Skeptical worries about hypnotists A (hopefully) engaging read about things that are better shown than said

In this lead of exactly fifty words I feel obliged to warn you NOT to read this article if you are both very susceptible to hypnotic suggestions and in an environment where being distracted would be a really bad idea. Also, it should make you feel ever so slightly curious.

Door Hendrik Siebe

Once I read Nozick’s suggestion that the mere presence of a hypnotist could destroy my knowledge that I was in philosophy class,1 I was interested. For those of us who are not so well-acquainted with Nozick’s account of knowledge, suffice it to say that it requires our beliefs to be strongly sensitive to truth. Thus, would I believe that I am in class if I were not in class, then, according to Nozick, I do not know that I am in class even when, in fact, I am. Of course, under normal circumstances I would not believe that I am in class if I were not. However, with the hypnotist hanging around, the closest possible world in which I were not in class might very well be one in which he would cause me to believe that I am. But then, my belief would not be very sensitive to the truth of the matter, and skeptical worries follow.

Whether or not one accepts Nozick’s account of knowledge, the assumption that a hypnotist could genuinely make me believe falsely that I am in class, seemed quite far-fetched to me. Of course, hypnotists appear in numerous thought experiments as some sort of secular version of a deceiving supernatural being, or a local alternative to brains in vats at Alpha Centauri. Between the popularity of the mind-controlling villains in decades of cinema and the exploits of stage entertainers, it may not be surprising to encounter representations of hypnotists as being so extra-ordinary powerful. Yet if those popular depictions corresponded with reality, hypnotists would own their own islands, rather than advertise for smoking cessation sessions.

Now, for some thought experiments it really does not matter whether we believe the imagined scenario to be actually realisable: few philosophers discussing evil demon hypotheses would commit themselves to the existence of evil demons, or any kind of demon for that matter. For other thought experiments, however, the force of the argument largely hinges on the question whether or not our physical reality allows for what is described. For instance, one might think of the notion of the `happy slave’ in an argument against hedonistic utilitarianism. If slavery simply excludes the possibility of happiness, the argument loses much of its appeal. Likewise, if hypnosis were incapable of making my beliefs about being in class insensitive to the truth about where I am, then the skeptical worry would never come off the ground. Having some idea of what kind of effects one could reasonably assume hypnosis to be capable of producing would thus be worthwhile.

Fortunately, hypnotic phenomena have been studied academically for a number of decades now. In fact, since Stanford University developed quantitative methods for measuring hypnotic susceptibility, tens of thousands of articles on the subject have appeared in psychological and medical journals. What is striking about hypnotic phenomena is not so much the occurrences themselves, but the perceived quality of involuntariness about them. For instance, a hypnotist could induce a state of catalepsy, where one is unable to perform certain motor functions. Yet you can do something similar easily for yourself, without any snapping of fingers or directions to go into any kind of trance. Indeed, dear reader, why not give it a try as you read on: just let one of your arms rest comfortably and focus for a while on relaxing all the muscles in that arm, until you are sure that you could not raise your hand without putting tension back in. This might take a few minutes, but when you manage to hold on to that relaxation as you read on, you will obviously find that you cannot raise that hand at some point. I once read that a philosopher should strive to balance being both plausible and interesting. Whether or not you find it interesting that you could prevent your hand from being raised in this way, it should not be hard to believe that you are capable of it. Granted, there are phenomena which seem slightly more esoteric, such as hypnotic anaesthesia, amnesia, or hallucinations. Yet these also have their counterparts in everyday life, as you can surely agree if you have ever been too distracted to notice a pain, or have spontaneously found yourself forgetting something, or hearing messages in random noises. Even though there is no clear consensus on the mechanisms that are responsible for these phenomena in a hypnotic context, examples such as these provide reason to assume that no special state of altered consciousness is involved. At the same time, there is clearly something to be explained. If you just pretended that you cannot raise your hand, even if you tried, that would hardly be interesting. To discover that you genuinely cannot move it, whether you would continue to relax your arm or not, that would be a sign of hypnotic responding; as opposed to merely playing along.

A fascinating attempt to explain how this is possible appears in cold control theory (2012), which employs the notion of higher-order thoughts. Consider the distinction between engaging in a behaviour and having thoughts about behaving so. As you are reading this, you are, for instance, rhythmically inhaling and exhaling, facilitating the continuation of your existence. Yet, unless you are extraordinarily mindful about everything that is going on within and around you, it’s safe to assume that you were not thinking about yourself breathing until I mentioned the fact. You do not even need to form an intention to keep breathing, in order to find yourself continuing to breathe. In other words, you can be engaged in a first-order functioning, without a second-order intention to engage in it, or a third-order awareness of intending to engage in it. This is characteristic of many automated behaviours. Have you ever experienced walking out of the house and being so absorbed by a thought or idea that you locked the door behind you without thinking about doing this? A few minutes later, you then wondered if you had locked the door or not. After numerous instances of going through the routine of locking that door, you simply became so good at it that you no longer need to pay much attention to it. Thus, the better you are at doing something, the less attentional resources you need to perform the behaviour. And this is useful, given our cognitive limitations. As Miller argued in his famous article ‘The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information’ (1956), we can only pay attention to a limited number of objects at once. And clearly, the more things you try to consciously keep track of, the more difficult the task becomes. For example, in order to concentrate on these words, you probably stopped paying attention to your breathing already. Miller’s point will be nicely illustrated when you now notice what happens when you keep your awareness on your breathing while you read on. And, just to add more things for you to keep track of, become aware of how your breathing subtly changes while you focus on it, perhaps even slowing down to the point where it naturally becomes more relaxed. And why not indeed, you might just as well make yourself as comfortable as possible, right?

Now, if simultaneously focusing on your breathing and reading these words is easy so far, let’s make things a little bit more interesting, allowing yourself at the same time to feel the relaxation in your arm deepening much more. As you do that, would you be able to achieve that quality of relaxation in both of your arms equally, or can one arm get more relaxed than the other? Depending on how easily you can concentrate on these things, you will find that it takes up a lot of your attention to monitor all of these things, and how they change and compare to one another. You might even find that your reading has slowed down, while you focus on these words in isolation and get a sense of their meaning without having to keep track of the whole story. Again, there is nothing extraordinary about this. It is just as if you are being fully absorbed by a movie or a good book. And, indeed, just as you could walk out of the theater, or lay the book aside, you could simply pause your Miller-inspired experiment if you so preferred. On the other hand, if you are somewhere safe and without distractions, you might take the opportunity to find out how many more things you could simultaneously be aware of.

In addition to focusing on your breathing, your arms relaxing further, and the meaning of these words, would you be able to notice the temperature of the air around you, the way your seat supports you, the sounds that surround you, the feeling of a happy memory that makes you smile – and the need to read this sentence again whenever you lose track of what you were supposed to pay attention to? Or, perhaps you are tired of paying attention to so many things at once, and quite happy to let go of all that and just relax your mind. allowing your attention to come back to your surroundings only as quickly as you can feel amused about reading such a profoundly interesting magazine.

Now, if you participated in this experiment, you might very well have a sense of how guiding your awareness in one direction might prevent you from noticing other things. And this is where hypnosis comes in. According to cold control theory, hypnotic ability is constituted by the avoidance of true higher-order thoughts about intentions. This means that you might be guided to form a certain intention, say, the intention to keep your hand where it is, without forming the thought `I am intending to keep my hand where it is’. Instead, you could form the false thought `I am not intending to keep my hand where it is’. This mismatch between what is believed to be intended and what you actually intend allows for all kinds of mind tricks. Nowadays, few hypnotists use pocket watches to entrance people, but they are excellent for demonstrating this effect. One can hold the watch still, at the end of its chain, and imagine being able to make the watch swing back and forth by the sheer power of one’s imagination. It is important not to cheat and use the hand to make it move, of course. To the delight of whoever performs this experiment, it works flawlessly. In imagining the watch to move in accordance with the desire to have it move, one manages to intend to use one’s hand so that the watch moves in the desired direction, while holding on to the false thought that one is not intending to use the hand to do this. Likewise, in hypnosis, an appropriately formulated suggestion that your arms get heavier typically results in the formation of the intention to relax your arms more, while the thought `I am intending to relax my arms more’ is avoided. Instead, an alternative cause of the achieved effect might be suggested, such as the power of the hypnotist’s performance. Understood this way, it should be clear that there is nothing magical about certain ‘hypnotic’ words, props, or tone of voice. The only thing that matters is one’s willingness to focus in a certain way on the presented ideas, and to let the experienced reality begin to conform to it. The combination of intentional control of imagination and behaviour, and a lack of awareness of these intentions thus provides an interesting explanation for both hypnotic and everyday phenomena.

So was Nozick right to have epistemic worries about hypnotists? Apparently, only if they are lucky enough to find someone so naturally imaginative as to be capable of intending to imagine being in a philosophy classroom, while avoiding being aware of having this intention, and intending to ignore the contradictory perceptual evidence without being aware of this intention either. If you satisfy this description, aware of it or not, you might indeed know less than you think, which begs the question: do you know that you are reading the Qualia?
Hendrik is currently enrolled in our faculty’s master programme with a passion for epistemology. Upon reading Nozick’s suggestion about hypnosis he was intrigued and set out to bring it into practice.




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