I’m attending the Hackers on Planet Earth conference this weekend. I’d heard about this several months ago, just before I moved to New York and signed up then, because it was a cheap conference and sounded like it could be interesting. This is the conference associated with 2600 Magazine, which has been around forever. Anyway, I’m not really a hacker, but I’m interested in some of the same topics, so what the heck.
I think my conference fee paid for itself last night by getting to see a talk by Mike Murray on “Hacking the Mind: Hypnosis, NLP, and Shellcode”, described in the program as:
The similarities between the methods used to exploit a computer network and the language patterns involved in hypnosis and neuro linguistic programming (NLP) are striking. In this talk, nCircle’s director of vulnerability research Mike Murray (who is also a Master NLP practitioner and certified clinical hypnotherapist) will demonstrate the use of hypnotic language patterns, metaphors, and other patterns of influence, as well as showing how a good hypnotist structures inductions in a similar way to the methods of a skilled computer hacker. Hypnotic analogues to buffer overflows, shellcode, and other types of computer attacks will be demonstrated, leaving the audience with a deeper appreciation for language patterns and their effect on the human mind.
As somebody who continues to be fascinated by manipulation techniques, this was probably the talk I most wanted to see at the conference. And it was far far far better than I could have expected.
Murray posted the slides to the talk, but they don’t give any sense of how masterful a performance he gave. He structured the talk to illustrate the techniques he was discussing, and it was so seamless that even though he was telling us exactly what he was doing, it worked anyway. Brilliant stuff.
For instance, he discussed the techniques of buffer overflow using open loops. There’s the well-known information nugget that people can only remember 7 +/- 2 chunks of information at a time. Once you get past that, he claimed that in some sense, you are talking to the operating system of the brain directly. How do you overflow the buffer? You open up a bunch of “loops” and never close them. A loop in this case is a thread, or, as he used it, a story.
He started the talk with a series of four or five stories, and just as he got to the climax of each one, he would say “That reminds me…” and start another story. But the previous story was still there hanging. And as he got into the talk and described buffer overflows, it was obvious that what he was doing was overflowing our brains with threads. I actually started scribbling down the stories so that I could offload them from my brain in hopes of staying clear. And yet I was definitely drawn in – I got a physical buzzing sensation in my ears, and my perception of his voice got much louder, so something weird was happening in my brain. Very spooky.
The next technique he mentioned was using ambiguous content, so that the person can make it specific to their own experience (shades of filling in the blanks posts that I have yet to write). For instance, when hypnotizing someone, he could say “you will feel a sharp tingling sensation in your left leg”, but then he’d be right only some percentage of the time, and if he’s wrong, it breaks the trance. If instead he says, “You feel a sensation in your leg. Focus on it.”, then however they are feeling they stay in the trance. Another example he gave was “You will continue to breathe, focusing on the breath”; as he quipped, “I know they’re breathing – if they’re not, I’ve got a whole other set of problems”. This is reminiscent of the political training that I took:
His [Bob Mulholland's] example was make your message â€œStop Bush!â€ If you leave it at that, the person that sees it applies their own context and interprets in terms of their own personal woes. If you keep on going and say â€œStop Bush because heâ€™s against gay marriageâ€, then maybe that person goes â€œWell, I donâ€™t know how I feel about gay marriage, so maybe I donâ€™t agree with this campaigner.â€ Use the votersâ€™ ability to supply context to your advantage.
Another technique was injecting your own code to be run in somebody else’s brain. That means understanding the unconscious brain, which he says is all about patterns (shades of On Intelligence) and stories (I love stories). I loved the description of Milton Erickson (who I have to read now): “You walked into his office and sat down. Then, Milton told you a story and you found yourself changing.” That sounds so cool.
The last technique was also brilliantly introduced. One slide said “What if there was a language pattern in the world that could ensure that anyone who heard it would execute the program you chose?” Then he said “Can you imagine what such a pattern would be?” Then he said “Don’t you think …?” and we started laughing as we realized the answer. As his next slide put it, “The question can not be avoided by the unconscious mind”. To process the question, we have to evaluate its content. We run the code. It’s similar in principle to the “Don’t think of an elephant” gimmick, where you have to think of an elephant as part of processing the statement. Ask people questions; make their brains make the connections and do the work. If you tell people something, they won’t respond – if they come up with it on their own in response to a question, it’s theirs.
Absolutely brilliant talk. I hung out afterwards in an informal Q&A session with him and several others just so I could hear more stuff. I had actually read several of the books he recommended (including Cialdini and Blink), but I want to follow up on Milton Erickson, and possibly Gregory Bateson, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, as well. Also, he pointed people at the NLP Canada blog, which I plan to start reading – NLP Canada is where he trained.
P.S. One thought I had later in the evening while discussing this with a friend who I happened to meet at the talk: the idea of open loops may explain the flow of great conversations. As the participants start threads, they remind people of other threads, and all of these open loops are left hanging, leading the conversation participants into a state of mutual hypnosis. That’s why it takes time for a great conversation to get rolling, for the open loops to pile up. It’s why any interruption tends to destroy the conversation; the context switch flushes all of the open loops. It’s why the great conversations I’ve had which last for hours often feel like they’re in a timeless state where I have no idea how long we’ve been talking – I’m in a hypnotic state. I’m not sure this is valid, but I think it’s a really fascinating possibility.