The Power of Suggestion

I had a moment the other night. As I sat in bed, I was literally overwhelmed with just a lot of stuff. From having the shakes to all sorts of bizarre conflicting thoughts (which just wouldn’t. shut. up.) and finally just giving in to a major breakdown, tears and all, it was a hard hour.

Apparently, I was feeling stressed, and since I had been ignoring it and pushing it aside, my body finally said enough was enough, and made me stop. In some ways, I almost felt as though my subconscious had decided to assert control over my body for a little while, since my conscious mind hadn’t been doing a very good job.

That’s not to say it was an entirely comfortable experience, though. Even now, as I reflect on it, I’m quite uncomfortable. It’s a really bizarre sensation to feel as though you are — and simultaneously are not — in control of your body. Of course, this was compounded by all sorts of things running through my head.

At the fore was the notion that maybe what I was experiencing was indicative of some higher reality: that I am not my body, and that my consciousness (the “real me”) is in fact quite separate from its “earthly trappings”.

But let’s back up for a moment, shall we? After all, this post is entitled The Power of Suggestion.

The Power of the Mind

I’m a big believer that the mind has the ability to make things real, at least insofar as we experience it as being real. That you can so completely convince yourself of something, even if it is not “really there” (ignoring for a moment ideas about the objective or subjective nature(s) of reality…), and not know the difference.

A lot of what I’ve been reading lately has talked about this. My mom lent me a book to read (Initiationby Elisabeth Haich) which speaks a great deal about the difference between who we are (in the body), and who we are (in a true, eternal, essential sense). As frequent readers will have noticed, I enjoy reading Steve Pavlina’s blog, and he also talks about this subjective nature of reality.

Even my relaxing TV watching has played its part — for example, we had a “Stargate SG-1” marathon over the weekend.

Those of you familiar with the show might recall an episode from Season 6 entitled “The Changeling”. Even if you’re not familiar with the show (or the episode in question), the following scenario might seem familiar: Teal’c, a main character of the show, dreams and wakes repeatedly between two versions of reality — in each, being utterly convinced that this reality is the true one, and that the other was the dream.

Now, I’ve most certainly had that happen before. I remember once having a dream in which I was woken up by the phone ringing. I answered it, and no one was there, so I went back to sleep. It rang again, and I was awoken again. Still no one there. Repeat one last time, and this time, upon answering the phone … well, the dial tone of my real-life phone (which I had apparently finally reached over and picked up) woke me up once and for all… 

Or did it? I remember being so confused upon waking the last time. Was I really awake? Or was this just another dream?

What Have You Been Filling Your Brain With

As I lay awake in my confused and “out-of-control” state last night, thoughts about the nature of reality were flooding into my head. Like I said, I had this feeling that my feeling of separation between body and consciousness was really an indication of reality. And it freaked me right out.

See, for some reason, I have made a distinction in my mind between believing something completely, and experiencing it completely. Let me unpack that a bit — and apologies if it’s a bit unclear, I’m not sure I completely understand it myself.

I have no problem giving conscious consent to an idea. Acknowledging something as true, believing it to be so, that sort of thing. But at the same time, I am always acutely aware that the mind can be convinced of things, and create reality where there is none. Extreme cases of this would be mental conditions such as schizophrenia.

I similarly have no difficulty with having an emotional connection to an idea which I believe. Feeling in my heart that it is true, that sort of thing. But at the same time, I am aware that emotions can be subject to the power of the mind and senses. For example, when you get frightened watching a scary movie — there is nothing inherent in the fear; rather, it is a response to your mental processing of the sensory input.

As I have realized more and more the truth of those two “but at the same time” comments, I have become increasingly skeptical and unsure of any “truth.” Is what I am perceiving as truth merely something I have become convinced of? Or is it a reflection of something that really “is”? 

This has been tearing me up, and last night was no exception. I cried out to just know truth. And at the exact same moment, I cried out that I did not want to know truth. I didn’t want to experience it. I was afraid that any experience I might have would be due to the power of suggestion, and that the seeming reality of the situation would convince me entirely of something false.

And that as a result of becoming so convinced, I would become unable to change my mind and beliefs: that I would become so deeply convinced, that I would no longer think rationally about the situation, thereby losing my ability to integrate new information and make informed decisions.

Last night, a lot of this culminated in the physical response I experienced — shaking and twitching, just simply due to the tension I had been holding in. The end result, though, was an exhausting journey which brought me once again face-to-face with this problem I have yet to resolve: the power of suggestion. Do I think these thoughts because they are real, or because I have implanted them by what I have read, seen and heard?

Am I just duping myself?

Mixed Messages

Here’s the flip side. As some of my Twitter followers may have noticed — and as I alluded to in my recent Weekly Reads — that I’ve recently started investigating Interaction Design (IxD). This is a relatively new field, but the jist of it is that we invest a lot of time and money in creating and designing things for people to use.

Take a piece of software for example: until recently (and still ongoing, in many places), you would have a programmer who was responsible for coding the software, and a designer, who would make it “look pretty”. Sometimes, you’ll get a designer or programmer who tries to take into account what the user actually wants — but because we base our decisions on “features” and “general usability principles”, we often end up making things work.

Don’t get me wrong, features and general usability principles are good, but what IxD does is shift the focus to figuring out what the user’s end goals are — and then sets out to determine how to provide a means to meet those goals. Features and usability are byproducts (important ones!) of this design process. And it is once the initial legwork has been done that programming and beautifying can begin.

As I read more and more, I realize that Interaction Design is what good marketers have been doing for a long time. If you try to sell people something that they want, you’ll probably have more success. In other words, if you identify the consumer’s goal, you can target a message that will demonstrate a way to reach that goal. Good marketing is concerned with good messaging: sending a message that evokes a response on the part of the audience.

But what if — as open happens in marketing — you have an audience that doesn’t think they want something, but you want to sell to them anyway? You first have to convince them. Really, when you think about it, how did we decide that we want sugary colored circles of pulverized and bastardized (formerly-known-as) grains to start the day, when we were used to having sweet, fresh fruit with a piece of (fresh, real) bread lightly toasted.

This is also a big part of marketing. The power of suggestion.

It’s the way that we determine how to funnel people to their particular goals, but somewhere along the line, we slip in a subtle shift that completely changes the outcome. Marketers do this all the time (you want to look cool? we’ll slip in a shift to indicate that cigarettes will get you there). Interaction Designers do this sometimes too (oh, you’ve arrived at my product page? Let me funnel you toward our purchasing area, even though you just came to do some research). And yes, spiritualists and religious people do this too (to be fair, I do not believe that all religion is nearly so nefarious as to be doing this intentionally. Some, yes. All, no.)

Part of me very strongly believes in harnessing the power of suggestion. When I go into a meeting about communicating our services to instructors, or when I develop a webpage intended to end in a product sale, the power of suggestion seems to be my best friend. I can put the idea in your head that my solution will meet your goal.

Heck, when you (or I) have a good product or service, we  don’t even have to lie about it, nor even stretch the truth! I really might be able to help you meet your goals!

In a very real sense, our ability to communicate depends on the power of suggestion.  Communicating depends on my ability to suggest things to you that make sense enough for you to accept them enough to at least understand the words.

So I love it, and I hate it. It is the laser beam that can correct eyesight, or guide munitions to their targets; the immunization which cures a disease and causes an epidemic. Yes, the power of suggestion is hugely powerful and impactful.

Where am I going with this? I’m not entirely sure. I’d say I’m open to suggestions, but you all know how that goes 😉