Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Beware the Bind

[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?


Anonymous said...

Excellent. You are paying attention to details. Why isn't everyone else doing this on at least this level? Is it possible that I relate particularly well to your descriptions, or are you just more skilled at this than other people I follow?

Benquo said...

>(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.)

My brain refused to seriously consider any of these alternatives vividly because it looked like an area-effect brainhack, but nonetheless parsed it as "Brienne wants me to enjoy her post," and decided - out of a spirit of cooperation - to enjoy it slightly more as a consequence.

Either that, or this just made me smile because I See What You Did There.

Greg Perkins said...

Alright, I'll bite.

What are hypnogeeks?

Does the worry you feel when asking "what are your questions" feel something like guilt?

Would you agree with me that most "contentious" (mindkilling) kinds of problems are due to a failure to reframe the problem properly such that a solution appears which previously did not fit within the binary constraints?

In any case, might you find it valuable and productive to develop an instinct when considering a question with enumerated options to look for other alternatives even before allowing emotional affinity to develop for any of the given options?

What's your emotional reaction to that last question?

jimmy said...

I always enjoy your posts relating to hypnosis, especially the "lob's theorem" one. Thank you for writing them. It's always interesting to see your thoughts from the subject's point of view.

One of the more interesting bits of your post, to me, was that the bigger issue from your perspective is with binds working *too well*. Personally, the problem I tend to have from the "hypnotist side" is that they are too *quick* to say "I don't know", given that "I don't know" isn't an answer, isn't in the search space, and I chose my search space very carefully because I know it contains the answer. For example, if I'm asking what your questions are, it's because I *know* you have questions, or at the very least I know that it's worth looking under this assumption for a bit before I call off your search with "it's okay if you don't have any".

Interestingly, working on your "hypnotist side" is very protective against binds working too well on you (while at the same time helping protect you from them working not well enough). That "sensation of being hypnotically bound" is something that your subjects will give you all the time. In fact, noticing and sidestepping those attempts to grab the frame back is the most critical piece of induction, in my opinion. As a hypnotist, your job is to free people from the binds they place themselves in, whether it's "I can't just forget my name!" preventing them from enjoying your party trick, or perhaps "I can't quit smoking!". If you get bound up yourself you've failed. That "sensation of being hypnotically bound" is something that triggers me to examine whether the question is valid - is this the search space I should focus on? For how long/how intently is it worth searching? Do I want to answer this question? How many hoops must they jump through before I'm willing to answer it? I'll sit there and be silent until I have a solution with no felt obligation to respond, and often these few seconds of silence will resolve things itself. It's automatic enough that I don't actually notice any "sensation of being hypnotically bound", but if I didn't have this automatic response, I'd sure notice that error signal.

Ideally, people I'm interacting with (whether "hypnotizing" or not) would not have that error signal at all because it'd be clear that there is no error. When I ask what questions you have, ideally you'd know you're *allowed* to not have any, but that I'm requesting you spend a few moments looking for them and quit when I say you've looked enough. If I ask if you'd like to put your toys away now or after dinner, ideally you'd know that you're *allowed* to try "never" but that it's not going to work for you and isn't even worth considering. In practice, they'll definitely get it sometimes and I don't always catch it or do anything about it even when I do. However, I do watch for it so that if it's strong enough I can point out the choice myself - "as you relax more deeply, how much lighter does your arm feel - or would you perhaps prefer to not go into hypnosis at all?". If they take the latter option, great - I'm not here to push anyone into hypnosis. However, we generally both know they don't want to not be hypnotized or they wouldn't be there. Giving them that option and pointing out that I'm only leading them to where they're asking to be taken is not only what keeps my hypnotic efforts aimed well, but it's often what makes them effective in the first place.

The last post on my blog is coincidentally on the same topic, only from a (post)hypnotists point of view. I also don't claim that this is how all hypnotists think about it, but I *do* claim that this is how they *should* think about it.


Brienne said...

Oh gosh thanks for linking your blog, what a great find!

Gunnar Zarncke said...

Apparently people do react very differently to binding or are at least receptive to it to differing degrees. I wonder whether that is due to
a) the ability to notice the binding,
b) the strength of preference in the sense that any binding provides only a limited set of options where none sufficiently matches preferences,
c) the willingness to accept cues by other persons or
d) the ability to pose suitable bindings.

Providing a limited number of choices is an often suggested parenting technique and so I experimented a bit with it with my children.
I noticed that
- my children often enough accept neither of the suggested options up-front. Even the 4 year old may decides that no option is suitable and the older routinely suggest other options.
- if they do the number of options is crucial. Two options is best. Too many and the possibility for even more gets too strong.

Sidetrack: If you want to hide an option that would be dubious or give something away if offered in isolation, then it can be a good idea to mix it in with a set of reasonable to absurd options. Example: When offering ways to proceed after a fight suggesting "apologize" alone might be forcing but spanning the whole span of actions from "continue fighting", "separate", "continue arguing", "wait some more", "apologize", "offer some consolation".

Unknown said...

Noticing when I want to object to the frame of a question is something I've gotten gradually increasing awareness of in the last 1-2 years - mostly as a result of the fact that when I *don't* manage to object to the frame I often seem to answer within it, but then feel somewhat triggered. The noticing is something that comes when I try to trace the triggeredness upstream (or at least, that's the class of binds I've managed to notice so far! Maybe when skillfully enough done, I just don't see it at all).

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