Hypnosis and cognitive processing

What can hypnosis teach us about how people’s pre-formed views influence their interpretation of the world?

In This Is Your Brain Under Hypnosis , the New York Times reported on research carried out by Columbia’s Dr. Amir Raz which found that subjects, instructed under hypnosis to ignore the lexical content of colored color words shown to them (the word “red” written in green letters), bypassed the normal conflict between the lexical content (the letters) and their color—the so-called “Stroop effect” (Wikipedia) which causes people to answer slowly when asked the letters’ colors. The abstract is available on PNAS. (An aside: although the researcher emphasizes “conflict reduction”, to me it would seem that the hypnotic suggestion eliminated the entire lexical input mechanism, preventing any conflict from occurring in the first place.)

I have not read the original article. However, the NYT reporting raises some questions. It points out that there are 10 times as many nerve fibers carrying information down as there are carrying it up, concluding that “consciousness” is “top down”:

What you see is not always what you get, because what you see depends on a framework built by experience that stands ready to interpret the raw information – as a flower or a hammer or a face.

But this is wrong. The framework does not “stand ready to interpret the raw information”—it drives the way the raw information is collected. Anyway, I think we already knew that.

The real problems start with its (or the researchers?) claim that the research sheds light both on the mechanism of hypnosis and simultaneously on the process of cognition. It’s like claiming that if I find that I do A and B results, I’ve learned about both A and B. Well I have, but only that A results in B and B results from A.

What would be truly interesting would be to understand the general processes—of which hypnosis is merely a minor one—by which the top-down constructs are built in our brain. Then we might start seeing how people suggest to themselves that God exists.

My favorite part of the article is this quote by Dr. Stephen M. Kosslyn, a neuroscientist at Harvard:

People think that sights, sounds and touch from the outside world constitute reality. But the brain constructs what it perceives based on past experience.

Wow, our nation’s newspaper of record is now reporting on neuroscientists’ theories of reality.

3 Responses to “Hypnosis and cognitive processing”

  1. DavidD Says:

    That last quote is such an oversimplification. There are some sensations that are very hard for people to experience differently; then there are some combinations of perception and cognition, such as guessing another person’s motivation, that different people can see very differently, depending on learned prejudices and worldviews.

    I am fairly easily hypnotized. I remember when under hypnosis, I actually could see an extra object in addition to a few that were really there. The thing is that part of me knew which one was imaginary, no matter how good a virtual reality my brain had conjured up for me to see it. None of these mechanisms should be seen as black and white.

  2. lee davids Says:

    Although there does seem to be some controversy over certian hypnosis
    courses on the internet, is there really cause for concern?

    At the end of the day most people never carry out the “underhand” or “underground”
    courses available as they lose interest and move on to something else.

    Its long been an opinion of most that hypnosis does not work, but i disagree.

    Just my opinion though

  3. Filipe Rodrigues Says:

    I agree with the last post. All this “underground” hypnosis that you see advertised on the internet only appeals to power hungry people. They think of all the amaxing things they can do and buy rubish if anything.

    So let’s talk a little about the hypnotic state/trance. Trance is a state of awareness where it becomes possible to tap into those deep unconscious resources we all possess, allowing us to make desired changes. To be in a trance does not mean to be asleep, although it can sometimes look that way, but in fact the opposite is true. Studies of the brain activity of people in trance have revealed an increased level of alertness. So rather then it been a sleep it is actually a state of focus. Everyone has experienced trance many times, though most people don’t know it as trance. We all go in and out of this state several times a day. Have you ever found yourself so engrossed in the storyline of a movie or book, to the complete exclusion of the room and people around you? That is an example of trance that most people can relate to.

    Healing by trance is among the oldest phenomena known to man and is found, in one form or another, in virtually every culture throughout the world. It is an enormously useful therapeutic tool. Once in a state of hypnotic relaxation, the subconscious mind is able to absorb information, suggestion and other content which bring about therapeutic changes. Suggestions (direct and indirect), therapeutic interventions, visualisation and language structures are utilised in this state, so you can achieve something you want, or something that will benefit you, and in this hypnotic state, that acceptance goes even deeper than it would in non-hypnotic states. Since the subconscious mind is a deeper-seated, more instinctive force than the conscious mind, when accessed, therapeutically, many desired behavioural and cognitive changes are achievable.

    Suggestions will only be acted upon by the subject if they do not directly conflict with their personal morals and views.

    More Info: http://www.hypnochanges.co.uk

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