New Scientist has a fantastic issue on ‘strange journeys of the mind’ that has three great articles on the twilight zone of sleep, simulating psychopathology with hypnosis and laboratory-induced out-of-body experiences.
The piece on the hypnotic simulation of brain disturbances is fantastic, not least because it features two researchers I work with, Peter Halligan and David Oakley, who have done some of the seminal work in the area.
Essentially, the approach views hypnosis as a tool that allows researchers, with the co-operation of the participant, to temporarily alter mental states in a completely safe and reversible way.
Importantly, these alterations, such as blindness or paralysis, seem like they’re happening ‘on their own’ – which helps us understand conditions like conversion disorder, where these sorts of symptoms appear without any neurological damage but without the patient seeming to have any control over them.
The other article which blew me away was on recent studies suggesting that sleep and alertness are not two distinct states of consciousness and in some people with a dementia-like brain disorder the boundaries between sleep and wakefulness completely break down.
That this can happen contradicts the way we usually think about sleep, but it came as no surprise to Mark Mahowald, medical director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center in Minneapolis, who has long contested the dogma that sleep and wakefulness are discrete and distinct states. “There is now overwhelming evidence that the primary states of being are not mutually exclusive,” he says. The blurring of sleep and wakefulness is very clear in status dissociatus, but he believes it can happen to us all. If he is right, we will have to rethink our understanding of what sleep is and what it is for. Maybe wakefulness is not the all-or-nothing phenomenon we thought it was either.
Finally, the piece on out of body experiences covers the work of Swiss researchers who have been studying these states in people with brain disorder, and managing to induce them in volunteers in a number of inventive ways.
Three awesome articles, all worth your time, all open-access. Three cheers New Scientist.