. They do carry information, but one that is encoded in a way that only makes sense to the current alternate personality experiencing it. The information makes no sense to our main personality or that of other people. It is as if someone talked to us in a newly invented different language every time we dream, we can try to interpret, we can even throw guesses at what they mean and sometimes be lucky and correct… but we’ll generally have no clue because it’s not our language, and we can’t build an understanding of something that keeps changing in radical ways every time.
Under hypnosis, alternate personalities often rely on symbolic discourses that make absolutely no sense to us, until they explain how this makes sense to them… similarly to how psychotic people have their own explanation to how their reality works, one that we don’t necessarily understand but which makes sense to them, and that they can explain.
It isn’t different with the alternate personalities of our dreams.
What is important to understand is that the dreams, which we all experience, encompass all concepts: an ASC that differs from our OSC, an alternate reality that is disjoint from both our reality and the objective reality, and alternate personalities that may diverge greatly from our main personality, up to a point we could consider our experience of a dream to be the experience of a harmless psychosis.
This understanding lays the foundation to understanding how lucid dreaming or hypnosis work, as well as how traumas are created, how they cause hysteria, how medications affect them and how lucid dreaming and hypnosis affect them too.
Lucid dreaming is a special kind of dream, a hack of some sort if you will, where our main personality gets pulled into the alternate reality of a dream and causes it to share the mental space with alternate personalities.
It is available to all but requires training and conditioning, first to be able to recall dreams, then to be able to setup triggers that will cause the main personality to emerge in the alternate reality. Some people do it very easily, others require extended periods of training before first succeeding, there is no magical recipe that makes it an instant win but only recipes to optimize the odds of it happening.
When a lucid dream is triggered, our main personality is awaken in an alternate reality built by alternate personalities… while being aware that it is not its own reality, and that the physical body lies sleeping outside of the dream world. The alternate personalities try to preserve their reality by tricking us into losing consciousness again, collapsing the dream to wake us up or even begin a completely new dream sequence where we’re not conscious anymore. However simple techniques exist that help undermine these attempts.
When we succeed stabilizing a lucid dream, something very interesting happens: a communication channel between our main personality and alternate personalities emerges, as our main personality inhabits our dream character but all other characters are subconscious constructs. We become free to ask questions to surrounding characters about our subconscious behaviors and get unfiltered answers, even if they conflict with our views of the actual reality.
In our OSC, we never really feel the duality between our conscious and subconscious minds, our main personality never gets to communicate with our alternate personalities. In lucid dreams, this duality is omnipresent, we’re conscious that we’re not in our reality and while we have a degree of control over it, most elements of that reality are outside of our control and conflict with us: dream characters may refuse to talk to us, contradict what we say, or bring back memories that conflict with our own reality, …
Hypnosis is also a special kind of dream, one that happens while we’re awake and where alternate personalities are pulled into our reality, causing them to share mental space with our main personality. This is very similar to lucid dreaming, in that ultimately this turns our reality into an alternate one, where we experience and perceive things that are inexistant for other people, and where main and alternate personalities are both around and able to communicate one with the other. The difference is that we develop that alternate reality from a wake state, and that external people such as the hypnotist can interact with that alternate reality.
It is also available to all but requires training and adhesion to the process.
Contrarily to a popular belief, we don’t need to believe in it or believe that it works, but we need to truly want it to work so that we don’t (un)voluntarily resist it: to be hypnotized, we must accept to temporarily let go of our reality and main personality. This is very easy to some who get hypnotized in seconds, very hard to others who require dozens or hundreds of hours of work to accept letting go, and contrarily to what we could think, resistance is usually the sign of underlying weaknesses, such as traumas and fears, rather than the sign of a strong “cartesian” mind.
The techniques by themselves are easy to learn and when we enter the somnambulic state of hypnosis, the same happens as in lucid dreams: it becomes possible for our main personality to communicate with alternate personalities. It becomes possible to ask questions that helps understand what happens subconsciously.
Hypnosis is much more efficient than lucid dreaming because during a dream, we enter the alternate reality of alternate personalities and, if they manage to kick us out, the adventure ends until our next successful lucid dream attempt in a later dream or a later night. With hypnosis, we make alternate personalities join the reality of our main personality, one that they can’t end. If we somehow exit the state of hypnosis, we can reinduce it as many times as we want.
What’s next ?
This article was meant to give a macroscopic view of concepts that will be recurrent in this category, as a way to put all readers on the same step, but future articles will take these notions further.
In my next article of this category, I will present a model I worked on to describe the dynamic organization of the mind, taking into account how it reorganizes itself in different states of consciousness. I will explain how it was built, what was the rationale behind each component of the model, and I will apply it to various states of consciousness to compare what we observe to what the model predicts.