Sunday, July 22, 2012

The strangest thing you'll read all day about the Batman killer (Updated)

Arguably, the post you are about to read is irresponsible. Nevertheless, I've been thinking about the possibility that accused "Batman" killer James Holmes has warped his mind by dabbling in hypnosis.

I keep mulling over the ABC News report of a video featuring James, then 18, as he discusses his interest in science:
In the video, he is standing among his peers at a science camp held at Miramar College in San Diego talking about "temporal illusions."

"Over the course of the summer I've been working with a temporal illusion. It's an illusion that allows you to change the past," Holmes said in the video.
This is how he was explaining his mentor's shared interest in fantasy versus reality in the video: "He also studies subjective experience, which is what takes places inside the mind as opposed to the external world. I've carried on his work in dealing with subjective experience."
The ABC New report is badly written. It does not identify this "mentor."

(Update: The mentor has now been identified. See below.)

Whoever he is, his recommendation must have had some pull -- because this bizarre interest in changing the past earned Holmes a major federal grant to study neuroscience at a highly competitive institution. I've heard that fewer than ten students each year get such a grant.

To the best of my knowledge, the only scientist who ever tried to do what Holmes proposed to do was a famous hypnosis researcher named Milton Erickson.

Many years ago, while wandering without aim through a college library, I ran across a fascinating book by Erickson called The February Man. In short and in sum, that book discusses a technique of using hypnosis to create the illusion of a past that never actually occurred.

Although copies of the book are now rare and expensive, a summary may be found here. I'm afraid that the precis does not do the book justice.

Basically, Erickson was dealing with a young woman who needed to change her self-destructive behavior. As the saying goes, "the child is father to man." Thus, the hypnotherapist reasoned that changing the subject's past -- through hypnotic regression -- could change her present.
In the third interview Erickson spends five hours training her in hypnotic responsiveness. He regresses her to various ages and neutral memories, including their first interview, into which he "interpolates" a brief hypnotic episode that did not occur in the actual interview...
When Erickson has established various regressions as a "general background for new, interpolated behavioral experiences" he rouses her "somnambulistically in this regressed state." Erickson defines somnambulistic trance as "a form of hypnotic behavior always significant of a deep trance state. In this condition subjects behave and respond as if they were wide awake and may even deceive observers with their seeming wakefulness." In her wide-awake four-year-old state, he begins to talk to her and identifies himself as a friend of her daddy's. After each episode of meeting Erickson while regressed, she is instructed to sleep hypnotically, then roused with the wrist cue for another meeting with him at a different age. Finally, she receives "extensive posthypnotic instructions to ensure a comprehensive amnesia for all trance experiences" and the session ends.

In subsequent sessions, "usually of several hours' duration," Erickson carefully interpolates himself into her regressed memories, offering perspective and "friendship, sympathy, interest, and objectivity, thereby giving him the opportunity to raise questions concerning how she might later evaluate a given experience." "The consistent and continual rejection she experienced from her mother presented many opportunities to reorganize her emotions and understanding." He offers therapeutic reframes of traumatic events (she will be able to remember her childhood grief over a broken china doll when she herself is a mother, and will be able to understand when her own daughter is sad), perspective (a teenage humiliation will one day be looked on as amusing), and weaves real happy memories in with the February Man episodes to insure integration.
Erickson called himself "the February Man" because he visited the subject during every February of her life.

The basic idea here is that all we retain of our past is our memory of it. By using hypnosis to alter those memories, we can recreate who we are today. By changing the past, we can change our identity.

Was Holmes proposing to carry on Erickson's work? I don't know -- but at the moment, that's the only sensible interpretation I can offer for Holmes' words in that video. Under normal circumstances, a student isn't likely to get any major grants if he blathers on about "temporal illusions." Even the SyFy channel wouldn't consider that kind of thing to be scientific. The money will come only if the student can cite respected previous work.

Within the field of hypnotherapy, Erickson was a giant; his name still carries great weight. Thus, I wonder if this mysterious "mentor" had introduced the bright youngster to the work of Milton Erickson, or perhaps to the work of a hypnotherapist who did similar research. If so -- and if Holmes decided to carry out his own studies -- he probably would have used himself as a subject.

It is common for a hypnotherapist to use imagery drawn from popular culture.

Update: A friend to this blog informs me that the mentor has been identified. From her comment:
This is interesting. The guy that's listed as Holmes' mentor in that "temporal illusions" video, John Jacobson, repudiates the idea that Holmes was "brilliant" and says that he all but fired him from the research internship program. He also talks about assigning Holmes the task of writing computer code for a rock-paper-scissors game--no mention of "temporal illusions" at all.

However, in 2002, Jacobson was second author of a paper entitled "Perceived Luminance Depends on Temporal Context"
Although Jacobson may have considered Holmes a mediocrity, you can't bullshit your way into Phi Beta Kappa. The kid must have had something going for him.


Twilight said...

Interesting! In all the circumstances (that we know of to date) that explanation fits well.

I saw a comment this afternoon, elsewhere, commenter was suggesting a loosely-related scenario to yours that, Holmes being in the neuro-science field could have been "used" in some kind of unofficial experiment (by someone??) as a try-out. Various related scenarios could be added (only if writing a novel!)

Lea said...

This is interesting. The guy that's listed as Holmes' mentor in that "temporal illusions" video, John Jacobson, repudiates the idea that Holmes was "brilliant" and says that he all but fired him from the research internship program. He also talks about assigning Holmes the task of writing computer code for a rock-paper-scissors game--no mention of "temporal illusions" at all.

However, in 2002, Jacobson was second author of a paper entitled "Perceived Luminance Depends on Temporal Context"

And woo boy. Check this out. John Jacobson on time:

ColoradoGuy said...

Ugh. I'm starting to get a bad feeling about this.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) is based on Ericksonian hynosis. The two originators of NLP, Bandler & Grinder, dropped out of sight in the late Seventies and re-surfaced about five years later. The scuttlebutt in the psychology community (my modest Bachelors is in psych) was they were working for Madison Avenue, the Pentagon, or both. Never had any confirmation of that, but they were invisible for several years, and anyone that's used NLP knows it is one of the most effective covert-persuasion techniques around.

There's a fairly large military-intelligence community around here, thanks to the large Federal presence in Colorado Springs (NORAD) and numerous Federal science labs in Boulder and Fort Collins, not to mention the former Rocky Flats nuclear reprocessing facility (now shut down and converted into a wildlife park).

During WWII, Denver was intended as a backup national capital under the worst-case scenario of the East and West Coasts being attacked by the Axis. Thus, the large Federal presence around here, which grew during the Cold War years.

Curious to hear your views on the whole MK-Ultra thing. 95% of the stuff on the Web is disinformation, I'm sure, but somehow I doubt the CIA would just walk away from it, just because they said they did in the 1975 Church Committee hearings. NLP alone has a generous toolkit of covert techniques, and if that's in the open literature, I'm sure there's plenty more we don't know about.

Lea said...

More about John Jacobson.

In 2008 he spoke on a panel at the University of Arizona's Center for Consciousness Studies (sounds like another Esalen, doesn't it?) entitled "Libet, Intention and the Timing of Conscious Experience". Jacobson's contribution was "Retroactive Modulation of Subjective Intentions: Philosophy, Science and Cyborgs".

Googling reveals that Benjamin Libet was a prominent scientist whose experiments suggested that "unconscious electrical processes in the brain called Bereitschaftspotential (or readiness potential) discovered by L├╝der Deecke and Hans Helmut Kornhuber in 1964 precede conscious decisions to perform volitional, spontaneous acts, implying that unconscious neuronal processes precede and potentially cause volitional acts which are retrospectively felt to be consciously motivated by the subject. The experiment has caused controversy not only because it challenges the belief in free will, but because it relies on questionable methods and rather narrow assumptions regarding how free decisions occur. It has also inspired further study of the neuroscience of free will."

Quite the rabbit-hole, this.

Joseph Cannon said...
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Joseph Cannon said...

CG: Well, it certainly remains to be proven that Holmes had any interest in Erickson. I referenced "The February Man" only because Holmes' words reminded me of that book. But I could be wrong. Maybe Holmes had something else in mind.

As for NLP -- I've read about it, and frankly, some of what I've read seems like pseudoscientific crap. Apparently, there's some non-crap in there too. Separating the crap from the non-crap is a job that someone else will have to do.

coloradoGuy said...

NLP is more effective than you might think. It's widely used in client persuasion, marketing, and advertising. What Bandler and Grinder did was distill and simplify Erickson's techniques and offer them to the business community.

Whether the Pentagon or CIA use their, or Erickson's, techniques is a matter of speculation.

Unknown said...

Oh good grief. He was a HIGH SCHOOL kid. What he actually knew about neurology at that time was minuscule. And hypnosis? Gimme a break. 19th century psycho-babble.

Joseph Cannon said...

TJ, you seem to have missed the part where I said that fewer than ten kids per year get that grant. He must not have been an ordinary high schooler, no matter what Mr. Jacobson says.

You know nothing about hypnosis. Nothing at all. Hell, most of the proper studies were conducted in the 20th century. Read the scientific literature before you spout off. You may want to start here:

Andy Tyme said...

When Walter Bowart (the absolute best authority on MK-Ultra outside of the mil-intel catacombs) finally came out of his long personal exile, shortly before he privately published a revised edition of his brilliant/dangerous/genuinely suppressed "Operation Mind Control" and then died -- it seemed that all he wanted to talk about was NLP, NLP, and NLP.

The rabbit hole deepens.

affinis said...

1. In the news, there seems to be misunderstanding of the NIH Training Grant that funded Holmes' predoctoral work. NIH Training Grants are basically provided to institutions, not individuals (there isn't a nationwide competition by individuals for such grants). The NIH Neuroscience Training Grant Program awarded Anschutz Medical Center at UC Denver funds for six predoctoral students. The Neuroscience Program at Anschutz administers these funds - students who are admitted to the Anschutz neuroscience doctoral program are eligible for support. And nationwide, to the best of my knowledge there are more than ten such neuroscience training program slots.
The upshot - you don't have to be brilliant to be supported by a Neuroscience Training Grant at Anschutz. You need a decent-enough record to get into the Anschutz Neuroscience doctoral program - but that shouldn't be equated with brilliance.
2. A temporal illusion is not "an illusion that allows you to change the past". Since the full video isn't available, further context isn't available, but the definition that Holmes appears to have given is at best sloppy.
3. In the article interviewing John Jacobson:
Holmes was, however, extremely receptive to compliments, which was “how I got him to do the little that he did,” Jacobson said.
For two weeks, Jacobson said, “he was absolutely stubborn. I was at a loss to how to get him to program in an object-oriented way. He just refused.

This, along with other details, leaves me wondering about Holmes' degree of narcissism (one characteristic is the drive for adulation, including need for and response to compliments).
I would guess that up until grad school, he'd mostly been praised as special and a rising star. In grad school, he couldn't handle the narcissistic injury (damage to feelings of self-esteem/self-worth) induced by his poor grades, failed prelim exam, prospect of academic probation, etc. The grandiose mass shooting scheme that he hatched might in part have been an attempt to restore his stardom/sense of specialness.

Joseph Cannon said...
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Joseph Cannon said...

affinis: It was my understanding that his time at UCR was entirely funded by grants. That's impressive. I helped my ladyfriend go to that same institution at the same time, and believe me -- we researched every possible way to get free money.

I admit that Holmes' definition of temporal illusion seems sloppy. My provisional interpretation is that he was trying to tie his work in with Jacobson's, when in fact he was actually interested in something rather different. Although Jacobson is looking into some rather outre stuff, I see no indication that his research has ever touched upon a "temporal illusion" that changes the past subjectively.

To my mind, those words seem redolent of what Erickson tried to do. But I could well be wrong, and I'm open to other possibilities.

LS said...

This is from a 1955 CIA document:
"Frankly, I now distrust much of what is written by academic experts on hypnotism. Partly this is because many of them appear to have generalized from a very few cases; partly because much of their cautious pessimism is contradicted by agency experimenters; but more particularly because I personally have witnessed behavior responses which respected experts have said are impossible to obtain. In no other field have I been so conscious of the mental claustrophobia of book and lecture hall knowledge. I don't think we have enough evidence to say positively that hypnosis is a practicable covert weapon, but I do say that we'll never know whether it is or not unless we experiment in the flied where we can learn what is practicable (materially and psychologically) in a way that no laboratory worker could possibly prove.

The possibilities are not only interesting, they are frightening. A kind of double-think Orwellian world of hypnosis, while unlikely, is not utterly fantastic. One thing is clear: we really do not know within what limits of "belief" may be changed by hypnosis.
Based on what I have read, I judge that the [redacted] use an elaborate conditioned-reflex procedure in their "brain-washing"."

Morse Allen (from MKultra FOIA doc): "Certain fundamental questions were specifically answered in the course of the instruction and are regarded as being of extreme importance in BLUEBIRD work. The questions are set out in question and answer form below:

Question: What percent of subjects can be subjected successfully to hypnosis techniques?
Answer: 85% to 95%.

Question: Can a person under hypnosis commit an act against his religious or moral scruples or against his training or upbringing?
Answer: Yes. Anything could be done by a person under hypnosis, including murder.

Question: Can a person under hypnosis be forced to commit suicide?
Answer: Yes, this can be accomplished indirectly and it can be accomplished directly." Source: "A Terrible Mistake" by H.P. Albarelli p. 210

Unknown said...

Modern alchemy involves entheogens - mind altering substances found in exotic plants, mushrooms etc. Combine the drug experience with mythology and abstract concepts and you have potentially self-induced psychosis - someone not in-tune with the reality of the plane he lives on and the folks who share - even his ideas on temporal illusion are delusional at best. Throw in some modern young male ego..and toys - (guns or cars - and--danger Booom!

ColoradoGuy said...

Plain old narcissism appears to be the highest probability, although narcissism is rarely seen in carefully planned mass murders. Psychopathology is what's usually seen, and that typically develops over a period of years - that was certainly evident in the Columbine murders.

In the less-probable spook direction, there may be links between Erickson, and/or NLP, and the mil-intelligence community. I would be very surprised if Ericksonian techniques are not part of the standard techniques of "perception management" and other psyops methods.

ColoradoGuy said...

Don't laugh off hypnosis. Simply attending a movie is considered a light hypnotic trance, as a result of the darkened environment, flickering illumination, and emotionally suggestive music.

Think of the hundreds of thousands of years of humans listening to stories by the campfire - perceptually, movies replicate that experience, and the majority of the population is receptive to the mildly altered state of consciousness.

John Morton said...

I found this thread of discourse very interesting, and stumbled upon it after trying to track down the original Holmes video (a news report concerning that wouldn't play in my browser, so I went looking for it elsewhere).

I decided to track along the names referenced in a graphic within that video, which is how I happened upon the John Jacobson link. That's where I came upon the Jacobson video piece on "Time and Consciousness."

So: to add to this discussion; there was a post associated with that video which stated in part:

"Yes, I think the murders did in fact have to do with the James Holmes's philosophical inclinations. Particularly, whether the world as we know it is a fabrication of our subjective experiences. It would certainly lead any rational human being to no longer care for the well-being of other fellow human beings, because they are an illusion."

I responded to this with my own post which I am going to add in here because it brings in another discursive thread which does contribute to the texture of this topic. I noted:

"We can say that he does care for himself, because he warned the police about the booby traps in his apartment. If they had killed him, they would have triggered those devices when entering.

"But apparently, he cares for himself AS someone else; as a nemesis of Batman. He wanted to produce his social sense of self through some aspect of those narrative characterizations. As for the 'philosophical inclinations' angle: empiricism and subjectivity is first year university material, not PhD level."

After reading through the comments here, I would like to suggest that yes perhaps James Holmes was in over his head and trying to make his way through a PhD level program using philosophic concepts which were at best suited for a first year university level of inquiry - ideas that should have been thought through as a foundation to further studies rather than left unexamined until far too late in his academic career.

Now, I am thinking of a scenario in the Batman film series where the Joker has dressed a bunch of innocent victims up as his henchmen, hoping that they will be killed by the police and/or Batman. Is this the role James Holmes was playing out? If he had problems in his academic studies, did he want to try and 'turn' public opinion against his 'colleagues' by committing a heinous crime that would tarnish their reputations along with his own?

Well, the entire scenario is both bizarre and tragic. There does seem to be a strange recursion at play in the mind of James Holmes, whereby he is acting out in real life a scene from the film, and, he is doing so as the film is playing. We might expect, then, that in his mind this would effect some sort of transference; and I would suggest that this would be one effected from himself and his actions onto and into the lives of his academic colleagues (for whatever reasons but no doubt having to do with his withdrawal from the university's PhD program).

That's my take on the situation.

(I also always have difficulty grasping what people who regularly attend church are ever doing in any kind of science program; but hey, that's just me thinking aloud).

Joseph Cannon said...

LS -- I believe that the first document you reference was written by Morse Allen after he had met with T.X. Barber. Barber was notorious for his arguments that hypnosis does not exist. He irritated a lot of people in the field because his arguments seemed like casuistry, yet were very difficult to refute. The folks at CSICOP used to be strict Barber-ists, but they changed their tune over time.

You also have to understand that academic hypnosis researchers were, in the 1950s, desperate for respectability. So Allen probably talked to a lot of guys who went to great lengths to pooh pooh anything that reeked of sensationalism. Of course, that was the very stuff that Allen was looking for. Alberelli was of an older school, and less fearful of being derided as a sensationalist.

Incidentally, he met with Erickson at one point. I don't think Erickson was actually paid by the CIA, but he did give them tips on how to conduct hypnosis across language barriers.

John Morton -- your comment is very interesting. It may be that Holmes was simply the kind of student who excelled as an undergrad but floundered after he got his bachelors. "Subjectivity vs. empiricism" really is kind of an undergrad thing, but I can see how the question might become a life-long obsession.

That said, I've seen no indications that he was an extreme solipsist of that sort. He felt sympatico with the Joker. The Joker does not believe that other humans are not really real. He thinks that all human life -- including his own -- is pointless. Existence is a cosmic prank. That's a somewhat different thing.

I presume the cops checked for drugs in his system. Still, we should not be so quick to dismiss the idea that drug abuse caused his academic career to decline sharply and suddenly.

There are reports that people saw a strange purple light in his window. That sounds to me like he had a black light on. I'm old enough to remember when hippies liked to drop acid while surrounded by black light posters...

affinis said...

Joe: There is some common ground in our interpretations. Though I personally don't buy the hypnosis hypothesis, hypnosis involves dissociative states, and I tend to think Holmes' actions involved elements of dissociation.

Not sure if you noticed the (admittedly very speculative) point I made earlier. Mass shooters typically are in part inspired by prior mass shootings, Columbine is in close proximity to Aurora, the Columbine anniversary is April 20 (apparently heavily in the news this year, in the middle of Holmes' academic meltdown; he apparently started buying guns/ammo in mid-May), and Columbine and the Joker are lovers.

Anonymous said...

What did his professors do to him? What do they know?

Did they notice any behaivor that might be out of the ordinary, based on their expertse? It was a small group of students.

How often does someone you know actually do something totally out of charater?

Did they suspect anything? they are obviously "brillant".

Anonymous said...

Perhaps he was under the influence of Scopolamine?