Robert Todd Carroll
Hypnosis is a process involving a hypnotist and a subject who agrees to be hypnotized. Being hypnotized is usually characterized by (a) intense concentration, (b) extreme relaxation, and (c) high suggestibility. Hypnosis is commonly used in behavior modification therapy to assist clients in overcoming phobias or bad habits. It also has other uses that are more controversial.
The versatility of hypnosis is unparalleled. Hypnosis occurs under dramatically different social settings: the showroom, the clinic, the classroom and the police station.
What other medical procedure in our time has such versatility?
The common view of hypnosis is that it is a trance-like altered state of consciousness. Many who accept this view also believe that hypnosis is a way of accessing an unconscious mind full of repressed memories, multiple personalities, mystical insights, or memories of past lives. This view of hypnosis as an altered state and gateway to occult knowledge about the self and the universe is considered a myth by many psychologists. There are two distinct, though related, aspects to this mythical view of hypnosis: the myth of the altered state and the myth of the occult reservoir.
Those supporting the altered state theory often cite studies that show that during hypnosis (1) the brain's electrical states change and (2) brain waves differ from those during waking consciousness. The critics of the mythical view point out that these facts are irrelevant to establishing hypnosis as an altered state of consciousness. One might as well call daydreaming or sneezing an altered state, since the experience of each will show electrical changes in the brain and one's brain waves will differ from when one is, say, flying an airplane or having an animated conversation with an alien abductee.
Those supporting the occult reservoir theory support their belief with anecdotes of numerous people who, while hypnotized, recall events from their present or past life of which they have no conscious memory.
Most of what is known about hypnosis, as opposed to what is believed, has come from studies on the subjects of hypnosis. We know that there is a significant correlation between being imaginative and being responsive to hypnosis. We know that those who are fantasy-prone are also likely to make excellent hypnotic subjects. We know that vivid imagery enhances suggestibility. We know that those who think hypnosis is rubbish can't be hypnotized. We know that hypnotic subjects are not turned into zombies and are not controlled by their hypnotists. We know that hypnosis does not enhance the accuracy of memory in any special way. We know that a person under hypnosis is very suggestible and that memory is easily "filled-in" by the imagination and by suggestions made under hypnosis. We know that confabulation is quite common while under hypnosis and that many States do not allow testimony which has been induced by hypnosis because it is intrinsically unreliable. We know the greatest predictor of hypnotic responsiveness is what a person believes about hypnosis.
If hypnosis is not an altered state or gateway to a mystical and occult unconscious mind, then what is it? Why do so many people, including those who write psychology textbooks, or dictionary and encyclopedia entries, continue to perpetuate the mythical view of hypnosis as if it were established scientific fact? For one thing, the mass media perpetuates this myth in countless movies, books, television shows, etc., and there is an entrenched tradition of hypnotherapists who have faith in the myth, make a good living from it, and see many effects from their sessions which, from their point of view, can only be called "successes." They even have a number of scientific studies to support their views. Psychologists such as Robert Baker thinks such studies are about as valid as the studies which supported the belief in phlogiston or the aether. Baker claims that what we call hypnosis is actually a form of learned social behavior.
The hypnotist and subject learn what is expected of their roles and reinforce each other by their performances. The hypnotist provides the suggestions and the subject responds to the suggestions. The rest of the behavior--the hypnotist's repetition of sounds or gestures, his soft, relaxing voice, etc., and the trance-like pose or sleep-like repose of the subject, etc.--are just window dressing, part of the drama that makes hypnosis seem mysterious. When one strips away these dramatic dressings what is left is something quite ordinary, even if extraordinarily useful: a self-induced, "psyched-up" state of suggestibility.
Psychologist Nicholas Spanos agrees with Baker: "hypnotic procedures influence behavior indirectly by altering subjects' motivations, expectations and interpretations." This has nothing to do with putting the subject into a trance and exercising control over the subconscious mind. Hypnosis is a learned behavior, according to Spanos, issuing out of a sociocognitive context. We can accomplish the same things in a variety of ways: going to college or reading a book, taking training courses or teaching oneself a new skill, listening to pep talks or giving ourselves a pep talk, enrolling in motivation courses or simply making a willful determination to accomplish specific goals. In short, what is called hypnosis is an act of social conformity rather than a unique state of consciousness. The subject acts in accordance with expectations of the hypnotist and hypnotic situation and behaves as he or she thinks one is supposed to behave while hypnotized. The hypnotist acts in accordance with expectations of the subject (and/or audience) and the hypnotic situation, and behaves as he or she thinks one is supposed to behave while playing the role of hypnotist.
Spanos compares the popularity of hypnosis with the nineteenth century phenomenon we now call mesmerism. Furthermore, he draws an analogy between the belief in hypnosis and the belief in demonic possession and exorcism. Each can be explained in terms of sociocognitive context. The conceptions of the roles for the participants in all of these beliefs and behaviors are learned and reinforced in their social settings. They are context-dependent and depend upon the willingness of participants to play their established roles. Given enough support by enough people in a social setting, just about any concept or behavior can become adamantly defended as dogma by the scientific, theological or social community.
Another psychologist, E.M. Thornton, extends the analogy between hypnotism, mesmerism and exorcism. He maintains that hypnotic subjects are asked basically to take on "what really amounts to a parody of epileptic symptoms." If some hypnotic or mesmerized subjects seem possessed, that is because possession involves a similar sociocognitive context, a similar role-playing arrangement and rapport. The central beliefs differ and the dominant idea of an altered state, of animal magnetism or of invading demons, gives the experiences their distinguishing characteristics. Deep down, however, hypnotism, mesmerism, hysteria and demonic possession share the common ground of being social constructs engineered mainly by egocentric therapists, showmen and priests on the one side, and suggestible, imaginative or fantasy-prone players with deep emotional needs or abilities on the other.
Many of those who defend the mythical view of hypnosis use it to uncover repressed memories of trauma, thought to be the cause of most psychological problems. To rid patients of their problems, the cellar door to the unconscious must be opened and the memories of trauma (usually assumed by the therapist to be childhood sexual abuse) must be brought out into the open. Hypnosis is a favored tool of such therapists; for, they believe hypnosis allows them to communicate directly with the unconscious. However, many of the "memories" brought out into the sunlight turn out to be false memories brought about by suggestion and confabulation. Also, the assumptions of this type of therapy do not fit with empirical evidence about how memory works [Schacter].
People who have experienced traumatic events usually do not forget them. Severely traumatic experiences are typically forgotten only if (a) the person is rendered unconscious at the time of the trauma; (b) the person is brain damaged before or by the trauma; or (c) the person is too young to make the necessary neural connections needed for long-term memory. Memories are not stored in some mysterious dark cellar, but in a complex network of neural connections involving several parts of the brain. Memories are lost because neural connections are lost, not because some homunculus stores them in the basement of the mind and let's them haunt the people upstairs in the room where clear consciousness dwells.
Daniel Schacter notes that the scientific evidence for repression is weak. Even weaker is the evidence that specific disorders are caused by repression. He notes the case of a rape victim who could not remember the rape, which took place on a brick pathway. The words 'brick' and 'path' kept popping into her mind, but she did not connect them to the rape. And she became very upset when taken back to the scene of the rape, though she didn't remember what had happened there. [Searching for memory, p. 232 ] One could posit that the victim really does have a full-fledged memory of the rape, but she has repressed it. Hypnosis could help bring forth this repressed memory. However, hypnosis or other methods starting with this assumption are risky as well as unfounded. The concept of implicit memory, i.e., memory without awareness, which is due to the fact that some neural connections have been made during a trauma, but not enough for a full-fledged recollection, could explain this rape victim's incomplete memory without assuming either that she was recording memories while she was unconscious or that she even has an unconscious mind for storing such unpleasant memories. The concept of implicit memory explains everything that is known about memory without making assumptions about what is not known. In short, Occam's razor should be used to excise this part of the mythical concept of the unconscious mind.
Furthermore, even if traumatic memories are repressed sometimes, they are probably done so consciously and deliberately. Many of us choose not to dwell on unpleasant experiences and make a determined effort to wipe them from our memories as far as possible. We hardly desire some hypnotist or therapist to dredge up memories of experiences we've chosen to forget. In short, limited amnesia is best explained neurologically, not metaphysically. We forget things either because we never encoded them strongly enough in the first place or because neural connections have been destroyed or because we choose to forget them.
The godfather of occult reservoir theory of the unconscious, Freud, wisely gave up using hypnosis in therapy. Unfortunately, however, hypnosis continues to be used in a wide variety of therapeutic sessions, not all of which are beneficial. Using hypnosis to help people quit smoking or stick to a diet may be useful, and even if it fails it is probably not harmful. Using hypnosis to help people remember license plate numbers of cars used in crimes may be useful, and even if it fails it is probably not harmful. Using hypnosis to help victims or witnesses of crimes remember what happened may be useful, but it can also be dangerous because of the ease with which the subject can be manipulated by suggestions from the hypnotist. Overzealous police hypnotists may put conviction of those they think are guilty above honest conviction by honest evidence presented to a jury. Hypnosis is also dangerous in the police setting, because of the tendency of too many police officers to believe in truth serums, lie detectors and other magical and easy ways to get to the truth.
Using hypnosis to help people recover memories of sexual abuse by their closest relatives or by aliens in spaceships is dangerous, and in some cases, clearly immoral and degrading. For, in some cases, hypnosis is used to encourage patients to remember and then believe events which probably never happened. If these memories were not of such horrible and painful events, they would be of little concern. But by nurturing delusions of evil suffered, therapists often do irreparable harm to those who put their trust in them. And they do this in the name of healing and caring, as did the priests of old when they hunted witches and exorcised demons.
It should be noted and understood that therapists can enhance suggestibility and induce false memories in their patients without the use of hypnosis. The beliefs of the therapist about the causes of problems are more significant influences on their patients than whether or not the therapist uses hypnosis. Cookie-cutter therapists who think one-size-fits-all (e.g., all bulimics, multiple personality disorders, or borderline personality disorders are caused by childhood sexual abuse) are likely to induce false memories and beliefs in their patients whether or not hypnosis is used. The process of suggestion does not require the drama of hypnosis to be successful. This drama just gives the process more legitimacy in the eyes of some people.
Another area where hypnosis is popular is in past-life regressive therapy. According to its advocates, hypnosis opens a window to the unconscious mind where memories of past lives are stored. How memories of past lives get into the unconscious mind of a person is not known, but advocates loosely adhere to a doctrine of reincarnation, even though such a doctrine does not require a belief in the occult reservoir nor in the memory of past lives. The main evidence for past-lives is that many people remember them while hypnotized. Even when these reports have been widely publicized and shown to be based on false memories, such as the Bridey Murphy case, the belief in past-life regression has not diminished.
Robert Baker demonstrated, however, that belief in reincarnation is the greatest predictor of whether or not a subject (from a college student group) would have a past-life memory while under past life regression hypnotherapy. Furthermore, Baker demonstrated that the subject's expectations significantly affect the past-life regressive session. He divided a group of 60 students into three groups. He told the first group that they were about to experience an exciting new therapy that could help them uncover their past lives. Eighty-five per cent in this group were successful in "remembering" a past life. He told the second group that they were to learn about a therapy which may or may not work to engender past-life memories. In this group, the success rate was 60%. He told the third group that the therapy was crazy and that normal people generally do not experience a past life. Only 10% of this group had a past-life "memory."
Some New Age therapists do past-life regressive therapy under the guise of personal growth; others under the guise of healing. As a tool for New Age explorers, there may be little harm in encouraging people to remember what are probably false memories about their living in earlier centuries or for encouraging them to go forward in time and glimpse into the future. But as a method of healing, it must be apparent even to the most superficial of therapists that there are great dangers in encouraging patients to create delusions. Some false memories may be harmless, but others can be devastating. They can increase a person's suffering, as well as destroy loving relationships with family members. The care with which hypnosis should be used seems obvious.
See related entries on alien abductions, altered states, dianetics, exorcism, memory & repressed memory, mesmerism, multiple personality disorder, Bridey Murphy, New Age Therapies, past-life regression, Charles Tart and the unconscious mind.
Baker, Robert A. They Call It Hypnosis (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990). $27.95
Loftus, Elizabeth F. Eyewitness Testimony (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979). $17.50
Schacter, Daniel L., editor, Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past (harvard University Press, 1997). $17.95
Spanos, Nicholas P. and John F. Chaves, editors Hypnosis: the Cognitive-behavioral Perspective, (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989). $47.95
Spanos, Nicholas P. Multiple Identities and False Memories: A Sociocognitive Perspective (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1996). $29.95
Spanos, Nicholas. "Past-life Hypnotic Regression: A Critical View," Skeptical Inquirer 12, no.2 (Winter 1987-88) 174-180.
Thornton, E.M. Hypnotism, Hysteria, and Epilepsy: An Historical Synthesis (London: Heinemann, 1976).
Robert Todd Carroll