Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/February 1896/Suggestibility, Automatism, and Kindred Phenomena III

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1231897Popular Science Monthly Volume 48 February 1896 — Suggestibility, Automatism, and Kindred Phenomena III1896William Romaine Newbold




IN my two former papers I have sketched the conception of any state of consciousness as a coordination of mental elements which might conceivably exist independently, and have endeavored to bring it into relation with our conception of the physical basis of consciousness as a similarly coordinated system of forces to certain elements of which the various discernible elements of consciousness in some sense correspond; and I have drawn from this fundamental conception two inferences; (1) That we must think and reason about the mental thing as we would about its physical basis; we must therefore ascribe to it dynamic properties which will in the long run be found correspondent to the laws of brain-functioning. (2) It is conceivable that a cortical process might exist without coalescing with any such system as underlies a personal consciousness, and that a mental state might exist in connection with the process outside any consciousness whatever. We can not, however, logically stop at this point. If a single cortical process and its concomitant mental state may be dissociated from others, there appears no a priori reason why many may not he simultaneously dissociated, nor yet why the entire system may not he dissolved and reduced to a chaotic mass of physical processes and concomitant mental states. For such a supposititious condition I would propose the term disordination, the etymological opposite of coordination. We may well believe that if a disordinated state occurred it would not be remembered. Memory depends, from the psychological point of view, upon the law of association, and from the physiological upon the fact that between the cortical processes underlying the present state of consciousness and the traces left in the cortex by those accompanying the state remembered, there is a continuous system of traces, representing actual processes that discharged successively into one another. In a disordinated state there is no such continuous system and consequently no memory. But it is also conceivable that, from a present state succeeding a state of disordination, a single devious thread of traces, so to speak, might lead us back a little way into the maze of confusion which lies behind. As I shall later show, our memory of a dream depends upon such a line of continuous discharge.

In a disordinated state the dissociated elements would not of course be what they would be in a well coordinated state. In the latter the characteristics of each element are largely determined by the relation which it bears to other elements of the system with which it is interwoven. Freed from the restrictions and incitements of the others, each process would tend to work out its own proper results in a very different way from that which it would otherwise have been compelled to follow.

Furthermore, it is conceivable that co-ordination might be defective without being absolutely lacking. I would term this incoördination. It might occur in either of two forms, or in both at once. The coordinated system underlying the upper consciousness might consist of relatively few elements as compared with those of other persons, there being a larger subconscious field. The upper consciousness would then habitually be narrow; the individual would be unable to grasp many considerations at once and would be easily abstracted. Or, the elements actually coordinated might be defectively coordinated. The consciousness would tend to be confused, the individual would see dimly things which would persistently refuse to get clear, and would be in general what we call "muddle-headed." And, as I have suggested, many are both muddle-headed and narrow-minded.

It is evident that the distinction between disordination and incoordination, is merely a question of degree, and it will frequently be difficult to assign any given concrete case to either the one class or the other.

So much for the logical analysis of the hypothesis we are considering and its implications. If we turn now to the facts and try to apply these principles to them we shall find, I think, that many phenomena for which our current psychology can not give any explanation, become, if not entirely intelligible, at least more comprehensible than they were.

A familiar form of disordination is found in states of which sleep may be regarded as the type. Perfect sleep is not a disordinated state. In perfect sleep we must suppose that all mental life is absolutely quenched; not even isolated states remain. But most sleep is not perfect, and it is probable that some cortical activity persists throughout. When we would go to sleep we withdraw ourselves as much as possible from the storm of stimuli that is always assailing our sense-organs, thus cutting off all vivid sensations with their complex and far-reaching associations. Little by little the activities that remain—i. e., those that lie at the foundation of our ideational life—become quiescent. Then the laggards among them, freed from their usual restraints, assume distorted forms. Isolated scenes, dislocated scraps of sentences, vague thoughts, flit through the mind's rapidly emptying chambers, coalescing and combining with one another in fashions grotesque and unpredictable; from moment to moment they become fewer, and then—oblivion. Sometimes on awaking we remember strange experiences had in sleep—what we term dreams. What are they but dislocated systems of mental elements, sometimes springing out of elements which have persisted through the period of disruption, as when we dream of things with which our thoughts have been busied through the day, sometimes springing out of sensations occasioned by stimuli falling upon our sense-organs. Yet in every case dreams are developed under associative laws analogous to those of waking life, although very different in the details of their operation. Take the case M. Maury reports. He got a friend to tickle his face with a feather while he was asleep, and dreamed that he was being tortured by having a mask of pitch applied to his face and then torn forcibly away, taking with it the skin and flesh. Had he been awake, the stimulus would have caused a sensation of tickling; by associative reasoning he would have instantly divined its cause, and would have thought of the movements suitable to stop it. In sleep the sensation developed far more than it would have done in waking life, and was therefore magnified into an intense tearing sensation, and for this magnified state by similar associative reasoning a suitable cause was found. Had he been awake, even if the sensation had succeeded in developing, the least suggestion of torture as an explanation would have been quenched by a mass of inconsistent ideas. In sleep the grotesque notion finds no obstacle to its acceptance. Who has not dreamed of himself as being in some public place and then suddenly become aware that he is naked and exposed to the gaze of the crowd? What is this but the coalescence of the sensations arising from his actual state as he lies in bed with the thought systems representing his imaginary experiences?

If one puts a man asleep and all the while keeps talking to him, touching him and otherwise keeping him aware of one's presence, one gets in many cases a peculiar type of sleep known as a hypnotic state. We may suppose that all the elements composing the man's normal consciousness are disordinated and for the most part extinguished, but the one group which he calls the consciousness of the presence of his friend Smith who is hypnotizing him still remains. That has no chance to go to sleep, as it were, and consequently in his disordinated brain all processes originated by that one still active group tend to work out their normal results with a precision and certainty unknown in waking life. He is either totally dead to all other stimuli, or can be made aware of them only with difficulty. Frequently the attempt to force such a stimulus upon him is followed by great nervous excitement, somewhat like that which usually follows a great shock or surprise. This is, I think, the true character of the suggestibility found in hypnotic states and of the so-called phenomenon of rapport.

Another common form of disordination is that which accompanies a "nerve storm." We know that if a mass of heated and moisture-laden air begins to escape into the upper and colder regions of the atmosphere at any point, the upgoing current, no matter how slender at the outset, may increase in volume and velocity until it develops into a vast storm center hundreds of miles in extent. So also does it appear that a relatively small and localized nerve explosion is capable, under conditions which we do not at all understand, of propagating itself irregularly through the nervous system, ignoring the usual association paths, until the entire nervous mechanism is exhausted. Such a progressive, periodic disturbance is said to be epileptiform. The causes of the various forms of epilepsy are often unknown. Some, however, are due to mechanical irritation of the cortex, as by a depression of the skull, an extravasation of blood, disease of the membranes, or the growth of a tumor on the cortex. Others are produced by some continuous and intense peripheral irritation, as that springing from an unhealed wound, an ingrown nail, etc. Others still are due to the memory of some great shock or fright, and we may suppose that the subconscious memory of that experience is capable of becoming from time to time strong enough to disturb the coordination of the upper consciousness. Indeed, most of these causes may produce chronic incoordination without going so far as to destroy coordination altogether. Now, all these cases may be generalized under one conception. In my first article I compared the system of activities underlying consciousness to the system of forces upon which the existence of the soap bubble depends. We all know that the introduction of any new and intense factor into that system, as when one pricks the bubble with a dry pin, instantly destroys it. It would appear that much the same is true of the system of cortical activities.

The precise effect of the nerve storm upon consciousness, however, varies with the region upon which its force is chiefly spent. In the so-called masked epilepsies or periodic insanities consciousness is directly affected, and with greater or less severity, but the complex disturbances so produced can not be reduced to definite classes. New elements are introduced, old elements are destroyed, or weakened or intensified, as the case may be, and the character temporarily modified. Whenever the disturbance is very great, however, memory is more or less impaired, as our theory would lead us to expect. In the true epilepsies the violence of the storm is expended upon the motor region, producing movements, sometimes of a purposive character and sometimes not. Whenever the storm is at all severe, consciousness is disordinated and no memory remains. After the storm is over the patient sinks into a state of true unconsciousness, and often he recovers from it but slowly, passing through stages of automatism as the elements of consciousness slowly find one another and are built up into a system. If you question him after his recovery, he says he was unconscious the whole time. But we have reason for believing that during the period of convulsion mental states—such as muscular sensations, sensations of pain, and probably horrible dreams and nightmares—really existed, while in the comatose state there was nothing of the kind. The first was a state of disordination; the second, of true unconsciousness.

The symptoms of incoordination are, as one would expect, of infinite variety and incapable of classification. It is known in medicine as hysteria, and I can say but little of it here.

In its simpler forms there seems to be a general inability to think of much at once. Consequently, what is in consciousness is very much there, to use a colloquial phrase, and tends to work out its own results. The patient is easily abstracted, fails to notice things, is narrow and prejudiced. In practical matters he has bad judgment, for good judgment implies the ability to weigh many considerations at once. It is difficult to convince him of a—new point, but, once convinced, there is no length to which lie will not go in its application. At any given time lie is a man of one idea, given to a fad, and very apt to be zealous in reform movements of all kinds. He can rarely discriminate the probable from the possible, and consequently can never think of a disaster without fearing it will come to pass. This is especially true of his own health. If he reads a medical book or a patent-medicine advertisement, he discovers in himself the symptoms of most of the diseases of which he has been reading. In a person of this temperament any great shock is apt to bring on a state of disordination with concomitant derangement of the motor coordination what we vulgarly call a "fit of hysterics."

In more serious cases the indisposition to notice things goes further and often culminates in absolute inability to perceive what a normal person would. Entire systems of sensations may be wholly or partly lost. Touch is the sensation most frequently lost in this way, although sight and hearing sometimes go too. Very frequently sensation is lost on one side of the body only. The control exerted by the idea trains over the movements of the body is also partially or wholly lost and the patient is paralyzed. Hysterical losses of this kind are often cured by suggestion, or by any means in which the patient has faith. In the most extreme cases the patient passes hours, days, months, or even years in a state of apparent lethargy, which is probably a chronic disordination.

With the retrenchment of the field of consciousness goes hand in hand a corresponding increase in the subconscious field, and the elements dissociated from the upper consciousness frequently appear to become coordinated with one another, forming subconscious systems analogous to the upper system. They are then sometimes manifested to the patient himself by being obtruded upon the upper consciousness in the form of inner voices, hallucinations of sight or hearing, etc., or to other persons by means of movements. Occasionally they go so far as to produce writing in which the upper consciousness of the patient has no part. Hence arises for outsiders the appearance of two minds existing in one body, while to the patient his body seems to be running like a machine, without his cooperation. All such phenomena may be termed automatic, and upon them the popular belief in "spirit control" and "demoniacal possession" undoubtedly largely depends. When automatic phenomena are numerous and complex, the upper consciousness of the patient is usually profoundly affected. He sinks into a dreamy state, and often loses "consciousness"—i. e., memory—altogether. "Mediumistic trance" may then be regarded as a form of disordination analogous to that of the hysterical crisis.

In some of these unfortunates the upper consciousness is not only of very narrow range and liable to frequent disordination, but is of such unstable composition that, after being disordinated, it is reconstructed out of a quite different set of elements. Mr. F. W. H. Myers has proposed to call this phenomenon an "allotropic crystallization" of the elements of mind, which seems to me a highly appropriate simile. The patient can then scarcely be said to have any permanent self at all. He is, as it were, broken to pieces and rebuilt out of different memories, desires, and aptitudes at every hysterical crisis. It seems as if his body were successively possessed by totally different persons. But we have no reason for believing that the different persons all coexist. Probably the emergence of one is only made possible by the destruction of another. In some of the extreme forms of hysteria it is possible to take advantage of this principle to reconstruct the lost normal individual. Pierre Janet has taken a hysterical woman who had lost many of her memories and sensations, and to some degree her power of movement; disordinating the upper consciousness by hypnotizing her, he has grasped, as it were, by suggestion the lost mental elements, restored them to the upper consciousness, and made her for the time being quite normal. But, unfortunately, the enlarged upper consciousness seems of very unstable composition, and the patient soon sinks into trance and awakens in her former state.

I have briefly outlined this conception of consciousness as a system of elements capable of disintegration and of various novel recombinations. And let me repeat what I have already said, that although I have preferred, for the sake of brevity, to develop it deductively from certain fundamental hypotheses, it has been attained by the opposite process from a study of facts. Confessedly it is as yet only a theory, and will doubtless be essentially modified before being accepted as the foundation of the science of psychology. In its present form I can not myself regard it as more than a good working hypothesis. But it is something to have even a good working hypothesis in a field in which the constructive conceptions of current psychology prove absolutely useless.

A great nebula has been discovered by Prof. Barnard in the constellation Scorpio, including Antares and a region extending two or three degrees southward. It is described as vast and magnificent, intricate in shape, and gathered in cloudlike forms. Prof. Barnard pronounces it one of the finest nebulæ in the sky, and says that, as it involves so many of the bright stars of the region, it would imply that they are essentially at the same distance from us.