Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/December 1895/Suggestibility, Automatism, and Kindred Phenomena I





THE thoroughgoing parallelism of mind and brain may be regarded as an accepted principle of current psychology. There remain, it is true, a few psychologists who dispute it, and many of those who accept it as a working principle refuse to regard it as final. It is conceivable, say they, that when our knowledge is more complete we shall discover that the relation of mind and brain is very different from what we now suppose it to be. Yet we may be sure that the facts upon which the doctrine of parallelism rests will never be set aside by any new discoveries, and will find their place in that final theory toward which we are slowly moving.

It is somewhat surprising that few, even of those who accept this theory as a working hypothesis, have endeavored to carry it out into all its logical implications and to see how far they will fit the actual facts. It is my own belief that the more thoroughly this is done the more probable does it appear that every mental state has its accompanying physical process, and the more rigorously we apply the dynamic conceptions suggested by our scanty knowledge of these physical processes to their accompanying mental states, the more intelligible does our inner life become to us. Especially is this true of certain curious phenomena to which our current psychology pays little attention—those of automatism, suggestibility, and double consciousness as seen in hypnosis, spirit-writing, trance speech, et id genus omne. Not that we are yet in position to explain these phenomena in detail. There is much that defies analysis at our present stage of knowledge, but I have no hesitation in saying that in these dynamic conceptions we have found the key which will in time solve these and many other psychological riddles.

We know little or nothing of what happens in the brain while we live and move and have our being. In the early days of experimental psychology the physical bases of mental states were crudely conceived as gross movements, either of the nerves themselves or of some fluid supposed to flow along the nerves and veins to the brain and heart. Nowadays these simpler conceptions are displaced by theories of chemical activities or molecular vibrations of some kind. For my own part, I am sometimes inclined to suspect that the true physical basis is none of these, but a disturbance of the same medium that transmits light and heat—the ether—and to regard the cellular and fibrous structures of the nervous system as a mechanism for producing and transmitting these disturbances, much as the battery and wires of an electric circuit produce and transmit that mode of ethereal disturbance which we call electricity. However this may be, it is quite certain that the processes which take place in the nervous system are all of one order and are analogous to—nay, a part of—the physical transformations of energy which we see in the outer world. Their proximate source is the stored-up molecular energy of the food we eat; they are disengaged by the operation of external and internal stimuli; they can re-enforce or destroy one another; they can produce extensive muscular, secretory, and nutritive changes in the body.

Although all of these processes are of essentially the same order in that all taken together form one system of forces, the constitution of every part of which depends for its character upon the constitution of all the coexisting parts, it is probable that consciousness is not connected with every part of the system, but only with those processes that take place in the cortex—that is, the outer layer of gray matter that covers the surface of the brain. At every moment of conscious life the cortex is the scene of activities so delicate and complex that we can never hope to frame an adequate conception of them. The masses of cells are forever disengaging pulse after pulse of molecular or ethereal disturbance, probably of a vibratory character; by the countless systems of interlacing fibers these pulses are transmitted from one cortical area to another; meeting, they re-enforce or destroy one another; impinging upon a cell system which was in comparative quiet, they rouse it to activity, and are themselves modified by the pulses which it gives forth. At every second this mass of activities is receiving from the myriads of nerves that reach out to the eye, ear, skin, and other sensitive portions of the body countless other pulses of the same character, but initiated by the physical stimuli of the external world or by the chemical changes of the body. These pulses are not accompanied by consciousness, but when they reach the cortex they merge into the complex mass there existing and contribute their share toward the character of the total conscious state. And in the last place, the activities disengaged within the cortex are ever discharging downward through the outgoing channels into the co-ordinating mechanism at the base of the brain. This controls the systems of muscular contractions needed for the performance of our bodily movements much as the "combination stops" of an organ control the systems of pipes needed to produce any given timbre effect.

Thus the consciousness that you and I at any moment experience depends for its character upon the constitution of a system of activities as definite and determinate as any known to the physicist, although so complex that we can never hope to unravel it. To compare the complex with the simple, we have all seen the play of color upon the surface of a soap bubble. These colors depend for their character upon the constitution of a system of forces far more simple than that which underlies the human consciousness. They are due to the interference of waves of ether reflected from the inner and outer surfaces of the film; they depend, therefore, upon the angle of incidence and the thickness of the film. These two conditions again depend upon the tenacity of the film, the difference between the pressure within and that without the bubble, the action of air currents, the muscular tremor of the hand that holds the pipe, the action of gravity, etc. If any one of these conditions be in any way altered, some change will be made in the tint. This throws light upon one of the reasons why psychology lags so far behind the other sciences. Suppose the physicist should select that one square inch on the surface of the bubble where the colors were brightest, and should endeavor to formulate for each, in terms of the others, the laws of existence and sequence, ignoring the while the system of forces upon which those colors depend: however painstaking his efforts, they would meet with little success, and this has been the fate of the psychologist. Too often he has confined his attention to that portion of consciousness which was brightest, or for some other reason the most interesting, while if he had but looked into the marginal or subconscious hie would have found traces there of the activities which were all the while affecting the area of greatest vividness.

Not only is consciousness as a whole thus correlated to a system of physical forces, but we find that its several elements are also related to certain subordinate systems of forces which, while forming part of that total, have a certain degree of independence. It is known, for example, that the activities which take place in the occipital or hinder portion of the cortex are accompanied by sensations and ideas of color; those that take place in the temporal region, in the neighborhood of the ear, have to do with sensations and ideas of sound; those of the Rolandic region, which forms an archlike band passing over the brain from a point a little in front of the ear, are probably the basis of sensations and ideas of movements as felt. Since the awakening of these latter tends to produce or sustain the movement in question, and since volition is but another name for the initiation of a movement through an idea representing it or something with which it is associated, this is also a region essential to the performance of voluntary movements. And it is probable that all the definite qualities of sensation and the corresponding ideas are related to more or less well defined portions of the cortex. But we know that even our very simple ideas—as those of a rose, or a book, or a man—involve elements drawn from many of these sources. We must then suppose that the idea of a rose depends upon a co-ordination of processes which, although situated in different portions of the brain, act together in the production of this idea. As my thought flits from the color to the fragrance, to the touch, to the plucking of the rose, so do the pulses of energy pass along the conducting fibers from the region of vision to that of smell, to that of touch, to that of movement. Further, as the rose is to me a relatively stable thing, we must suppose that these physical processes are not merely co-ordinated for the time being, but are organized into a quite permanent system which retains its coherence and existence as a system as long as the idea of a rose remains to me one and the same idea, although consisting of unlike mental elements.

I can not undertake to work out in detail many of the more complex organizations or systems which we can detect in mind. To do that would be to write a treatise on psychology, and my only object at present is to make clear the conceptions of coordination and organization. Yet to two of these more complex forms—and they are unfortunately the most complex of all—I must make some reference, since a comprehension of them is presupposed in the application of this theory to the curious phenomena which we wish to explain.

I have shown that the state of consciousness at any given moment involves a very complex co-ordination of the forces that underlie it. And I have also shown that the permanent existence of any element of consciousness, if at all complex, involves not merely a co-ordination, which might be temporary, but a permanent organization of certain of those forces into enduring systems. Not enduring in the sense that they are always actively operating, but in the sense that when any one element is active it calls into activity the other elements as well. The same is true of consciousness as a whole. We may discern this in two quite different forms. The first is what we may call the permanent form of consciousness. We observe that at any given time consciousness has a certain form of organization which is so constant that we are tempted to think it can not exist in any other form. Some one element or organized group of elements tends to be more clear and distinct than the others. This one is called the center of attention or focus of consciousness; the others constitute the margin. From moment to moment the focus shifts; new elements rise into dominance, and the old fade away. Yet there is always a dominant element, and this it is to which we attend. Usually the focus and margin are inversely related to one another; that is to say, when any given group tends to become more clear and distinct the other elements tend to lose with respect to clearness and distinctness. This is what we mean when we say that we can not attend to two things at once. But it is not always true. There are states in which the heightening of one element tends to heighten all the others as well. In imminent danger, for instance, there is frequently an intense exaltation of the total content of consciousness, and the same phenomenon is occasionally found as a precursor of an epileptic attack. Now, this constant form into which consciousness tends to fall, and which is, by the way, the basis of our notion that the mind is a single entity of some sort, is very suggestive. We know that all physical forces, if they can in any way act upon one another, tend to coalesce into one common resultant, and I think it probable that in the law of attention we see the mental manifestation of some form of coalescence between the physical forces which form its basis.

Again, the consciousness of each of us forms a permanent entity which we severally call "myself." Into all the problems connected with this word of many meanings I can not enter, but of one thing we may be quite certain—whatever the consciousness of self may be, it is largely dependent upon the continuity and uniformity of our memories. Any great change in a man's life which introduces into his present a mass of experiences quite out of keeping with his past is apt to introduce into his consciousness of personal identity a strange sense of unreality and uncertainty. He rubs his eyes and says: "Who am I? Am I really John Smith? Am I the man who did this and that? or is it merely a dream?" And when we go further, and totally destroy a man's memories, as not infrequently happens in cases of disease or accident, we find that the consciousness of personal identity is also gone. The man may know that he is somebody, or at least that he ought to be somebody, but he can not tell who he is. If the injury be greater still, even this consciousness that he ought to be somebody is lost, and the patient sinks into a condition of dementia, which we can not well understand because it is so utterly unlike anything that we have experienced.

Now, evidently, this is very like the case of the simple idea. I have shown that the permanence and identity of any such idea, as that of a rose, which is the standard illustration in psycholgy, depends upon the organization of a permanent system of physical forces of some kind, and I think we have reason to believe that the man remains the same for much the same reason, although the elements entering into that system are a thousandfold more numerous and more complexly interlaced.

  1. I wish to acknowledge my indebtedness to the recent French and English writers on these topics, especially to Pierre Janet, with whose theory as developed in his work, L'Automatisme Psychologique, the above doctrines are essentially identical. It should be noted, however, that Janet expressly repudiates any attempt to bring his psychological theory into connection with our psycho-physiological speculations.