Behaviorism, Hypnotherapy, and Choice
by Tim Brunson, PhD
Over the past several decades the rise of behaviorism within psychology has both been enlightening as well as often disturbing. By reclassifying psychology as the science of behavior rather than the science of the mind, behaviorists have insisted that all human physical and mental activities consist of observable phenomena, which can then be modified should the scientist or clinician understand how to apply or withhold positive or negative reinforcements. As such, this deterministic approach has served to strip away the role of choice, free will, and even calls into question the role of higher-level intelligence.
Although I consider the late 19th century work of the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov largely as the instigator of this movement, there have been several notable and more recent major contributors such as John Watson (methodological behaviorism), B. F. Skinner (psychological behaviorism), and Gilbert Ryle and Ludwig Wittgenstien (analytical or logical behaviorism). However, their basic premise is pretty much the same. They state that their research supports the belief that all behavior is shaped by environmental influences. Therefore, behavior modification occurs by changing a person's environment. Representing probably the most rigorous applications of the scientific paradigm to psychology, behaviorists have shown that their hypotheses can be easily tested and applied clinically. However, despite numerous contributions their often cultish approach to human functioning leaves much to be desired.
While their emphasis on observable behavior rather than the more amorphous and philosophical concepts of the mind – and the more dubious idea of an unconscious or subconscious mind – may bolster their scientific credentials, it does not necessarily provide the final word as to the completeness of their doctrine. Unlike Advanced Neuro-Noetic HypnosisTM, behaviorism lacks any relevant correlation to neurology or quantum or other theoretical physics. While they could argue that these are merely further manifestations of a subject's environment, they fail to take into consideration free will capabilities, which are provided by the highly developed anticipation and simulation capabilities of the human frontal lobes. Their rather simplistic approach negates the complexity of possibilities just beginning to be explored within the more advanced sciences. Further and most disturbing, their insistence that all behavior is environmentally determined completely negates the likelihood that a person can direct their evolutionary development. Their refusal to accept the role of free will when it comes to realizing human potential and their insistence on describing human endeavors at the base animalistic level is where I feel that behaviorists fail to understand our humanity.
I agree that humans are indeed primarily animals. We are ruled by instinctual urges as manifested by the functioning of our brain's limbic structures. Thus behaviorists are largely correct in their stance that human activity can be described, observed, and manipulated (very much like training a dog to sit on command or salivate when you ring a bell). However, should one consider the emergence of abstract thought, such as found with creativity, clearly behaviorists must resort to Procrustean efforts as they continue to insist that all manifestations of our humanity fit their rather narrow doctrine. One such example of this can be found in the efforts of respected California psychotherapist Alfred A. Barrios as he explains such thoughts as being influenced by "higher level conditioning." Indeed, the admission of multiple levels of conditioning implies that there is a very significant dimension of human mental functioning that challenges behaviorist doctrine.
Another area in which I differ with the behaviorists is their view of hypnosis. This appears to be an area with which they struggle. For instance, B. F. Skinner insisted on defining hypnosis as a form of increased suggestibility. Here I wish to go back to the behaviorist's insistence regarding environmental influences. Thus I would rephrase Skinner's description by stating that a hypnosis subject is more likely to react to the environment as transformational inertia is somewhat mitigated by the hypnotic process. Please note that while heightened suggestibility often occurs, it does not necessarily define the hypnosis concept. I would prefer emphasizing the power of enhanced selective thought as that is what produces the eventual results.
Moreover, this recognition that hypnosis modifies the process of environmental influence opens up a rather difficult challenge to the behaviorists. That is to say, once a person's typical environmental response pattern is altered, the probability that they can participate in the selection of subsequent thoughts becomes enhanced. I could easily rephrase this by saying that choice becomes increasingly realized. While I would never contend that selective thought will ever be devoid of environmental influences, the likelihood that the consequences may be deliberately altered does provide the opportunity for free will to emerge. As hypnosis is the process in which pattern resistance is mitigated and selective thought made more efficient, I see hypnotherapy as an opportunity to empower an individual to shape future experiences of their environment.
Thus, in many ways behaviorism and hypnotherapy are two diametrically opposed approaches, which are intended to reach the same end. If a person seeks to overcome various mental pathologies, improve their ability to influence their physical health, or seek to achieve a higher level of self-actualization, both have the potential to further such aims. However, their orientations are radically different. Behaviorists seek to modify human experience by externally manipulating the subject's environment. To the contrary, the more scientifically-oriented clinical hypnotherapists, such as represented by ANNH practitioners, use suggestion and imagination to focus on proactively changing a person's internal experience (i.e. internal environment) as a way of instigating the desired transformation. While in some ways both doctrines have significant similarities, hypnotherapy is only one that calls upon the higher-level, non-animalistic capabilities of the superior human brain.
If the potential of human beings were limited to those of the rats and pigeons, which behaviorists love to study, there would be no need for any therapeutic technique other than those currently practiced by applied behavioral analysts. However, when one considers the unique power of imagination, such as found in fine arts, architecture, and poetry, I refuse to surrender my faith in humanity to behaviorists who limit their thinking by seeing only our animal and instinctual components. Fortunately, there is much more to being a human.
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