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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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The Dreams of 'Magnetic Sleep' and other Stories

Carolyn Dahlgren

For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come
Shakespeare, "Hamlet"

On the scroll of my teeming mind:
The Creation and Flood
With our Saviour's Blood
And fat Silenus' flagons,
And every rare beast
From the South and East,
Both greatest and least,
On and on,
In endless, variant procession.
(Robert Graves, Poems of Sleep and Dreams p.130)

Franz Anton Mesmer was an intelligent and charismatic man. He was a peddler of memes, a manipulator of neocortices, a director of stories. Mesmer could heal hysterics or induce convulsions. Blindness, paralysis, ailments that medical doctors could not explain; all symptoms dissolved away with the wave of his hand. He was a celebrity, distinguishing himself by tending to wealthy French gentiles and Russian royalty. Patients would come from near and far to partake of his miraculous powers. Upon entering his abode, guests were ushered to a lavish saloon where a peculiar metal basin, an odd center-piece, dominated the room. This baquet was "specially designed to store and transmit magnetic fluid... [at the bottom,] arranged in concentric circles, were bottles, some empty and pointing towards the center, some containing magnetized water and pointing out towards the circumference... The tub was filled with water to which iron filings and powdered glass were added. Iron rods emerging through holes in the tub's lid were bent at right angles so that the ends of the rods could be placed against the afflicted areas of the patient's body..."(Crabtree) Butlers would escort each patient to their place at the bars and stand ready for the ensuing chaos. Once the room and her occupants were settled, dulcet music began to be heard. "The sweet, distant tones of a glass armonica (sic) played behind curtains covered with astrological symbols. Then Mesmer himself, clad in a long purple robe, would enter and touch each patient with a white wand, sending them into a magnetic trance from which they awakened fully cured" (Zeitler).

Mesmer proclaimed that he was a powerful magnetic conduit. By manipulating his own magnetic aura, he could realign imbalances in the 'animal spirits' of ailing guests. The corresponding fluids within his patients would respond through attraction and repulsion, until Messer had restored body equilibrium. After amassing a large amount of wealth and garnering much attention, suspicions began to arise. The French government grew dubious of Mesmer's abilities. A Royal Commission was assembled to investigate the magician. Upon examination, the scientists concluded that there was no scientific evidence for the existence of 'animal spirits'. Thus began the decline of Mesmer. His magnetic abilities were revealed as fabrications. His baquet was merely an enlarged Leyden Jar, his wand a metal-tipped baton. Mesmer's cure was simply a theatricized electric shock.

Though his methods and theories were scientifically unfounded, the melodrama of Mesmer's cures proved useful. Mesmer's demonstrations illustrated the power of suggestion on the human mind. His acolytes further explored his discovery. They soon found a way to commune with another person's neocortex, the 'story-telling part of the brain' (Grobstein). This procedure would later be called hypnosis. There are many accounts of healing which had taken place at the hands of Mesmer or one of his followers. Hypnosis is still used as a therapeutic technique, a form of alternative medicine that can alleviate a range of problem, from obesity to smoking. Through centuries of case studies, the amount knowledge and questions about hypnosis have dramatically increased. A patient of Marquis de Puysegur, a Mesmerist, was a particularly interesting case; Victor Race simple became a different person while in 'magnetic sleep'. "Normally subservient and quiet, he appeared more intelligent, more of an equal, and this new person spoke about the normal Victor as a third person" (Waterfield, p. 105). Just who was Puysegur talking to when Race was hypnotized? Who was that 'other being' inside Victor?

Humans have a bipartite brain setup; in this arrangement, sensory information is collected in lower brain structures and transmitted to the neocortex. The neocortex is in charge of interpreting the data it has received and gives us a 'story' about the world, perception. The presence of the neocortex allows us to have multiple 'stories' to tell about the world, it gives us the option of choice. In hypnosis, however, we are no longer really bipartite. We are reduced to a point where we are just our neocortices. When we are hypnotized, who is in charge of us? It is easy to dismiss this question, to say that we are under the control of hypnotists. They commune with the neocortex and suggest a certain story, but all a hypnotist can do encourage a story, not import something new. We already have ruling stories in our heads; that is why people under hypnosis will not do anything they would not do in a normal state. How are these story generated? Who or what are we when we are in a hypnotic trance? What is the neocortex, a part of us or some independent entity?

What are the stories that lives inside us? How did they get there? Dennett calls them memes; they are all of everyone's ideas, thoughts, theories, heuristics, any higher level thought. "On the scroll of my teeming mind:/...And every rare beast/ From the South and East,/ Both greatest and least,/ On and on,/ In endless, variant procession" (Graves, p 131). Have we suggested our stories to ourselves, we have invented them, or are they imposed upon us in the form of these 'beastly', incubus-like memes? Do we have free will? Who are we? Are we independent beings or are we meme-operated mechanical hosts. "[M]emes can act as "memetic viruses": collections of ideas that behave like independent life forms which continue to get passed on even at the expense of their hosts simply because they are good at getting passed on" (Wikipedia-Meme). Are we nothing but this 'memetic virus'? Are we our memes, or are they us? If we think of ourselves as collections of memes, we do we "rob [the] mind of its importance... Who's in charge- we or our memes?" (Dennett p. 346). Do we have any control over whether we embrace or banish them?

A hypnotic trance is a link to our internal storytellers, a direct connection to our memes. Hypnosis is similar to dreaming, both involve the neocortex. "Hypnosis is... a dissociated state of waking into which many of the features of sleep have been inserted. In a sense it is the precise reciprocal of lucid dreaming, where some features of waking have been inserted into sleep" (Hobson, p. 98). In REM sleep or in a hypnotic trance, people are reduced to their neocortex. Each state, however, has a different method of achieving this 'super-neocortical' state. "Hypnosis moves subjects down toward the... upper limits of REM sleep... [but] the two states do not converge...To move from wake[fullness] to deep trance, subjects must deactivate the cortex... the same structure must be reactivated to move from non-lucid to lucid REM dreaming" (Hobson p. 101). The 'deactivation of the cortex' in hypnosis allows the therapist to the control of suggesting memes. The 'reactivation' in REM sleep means that the neocortex is highly active while the rest of the brain and body is not. Dreams, therefore, are a manifestation of our memes.

In hypnosis people lose control of the neocortex and during dreaming, the neocortex seems to become a separate entity. The bipartite brain system frees us from algorithmic bonds. We have a neocortex which allows us to collect and choose different stories. This freedom, however, may be an illusion. The neocortex which given us choice has rules that it must follow. The neocortex is just a different algorithm, and its existence has made us a pliable container for meme. By evolving a neocortex, have we developed a new form of confinement or have we taken a leap into the realm of skyhooks? Does meaning, purpose and agency naturally exist, or do human just fabricate them? What does meaning really mean? Is it just an alternate story? If so, is story telling simply an attempt to give meaning where none exists? On the flip side, maybe we have broken free from the confinement of algorithms. Perhaps the neocortex is the algorithm to subvert all other algorithms. Does that make us our own gods? Why couldn't we be Gods? "Why couldn't the most important thing of all be something that arose from unimportant things? Why should the importance or excellence of anything have to rain down on it from high, from something more important, a gift from God?" (Dennett, p. 66)

If our lives are to create meaning, we must be Gods, right? But what does 'God' mean anyway? Defining ourselves in the form of language is limiting. 'God' is just a word we have created; a word in a story. How can we ask if we are Gods if we can't even define the word? Is story telling the limit of the neocortex? What are the restrictions of stories? Are memes the limiting factor? Evolution is about adapting ways to break through limits. We could be the stepping stones to 'Supergod' or 'Superdupergod' (Dennett, p. 71). Or perhaps we are already but we are unaware of it. Are quarks or atoms or molecules or bacteria or fungi or earthworms or crickets or lizards or owls or cats or anything aware of the roles and traits that we have assigned to them in our stories? The story of evolution to tell us how we got to who we are, but who are we is a much larger question. We are stories... so many stories.


1) Crabtree, Adam. From Mesmer to Freud. p.13-14. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1993. Date of Access: March 3, 2005.

2) Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Touchstone, 1995.

3) Hobson, Allan J. The Dream Drugstore: Chemically Altered States of Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001.

4) Occultopedia. Date of Access: March 3, 2005.

5) Mayr, Ernst. What Evolution Is. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2001.

6) Washington, Peter. Poems of Sleep and Dreams. London: Everyman's Library, Random House (UK) Ltd., 2004.

7) Waterfield, Robin. Hidden Depths: The Story of Hypnosis. London: Macmillan, 2002.

8) Wikipedia. "Incubus." Date of Access: March 4, 2005.

9) Wikipedia. "Meme". Date of Access: March 4, 2005.

10) Wozniak, Robert. Serendip. "Trance and Trauma: Functional Nervous Disorders and the Subconscious Mind". Date of Access: March 3, 2005.

11) Zeitler, William Wilde. "Franz Mesmer". Date of Access: March 3, 2005.

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