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Suggestion

William Dubin, Ph.D.

 

Perhaps the most valuable result of education is the ability to make yourself do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, whether you feel like it or not. -Thomas Huxley

blue and black spiralSuggestion, the use of imagination to manipulate subjective phenomena can be used to counter many addictive traps. This procedural skill requires a creative imagination and the ability to focus your attention for a long enough period to achieve the intended result. The payoff for investing effort to work with the experiential exercises described in this section is the enhancement of willpower.

When you tell yourself to raise your hand it goes up, but when you tell yourself to calm down, become sexually aroused, or to salivate, you may not get the desired response. This is because consciousness is a property of the rational processing system, which can operate your skeletal muscles, but cannot directly control your passions.

There is, however, an indirect method by which you can exert conscious influence on your biological responses: Instead of willing the response, aim your attention to the stimulus that elicits the intended response. For example if you want to salivate, instead of telling yourself to salivate, imagine licking a juicy but sour lemon-the same approach works with sexual arousal, anger, and other emotional reactions.

 

Thought Experiment: Evoking a cringe - Take a few moments to relive a time when you embarrassed yourself, you will find that the more vivid the image and the more detail you can conjure up, the greater the cringe effect.

If you were able to experience the cringe, then you successfully initiated trance formation-that is, you willfully aimed your attention to a particular stimulus-in this case, an embarrassing moment-in order to produce the intended state change.

Because this is an early exercise and I wanted to make it easy, I used cringe imagery rather than efficacy-enhancing imagery, which would have been more useful for our purposes. Special exercises designed to strengthen your ability to use your imagination in an intended way are included in this kit precisely because most people actively resist efficacy enhancing imagery. Some people actually suppress images of themselves as competent or successful because they were specifically trained to be modest or self-deprecating. For some individuals, the bias against efficacy-enhancing imagery is a major obstacle. Below are two sources of it:

  • Asymmetry of Positive and Negative Imagery: Because it is more threatening, negative imagery is more salient than positive imagery. Moreover, stimuli that promote incentive use are intrinsically more salient (hotter) than stimuli that promote self-determination-especially during high-risk situations.
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  • Bias Against Self-Suggestion: Paradoxically, it is easier to accept a suggestion from a hypnotist-who may know nothing about you or your situation-than it is to accept your own suggestion. A popular misconception is that there is an authentic you and pretending to be better than you are would simply be prideful self-delusion. People resist positive self-suggestions because they view efficacy-enhancing imagery as intentional lies about the authentic you. In fact, there is no authentic you. The one that shows up at any given time is the one that emerges from your current subjective reality. Barry performs better socially when he perceives himself as clever and attractive than when he feels socially inept and shame-worthy. Even though the former appraisal is more accurate and helpful than the latter, Barry acts as if the more salient suggestions were valid. By so doing, Barry transforms these negative suggestions into objective reality by performing poorly.