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5. Hypnosis, volition, and mind control

5.3. Conscious vs. Unconscious

Is there actually an 'unconscious mind' in some sense? And if so, does it explain certain kinds of response to hypnotic suggestion?

First, it is very likely that information is actually processed, at least under certain conditions, outside of conscious awareness, and that it can influence behavior. A modern look at this old topic can be found in Kihlstrom's 1987 Science article, "The Cognitive Unconscious," 237,1445-1452. This is not to say that any particular 'subliminal learning' claims have support from this notion, only that it is possible for perception of a sort to occur without apparent conscious awareness.

One study demonstrating a subliminal influence on subsequent behavior was Borgeat & Goulet, 1983, "Psycho-physiological changes following auditory subliminal suggestions for activation and deactivation," appearing in Perceptual & Motor Skills. 56(3):759-66, 1983 Jun.

This study was to measure eventual psycho-physiological changes resulting from auditory subliminal activation or deactivation suggestions. 18 subjects were alternately exposed to a control situation and to 25-dB activating and deactivating suggestions masked by a 40-dB white noise. Physiological measures (EMG, heart rate, skin-conductance levels and responses, and skin temperature) were recorded while subjects listened passively to the suggestions, during a stressing task that followed and after that task. Multivariate analysis of variance showed a significant effect of the activation subliminal suggestions during and following the stressing task. This result is discussed as indicating effects of consciously unrecognized perceptions on psycho-physiological responses.

A hypnotic subject clearly also takes an active and voluntary role in some sense as well when carrying out suggestions, as pointed out by Spanos and the social-psychological theorists.

Perhaps the data showing this contrast most strikingly is from the study of 'hypnotic blindness.' One example is Bryant and McConkey's 1989 "Hypnotic Blindness: A Behavioral and Experimental Analysis," Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 98, 71-77, and also p. 443-447, "Hypnotic Blindness, Awareness, and Attribution." Subjects given hypnotic suggestions for blindness behave in some ways as if they were truly blind, and in other, often subtle and unexpected ways, the information from their visual field influences their behavior.

It appears that some form of neurological events involving more or less intelligent response to information can occur, in or out of hypnosis, without our direct awareness of them. One theory proposes that the brain has a simultaneous parallel capacity for cognitive learning and for stimulus-response learning, independently of each other and by different neural mechanisms. This has been proposed by some as a partial explanation for automatisms and some hypnotic responses. One version of this view may be found in the article by Mishkin, Malamut, and Bachevalier, "Memories and Habits: Two Neural Systems," in The Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior, edited by McGangh, Lynch, and Weinberger, by Guilford Press.

It is important to recognize that the detailed physiological mechanisms underlying the processing of information in general are largely speculative, and that the gaps in our understanding of hypnotic phenomena (or 'states of consciousness' in general) complicate the situation. It has been contended that even some of the simpler forms of learning and information processing consist of a number of different processes, each with its own special properties.

One important distinction is between explicit and implicit learning. Explicit learning is what we commonly think of as doing as part of the conscious reasoning process when we try to learn something deliberately. It generally involves reasoning and hypothesis testing. Implicit learning is acquiring new information which either cannot be verbalized, or which occurs apparently without conscious reasoning and hypothesis testing. Kihlstrom, one investigator of hypnotic and unconscious psychological processes, has shown that a particular variant of implicit learning, involving certain non-novel information (such as word pairings), can occur under medical anesthesia. The degree to which this can be considered a form of learning in the more general non-technical sense is difficult to say, and the precise neurobiological mechanism of anesthesia is likewise somewhat elusive. But it has also been observed that implicitly learned material has certain unique characteristics, as compared to explicitly learned material, such as that implicit material is more often preserved intact in cases of amnesia.

Some examples of research into learning and perception which occurs outside of sensory (visual) attention:

  • Mandler, Nakamura & Van Zandt (1987). Nonspecific effects of exposure on stimuli that cannot be recognized. J Exp Psych: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 13, 646-648.
  • Miller (1987). Priming is not necessary for selective-attention failures: Semantic effects of unattended, unprimed letters. Perception and Psychophysics, 41, 419-431.
  • Carlson & Dulany (1985). Conscious attention and abstraction in concept learning. J Exp Psych: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 11, 45-58.

Some examples of research into multiple foci of attention:

  • Cohen, Ivry & Keele (1990). Attention and structure in sequence learning. J Exp Psych: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 16, 17-30.
  • Dienes, Broadbent, & Berry (1991). Implicit and explicit knowledge bases in artificial grammar learning. JEPLMC, 17, 875-887.
  • Hayes & Broadbent (1988). Two modes of learning for interactive tasks. Cognition, 28, 249-276.

On the concept of attention in general:

  • * Allport (1989) Visual Attention. In M.I.Posner (Ed.) Foundations of Cognitive Science. (pp. 631-682).
  • Kahneman & Treisman (1984). Changing views of attention and automaticity. In Parasuraman & Davies (Eds.) Varieties of Attention.
  • Navon (1985). Attention division or attention sharing? In Posner and Marin(Eds) Attention and Performance XI.
  • Neumann (1987). Beyond capacity: A functional view of attention. In Heuer& Sanders (Eds.) Perspectives on Perception and Action.


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