Teaching: Phenomenological Control—What Is Reality, Really? 

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Dienes, Z., & Lush, P. (2023). The role of phenomenological control in experience. Current Directions in Psychological Science32(2), 145–151.

According to Zoltan Dienes and Peter Lush (2023), people can construct subjective experiences that distort objective reality, an ability that they term phenomenological control. Hypnosis is the most famous example of this control, where people enter a state of focused consciousness during which they show heightened ability to alter their subjective state (Elkins et al., 2015). For instance, participants who listened to hypnotic suggestions to add color to a grayscale image not only reported that they could change their perception of color in the image but also showed changes in V4 activation levels, an area associated with color perception (McGeown et al., 2012).  

Similarly, people with fibromyalgia who listened to hypnotic suggestions to either increase or decrease their pain state reported that they felt their pain levels fluctuating according to the suggestions, and they also showed fluctuations in activity in their pain perception networks (Derbyshire et al., 2009). Clearly, some people are not just “faking” being hypnotized. Instead, people can control their conscious experience in a manner that changes their physical reality, and this phenomenological control over subjective states is mirrored by neurophysiological changes. 

Relatedly, there are people who show greater capacity for phenomenological control than others. Some researchers suggest that phenomenological control is a manifestation of executive control (e.g., Faerman & Spiegel, 2021) rather than a traditional personality trait (Cardeña & Terhune, 2014). Although the literature has yet to produce definitive answers to this question, the idea here is that phenomenological control involves focusing strongly on a suggestion to alter experience and ignoring information in the periphery, just like executive control. Building on the idea that phenomenological control is an ability, Lush et al. (2021) developed a series of 10 exercises to determine how strongly people could construct subjective experiences in which they “feel” their arm moving involuntarily, “hear” music that is not playing, and “taste” sweet and sour flavors that are not present. 

People who score highly on Lush et al.’s (2021) Phenomenological Control Scale are also more likely to:  

  • be among the 20%–30% of individuals who, when they watch objects silently collide, hear the nonexistent colliding sound as if it were real (known as a visually evoked auditory response; Fassnidge & Freeman, 2018); 
  • feel ownership of a fake/rubber hand placed in front of them when the person’s real hand and the rubber hand are simultaneously stroked (Lush et al., 2020); 
  • experience a tingling sensation from the scalp to neck when listening to a whispering voice—known as the autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR (Lush et al., 2022). 

Phenomenological control is hypothesized as the causal process underlying each of the above illusions, and according to Dienes and Lush (2023), this ability may exist to facilitate specific cultural beliefs that promote social bonding. They specifically point to spirit-possession experiences across human history as manifestations of phenomenological control that affirmed the person’s beliefs about the spiritual world and elevated their social status because of their unique connection to it.  

This fascinating research area is still in the early stages of development, and much more remains to be learned about the functional importance, cognitive underpinnings, and neurobiological mechanisms that enable phenomenological control.  

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