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Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mind Tricks, Ancient and Modern by Steven Saunders

Here’s something you won’t know about me: for several years I studied neuroscience. True. Go on, ask me anything about the hypothalamus.

It was part of my study of psychology which I did for A-level and then for another two years at uni – until the statistics and animal testing side of it sent me screaming into the gentler arms of Art History. A subject where no one will ever ask you to do something unpleasant to a baby chick or pick up a white rat.

It was my own fault. If I’d researched my university choice better I would have known that St Andrews psychology department was firmly in the Skinner camp. Which is the empirical, hard science end of it. Lots of rats running around in mazes.

But although I ended up disillusioned with my course, I still found all the stuff about brain anatomy and chemistry absolutely gripping. Snap my synapses, baby. Equally, my interest in the diametric opposite end of psychology’s sweep - the philosophical jag, where you find Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung – never lost its appeal.

Freud is over-dug and some of Jung’s ideas have been tainted by association with New Age’s daffier dingbats, but the ideas of subconscious, ego, Zeitgeist, Collective Unconscious, and Synchronicity have always made perfect sense to me. (Even Sting couldn’t put me off.)

Why am I telling you this? Oh yes, because it all came bolting back together yesterday, when I was browsing in a bookshop and had a moment of gripping synchroncity. Looking at some attractively packaged small volumes on a rotating stand, I picked out Mind Tricks. Or my subconscious did. Ooooh.

Opening it randomly (or was it random? *waggles head knowingly*) I found myself reading a sentence that related exactly to the basis of a neurolinguistic programming technique I have recently learned, which has enabled me to recover very quickly from a long dreary illness.

(It’s called the Lightning Process and if you, or anyone you know has any form of chronic fatigue – I strongly recommend you Google it.)

The next page I turned to explained exactly the memory system that Hilary Mantel describes her superhumanly clever hero Thomas Cromwell using in Wolf Hall – the last book I wrote about on here. Cue spooky music…

So I immediately bought the book and sucked it down on a two-hour train journey. It’s a great little read, putting the points over amusingly and succinctly, with just 300 words and some jolly illustrations for each topic.

It might not appeal to everybody, but what I found so satisfying about the whole experience is the way it brought together those two arms of psychology which have always interested me.

Being synchronistically relevant right now, because the most interesting thing I learned from the Lightning Process is that all these ancient mind-over-matter techniques - from fire walking to hypnosis - far from being magical occult oogi boogie, can now be very exactly explained using the most advanced brain-mapping techniques. Neuroscience, innit?

Or to put it in terms that any student of psychology would understand – the grand canyon between Skinner and Jung now has a rock solid scientific bridge over it.

Reading satisfaction: 5
Un-put-downable-ness: 3
Recommend to best girlfriend: 5
Recommend to mother: 0
Recommend to niece: 5
Recommend to gay best friend: 5
Recommend to man pal: 6
Recommend to Helen Razer: 4
Read on public transport: 10 (very light)


  1. Fascinating post Maggie! I dove straight into Art History at uni (the word 'science', until recently, caused my brain to automatically shut down!) However, also due to my efforts to recover from an illness (of the brain!), I have been delighting in some of the more approachable literature which explores the chemistry and function of this mysterious organ (it's an organ right?). I recently discovered Oliver Sacks, which has been a revelation. It's great to get some recommendations from someone in the know!

  2. Wow, it all came flooding back to me. I went through a similar experience with psychology at uni and even wrote a column for a parish youth paper about the trials and tribulations of a rat in a Skinner maze.It was all very Thomas Hardy..."where was her guardian angel? Where was the providence of her simple faith?" It was an attempt to meld English Lit and behavioural science and to those in the know, very funny, and to everybody else I was a crazy hippy student. Those were the days.
    But my studies (and my feeble attempt to find humour in the ill treatment of a lab rat) left me with an abiding interest in the workings of the brain and human behaviour and I will order this book now. Thankyou for the reccommendation Maggie.

  3. Amazing, because I have just been delving into neuroscience through my interest in meditation. I have just read 'Buddha's Brain- the practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom' by Rick Hanson, which is mind blowing in that it discusses how the brain can change through meditation. The other book I am now reading is "The Plastic Mind' by Sharon Begley, looking at brain plasticity and how neuroscientists have regular meetings with the Dalai Lama to explore this, and conduct experiments looking at the brains of Tibetan monks. Science meeting spiritual practise. I love the feeling that science can prove the efficacy of ancient wisdom - it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

  4. I'm another with a similar experience of studying psychology at Uni, escaping into english lit studies and somehow making it back all the way to eventually become a psychologist.

    It's great how all these meaningful connections are being made - Jung himself aimed to cross these types of divides and developed a very interesting dialogue with Physicist Wolfgang Pauli. More here

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  7. Hi Maggie,
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