Hypnosis and the conscious awareness of intentions
Consciousness is an interesting phenomenon, and I loved Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind—a great read and fascinating book even though I have serious doubts about the validity of the theory. More recently, I have found Timothy Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious to be even more fascinating and much more solidly grounded in experiments and evidence. It’s clear that our unconscious is the core of who we are and our conscious selves merely froth on that core: aware of some things (though not, of course, aware of the unconscious (by definition)), but more or less along for the ride. Certainly consciousness is not necessary (cf. animals), but it does help in the matter of memes.
Peter Lush and Zoltan Dienes have an interesting post in the OUP blog on the interplay between consciousness and intention:
A hypnotist tells a subject that their outstretched arm will begin to rise upward as though tied to an invisible balloon. To their astonishment, the subject’s arm rises just as suggested, and seemingly without their intention. While it may appear as though the subject is being controlled by the hypnotist, it is well established that nobody can be hypnotised against their will. Hypnosis therefore seems to present a paradox; to respond to a hypnotic suggestion that your arm will move is to voluntarily perform an apparently involuntarily action. How can this hypnotic response be explained?
Over 30 years ago Benjamin Libet and colleagues conducted a series of classic experiments in which participants watched a clock and reported the time that they experienced an urge to lift their finger. Because brain activity thought to drive the movement was found to occur earlier than the reported time of the urge, these experiments suggest that we become conscious of our intentions after they have been set in motion. The wider implications of Libet’s investigations into the timing of intentions and the many studies he inspired are still contentious, but his method of measuring the time between the subjective experience of intending and the moment of an action provides a relatively simple way of investigating our conscious experience of intending and its relationship to hypnosis.
iencing the act as involuntary. The cold control theory of hypnosis argues that to respond hypnotically is to perform an intentional action whilst maintaining an experience of involuntariness about your action. So, at the unconscious level, the action is intended, but is experienced as involuntary because the mental state that would usually be directed at it to form the conscious experience of intending is inaccurate. By analogy with optical illusions in which conscious experience is not veridical, hypnotic responding might therefore be considered an ‘agentic’ illusion – to respond hypnotically is to consciously (and voluntarily) experience a voluntary act as involuntary.
Hypnotic responding as an ability
Scientific research into hypnosis makes use of hypnosis scales to divide the population by the ability to respond to hypnotic suggestions, or “hypnotisability”. To generate a hypnotisability score, a standardised hypnotic induction is followed by a sequence of suggestions of varying difficulty, and the subject’s response recorded for each suggestion. The resulting score can then be used to assign participants to low, medium, or high hypnotisability categories. If hypnotic responding requires maintaining a conscious experience of involuntariness whilst performing a voluntary act, we might expect these groups to differ in the relationship between their intentions and the conscious experiences that are about them. So, some highly hypnotisable people may be more easily able to avoid having accurate conscious experiences of their intentions because their intentions are less accessible to their conscious mental states. We used Libet’s timing of intention task to explore this hypothesis, asking people of varying hypnotisability to report the position of a fast moving clock hand at the moment they became aware of their intention to lift their finger.
Mindfulness of intentions
We also measured the timing of an intention to move in a group of experienced Buddhist mindfulness meditators. Mindfulness meditation involves the cultivation of awareness of mental states, including intentions, and Buddhist scholars have argued that meditators should have greater access to their intentions and should therefore be aware of their intentions earlier than non-meditators. The figure below shows the time between the moment of the finger movement and the reported time of conscious awareness of the intention to move. As predicted, highly hypnotisable people reported their awareness of intention as occurring late – in fact, after they had actually moved, while less hypnotisable people and mindfulness meditators reported earlier awareness of intentions. . .
Continue reading. There’s more.