The Dark Imagination: My Theory for Hypnotic Phenomena

There are a few theories that attempt to explain hypnosis, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. I don’t particularly want to get into them all here to prove anything, but I will touch on a few that resonate with my intuitions and experiences the most.

Recently through studying the idea of conscious will being an illusion, I got to thinking about how:

the feeling of conscious will and voluntariness,
the nature of imagination and automaticity…

…tie together.

Somewhere in my thoughts, the equation of those elements seems to explain hypnosis almost perfectly, as well as the formation of compulsive, unconscious ideas and how they manifest as our individual realities.

In a Nutshell

Basically, my theory is that the imagination is an automatic mechanism, which has a direct influence on the mind and body.

Imaginative processes in response to one’s own thoughts or another’s suggestions are mitigated, negated and vetoed by conscious will – which exists as a sensation, allowing a person to be “aware” of what they are doing.

If the illusory feeling of conscious will can be reduced (which is a common pattern in all hypnosis “inductions”), then a split occurs between the imagination and awareness.

This leads to a sense of involuntariness. A reduction of the sense of conscious will.

At this point, the imagination can still respond automatically, but it is operating “in the dark”, away from a feeling of volition or conscious will.

Hypnotic effects arise when a person is imagining in response to suggestion, but they are no longer aware that they are imagining, because their sense of conscious will has been reduced.

Similarly compulsive, unconscious responses arise because a person is imagining, but they have forgotten that they are imagining, or unaware that they are imaginging.

Imagination “in the dark” – creating the split

There are many different ways to create this split between imagination and awareness, to create dark imagination and a simultaneous sense of involuntariness.

Hypnosis inductions typically, yet unwittingly, involve reducing a persons sense of conscious will. Through the use of automatic ideo-motor movements, physiological responses, relaxation, suggestions for “letting go” or other cues for involuntary actions, a person gradually reduces their sense of conscious will. The imagination is then “in the dark”, and able to respond to suggestions automatically. The person is still imagining – they are just unaware that they are.

If any of that seemed confusing, then don’t worry – it was just a brief summary. I’ll explain more as I go!

Similar Models

One theory that has interested me recently along the same lines is Kevin Sheldrake and Anthony Jacquin’s (Head Hacking) Automatic Imagination model – a fascinating and simple idea. I discovered the same principle myself through a different journey, by contemplating the illusion of conscious will, imagination and the nature of involuntariness.

Its essentially a quick way of achieving the split between dark imagination and light awareness.

The model creates the split by asking a person to imagine something, then asking them to imagine that the effect is happening all by itself.

Engage the imagination – then engage the sense of involuntariness. The imagination will then continue like a spinning plate, away from the mitigating effects of conscious volition.

The simple idea of AI was developed through a number of logical steps and assumptions. Although I believe some of those assumptions are flawed, and I’ll explain why, I don’t think this actually affects the mechanism that lies at the heart of AI. It still taps into the idea of splitting the imagination away from conscious will.

A Basis for Automaticity

Kev Sheldrake’s AI theory is based on the assumption of automaticity of mind, a compelling notion which itself has attracted support from various corners of behavioural psychology research (e.g. the work of John Bargh, specfically “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being“, Bargh & Chartrand, 1999).

Automaticity is an attractive and convenient idea, offering a finality to the anti-free-will debate, and solidifying an understanding of the cause-and-effect seeming nature of hypnosis. Removing conscious will from the equation seems to lead us further down the road of certainty, away from those pesky concepts of probability, suggestibility scales and unpredictability.

Its a messy thing though, to prove automaticity, and even Bargh’s popular priming research has since shown to be potentially flawed through a lack of replication, pointing at possible unconscious experimenter bias (e.g. Doyen et al, 2012).

Yet, ironically, even if unconscious experimenter bias was present, surely that’s still an example of unconscious priming regardless of being through a different mechanism to that which was intended. Experimenter bias is an example of the experimenter being primed, and his influence on the subject is another example of priming. The key factor here is involuntariness, unknowing. This situation is a good example of how messy this realm can become – because regardless of which “cause” causes which “effect”, the very support of cause leading to an effect still supports the idea of automaticity. It’s a little like using the placebo effect as a control group situation for hypnosis research – one unconsciously responded belief compared to another still supports the idea of unconscious response regardless of any differences in results.

Anyhow, Sheldrake’s main focus for the idea of automaticity is an experiment which was part of a Horizon BBC documentary, where Marcus du Sautoy is asked to make decisions whilst in an fMRI scanner. This itself was a replication-of-sorts of Benjamin Libet’s (1985) fMRI controversial studies and is often quoted as “proof” of free-will being an illusion.

In the documentary, the experimenter was deemed to know six seconds ahead of time whether du Sautoy would choose a left or right button. The very idea that the experimenter knew which button would be pressed before the subject consciously knew himself, supports the idea that the subject’s idea of “conscious will” was actually just an illusion – his neurology had “made the decision” six seconds before he knew himself.

Its compelling stuff – enough to lead to Kev’s conclusion that “[conscious awareness] simply becomes aware of decisions that have already been made – there is no free will. Further implications of this are that conscious awareness must be generated by the unconscious and that the conscious mind is therefore an illusion”.

Daniel Wegner (2002) made similar conclusions, as did many others, from Libet’s original study involving specific timings of neurological activity preceding a simple decision. His summary:

“These findings suggest that the brain starts doing something first (we don’t know just what that is). Then the person becomes conscious of wanting to do the action. This would be where the conscious will kicks in, at least, in the sense that the person first becomes conscious of trying to act. Then, and still a bit prior to the movement, the person reports becoming aware of the finger actually moving. Finally, the finger moves”.

Crucially though, both Sheldrake’s and Wegner’s conclusions of “there is no free will” and consciousness being an illusion, respectively, are flawed based on the results of the fMRI studies.

Why Wegner’s (and most other people’s) conclusions of Libet’s work are flawed

A vital aspect of Libet’s original study was conveniently ignored from the various summaries: that subjects could actively veto their decision, if they so wished, which was not predicted by any significantly different observable readiness potential (RP, being the neurological activity detected by the fMRI scanner before the reported conscious decision and subsequent actual physical action). This means that if the subject changed his mind at the last nano-second – his decision couldn’t be predicted. Initiating an impulse or decision had some kind of prior neurological marker, but choosing to stop it didn’t.

This is a vastly significant, yet somehow overlooked area of this kind of research.

Libet even said himself:

“It is important to recognize the almost universal experience: that we can act in certain situations with a free, independent choice and control of whether to act […] This provides a kind of prima facie evidence that conscious mental processes can cause some brain processes. Our own experimental findings showed that conscious free will does not initiate the final “act now” process; the initiation of it occurs unconsciously. But conscious will certainly has the potentiality to control the progress and outcome of volitional processes. Thus, the experience of independent choice and of control (of whether and when to act) does have a potentially solid validity as not being an illusion” (Libet, 1999).

Yet, researchers still jumped to completely contradictory conclusions like “He exposed free will as an illusion” (Roth, 2002), and “Our actions are unconscious! Even though we may believe we are making a conscious decision the brain has been active half a second before that decision!” (Norretranders, 1997).

Its important to distinguish between passive, and active volition in understanding our conscious control.

Passive volition would include the idea of desires and urges, which are generally accepting to be “happenings”, such as becoming hungry, liking or wanting certain foods, desiring certain things. We can’t really “choose” what we like and want, desires seem to just “happen” to us.

Active volition would be more consciously willed actions – including the decision to stop a passive volition such as a desire or urge. As an example of this, considering someone consciously (actively) negating the impulse (passive) to smoke a cigarette.

Libet (and the experimenter in the BBC documentary) encouraged his subjects to wait for an urge to press a button – a passive kind of volition. That right there is a huge bias which people seem to overlook.

The active volition, to potentially stop the urge to press the button, was in my mind the far more significant part of the study, which was somehow ignored in favour of the more sensationalist aspect.

“The subject was instructed “to let the urge appear on its own at any time without any pre-planning or concentration on when to act”, i.e. to try to be spontaneous” (Libet, Wright, Carlson 1982)

The preceding readiness potential before a passive volition is no surprise – and wasn’t even to the subjects. They reported the “decision” to be more of a “happening” than a “doing”.

Its no more of a breakthrough than if experimenters had known ahead of time of a subjects “conscious reporting of being hungry” by measuring the release of hormones regulating appetite.

Why I believe Sheldrake’s conclusions are also flawed

The televised version forming the basis of Sheldrake’s argument (with a six second difference the measured potential and the reported decision) wasn’t an empirical piece of scientific study. So its naturally going to be vulnerable to various biases and problems of interpretation.

I will list a few here:

  • Du Sautoy was aware of the nature of the documentary, so had a vested interest in supporting the outcome of the study. Its perfectly plausible that he might have been unconsciously influenced to delay his reporting of a conscious decision.
  • The (brief) experiment did not factor in the potential decision to change his mind about whether to press left or right. Had du Sautoy considered left for example, before finally choosing right, the measured RP’s might have been completely different.
  • Its unclear as to how accurate du Sautoy’s reporting of making a decision actually was. Who knows what cognitive process may have occurred, even within the realm of consciousness? For example “I think I will press left… shall I press left? Yes, I’ve committed to it now, that’s what I’ll go for” before reporting the decision.
  • How accurate is self-awareness? If a person “mulls” over a problem for a while before finally making a decision about something, are they to render the decision as “conscious”, and the mulling as “unconscious”, simply because they aren’t aware of every last cognitive process that is taking place? There is a spectrum involved here, and a person’s awareness is going to vary depending on their self-awareness, introspection, attention, their effort, and their willingness to report what they are really, genuinely aware of.


Whilst I think its important to recognise the potential fallacy behind strong conclusions like this, that isn’t to say that I disagree with Sheldrake or Wegner’s view about unconscious automaticity. I do still agree with the idea on an intuitive, experiential level – I just disagree with the rationale behind the conclusions.

More importantly though, I disagree with the need for automaticity in the first place, because I don’t see it as particularly relevant to hypnosis or the Automatic Imagination model.

But I still agree with Automaticity

Its difficult to empirically support the idea of automaticity in any truly conclusive way, even if our instincts and experiences intuitively tell us that there can really be no other way.

I do agree with Sheldrake’s and Wegner’s suspicions, just not so much with the route taken to argue the case, which I still think is an important observation to make.

Furthermore, I personally believe that the concept of consciously vetoing an unconsciously automatic process holds some serious weight as a piece of the hypnosis puzzle – which has been so far ignored in the research in favour of the more fascinating-seeming results. I’ll just repeat the relevant section of Libet’s 1999 quote:

“Our own experimental findings showed that conscious free will does not initiate the final “act now” process; the initiation of it occurs unconsciously. But conscious will certainly has the potentiality to control the progress and outcome of volitional processes.”

When it comes to understanding hypnosis and the automatic Imagination model, this will have special relevance.

A Brief Overview of the Automatic Imagination model

Here’s what we know:

The unconscious imagination is a bridge between sensory stimuli, ideas, and the body. Imagining automatically creates effects – ideomotor movements, visualisations, auditory imaginings, anxious responses, hormone releases. Imagining food can make you hungry, imagining sex can make you aroused, imagining fearful stimuli can make you anxious.

We can use this unconscious mechanism to imagine whatever we want, whenever we want, but we are conscious that we are imagining.

That conscious awareness seems to veto, negate and mitigate the automatic effects of the imagination. This could be because conscious awareness is itself, a part of the imagination, which has its own automatic responses counteracting others which are being imagined.

Hypnotic effects are a result of the imagination (an unconscious process). When a person is hallucinating an object via hypnotic suggestion, there is no magic involved. The object obviously isn’t there. It exists within the imagination, which has somehow become the persons reality for that time.

As a result of various theories and observations, Sheldrake and Jacquin formed the following idea:

Imagination without conscious awareness

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