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Suggestibility and Receptivity: From Mechanicalness to Consciousness

July 28, 2009

Dennis LewisG. I. Gurdjieff spoke often about how “suggestible” we are, and wrote in Beelzebub’s Tales that this is “the most terrible” of our “abnormal being-particularities.” Suggestibility depends in large part on self-love, vanity, self-calming, likes and dislikes, and the beliefs and attitudes we have about what does or does not make something valuable.

Anyone who has ever worked consciously on themselves with others can see this particular feature of our psyche not only in other people but especially in oneself. One can see it in relation not only to our habits as consumers, but also to many of our actions, beliefs, attitudes, expectations, and judgments, especially those with which we are the most identified. One sees it very clearly in politics and religion. One also sees it in relation to so-called spirituality. If someone we believe in (including ourselves) makes a suggestion, we most often take it seriously with little objective reflection. Those practicing self-observation will notice how frequently they are slaves to their own suggestions, whether positive or negative.

Behavioral scientists have recognized for some time the power of suggestibility to shape what we think, feel, and experience, but it has not been until recently that they have devised objective experiments to actually measure this in an objective way. Recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for example, shows that people who pay more money for the same item derive more pleasure from it. The experiments demonstrated that the part of the brain that makes judgments about pleasure, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, actually becomes more active when people pay more money for something.

In one experiment, for example, the researchers–California Institute of Technology neuroeconomist Antonio Rangel and Stanford University economist Baba Shiv–had people evaluate two bottles of wine: one that cost $10 and one that cost $90. What the volunteers who drank the wine didn’t know is that both bottles contained the exact same wine. When people drank the bottle that cost $90 they all called that bottle “better.” And their medial orbitofrontal cortex became far more active than when they drank from the bottle that cost $10.

In another experiment, volunteers were given an “energy drink” that was said to boost “mental acuity.” Some of the volunteers were asked to pay full price for the drink ($1.89), while others got it at a discount (only 89 cents). The researchers told the volunteers who received the discount that it was the exact same drink (which it was) and that the discount was made possible because of a “bulk purchase” of the product. After drinking the product, volunteers were given a test in which they had to unscramble specific words. Those who paid full price were able to unscramble twice as many words as those who received the discount.

There are many profound questions that this research raises, and I’d like to “suggest” one for us to ponder: What is the difference between suggestibility, which shapes so much of our lives in such an unconscious way, and receptivity, which is needed to learn anything new? How can we tell the difference experientially?

In my own life I have felt this question often, especially when reading books to which I am attracted or taking part in activities involving spiritual teachings that seem to resonate with what I have experienced or believe to be true. We hear from others by word of mouth or book reviews or some other way that “so and so” is an “awakened being,” a wonderful Buddhist, a great Christian, a nondual master, and so on and thus well worth reading, and so we open the book eagerly already believing that what we read will be the truth, or at least close to it. This, of course, is suggestibiity, and advertising agencies and public relations agencies and “leaders” of all kinds are well aware of its importance in selling consumer products, political candidates, social attitudes, spiritual teachings, and just about everything else in modern life. For more on the power of public relations, for example, read my essay Propaganda in a Democracy.

Of course, one does not always need to read books, listen to music, and so on that come with great reviews or endorsements. My main teacher in the Gurdjieff work once said to a few of us that you can pick up almost any book, and that if you are receptive, able to listen, you will find at least one thought or insight in the book that is just what you need to hear. And throughout my life I have found this to be true not just in relation to books but also in relation to movies, television shows, and other media (even those that my friends criticize).

We have to remember that every human being–famous or not, awakened or not, a great teacher or not–is capable of great insights and that if we are listening, if we are receptive, we may hear exactly what we need to hear to help us awaken from our sleep, which, of course, is supported by our suggestilbilty.

What does it mean to be receptive? It means to welcome new impressions, ideas, or information consciously. It means to listen without arguing and without immediate referral to the concepts, beliefs and attitudes that condition us and form the basis of our self-image. It means to be interested in what is true, to be impartially attentive to what is happening right now, even if it means becoming conscious of our suggestibility.

Whether we are suggestible or receptive something is imprinted on us and in us. In the case of suggestibility, the impressions we receive are imprinted unconsciously, mechanically—they are received through and in relation to personal prejudices and conditioning and carried out or reacted to without any real question or attempt to understand in the context of the wholeness of our life. In the case of receptivity, we listen without “credulousness,” from not knowing, and thus have the impressions at our disposal—not mechanically linked with our beliefs and attitudes, but consciously linked with our underlying wish to truly verify and understand.

A great practice is to attempt, as sincerely as possible, to differentiate between suggestibilty and receptivity, between mechanicalness and consciousness, in the course of your daily life. I am interested in hearing any impressions you have as a result of this effort.

Copyright 2009 by Dennis Lewis

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Carolyn Lamar permalink
    November 30, 2009 12:46 am

    Hi. Thank you for your article. I really love the book the Fourth Way. I am wanting to know more about oppositional thinking or suggestibility. Like why when you are told one thing you want to do the opposite??? any thoughts on this. Thank you. Carolyn

  2. December 18, 2009 10:48 am

    Such a rich seam for mining… In a sense, and especially following your description of receptivity, to be recepive I have to be active towards the something that I am receiving. So in the sense of triads where point 1. is active, 2. Passive, 3. reconciling. To be receptive one would want to take 1. (active) at 2. ( passive) and the third force or reconciling might come as the teaching or as the teacher…. but that also has other possibilities so to leave it there.

    Suggestability comes so strongly in us from our instinctive centre, and like so much in the instinctive centre of us humans has become tainted… Mr Bennett called this the Reactional Self and was so right in saying that until we have purified this, no matter how spiritual we are, we cannot find freedom.

    Mostly this is seated in the mistaken areas of identification as you have pointed out, likes and dislikes, sensitivity which becomes a ‘way of life’, etc. There are also very strong parts which come from the archaic conditioning, where to act outside the tribal laws meant even death, either from outside dangers or from inside dangers and has existed for the purpose of tribal protection and organisation. Where this has atrophied it becomes ‘Bon Ton’ behaviour and a miplaced need to placate and copy ones peers.. As you say this is seen in all groups from Fashon to ‘spiritual’ groups.

    I have often been fascinated by those who are singled out by the group, and for why. Reminding me of the story about the beautiful dervishes who spoke so well and the old ignored Dede, who really had the juice….
    There is also the ‘natural’ problem of the idea, that it is wrong to deviate from the ‘Word of the master’ and all that comes from that……. in which ever world from saints to ‘Life style Gurus’

    But this “the most terrible” of our “abnormal being-particularities”, is so pervasive, and is so manipulated by the image makers, themselves also caught by it, that it is difficult to know which of ones treasures are one’s own. Except that is by coming back into a ‘State known to oneself’. (I am enjoying all this quoting!). It is a state of maturity, when one senses more into the stable grounding of oneself that gives the possibility of clear knowing. & choice…. maybe having moved into a more balanced state, which no longer reacts so much…… Ageing does not bring this maturity, so much as that sense of anchoring in, after so many knocks that there is a trusting in the sense of oneself…. Then we can enjoy being receptive and accept being suggestible for some things..

    Why are those two experiments about the money value of things, is it just an easy way of testing or is money so in-grown at that level that it effects the cortex? What amazing creatures we are. No machine could be more extaordinarally complex.

    Thanks again Dennis for making a point to ponder and to work with…. observations later!

  3. Ben F. permalink
    July 26, 2010 7:52 am

    Thanks Dennis,

    Interesting study on money and how the price paid affected the medial orbitofrontal cortex. In the unscrambling test it actually produced “empirical” results. Perhaps the saying ” you get what you pay for” is true? Suggestability, a very thin line…”curiouser and curiouser”.

    In regard to what my friend Hajah said concerning triads, mechanicalness, and your mention of consciousness (not so sure about how you use this word-as my experience has been to differentiate between awareness, one’s subjective experience of thoughts, feelings or sensations, and consciousness, a larger, more “global” arena…??). As Ouspensky mentions, the gateway here is what he terms emotion–“I ended my last lecture with the idea that we are in prison. For us prison is our sleep and, laying aside the metaphor, we want to awaken when we realise we are asleep. This must be realised emotionally.”

    I suppose I could get more convoluted here and bring in all kinds of other words or ideas, but no,
    I will leave it here, open for another comment…

    ❤ ;^)

  4. Ben F. permalink
    July 26, 2010 7:56 am

    P.S. Impressions to follow

  5. March 2, 2011 12:49 am

    I’ve been experimenting with receptivity for the better part of a year now and have found it to be immensely rewarding. Learning it from self examination and reading some of the great thinkers led me to the same conclusions you’ve reached. I’ve noticed an overall increase in well being that i find hard to summarily describe; by observing myself and others i’ve improved my living habits (eating, grooming, etc.), social awareness, and self respect of which i find the most rewarding.

    It feels like my subconciousness decides most of my reactions and desires so i train it to do what i want. My guiding criteria is self reflection, if i find i look back on a situation with regret i try to rewrite my internal ‘code.’ It seems to be working very well, i find myself increasingly acting in ways that fit my ethical code. I think one of the qualifiers for receptivity should be an awareness of one’s own fallibility.

  6. February 17, 2013 12:38 pm

    I often wonder what Mr. Gurdjieff, Mr. Ouspensky and Lord Pentland would have made of today’s computers, particularly software as a manifestation of higher energy, and the notion of “programming.” It seems that as a species we have evolved to a point of simulating our own mental and physiological processes without completely comprehending them — this is particularly true in genetics. And yet a deeper understanding of our day to day work with software, especially in its power to “download” and override other programs, can potentially open us to many of the concepts and discoveries once presented by these great teachers.

  7. permalink
    February 17, 2013 3:49 pm

    An excellent and very useful distinction…..thank you.

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