The Explanation of The Hypnotic State

Not least of the wonders of modern psychical research is the discovery that nothing in all the phenomena is new—that under other names and by other races every sort of manifestation was familiar to the most remote peoples. This would certainly seem to meet the argument of the physicist—it is not necessary to refer again to Professor Tyndall’s uncomplimentary phraseology—who declares that all this popular occultism is a product of the last generation or two. Take hypnotism. Hypnotism (or mesmerism) was formerly alleged to be an emanation from the body—an effluence of intense will-power. The belief in such an emanation is centuries old. “By the magic power of the will,” wrote Paracelsus, “a person on this side of the ocean may make a person on the other side hear what is said on that side … the ethereal body of a man may know what another man thinks at a distance of 100 miles or more.” Twenty years ago this creed was laughed out of court by Huxley, Tyndall, and other leading men of science. To-day we are told by those who have witnessed the experiments of Charcot, Janet, and others that “the existence of an aura of spirit-force surrounding the body like an atmosphere, in some cases at all events, can be proved as a physical fact.”

Whatever the explanation, whatever the definition of this miraculous agency, hypnotism is now universally accepted. The manifestations of its power must convince the most skeptical. A spell-bound subject is frequently made to share the sensations of the hypnotist, his ocular perceptions and his sense of touch. In the hypnotic sleep the subject easily becomes insensible to pain. A member of the Society reports that he has seen a youth in this condition who suffered gladly the most injurious attacks upon his own person—who would allow his hair to be pulled, his ears pinched, his fingers even to be scorched by lighted matches. But the same youth would next moment indignantly resent the slightest injury upon his hypnotiser, who would at the time be standing at the other end of the room.

One thing in common all the hypnotic methods appear to possess, the diversion of attention from external surroundings and the working of a sub-consciousness in a manner not characteristic of the ordinary life of the subject. In cases described by Mr Greenwood no difficulty was encountered in impersonations suggested to the subject unless they savoured too much of the ridiculous. “Thus,” he writes, “a suggestion that M., the subject, was myself and that I was he succeeded; and in his reverse capacity he continued the course of experiments upon himself, devising several original and ingenious varieties to which I, for the sake of the experiment, acquiesced in subjecting myself. He also behaved with considerable dignity and verve as King Edward VII., until I threw a match at his head, a proceeding which appeared to conflict so strongly with dramatic verisimilitude that he lapsed back into his ordinary hypnotic condition, nor could I reinduce the impersonation. On the other hand, statements that he was the Emperor of China, and that he was a nurse and I a baby, failed to carry any conviction, being either received with passive consent or rejected with scorn.” It is interesting to note that in the waking state of the subject he explained that he was only conscious that he was not the characters he was bidden to assume, and if asked would have said as much, but that he was irresistibly impelled to act as though he were.

The production of sleep in the subject at a distance is one of the latest attested marvels of hypnotism. The long series of experiments made in France by Professor Richet and Professor Janet would appear to attest this power. In some trials made at Havre, in which the experimenters were Professor Janet and Dr Gibert, the subject of the experiment was a certain Madame B. or “Léonie,” then a patient of Dr Gibert. The facts were recorded by the late F. W.Myers and his brother, Dr A. T. Myers, who were present:

“We selected (he states) by lot an hour (eleven A.M.) at which M. Gibert should will, from his dispensary (which is close to his house), that Madame B. should go to sleep in the Pavilion. It was agreed that a rather longer time should be allowed for the process to take effect, as it had been observed that she sometimes struggled against the influence and averted the effect for a time by putting her hands in cold water, etc. At 11.25 we entered the Pavilion quietly, and almost at once she descended from her room to the salon, profoundly asleep. We did not, of course, mention M. Gibert’s attempt of the previous night. But she told us in her sleep that she had been very ill in the night, and repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Pourquoi M. Gibert m’a-t-il fait souffrir? Mais j’ai lavé les mains continuellement.’ This is what she does when she wishes to avoid being influenced.

“In the evening (22nd) we all dined at M. Gibert’s, and in the evening M. Gibert made another attempt to put her to sleep at a distance from his house in the Rue Sery—she being at the Pavilion, Rue de la Ferme—and to bring her to his house by an effort of will. At 8.55 he retired to his study; and MM. Ochorowicz, Marillier, Janet, and A. T. Myers went to the Pavilion, and waited outside in the street, out of sight of the house. At 9.22 Dr Myers observed Madame B. coming half way out of the garden gate, and again retreating. Those who saw her more closely observed that she was plainly in the somnambulistic state and was wandering about and muttering. At 9.25 she came out with eyes persistently closed, so far as could be seen, walked quickly past MM. Janet and Marillier without noticing them, and made for M. Gibert’s house, though not by the usual or shortest route. (It appeared afterwards that the bonne had seen her go into the salon at 8.45 and issue thence asleep at 9.15; had not looked in between those times.) She avoided lamp-posts, vehicles, etc., but crossed and recrossed the street repeatedly. No one went in front of her or spoke to her. After eight or ten minutes she grew more uncertain in gait, and paused as though she would fall. Dr Myers noted the moment in the Rue Faure; it was 9.35. At about 9.40 she grew bolder, and at 9.45 reached the street in front of M. Gibert’s house. There she met him, but did not notice him, and walked into his house, where she rushed hurriedly from room to room on the ground floor. M. Gibert had to take her hand before she recognized him. She then grew calm.

“On the 23rd M. Janet lunched in our company and retired to his own house at 4.30 (a time chosen by lot), to try to put her to sleep from thence. At 5.5 we all entered the salon of the Pavilion, and found her asleep with shut eyes, but sewing vigorously (being in that stage in which movements once suggested are automatically continued). Passing into the talkative stage, she said to M. Janet: ‘C’est vous qui m’avez fait dormir à quatre heures et demi.’ The impression as to the hour may have been a suggestion received from M. Janet’s mind. We tried to make her believe that it was M. Gibert who had sent her to sleep, but she maintained that she had felt that it was M. Janet.

“On 24th April the whole party chanced to meet at M. Janet’s house at three P.M., and he then, at my suggestion, entered his study to will that Madame B. should sleep. We waited in his garden, and at 3.20 proceeded together to the Pavilion, which I entered first at 3.30, and found Madame B. profoundly sleeping over her sewing, having ceased to sew. Becoming talkative, she said to M. Janet: ‘C’est vous qui m’avez commandé.’ She said that she fell asleep at 3.5 P.M.”

Of the twenty-five trials made in the course of two months, eighteen were wholly and four partially successful.

This somnolent state might, it is thought, have been induced by telepathy; in fact, as we shall see, telepathy will in some quarters have to bear the burden of most, if not all, of the phenomena under investigation.

Not only is the hypnotic subject frequently induced to do the will of the operator, but he may actually have presented to his intelligence certain ideas or images, material or imaginary, known only to the hypnotist. After following carefully all the experiments conducted by the late Professor Sidgwick and others, in the presence of witnesses of repute, I do not see how it is possible to deny the fact of telepathy. In these experiments the subject or percipient was always hypnotized, remaining so to a varying degree throughout the experiment.

Albeit, even as regards this thought-transference, we must be on our guard against a too rash acceptance of unknown or super-normal agencies in every bona-fide experiment. Certainly all experiments of the hypnotiser do not ipso facto prove that any new method of apprehension has been employed. The hypnotized subject is extremely susceptible to suggestions, and might even glean an indication of what is proceeding through the look, the gestures, the very breathing, of those present. The utmost precautions, therefore, were taken by the Society for Psychical Research when it began its experimental inquiries.

The subject of the picture was always carefully chosen by one of the experimenters—Mrs Sidgwick or Miss Alice Johnson. Any possibility of the percipient being able to guess at the subject through chance, association, or ideas was rigorously excluded. To prevent any hint being unconsciously imparted by the third experimenter, Mr G. A. Smith, silence was enjoined upon him, and he was placed behind the percipient or in another room; yet the percipient actually saw and described the projecting impression as if it were a real picture before his eyes. When Mr Smith went downstairs with Miss Johnson he was asked by her to think of an eagle pursuing a sparrow. Mrs Sidgwick, who remained upstairs with P., the percipient, in a few minutes induced him to see a round disc of light on the imaginary lantern-sheet, and then he saw in it “something like a bird,” which disappeared immediately. He went on looking (with closed eyes, of course), and presently he thought he saw “something like a bird—something like an eagle.” After a pause he said: “I thought I saw a figure there—I saw 5. The bird’s gone. I see 5 again; now it’s gone. The bird came twice.” Mr Smith then came upstairs, and P. had another impression of an eagle. He was told that the eagle was right, and there was something else besides, no hint being given of what the other thing was. He then said that the first thing he saw “was a little bird—a sparrow, perhaps—he could not say—about the size of a sparrow; then that disappeared, and he saw the eagle. He had told Mrs Sidgwick so at the time.”

We see the mental machinery at work in another case, where the subject agreed upon was “The Babes in the Wood.” To begin with, P. sat with closed eyes, but, when no impression came, Mr Smith opened his eyes, without speaking, and made him look for the picture on a card. After we had waited a little while in vain, Mr Smith said to him: “Do you see something like a straw hat?” P. assented to this, and then began to puzzle out something more: “A white apron, something dark—a child. It can’t be another child, unless it’s a boy—a boy and a girl—the boy to the right and the girl to the left. Little girl with white socks on and shoes with straps.” Mr Smith asked: “What are they doing? Is it two children on a raft at sea?” P.: “No; it’s like trees in the background—a copse or something. Like a fairy-story—like babes in a wood or something.”

We see it in an even more pronounced degree where the subject sat on a sailing boat. Miss Johnson, who did not know what the subject of the picture was, asked Miss B. whether it was anything like an animal. Miss B. said: “No; got some prong sort of things—something at the bottom like a little boat. What can that be up in the air? Cliffs, I suppose—cliffs in the air high up—it’s joining the boat. Oh, sails!—a sailing-boat—not cliffs—sails.” This was not all uttered consecutively, but partly in answer to questions put by Miss Johnson; but, as Miss Johnson was ignorant of the supposed picture, her questions could, of course, give no guidance.

Many experiments have been made in the transference of imaginary scenes, where both operator and subject have attempted to attain a conscious unity of ideas by means of rough drawings. A slight sketch was made, which was then projected to the brain of the percipient, who proceeded to reproduce the unseen, often with amazing fidelity.

In these experiments actual contact was forbidden, to avoid the risk of unconscious indications by pressure. In many cases, however, the agent and percipient have been in the same room, and there has therefore still been some possible risk of unconscious whispering; but this risk has been successfully avoided. It yet remains doubtful how far close proximity really operates in aid of telepathy, or how far its advantage is a mere effect of self-suggestion—on the part either of agent or percipient. Some experimenters—notably the late Mr Kirk and Mr Glardon—have obtained results of just the same type at distances of half-a-mile or more. In the case of induction of hypnotic trance, Dr Gibert, as we have seen, attained at the distance of nearly a mile results which are commonly believed to exact close and actual presence.

Hypnotic agencies, according to Myers, may be simplified into suggestion and self-suggestion. The same author defines suggestion as “successful appeal to the subliminal self.” Many striking cases of moral reforms produced by this means have been recorded by Dr Auguste Voisin. For instance:

“In the summer of 1884 there was at the Salpêtrière a young woman of a deplorable type. Jeanne Sch—— was a criminal lunatic, filthy in habits, violent in demeanour, and with a lifelong history of impurity and theft. M. Voisin, who was one of the physicians on the staff, undertook to hypnotise her on 31st May, at a time when she could only be kept quiet by the strait jacket and bonnet d’irrigation, or perpetual cold douche to the head. She would not—indeed, she could not—look steadily at her operator, but raved and spat at him. M. Voisin kept his face close to hers and followed her eyes wherever she moved them. In about ten minutes a stertorous sleep ensued, and in five minutes more she passed into a sleep-waking state, and began to talk incoherently. The process was repeated on many days, and gradually she became sane when in the trance, though she still raved when awake. Gradually, too, she became able to obey in waking hours commands impressed on her in the trance—first trivial orders (to sweep the room and so forth), then orders involving a marked change of behavior. Nay, more; in the hypnotic state she voluntarily expressed repentance for her past life, made a confession which involved more evil than the police were cognisant of (though it agreed with facts otherwise known), and finally of her own impulse made good resolves for the future. Two years later (31st July 1886) M. Voisin wrote that she was then a nurse in a Paris hospital, and that her conduct was irreproachable. It appeared then that this poor woman, whose history since the age of thirteen had been one of reckless folly and vice, had become capable of the steady, self-controlled work of a nurse at a hospital, the reformed character having first manifested itself in the hypnotic state, partly in obedience to suggestion, and partly as the natural result of the transliteration of morbid passions.”

There is a mass of evidence to testify to the marvellous cures that have been effected in this way. Kleptomania, dipsomania, nicotinism, morphinomania, and several varieties of phobies have all been known to yield to hypnotic suggestion. Nor is it always necessary that the mind of the patient should be influenced by another person; self-suggestion is at times equally efficacious. Here is a case in point, taken from “Proceedings,” vol. xi. p. 427. The narrator is Dr D. J. Parsons.

“Sixteen years ago I was a little sick; took half-a-grain of opium, and lay down upon the bed. Soon, as I began to feel the tranquillising effect of the opium, I saw three men approaching me; the one in front said: ‘You smoke too much tobacco.’ I replied: ‘I know I do.’ He then said: ‘Why don’t you quit it?’ I answered by saying: ‘I have been thinking about it, but I am afraid I can’t.’ He extended his right arm, and placing his forefinger very near my face gave it a few very significant shakes, said, in a very impressive manner: ‘You will never want to use tobacco any more as long as you live.’ He continued by saying: ‘You swear sometimes.’ I answered: ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Will you promise to quit?’ I intended to say ‘Yes,’ but just as I was about to utter the word yes, instantly a change came over me, and I felt like I had been held under some unknown influence, which was suddenly withdrawn or exhausted. I had been a constant smoker for more than twenty years.

“Since the occurrence of the above incident I have not touched tobacco; have felt ever since like it would poison me, and I now feel like one draw at the pipe would kill me instantly. My desire for tobacco was suddenly and effectually torn out by the roots, but perhaps I shall never know just how it was done.

“D. J. Parsons, M.D.

Sweet Springs, Missouri.

It would seem in the above case that the suggestibility was heightened by the use of opium, which at the same time developed a monitory hallucination.

Leading men of science now hold that the popular belief in the dangers of hypnotism is grossly exaggerated, it being far less open to abuse than chloroform. Nevertheless some danger is only too manifest, and Parliament may yet be asked to do what Continental governments have done—viz. to make the practice of hypnotism, save under proper medical supervision, a punishable offence. As an illustration of these dangers I may mention the testimony of an operator given before the Psychical Research Society. Owing to the ready susceptibility of one subject he began to fear that he might acquire an influence which might be inconvenient to both, and so enjoined that he should be unable to hypnotise him unless he previously recited a formula asking the operator to do so. After several failures he states: “I eventually succeeded in impressing this so strongly upon him that it became absolutely effective, and the formula became requisite, for I could not, even with the utmost co-operation on his part, influence him in the least. One night, however, after retiring to bed I was surprised by his entering the room with the request that I should waken him. I expressed astonishment and asked whether he was really asleep. He assured me that he was, and explained that while he had been conversing in the drawing-room after dinner, other persons being present, he had experimentally recited the formula sotto voce and had immediately, unperceived by myself or others in the room, gone off in the hypnotic state and could not get out of it again. I protested that this was an extremely unfair trick both on himself and on me, and to guard against its recurrence I enjoined that in future a mere repetition of the formula should not suffice, but that it should be written down, signed and handed to me. This has hitherto proved completely successful, and in the absence of the document no efforts on the part of either of us has had any effect whatever.”

It would seem, however, that the hypnotic subject is by no means entirely at the mercy of the operator. Thus Dr Milne Bramwell, in “Proceedings,” vol. xii. pp. 176-203, cites a number of cases in which suggestions had been refused by hypnotic subjects. He also mentions two subjects who had rejected certain suggestions and accepted others. A Miss F., for example, recited a poem, but would not help herself to a glass of water from the sideboard; while a Mr G. would play one part, but not others, and committed an imaginary crime. Dr Bramwell comes to the following conclusion:—

“The difference between the hypnotised and the normal subject, as it appears to me from a long series of observed facts, is not so much in conduct as in increased mental and physical powers. Any changes in the moral sense, I have noticed, have invariably been for the better, the hypnotised subject evincing superior refinement. As regards obedience to suggestion, there is apparently little to choose between the two. A hypnotised subject, who has acquired the power of manifesting various physical and mental phenomena, will do so, in response to suggestion, for much the same reasons as one in the normal condition…. When the act demanded is contrary to the moral sense, it is usually refused by the normal subject, and invariably by the hypnotised one.”

The hypnotic state evinces an extraordinary extension of faculty. Dr Bramwell’s remarkable series of experiments on “time appreciation” shows that orders were carried out by the subject at expiration of such periods as 20,290 minutes from the beginning of the order. In her normal state the female subject of this experiment was incapable of correctly calculating how many days and hours 20,290 minutes would make, and even in her hypnotised condition could reckon only with errors; yet, what is singular to relate, even when a blunder was made in the former calculation the order of the hypnotist was none the less fulfilled when the correct period expired. The conclusion is not easy to avoid: that beneath the stratum of human consciousness brought to the surface by hypnotism there is one—perhaps two—”subliminal” strata more alert and more capable than our ordinary workaday ego.

What light this theory of a “subliminal” self will shed on our subject we will see when we come to discuss clairvoyance and the trance utterances of the spiritualistic “medium.”

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