After finishing Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep I am almost left with more questions than answers regarding the human brain, particularly the role of consciousness in our normal human behavior. Consciousness is what we generally associate with rationality, memory, and humanity; it’s what makes us who we are. Verstynen and Voytek discuss whether a zombie brain is “consciousness” in the beginning of their investigation into the psychology of zombies because the notion of consciousness is that critical to our understanding of what makes us… us.
This prompted me to do some digging, and some of the most interesting information I found was on the neuroscience of hypnosis. You may be wondering if this is really the appropriate forum for discussing a science as “soft” as hypnosis, but research has indicated that learning more about hypnosis could actually tell us more about what consciousness is and how it contributes to human behavior.
A review of the neurological and cognitive aspects of hypnosis that was published in 2013, incorporated research that elaborates on the underlying causes, and more interestingly, neurological effects of hypnosis (Oakley & Halligan 2013). Through an analysis of the existing literature on hypnosis and the brain, Oakley & Halligan (2013) identify the right hemisphere and frontal cortices as critical regions in determining suggestibility under hypnosis. While the role of the right hemisphere is unclear, Oakley and Halligan (2013) suggest that the anterior corpus callosum and the prefrontal cortices play a crucial role in reducing attention and intentional action awareness. While the factors that create susceptibility to hypnosis are interesting, I was more intrigued by some of the studies investigating the “reality” of trance-induced suggestions. These studies looked at the brain during hypnosis and during normal functioning and observed the similarities between certain trance suggestions and real experiences. For example, one study looked at pain in real life, and pain suggested under hypnosis. The study found that the same brain areas (the thalamus, the ACC, the secondary somatosensory cortex, and prefrontal cortices) were activated in both subjects (Oakley & Halligan 2013). Furthermore, the hypnotized brain showed more activation in these areas than a subject asked to think about the pain in a non-hypnosis state. This implies that there may be a level of consciousness in which our brain can almost convince itself that it is experiencing something it is not. Oakley and Halligan (2013) posit that this has something to do with hypnosis allowing the hypnotizer to circumvent the subjects’ decision making function of the brain, and communicate directly with certain sensory and motor functions.
So what does any of this have to do with zombies? To me it further supports the notion that the brain can be manipulated in ways that alter everything about who we think we are. Oakley and Halligan (2013) discuss the significance of their research in the context of abnormal psychology and mental disorders, but it also hits home on a deeply philosophical level. If ones’s brain can be disengaged to the point where one’s choices are made by an external decider, how strong is one’s self and one’s identity. If it doesn’t even take an infectious bite to turn someone into a mindless automaton what hope does the human brain have against the coming zombie apocalypse?
Oakley, D. A., & Halligan, P. W. (2013). Hypnotic suggestion: opportunities for cognitive neuroscience. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 14(8), 565-576.
Verstynen, T., & Voytek, B. (2014). Do Zombies Dream of Undead Sheep?: A Neuroscientific View of the Zombie Brain. Princeton University Press.
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Ever since a hypnotist came to my high school for some post-final exams relief, I have been skeptical about hypnosis. I didn’t go to the event, but I heard all about it from my friends, some of whom said that they had been hypnotized. The idea that someone could have control in such a manner over the brain of another person just did not make sense to me…I guess this speaks to what you mention is the common tendency within neuroscience to shy away from things that seem “soft” compared to hard science. But as you explain with this post, activities such as hypnosis are worth looking into; first and foremost because of the possible zombie apocalypse and secondly because it’s cool hearing a more science-based explanation for something like this.