This section is from the book "Applications of Psychology to the Problems of Personal and Business Efficiency", by Warren Hilton. Also available from Amazon: Psychology and Achievement - Applied Psychology 12 Volume Set.
THERE are many conditions in which this process of dissociation goes beyond the limit of what is normal - that is, it goes beyond the mere setting aside of those things that are irrelevant to our present interests.
When such excessive dissociative activity occurs, it results in the sidetracking from consciousness of sensory material that should be available for our present use. Dissociative activity; "run wild" is known as abnormal dissociation.
An abnormal dissociative activity is the most characteristic feature of mental diseases. Anesthesia, for example, is a frequent symptom in persons afflicted with extreme hysteria - that is, there is an apparent loss of sensibility in one or more parts of the body. When this anesthesia occurs the process of dissociation has been abnormal. It has removed from the patient's consciousness sensory impressions that rightfully belong there.
Thus, some spot on the surface of the body may appear insensible to touch or pin-pricks, or even.burning. The anesthesia may apply to any of the other organs of sense. The sense of hearing may be lost, or taste or smell. One or both eyes may be blind. Any one or more of these defects may appear, and yet the general health of the sufferer may apparently be undisturbed.
One of the first things that a psychologist does who is investigating a case of this sort is to test the sense-organs of sight, feeling, taste, hearing, and so on, as the condition of these functions has much to do with the state of mind of the subject. Thus, the deafness of one or both ears and the susceptibility of the subject to musical sounds, as shown by ringing a tuning-fork close to the ear, are important parts of the diagnosis.
Now, the startling fact for us in these cases is that the sufferer actually feels, perceives and remembers sensations without being conscious of it.
For example, the hysteric may be afflicted with total blindness and may stare about him with dull, unseeing eyes, yet if he be hypnotized the visual images of all the objects that he has been unable to see will be found to be remembered, showing that the retina and the optic nerve, the sense of sight, has all along performed its full duty, but that the sensations resulting were dissociated from consciousness.
A characteristic instance of this is recorded by Dr. Morton Prince in "The Dissociation of a Personality," as follows:
"Mrs. E. B. met with an accident, and as a result had a complete hysterical anesthesia of the hand. The skin could be severely pinched and pricked without any sensation resulting. Under proper precautions, I pricked with a pin the hand several times, then laid gently upon it a pair of small nippers with flat surfaces and pinched the skin with the same. She did not feel the pricks of the pin, nor did she know that anything had been done to her hand. She was then hypnotized. While in the trance I asked her, 'What did I do to your hand?'
'You pricked it.'
'How many times?'
'A good many times, more than twelve.' 'Where did I prick it? Show me.' Patient indicated correctly with her finger the part that had been pricked. 'What else did I do?'
'You laid something on it.'
"Something long and flat/ "What else did I do?" ' Pinched it' "With what?"
Something you had in your hand; I don't know what it was.
"The patient was then awakened, and the experiment repeated with variations. After being again hypnotized she was asked what had been done.
'You pricked my hand.' 'How many times?'
'All at once?'
'No; first five times, then thirteen.' 'What else was done?' 'You pinched it.'
'How many times?'
'What did I pinch it with?' 'Your fingers.'
" These answers were all correct." We want you to notice two features in this experiment. First, you will observe that all these pinchings of the anesthetic hand, which were unnoticed by the patient in a normal state of mind, were remembered by her when she was in the hypnotic trance; secondly, that these occurrences were remembered and were recounted with absolute accuracy.
If you should be possessed with that absurd delusion that hypnotism involves any element of thought transference, brush that cobweb from your mind. When the proper time comes we shall give you a clear and scientific account and explanation of the phenomena of hypnotism. For the present it is enough to say that a hypnotized person is not bewitched, is not asleep, but only in a state of concentrated attention.
The experiments of Janet and Binet, distinguished French scientists, have shown that in these hysterical cases the sense-impressions are actually received and are retained in a subconsciousness that can be "tapped and made to testify to its existence in various ways."
One method of "tapping this subconsciousness" makes use of the customary inability of these hysterics to give attention to more than one thing or one person at a time - a fact which in itself indicates that while the senses may operate in their usual mechanical fashion, the field of consciousness is restricted.
Thus, speaking of one of his subjects, M. Janet says: "When Lucie is talking directly with any person she is no longer able to hear anyone else. You may stand behind her, call her by name, shout abuse into her ears, without making her turn around; or place yourself before her, show her objects, touch her, etc., without attracting her notice. When finally she becomes aware of you, she thinks you have just come into the room again and greets you accord-ingly."
Now, with this person, and others like her, it has been found that if one step quietly up behind them while they are absorbed in conversation with some one else and whisper in their ear telling them to do some simple thing, such as to lift the hand to the face or make some uncouth gesture, they will do as they are directed and their talking consciousness will be unaware of the fact. Going further, by placing paper and pencil before them, they can be made to reply in writing to any simple whispered questions that may be asked, while still animatedly engaged in conversation with the other person and apparently unaware of what the hand is doing. Each manifestation of consciousness, the talking consciousness and the writing consciousness, seems equally unaware of the doings of the other. This sort of "automatic writing," as it is called, is a striking proof of mental activities of which we are unconscious.