Movement and Mental Imagery

Chapter 11: Dissociation

Margaret Floy Washburn

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WHEN any two movement systems go on simultaneously, as they may if they do not contain incompatible movements, the natural tendency is for associative dispositions to be set up between them. When two systems are successively set into activity, the natural tendency is for them to form a single successive movement system. It is natural for us, in recalling an event, to recall its setting or surroundings, and to recollect the events which immediately followed and preceded it. But there are certain circumstances under which the normal and natural formation of associative dispositions fails to occur.

Let us consider some of these circumstances. (1) A person under great stress of emotion is interrupted by a call to the telephone on some trivial business: he answers the call intelligently and is then again overwhelmed by his emotional crisis. Later he has no recollection of the telephone call or of the appointment he made in reply to it. (2) A man is injured in a football game: he has later no recollection of the ten or fifteen minutes which preceded the injury. (3) A person is thrown into the hypnotic trance, and while in this condition he performs various actions at the suggestion of the operator: on coming out of the trance he cannot recall anything that occurred while he was in it. (4) A man finds himself unable to recall a perfectly familiar name. A careful introspective study proves that this name is associated with a disagreeable event, of which the man has been trying not to think. (5) A man is sitting with a pencil in his writing hand, and his attention centred on a book. In response to questions whispered in his ear, his hand writes a few appropriate words: on being recalled from his reading he has no recollection of the questions or of writing.

( 222) These are all cases where movement systems which should normally connect themselves by associative dispositions remain disconnected or dissociated. Four different conditions seem to be involved in them: in (1) and (2) the dissociation is apparently due to a general disturbance or shock to the organism; in (4) the disagreeableness of an experience seems to dissociate it from other experiences; in () concentrated attention appears to be responsible for the dissociation, and in (3) the conditions are those which produce the hypnotic trance.

Why should strong emotion of any kind, including shock, interfere with the normal formation of associative dispositions? A n emotion is a movement system of the greatest possible complexity. When fully developed it involves practically every muscle in the body. Every bodily movement and every idea feel its effect, either in the way of excitation or inhibition. Now ordinarily, when one movement system intervenes upon another one, the interrupted system, while inhibited for the time, remains in a state of readiness to be resumed. In Poppelreuter's (112) suggested experiment,[1] where sentences from two different stories are read alternately, the interruption of one train of thought by another does not prevent the interrupted train from exerting its influence on its continuation. We do not hear the fourth or fifth sentence in story A as if we had never heard its predecessors: the two stories are both perfectly comprehended at the end. If, however, the place of the second story were taken by a violent emotion, story A's effect would be quite obliterated.

It seems most probable that when the two stories, read alternately, are thus connectedly understood; when the first sentence of story A forms associative connections with the second sentence of the same story, across the gap filled by the first sentence of story B, the reason is that the interruption has not been absolute. Some parts of the complicated movement system set going by the first sentence of story A continue in

( 223) activity, even during the interruption: such parts, namely, as do not involve movements incompatible with those of the first sentence of the interrupting story B. Now the more far-reaching and complex the movement systems started by, story B, the less possible will it be for any portion of A's movement systems to remain active over the interval. This would explain why a strong emotion makes so complete an interruption, and prevents the formation of associative dispositions between the events which preceded it and the events which followed it. The emotions and shocks which thus dissociate are always sudden in their onset, and not themselves the natural outcome of what has previously been going on. And they are movement systems so far-reaching and complicated that no portion of the previously active movement systems can last over during the interval filled by the emotion.

That an unpleasant emotion exerts a special dissociating effect apart from and unlike in its manifestations the dissociation produced by any sudden and violent emotion is one of the facts brought to our attention by Freud. We tend. he argues, to avoid recalling unpleasant experiences to consciousness. This tendency may make it impossible to recall anything that is associated even in the most casual way with the unpleasant set of ideas. Thus Freud t39) reports that he unaccountably failed to recall, in a conversation on Italian art, the name 'Signorelli,' and by careful introspection he unearthed the fact that the name was inhibited because its first two syllables, ' Signor,' are associated with the word ' Herr' through their meaning; ' Herr' has the sound of the first syllable of 'Herzegovina,' with which province Freud had at the time a very disagreeable association. To many of us this will seem far-fetched, but association with what is unpleasant and for that reason avoided in thought is very likely one of the actual causes of interference with the normal working of associative dispositions. To form an idea of how this effect is produced, we may first note that if a movement already belongs to a strongly formed movement system, it will enter with great difficulty

( 224) into any system that contains incompatible movements with those of the first system. An example from my personal experience will make this clear. I once had occasion to see almost daily a person named ' Harkness,' who was a new acquaintance, a man of the intensely practical, traveling-salesman type, in the habit of declaring himself a self-made man, and implying suspicion of the value of a university education to one dealing with affairs, —in short, what would in the vernacular be called a 'hustler.' I found it almost impossible to recall this person's name, and after Freudian self-examination, I found an explanation undoubtedly far too simple to satisfy Freud. The name ' Harkness' was uniquely and firmly established in a classical setting in my mind. Not only had I in my youth used Harkness's Latin Grammar, but my Freshman Latin had been studied under the direction of a teacher of pronounced personality, named Harkness. The whole atmosphere of my new acquaintance was so incompatible with that of the classics that I simply could not implant so classical a name in so uncongenial an environment.

Now, if even a small and unimportant movement system, like the classical associations grouped around this name, could suffice, as I believe it could, to interfere with and weaken associative dispositions tending to connect one of its members with a new system incompatible with the old, how much more readily can a great and complicated system like what the Freudians term a 'complex,' a system of ideas bound together by being connected with a strong emotion, produce such interference. The suppression of a complex — that is, of the ideas connected with a disagreeable experience —takes place through the presence of a stronger emotional or affective state of the opposite character. The normal attitude of a healthy individual is an attitude of cheerfulness. Now, an attitude of cheerfulness is an actual static movement system, involving certain innervations, and while it is maintained it will inhibit all incompatible innervations. A person in the attitude of cheerfulness is incapable for the time being of a depressing

(225) thought, for precisely the same reason that he cannot pronounce t and g at the same time: the movements involved are incompatible. "How long, oh healthy reader," asks James, "can you now continue thinking of your tomb?"

Complexes are suppressed, not simply in the case where strongly unpleasant ones come into conflict with a dominant attitude of cheerfulness, but whenever there is incompatibility between their movement systems and those dominant at the time. Thus, a complex may be interfered with because its emotions conflict with all that carefully acquired system of attitudes which we call 'propriety': or an emotion may be suppressed because it is incompatible with the emotion which we know we ought to feel, and which we therefore do often feel, strongly enough at least to prevent the development of incompatible emotions. It is not surprising if, as the Freudians tell us, these cases of the interference of incompatible emotions result in profound bodily disturbances and so-called 'hysterical' symptoms. When one movement system completely inhibits another which involves antagonistic movements, if the inhibited system is small, we may suppose that the comparatively insignificant amount of energy which is thus dammed up finds inconspicuous channels for its escape. But an emotion, with energy enough to involve the whole muscular system, must when inhibited send its energy out with more general disturbance: it cannot merely leak away.

The case of automatic writing (5) is a peculiar one. One of the best examples recorded by a trained psychologist is that furnished by Patrick's 'Henry W.,' reported in volume five of The Psychological Review (104). Here, during many successive sittings, the hand of the subject, whose attention was engrossed in reading, wrote long series of answers, more or less coherent, to questions asked in a low tone. The complete separation of the systems of movement performed by the hand from the systems concerned in the reading was indicated by the entire failure of 'Henry W.,' on being diverted from his book, to recognize anything that he had written. In other similar cases

(226) it has been shown by the fact that the subject cannot feel pinpricks on the hand. Sidis (128) reports a case where the patient, engrossed in reading, made no remonstrance on having the writing hand pricked, but the hand immediately wrote, "Don't you prick me any more."

Now, the first thing to be noted, I think, about automatic writing is that it involves the simultaneous operation of systems which need not contain any incompatible movements, although in an ordinary subject they would do so. The 'self' that does the writing involves hand-movement systems and systems connected with the ear: this self is talked to, and responds by writing. The 'self' that is reading involves eye-movement systems. and whatever systems are concerned with the ideas suggested by what he reads. It is conceivable that these two sets of systems, the eye-meaning systems, and the ear-hand systems, may go on side by side without interference, because they employ wholly different sets of muscles. The greatest chance for interference would come if articulatory movements were concerned in both sets, and they certainly would tend to be concerned in the case of the great majority of persons. Good subjects for automatic writing are rare. In most people, the movement systems set up by the reading and those involved in listening and writing would be so large that they would necessarily interfere with each other by containing incompatible movements. There is no way of explaining why this does not occur in such subjects as 'Henry W.,' except to say that in certain individuals movement systems tend naturally to be restricted in their range, and perhaps to add that in good subjects for automatic writing the articulatory movements are of less importance than in the majority of individuals.

We come now to the remarkable phenomena of dissociation as a result of the hypnotic trance. As with so many other subjects discussed in this book, our aim will be merely to indicate a few suggestions as to the direction in which an explanation for these phenomena may be sought consistently with our general motor theory.

( 227)

What, in the first place, is normal sleep? 'Nobody knows. But the hypothesis as to its nature which best fits the general theory of this book is certainly that recently maintained by Shepard (1,25). "Sleep and sleeplessness," he says, "are mental processes." "Sleep is promoted by the situation in which we have really become accustomed to sleep." "Sleep is controlled by conditions similar to those which control attention generally." "As we go to sleep, then, we become absorbed in a mass or complex of fatigue sensations. These tend strongly to inhibit other processes, especially motor activity and consciousness of strain sensations in the muscles."

Translating these statements with little difficulty into terms of our own theory, we should say that sleep is a movement system. The apparent absurdity of this statement vanishes when we take the words 'movement system' in the broad sense, as including static as well as phasic systems. Sleep is a static movement system, an attitude. It is an attitude, as nearly as we can judge, of complete relaxation, the inhibition of any muscular contractions whatever. This attitude, like any other movement system, is brought about by the operation of associative dispositions. It is suggested. When all the surroundings are favorable, including the external surroundings, the quiet of the sleeping room, and the internal surroundings of fatigue stimuli, then the attitude of sleep is produced, just as a name is recalled when the associative dispositions leading to it are set into action. —Now, if sleep as an attitude is complete muscular relaxation, perfect sleep will of course be unconscious, because consciousness is dependent on motor contractions. Imperfect sleep, however, is an attitude of incomplete relaxation. In imperfect sleep, various stimuli from outside and inside the organism, aided by perseverative tendencies, may set up movement systems, limited in scope, which are the basis of dreams. It is the limited and fragmentary character of these systems, liable as they are to inhibition at any point by the maintenance of the relaxed attitude of sleep, that is responsible for the fragmentary and incoherent

( 228) character of dreams. There is reason for thinking that movement systems which have been initiated during the day, only to be inhibited by incompatible systems, have a special tendency to recur in dreams. Every one who is interested in recalling and studying his dreams must have noticed the fact, emphasized by Delage (28), that their material can be traced to impressions of the preceding day which were barely noticed at the time of their occurrence, because they did not fit into the train of thought at the time. Possibly the reason why these reappear in the dream content, rather than the movement systems which have been fully developed, the basis of those thoughts which have been our main occupation, is that having been set in readiness by the previous day's experience, they are yet unaffected by the fatigue processes which tend to substitute relaxation attitudes for all the more fully exercised systems.

In sleep that is not profound, certain thoroughly organized and long established systems may escape the influence of general relaxation and modify such recurrent and perseverating systems as occasion dreams. It is in this sense that we may understand Freud's (38) conception of a 'dream censor,' a representative of the waking self that will not permit certain dreams to occur, at least without modifying and transforming them. The most firmly rooted 'habits' and 'instincts' — that is, the best established movement systems — may thus repress and modify the fragmentary dream systems in so far as the latter contain movements incompatible with those of the habits and instincts. The Freudians, however, overlook the fact that precisely the same kind of transformation may result from purely temporary organic systems. A slight attack of indigestion may set into activity during sleep a movement system identical with that produced in terror, and in such a case a perfectly harmless object that is being dreamed of may become transformed into a frightful one: a small dog may grow into a lion with which one is desperately struggling. I have often experienced the sudden transformation of one per-

(229) -son into another in the course of a dream, not by the action of a censor, but through the influence of the organic background. Thus I may dream of the illness of a member of my family: at the moment when the illness results in death the person is transformed into a stranger, simply because my organic attitude during sleep happens to be too comfortable to supply the strong emotion that would be called for by the death of some one near to me.

Sleep, then, may be plausibly thought of as a perfectly definite static movement system, a bodily attitude of complete muscular relaxation. This attitude, in going to sleep, is assumed first so far as full muscular movements are concerned: there is lethargy and an 'unwillingness' to move which amounts almost to incapacity. Every one is familiar with that state of extreme drowsiness in which, while one can still hear what is going on around, one's limbs feel leaden and paralyzed. Later, the relaxation attitude affects even tentative movements in all muscles, and when this occurs, of course associative activity is completely abolished. During various fluctuations in the depth of the sleep, that is, the extent of the relaxation, disconnected systems of tentative movements may be set into activity, either by outside stimuli or by their own perseverative tendencies, and they may interfere with one another and modify one another: they are the basis of dreams.

Now, if some such description as this fits the nature of sleep, how shall we conceive the nature of the hypnotic trance? Certainly, if normal sleep is an attitude that can be brought on by suggestion and the working of associative dispositions in the same fashion as an idea is recalled to the mind, hypnotic sleep is even more obviously the work of suggestion. The essential feature in all methods of hypnotizing is the suggestion of sleep: in certain subjects the mere command 'Sleep' is sufficient to send them off. But the essential difference in the suggestion which brings about normal sleep and the suggestion which brings about the hypnotic sleep is this: the former is derived from what we may call a diffused source, the latter from a

( 230) concentrated source. A person who goes to sleep at night in his own bed gets the suggestion of doing so from all his surroundings, and especially from his own fatigue sensations. It is true that the hypnotizer generally arranges the surroundings to suggest relaxation, by darkening the room and keeping it quiet, but the main source of the suggestion lies in his words: 'You are relaxed all over; you cannot lift your arm; your whole body feels heavy ; you cannot move at all.' There are no actual fatigue poisons acting on the patient in any quantity sufficient to bring about the relaxed attitude of sleep. The result of these artificial conditions is that the patient is not relaxed so far as the operator is concerned. To the operator's words he is all attention; to everything else he is relaxed. Every movement system that takes its origin in the operator's words has complete play, whether it is a full movement, as when the operator tells him to dance or sing, or a tentative movement, as when the operator suggests that he sees a rose before him.

Now, by no means every one makes a good subject for the deeper stages of hypnosis. Every normal person who does not set up in himself an active attitude of resistance will become sleepy and lethargic under the operator's suggestions to that effect, and is likely to find it hard or impossible to move a limb when its immobility is suggested. The 'lethargic' stage was thought by Charcot to be the initial stage of the hypnotic trance. But the 'somnambulic' stage, where negative suggestions such as 'You are relaxed,' or 'You cannot move,' give place to positive ones, such as, 'You are swimming,' or 'You see a glass of water on the table before you,' is not obtainable in nearly so many observers. The reason why some people enter it so much more readily than others is clearly related to the reason that makes some people display the phenomena of automatic writing so much more readily than others. The lighter stages of hypnosis demand an effect that is spread over all the organism, general relaxation, or even general rigidity. But the deeper stages demand that there shall be activity in certain restricted movement systems and relaxation elsewhere.

(231) This means the possibility of smaller systems than are characteristic of the motor mechanism of the majority of persons. We cannot escape the conviction, since there exist such striking differences among individuals as regards their readiness to become hypnotized and to display the phenomena of automatic writing, that an important factor among others in bringing about dissociation, or the failure of associative dispositions to function normally, is an individual peculiarity of cortical organization, according to which there is a natural tendency to form small rather than more extended movement systems. The process of hypnotizing a person does not produce this characteristic; it merely gives it a chance to exhibit itself. The tendency to small movement systems would naturally be encouraged and developed by the frequent experiencing of conflicting emotions; that is, of large and complex movement systems having incompatible elements. The mutual interference thus generated would tend to prevent the occurrence of large movement systems in general, since any large system would be apt to call up the opposed emotions. Thus such conflicts between strong innate tendencies have a peculiar liability to produce dissociation, alternating personalities, and the more marked phenomena of hypnotism; the movement systems in such a case become small and restricted for much the same reason that two persons passing on a narrow footbridge make themselves as small as possible.



  1. See page 136.

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