[Note: I’m not sure about my hypnosis terminology in this post. In fact I'm confident I'm using it weirdly. Almost all my experience is as subject, so I mostly just know what hypnotists do and how I respond, not what they call it or how they think about it.]
There's a suggestion technique called the hypnotic bind, which everyone heard a bunch when they were five. It looks something like, “Would you rather put away your toys now, or do you want to put them away after dinner?”
Consider what happens in a child's mind when they hear this.
They've been asked a question, so they're inclined to engage their attention in a search for an answer. But the search space for the answer is limited to the space of thoughts that assume they will clean up their toys at some point tonight.
Furthermore, the process of searching for an answer costs them attention, which limits their awareness of the broader desires they feel at the moment. (They want to keep coloring, and they don't want to put away their toys at all.)
So they say, "After dinner."
When this goes as planned, what they are aware of having just experienced is a weighing of options against their values, and then a decision among the options based on those values. When you experience the weighing of options followed by a decision based on your values, it feels a lot like you want whatever it is you've just chosen.
Used as a hypnotic technique, double binding is often about belief and perception of things besides choice. “Do you think you’ll fall deeply into trance now, or will you drift there more slowly as you listen to my words?” Either way, you’re attentive to whatever sensations are consistent with “going into trance”, which is over half of hypnosis right there.
(Wake up, hypnogeeks, that was just an example. I mean, unless you don’t want to. Would you rather enjoy my post from within trance, or is it just as fun to read from ordinary awareness? Or maybe you’ll love it most while mildly fractionated.)
Hypnotic binds don't have to take the either/or form, though. I often use single binding deliberately when I teach: When I pause for questions, I always ask, "What questions do you have?", and never "Are there any questions?"
Since students usually do have questions but often have trouble identifying them on command, directing their attention to the range of thoughts that assume they have questions saves them some work: It leaves more of their cognitive resources available for choosing among the questions that they have.
"Are there any questions?", by contrast, directs attention to the search space of "yes" and "no" - neither of which is itself a question! I always have trouble with this when someone asks me “any questions?”. “Welp, I see no questions in this search space, so I guess the answer is no.”
Binding is tricky. It's verbal sleight of hand. Sleight of mouth, if you will. And I've encountered it enough in hypnosis that I can sometimes pick out and notice the sensation of having just been hypnotically bound.
Sometimes this causes me to giggle unhelpfully in the middle of an induction. The hypnotist wants to create a floating arm effect, so they say, “As you relax more deeply, how much lighter does your arm begin to feel?”
And I think, “You crafty bastard! That directs my attention to sensations that are consistent with my arm already feeling light, decreasing my attention to sensations of heaviness!”
(Which doesn’t seem to prevent me from taking the suggestions, mostly.)
But it’s not just the verbal pattern I’m noticing when that happens. Among other effects of this suggestion is a feeling that presumably corresponds to my attention having been suddenly restricted to a smaller set of experiences, without an accompanying decision to focus my attention. It feels like something slipping, something incongruous, and there’s pressure in a direction, with a sense of unfamiliarity like the source of the pressure is external.
It’s very subtle, compared to the other things going on in my experience at that point. If I weren’t intensely curious about this sort of thing, I might never have noticed. But it’s there.
I’ve recently begun to notice inadvertent binding outside of the context of hypnosis, and I’m finding awareness of binding to be an important epistemic skill.
Which should not be surprising, in retrospect, because hypnotic binding is a way of deliberately inducing carefully crafted motivated cognition in another person, and I’ve long known “awareness of motivated cognition” to be an important epistemic skill. But “motivated cognition” comes in many forms; this is a special flavor of it, a non-central instance caused by someone else’s phrasing, and it’s usually extremely subtle.
Inadvertent binding has happened to me a few times in the past couple weeks, and it happened today.
I was talking on Facebook about the virtue of recklessness, and about how I approach difficult or dangerous things differently now than I used to, because three years ago, Eliezer observed that I was not failing often enough. So I updated.
Someone asked for concrete examples of things I've chosen to do because I made that update.
In response, I started listing things: Motivation characters, a week of “doing whatever I want”, formatting and publishing Eliezer’s novella, NaNoWriMo, trying to write a book on microrationality, falling in love with someone very dissimilar to me.
But as I listed, I felt a strange thing: Like something slipping, something incongruous, pressure in a direction with a sense of unfamiliarity as though its source is external. It felt like a hypnotist was messing with my perceptions through hypnotic binding.
The truth is that I don’t know which of my choices were caused by the update. It seems likely that I would have done a lot of the same things, or at least similar things, but my approach to trying things would have caused me to succeed more weakly when I did succeed, fail harder when I failed, and suffer more from my failures.
That answer - the truth - was not in the search space to which the question directed my attention.
The space of thoughts I was attending to was “things I’ve done in the past three years”. “I don’t know” is not a thing I’ve done in the past three years. Neither is “it’s more complicated than that”.
So I picked the least bad-sounding elements of the search space. It’s just like how “I don’t want to put my toys away” is neither “toys away now” nor “toys away later”, and “toys away later” is the least bad-sounding option in current awareness. “I just want to keep coloring” doesn’t cross the kid’s mind as a possible response.
Fortunately, in this case, I realized what had happened right after posting the comment, and was able to follow up with a correction. I’m sure I have failed at this many, many times in the past. It basically makes me lie, accidentally, in order to comply with the suggestion that I should have an answer of a certain type, or an answer at all.
I’ve sometimes felt a little worried when asking, “What are your questions?” while teaching a class. I’m worried about what I’m doing to the minds of people who don’t have any questions. Occasionally, I’ll respond to this discomfort by clumsily tacking on, “It’s ok if you don’t have any questions,” which explicitly suggests that they don’t have any questions! Which is the opposite of helpful for the people who struggle to identify the many important questions they do have.
On net, “What are your questions?” is probably best. I might even use the parental double bind, under some circumstances.
But if ever you find yourself listening to me, and I pause for questions, pay attention to what goes on in your head. See if you can feel yourself searching for the least bad element of the set of thoughts that might be questions, while neglecting all the other kinds of thoughts you could be having instead.
Even if it prevents you from identifying your questions, recognizing the sensation may empower you to escape inadvertent hypnotic binding later on.
So there was some stuff here you might not have encountered before - about hypnosis, or suggestion techniques, or phenomenology - and I’m sure I didn’t communicate all of it perfectly.
What are your questions?