Interview with Russell T. Hurlburt, Pioneer of the Investigation of Inner Experience

Your Inner Voice Can Be A Mystery Even To Yourself

Dr. Hurlburt is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and author of books on inner experience and statistics. Following his graduation from Princeton University with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautical Engineering and an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from the University of New Mexico, he began studying psychology. At the University of South Dakota, he received a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with a dissertation titled “Self-observation and Self-control.” The focus of Russell T. Hurlburt’s research is interior experience, which encompasses sensations, feelings, ideas, and emotions. He is the creator of the Descriptive Experience Sampling technique, which generates qualitative, idiographic descriptions of interior experience through intensive interviews and random beepers. Hurlburt invented the “thought sampling” method and was among the first to employ beepers in psychology research in the 1970s. He sampled himself when he was first refining the technique. Afterwards, he concluded that it would be preferable for him not to participate in the study as a subject in order to maintain objectivity and allow him to proceed cautiously, since he preferred that his subjects not tell him what they believed the researcher wanted to hear. He believes that one of the main goals of psychology is to comprehend interior experience. In addition, he has studied the experiences of adults and teenagers with and without Asperger’s syndrome, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia, bulimia, and other illnesses. His work has been published in numerous academic articles and journals. He is the author of the books: “Sampling Normal and Schizophrenic Inner Experience” (1990), “Comprehending Behavioral Statistics” (1993), “Sampling Inner Experience in Disturbed Affect” (1993), “Exploring Inner Experience: The Descriptive Experience Sampling Method” (2006), “Describing Inner Experience?” (2007), “Investigating Pristine Inner Experience: Moments of Truth” (2011), and “A Passion for Specificity: Confronting Inner Experience in Literature and Science” (2016).

Russell T. Hurlburt’s University of Nevada Profile

I read that you decided to study psychology while playing trumpet at military funerals. Can music be an invisible thread connecting us in this universe, to ancient languages? 

It is true that I decided to study psychology while playing taps at 500-ish military funerals, mostly for Vietnam casualties. But I can’t say I learned anything about any invisible threads doing that.

Can you explain the process of Descriptive Experience Sampling and how it differs from other methods of studying consciousness?

I don’t consider descriptive experience sampling (DES) a method of studying consciousness. It’s a method of studying inner experience. Inner experience ought to be the kind of thing that consciousness scientists study, but for the most part they don’t. The DES process is simple. I give people a beeper and ask them to pay attention to their inner experience that was interrupted by random beeps, and then to tell me about it. But the process, while simple, is not easy.  It takes a fair amount of training for people to be good at answering the question of what was happening in your inner experience at the moment of the beep.

What have been some of the most significant challenges you’ve encountered in applying DES, and how have you addressed them?

I would say the most significant challenge is that most people think they know what’s going on in their inner experience but are mistaken about that. I have developed what I call the iterative method, which gives people the training that they need to overcome that difficulty.

What are some of the most surprising or counterintuitive findings about the nature of consciousness that have emerged from DES research? What unique insights has it provided for understanding psychological disorders?

The most surprising finding is the one I just talked about, namely that people don’t know what the characteristics of their own inner experience are. I have found that most people, at the end of participating in DES where they have discussed, say, 50 randomly seconds of their inner experience, find that to be perhaps the most therapeutic time that they’ve spent with anyone. And many of these people have had quite a lot of psychotherapy. That is, the task of trying to be honest about what is actually happening in your inner experience turns out to be, for some people, life changing. 

How has your personal understanding of your own consciousness been shaped or changed by your work with DES?

That’s a good question, but I’m not sure that I can answer it. DES incorporates many of the characteristics that I value in my personal life, but which one causes the other? I don’t really know.

His invention of a random beeper in 1973, which he patented in 1976, facilitated the process of Descriptive Experience Sampling

History has taught that humans learn lessons at different times. To accelerate this process understanding and empathy, in all of its forms, can make a huge difference. How much does the inner voice depend on contexts such as: era, family, religion, narcissism, friends, acquaintances, etc? 

First, let’s talk about the inner voice. Most people who think they have a constant inner voice don’t actually have constant inner voice. Some people speak to themselves all the time, but most people don’t. As to whether the cultural contexts are different, yes, there’s no question about that, but my own research hasn’t done the cross-cultural studies that I think would be useful.

Can traumas change the inner voice over time? Is there a possibility that a “damaged” inner voice turns into self-sabotage?

I think that question is problematic because I think most people are mistaken about the characteristics of their own inner voice. Most studies of the inner voice are questionnaire or memoir kind of reports, and I don’t think either of those are to be trusted to provide high fidelity descriptions of experience. It certainly is the case that trauma changes inner experience, and people say that that trauma changes their inner voice. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t really know.

We live in our heads almost all of our life and we are all influenced by everything we have experienced. For some people the void, the absence, the emptiness help go through the most difficult time. For others it is the opposite. Some prefer an empty canvas and others need details.  Can you help us to understand a bit about how our minds work?

I can tell you something about what a method would be like to answer that. You need to have a method that does not take for granted that you know what’s going on in your own mind. You need a method that allows you to somehow control the propensity for confirmation bias. If you had a science built on that kind of study of inner experience, then maybe we could understand something about the way the mind works.

Some people don’t have inner monologue. Do they have something in common or do they have unique experiences?

You ask what I call a personality question.  Good personality studies require thousands of participants, and it’s very difficult for descriptive experience sampling to have studies with more than 10 or 15 participants. So I don’t know the answer to your question. I would say that the available personality studies that consider inner speech are based primarily on questionnaires about inner speech, and I don’t think questionnaires are to be trusted.

The Descriptive Experience Sampling method, which seeks to reveal the contents of consciousness during brief periods of time, was developed by Dr. Hurlburt.

How much insight into our inner life can psychologists gain? Dr. Hurlburt asked his subjects to describe their mental states as he conducted an investigation

DES has provided valuable insights into consciousness. What exciting possibilities do you see for the future of consciousness research, building on the foundation of DES? Since we are living in the social media era, how do you see DES influencing other fields, such as neuroscience, philosophy, or artificial intelligence?

If you imagine the exact opposite of neuroscience, philosophy, and artificial intelligence, then you have descriptive experience sampling. Descriptive experience sampling tries to get the inner experience of one person in high fidelity. Neuroscience and artificial intelligence try to average their data across many, many observations, thousands or millions of observations, and say something about the individual person based on that average. I don’t think that’s possible. If you want to say something about a person’s inner experience, you have to examine moments of that individual person’s inner experience carefully using a method designed for that task. Neuroscience, philosophy, and artificial intelligence are diametrically opposite to that.

With advancements in technology, how do you foresee integrating tools like wearable devices or virtual reality into DES to enhance data collection and analysis?

I think there are substantial positive possibilities, but it will take a dramatic rethinking of the way those tools are currently used. Technology nowadays is used as a way of avoiding discovering something that is actually true about individual people’s inner experience. If one could get into the position of actually wanting to know something about individual people, and submitting to the constraints on such an endeavour, then it is quite possible that technology could advance that science.

The Descriptive Experience Sampling method, which seeks to reveal the contents of consciousness during brief periods of time, was developed by Dr. Hurlburt.

Photo courtesy of Russell T. Hurlburt

Last Updated on July 10, 2024 by retrofuturista

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