Posthypnotic suggestions

Posthypnotic suggestions are a large part of what people regard as typical of hypnosis. We start by comparing it with the common phenomenon of social compliance: the fact that people quite normally will do what another asks them to do. A description of a subject (Nobel Prizewinner Richard Feynman) is used to illustrate what it feels like to carry out a post hypnotic suggestion. Both phenomena are based on establishing a causal connection between two subsystems ofthe brain.

Some exercises are suggested for you to find out how easy it is under ordinary conditions to establish such a causal connection between two subsystems ofthe brain, so that you can (as in the previous chapter) later compare the ease of doing the same after a preliminary induction.

In fact the usual word to describe the creation of a causal link between two systems is learning! And you are asked to consider the conditions under which learning is most likely to happen well. I suggest that a focussed attention is generally best.

However this matter is complicated by the fact that the brain consists of very many subsystems and we may consider each to be capable of independent attention, or arousal. To explore this, a exercises are given aiming at maintaining the attention of just one subsystem (in this case that connected to fingers) while conscious attention subsides.

In this chapter we will be discussing, and you will be exploring, phenomena that are usually termed "posthypnotic suggestions". You will probably know the sort of thing. The hypnotist has told the subject that at any time a whistle blows he will stand to attention. Five minutes later the hypnotist blows and the subject stands to attention involuntarily.

As usual I believe that in order to understand what is going on it is best to look at such things in a broader context first.

Let us suppose that you are in someone else's room. They leave for a few minutes, saying to you as they leave, "If the phone rings could you answer it for me, please?" As it happens the phone does ring before they are back. What happens next?

I think that it is almost certain that, in the absence of a strong reason not to, you will naturally pick up the phone and answer, as had been suggested to you. It is possible that you would spend the interval thinking about answering the phone. It is also possible that your mind had drifted onto something else, such as reading a book, or watching TV, and when you answered the phone you did so automatically, without particular conscious thought.

Now that little scenario is so normal that it totally unremarkable. But compare it with the following. A hypnotist takes a subject though an induction routine such as those we met in the previous chapter. The hypnotist then says in solemn tones, "Now when the phone rings you will answer it." He then snaps his fingers and says, "You are wide awake now, wide awake!" A few minutes later the phone rings near the subject. What happens next?

In the vast majority of cases the subject will simply respond to the cue of a ringing phone and go and pick it up and answer it. It would turn out that some would do so rather automatically, without much thought, while others would report being aware that they had been told to pick up the phone and perhaps thinking about it quite a lot. Is there really much difference between these two cases?

The obvious answer is that there seems very little, other than the extra drama involved in the one case.

The point of this observation is that for most people it is in fact enough to ask them to do a simple thing in response to a given cue, and they will then generally do that thing unquestioningly when the cue is presented. This may be termed social compliance.

Let us look at this in a slightly deeper way. There is a subsystem of the brain which is capable of recognising the cue (part of the auditory system). There is another which is capable of performing the action of answering the phone (insofar as this is a largely automatic action it is the part known as the cerebellum). In both of the above cases the words of one person have been enough to establish a direct connection between those two subsystems in the mind of the other, so that in future the activation of the cue leads directly to an activation of the response.

My purpose in citing these two examples is not to say that hypnosis is nothing but social compliance (there are people who have taken this position, cf. Spanos (1986) ) but rather to help you to understand hypnotic phenomena the better by relating them to similar everyday experiences, rather as has been done by our Chapter 1.

When Nobel prizewinning physicist Richard Feynman was at graduate school he volunteered to be hypnotised. I am going to quote a bit from his book Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman! (Vintage 1992) so that we can have a firsthand account of what it feels like to carry out a posthypnotic suggestion.

"He [a hypnotist] started to work on me and soon I got into a position where he said, 'You can't open your eyes.'

"I said to myself, 'I bet I could open my eyes, but I don't want to disturb the situation: Let's see how much further it goes.' It was an interesting situation. You're only slightly fogged out, and although you've lost a little bit, you're pretty sure you could open your eyes. But of course, you're not opening your eyes, so in a sense you can't do it.

"He went through a lot of stuff and decided that I was pretty good.

"When the real demonstration came he walked on stage and he hypnotized us in front of the whole Princeton Graduate College. This time the effect was stronger; I guess I had learned how to become hypnotized. The hypnotist made various demonstrations, having me do things I couldn't normally do, and at the end he said that after I came out of hypnosis, instead of returning to my seat directly, which was the natural way to go, I would walk all the way around the room and go to my seat from the back.

"All through the demonstration I was vaguely aware of what was going on, and cooperating with the things the hypnotist said, but this time I decided, 'Damn it, enough is enough! I'm gonna go straight to my seat.'

"When it was time to get up and go off the stage, I started to walk straight to my seat. But then an annoying feeling came over me: I felt so uncomfortable that I couldn't continue. I walked all the way around the hall."

There are a number of things that come out of this account.

One is, of course, that at NO time was Feynman unconscious of what was going on: though he clearly was not in quite a normal state of mind, but rather "fogged out". (You will find that there is a very common misconception that hypnosis involves a total loss of awareness of proceedings.)

The second is that subjectively the thought in his mind was that he was choosing to comply with what the hypnotist suggested.

But the third thing - and the thing that impressed him and is one of the things we associate with hypnosis - is the fact that when there became an issue of conflict - when he consciously willed something at variance to what had been suggested - then he found his body doing something against his conscious will.

Now as a result of your experiments in earlier chapters this doing of something against the will should not seem too strange a phenomenon. You should have found, for example, that if the idea of outstretched hands moving together is presented firmly for some length of time, then they will do so, even against a conscious struggle to prevent it happening. Or that if the idea of there being something irritating on the face is presented then the skin will itch even if you know rationally that there is nothing to cause it.

Furthermore you will probably be quite familiar with times when you have carried out some form of action in response to a cue (such as lighting a cigarette, having a drink, flirting with someone, hitting someone) when there was a conscious awareness saying "I should not be doing this!") So there is nothing all that strange about some subsystems of the brain taking action despite a higher system saying "no".

So now you that you have a context within which to think about what is happening, perhaps you would like to experiment a bit with the kind of suggestions that Feynman was affected by.

If you want to try things out on yourself you might like to think of some simple action that you will do on some cue, such as the phone ringing. For example you might decide that you will scratch your nose when the phone rings (which is the example I will work through below), or you might decide that when someone comes into the room you will feel like first turning your back on them: in other words you choose some cue (preferably one over which you have no control) and some response (which is a bit unusual).

Remembering what you learned about more obvious effects in Chapter 1 you will see the sense of spending a couple of minutes linking the cue system in your brain and response system in your brain.

Working purely with words. You might say over and over to yourself, slowly and deliberately, "when the phone rings I will scratch my nose" - or whatever other plan you have. Working with pictures. You might spend the time picturing the phone, and yourself scratching your nose before picking it up.

More dramatically you could spend the time imagining that there is in fact some strange and alien insect in the phone, and that at some time in the future it will suddenly emerge making a noise remarkably like that of the phone ringing, and will make a beeline for your nose, into which it will try to burrow! You will naturally want to get rid of it!

Working with sound/sensations. You might spend the time imagining the sound of the phone ringing, and of an itch on your nose.

After having done whichever of these you choose, go on and do something else, reading or working or whatever. When the phone rings you will almost certainly recall that it is a cue and you will be able to sense how strong the impulse is to carry out the action. It migh well be that like Feynman you just feel uncomfortable if you do NOT follow up on your own suggestion.

If many people try this then we can predict the Standard Finding: that it will usually require that some time has been spent on the preparation stage, that there will be very many who are forced to act in the suggested way, or feel a very strong urge to do so, but that there will be considerable personal variations.

You can try out the same thing on various friends to discover for yourself more about these things. Here you have more control over the cue.

This could be something like a click of the fingers or a repeated tapping of a pen on the table. The response could be something like clearing the throat, scratching the nose or standing up or saying something like "I need a drink".

Working with words. Here you would simply try saying, "Later on you will find that when I tap my pen like this (demonstrate), you will clear your throat. You don't have to believe me or please me, but later on when I tap my pen like this you will clear your throat." (Repeat this about three times, slowly and clearly.)

Working with pictures. Here we still have to use some words but they are being used to activate pictures. You might like to get your friend to close his or her eyes. Then say, "I would like you to picture this room and us in it. Tell me if you can." (Pause)

You. "Now just picture the situation as it is going to be some time in the future. I am just tapping repeatedly my pen on the table. You are finding it irritating and you are clearing your throat in an irritated way. Can you picture all that?"

Y. "Can you picture the whole thing again in slow motion?" F. (After a bit) "Done it."

Y. "Well done. Now can you fast forward it and see it all at twice natural speed?" F. "Done it."

Y. "OK, that's fine, you can open your eyes again now."

You can also try whatever combinations of such techniques you choose. But in any case wait at least five minutes until the conversation has drifted quite a way away from that particular association and then try the experiment of tapping your pen repeatedly. Very occasionally you will find someone who immediately clears their throat. More common is the reaction of the friend who pays a great deal of attention to the tapping of the pen, but who says, "I know you want me to clear my throat. But I am not going to." In that case you keep on tapping your pen, knowing that the seeds of the idea have been sown, and that, as you have found in Chapter 1, it is mostly now a matter of waiting. Within a few minutes you can expect the throat to be cleared, sometimes with some such disclaimer as "Well that had nothing to do with your stupid pen. I was going to clear my throat anyway."

The third class of responses is that the tapping of your pen has NO effect whatsoever: it is as if the friend simply was not listening in the slightest to what you had said, or as if he was totally asleep.

Finally there is a small class of people who will respond but will be unaware of having done so and will deny it if challenged. "What? Of course I did not clear my throat. I should know" This is not very likely to happen when we are making the suggestion in the simple direct ways suggested so far, but it could happen. I was once trying to get a client to stop smoking. He seemed to respond well to most things in the session and so I was very disappointed when he reported the next week that there had been no reduction in his smoking. However I learned later from his wife that in fact he had cut down dramatically! So although I had had a strong effect it seems that a part of his brain was denying it steadfastly.

In summary then you can expect our usual Standard Finding: people DO respond to such suggestions, that it will generally take some time for them to do so and there will be a considerable range of responses, with some failing to do so at all.

Once you have spent some time trying out things like this on a variety of friends and discover the extent to which their responses vary as you keep your approach the same you might like to start to explore the effect of changing your approach.

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