. . . Hypnotic Narratology

. . .

Neuraesthetics: Hypnotic Narratology

The influence of Ernest R. Hilgard's Divided Consciousness: Multiple Controls in Human Thought and Action, first published in 1977, was somewhat hobbled by Hilgard's up-front completely speculative application of his brilliant hypnosis research to his not-very-rigorous understanding of multiple personality disorder. That kind of "these conditions are obviously completely different but their descriptions have some words in common and therefore they must actually be exactly the same" move is best left to us popularizers; in Hilgard's book, it's just a distraction from the stuff Hilgard really knows about.

That stuff started in a classroom demonstration when Hilgard hypnotised a blind guy and told him he would be completely deaf until a hand was placed on his shoulder. The students had their usual sadistic fun trying to make little Tommy jump with handclaps, gunshots, and Keith Moon imitations, and then some Pysch-for-Poets throwback asked about subconscious memories (a red herring, but good bait). OK, if you're curious, said Hilgard to the student, and then to the blind deaf guy, "If there's some part of you that hears me, I'd like your right index finger to raise."

It did.

And the blind guy said "Please restore my hearing so you can tell me what you did. I felt my finger rise and it wasn't a twitch."

Post-hand-on-shoulder, Hilgard asked the blind guy what he remembered.

"Everything was quiet for a while. It was a little boring just sitting here so I busied myself with a statistical problem. I was still doing that when I felt my finger lift."
Hilgard hypnotized the guy again and told him, "I can be in touch with that part of you which made your finger rise and it can answer me when I put my hand on your arm."

"It" did. "It" answered, for example, every question about what kind of noises had assaulted the deafened blind guy, and reported the lifting finger command too.

Then Hilgard asked the hypnotized "subject" what "he" thought was happening.

"You said something about placing your hand on my arm and some part of me would talk to you. Did I talk?"
... to be continued ...

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Neuraesthetics: Hypnotic Narratology, cont.

Lacking both a theoretical foundation and any profitability for pharmaceutical companies, hypnosis has never been a particularly easy sell to scholars. Ernest Hilgard's Stanford lab was a great legitimizer, and it was justified largely by hypnosis's usefulness as a pain reliever (although only as a last resort -- there are those pharmaceutical companies to consider, after all).

How do you measure pain without damaging the experimental subjects? (After all, there are only so many political prisoners in the world.) With a bucket of ice water, that's how: a freezing hand has the useful quality of ramping up its agony fairly predictably over time. Once you get yourself a time-coded diary of reported pain levels ("bad," "awful," "fucking awful," and so on) and reported discomfort levels ("I'd rather be doing something else," "I can't stand it any more," "I'll kill you, I swear I'll kill you" and so on), all you have to do is put the subject through it again after hypnosis and measure how the new reports differ.

While the speaking "hypnotized subject" was told not to feel pain, the "part that knew about the hypnotic suggestion" was given control of the subject's non-freezing hand and told to report its feelings in writing. And while the "subject" then verbally reported low pain and discomfort levels, the "outside the performance" hand reported pretty much the same pain levels as before and discomfort levels midway between the unhypnotized state and the hypnotized state.

So some aspect of the mind could accurately perceive what had been hidden from the unifying verbal consciousness that we usually metonymize as "The Mind." Moreover, that "aware" aspect had privileged access even to perceptions that the explicitly "conscious" aspect was allowed to monitor. In the ice water tests, the hypnotized subjects may not feel pain qua pain, but they can still feel a variable rate of throbbing in their hand. When the "aware" aspect and the "conscious" aspect had to make their reports by taking turns using the same medium, the "aware" reporter described slow continuous change in the throbbing while the "conscious" reporter described sudden jumps correlating to the time taken up by the "hidden" reports.

Hilgard says that it was only later that he realized how these experiments duplicated some results from the ooh-spooky! days of hypnosis research, when there was similarly trendy interest in automatic writing: an arm was hypnotically anesthetized and then "the arm" was given a pencil and paper and permission to write; when the anesthetized arm was pricked with a pin, "the subject" felt nothing but "the arm" was vehement in its complaints. (Unfortunately, automatic writing research continues to languish in the spiritualist ghetto from which Hilgard and company partially rescued hypnotism.)

... to be continued ...

. . .

Neuraesthetics: Hypnotic Narratology

Continuing our summary of Ernest R. Hilgard's out-of-print Divided Consciousness....

Hilgard called the aware-but-not-included-in-unified-consciousness portion of the communicating subject "the hidden observer," partly because of its privileged access to sensation and partly because it denied being the boss: when a hypnotized "subject" thinks he has a unmovable arm, the "observer" knows that the arm is actually just stiff but still doesn't feel itself as stiffening the muscles of the arm.

If the "hidden observer" had been asked what was controlling the arm, the answer would presumably have been the hypnotist, because, by definition, that's the story that's agreed to during the hypnotic state. According to Hilgard, after all other suggested attributes were successfully argued away, the final explanation of the hypnotized as to how they know they're hypnotized is "I know I'll do what you tell me."

But the hypnotist's assignments still give a lot of leeway, and hypnotized subjects aren't puppets: they come up with their own back story fantasies to explain the suggestion and their own strategies for performance. Which is why Hilgard describes hypnotism not as control so much as goal-setting. What the successfully hypnotized report about their experience of hypnotic suggestion isn't a feeling of subjection to the suggestion but a complete lack of interest in not following the suggestion; e.g., "I didn't blink because it just didn't seem worth the effort to blink."

And, Hilgard guesses, it's also why, when he looked for some personality trait that highly hypnotizable subjects have in common (because we're only talking about a subclass of the most hypnotizable subjects here; less hypnotizable people don't enter into this -- or into most of the other interesting clinical results, for that matter), the only correlation he found was "imaginativeness." His best hypnotic subjects were already comfortable with contorting themselves into somewhat arbitrary new goals and rules; in fact, they sought them out: they included pleasure readers, sensualists, and adventurers, used to vivid fantasies and compartmentalized emotions.

Thus they also included a number of what Hilgard descibes as "excellent storytellers," one of whom was asked, under hypnosis, to produce a story with "you and some friends in front of a cave." What spilled out was fifteen minutes of smoothly related, vividly detailed narrative which started by exploring the cavern's chambers and then moved into a Lost World adventure.

Afterward, the storyteller explained his apparent effortlessness: "In hypnosis, once I create the pattern, I don't have to take any more initiative; the story just unfolds. I knew ahead of time that there would be another room inside the cavern, but I didn't know what it would look like until I walked through and was describing it. In the waking state, storytelling seems more fabricated. I don't see the things that I describe in the way I actually see them in hypnosis."

And, backing up this report, while still in the hypnotic state, a "hidden observer" had claimed to be handling the distracting structural work of planning the move to the Lost World and monitoring the story's length, thus letting "the subject" concentrate on a description of the passively viewed surface fantasy.

... Next: What does it all mean, Doctor? ...

. . .

Concluding the Neuraesthetics: Hypnotic Narratology saga... Bookworm or Genius?

Sometimes all it takes to leap to a conclusion is the choice of an article. Whereas calling a communicating-but-unavailable-to-consciousness mental process "a hidden observer" would have brought out its transient nature, calling it "the hidden observer" made it sound like an invincible Masked Avenger, predisposing Hilgard to treat it as more persistent than his evidence would support.

Once on that train of thought, multiple personality disorder may have seemed like a natural stop, but you'd think a clinical hypnotist would be more reluctant to draw attention to a "hypnotist = trauma," "suggestion = repressed trauma," and "hypnosis = serious mental illness" equation.

Anyway, there's no need to board that train. What makes MPD socially and emotionally problematic isn't its modularity per se but its assignment of personalities to the modules. What makes the term "modularity" problematic isn't the notion that the mind is multiply streamed, but the notion that the streams can all be divvied up neatly into things called modules. And what makes Hilgard's hypnosis research interesting isn't how it maps dysfunction but the insight it offers into function.

(Walter Jon Williams's Aristoi takes a similar wrong turn: the novel assumes that modularity makes for efficient thinking, but it takes a trauma-and-MPD route rather than the practice-and-hypnosis route.)
Post-Hilgard hypnosis researchers have been at pains to point out that "hypnosis entails social interaction as well as alterations in conscious awareness"; what they forget and what Hilgard's research underscores is the extent to which conscious awareness is also a matter of social interaction.

One of the noisiest "paradoxes" of the cognitive sciences is that the mind handles tasks faster than consciousness possibly can. But as a paradox, it shows the same kind of naivete as artsy types blathering about quantum theory. Philosophers got over that one in the nineteenth century (and before the nineteenth century, they handled it with stuff like the humours and astrology): we're just talking about the fact that consciousness, by definition, has to pretend to be the boss even when it's perfectly obviously not. Maybe Nietzsche overstated the case when he described consciousness as only a kind of surface froth on the driving waves (Nietzsche exaggerating for effect? What are the odds?), but he was clearly right that the conscious self's usefulness and power get overestimated to justify concepts of legal and religious responsibility.

The corresponding problem is, most folks who latch onto the non-unified-self drop into one of two camps: a New Agey hippyish irresponsibility groovin' on its drives, man, or a Calvinistic morose fatalism where the lucky ones happen to be born naturally more unified (and then fool themselves that it's their super-thick undisturbed froth of will power that's doing the trick) and the rest of us are born permanent losers.

Hilgard's work points toward a less melodramatically binary state of affairs. Rather than a sharp constrast between the self-deceived "self" and the uncontrollable mind-flood, it indicates a constantly shifting array of simultaneous processes, capable of handing off tasks and even of taking over communication. It's not so much that "consciousness" is inherently modular as that modularity is a useful mental technique, with the narrating "consciousness" a specific case in point.

(Man, it's hard to figure out where to put the scare quotes with this stuff. At least I'm leaving sous rature out of the toolbox....)

A narrating consciousness doesn't exclude the possibility of other modules, nor is it invalidated by their existence. When we're all at our best, it's more a matter of efficient mutual support, like in a WPA poster, or like in Hilgard's storyteller story.

When I read it, I thought of Samuel R. Delany, in The Motion of Light in Water:

"... but now what pressed me to put words on paper -- what made me open my notebook and pick up my ball-point -- were comparatively large, if vague, blocks of language that came.... It was as if the whole writing process had finally secreted another, verbal layer. These 'language blocks' were not, certainly, lengths of finished prose, all words in place. But now, as well as the vague images and ideas that formed the prewritten story, I would also envision equally vague sentences or paragraphs, sometimes as much as a page and a half of them -- which was when I knew it was time to write."
The skeptical reaction to Hilgard's work was that since hypnotism research depends on introspection by the lab animals, the research is untrustworthy. In particular, since we know that distraction reduces the affect of pain for less hypnotizable subjects, and since hypnosis reduces the affect of pain for highly hypnotizable subjects, how do we know, first, that the supposedly hypnotizable subjects aren't lying, and second, that the supposedly hypnotizable subjects aren't just distracted drama queens?

So someone compared how well distracted subjects in pain did on a vocabulary test with how well hypnotized subjects in pain did on a vocabulary test. The distracted subjects seemed... distracted. The hypnotized subjects did just as well as if they weren't in pain at all.

The researchers expressed surprise, because surely the limited store of "cognitive energy" (I'm picturing a sort of green glowing fluid) would be even more depleted by ignoring pain and forgetting that you're ignoring the pain than it would be by just taking the pain straight.

As if we have more energy when we aren't doing anything! No, as sensibly evolved organisms, we're more likely to produce energy when there's a reason to do so: when we have an achievable goal and we're achieving it efficiently. Thus the appeal of hypnotism to the hypnotizable, and thus the dismay that Hilgard reports after he revealed her "hidden observer" to a hypnotized woman:

"There's an unspoken agreement that the hidden observer is supposed to stay hidden and not come out. He broke his promise, he's not abiding by the rules..."


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All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.