The studies on hypnotism from the end of '800 up to date
Among the psychic states that we can define as non-ordinary, those induced by hypnosis can certainly be included. Before examining the anomalous and amazing aspects determined by hypnotic practices, it should be remembered that forms of suggestion and persuasion, evident or more or less hidden, are routinely adopted in the context of everyday interpersonal relationships and – in a more elaborate and effective way – they are constantly used by advertising, by politicians to seek consensus, and in all those areas where it is considered convenient or necessary to influence people's mental processes to convince them of something. On the other hand, it is evident how the same socio-cultural conditionings – that mold our psychic tunings since childhood – can be successful precisely because our mind is suggestible, though not to the same extent and in the same way for everybody.
Hypnotic phenomena can be attributed both to the ability of a person (defined as operator) to influence the mind and behavior of another person (defined subject), up to bring the latter under the control of the operator's will, and to the faculty that allows a person to enter autonomously into a particular state of altered consciousness (or unconsciousness), definable as self-hypnotic or somnambulistic. From a historical point of view, the beginning of investigations on hypnotic phenomena can be traced back to mesmerism: apart from the reference, in the term, to the German physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), who introduced the theory and practice of what at the time was called animal magnetism as a therapeutic method, mesmerism consisted in the ability, by some particularly gifted people, to influence the psychophysical state of other people, inducing in them particular phenomena (such as healings, convulsions, hysterical manifestations), which some decades later were attributed to the hypnotic state. Already at the end of the 18th century, mesmerism, with its weird rituals, had been discredited by official science, especially following the critical results presented by the investigative commission appointed by French king Louis XVI, who also included Lavoisier and Franklin. However, the existence of some magnetization phenomena was undeniable, and in the nineteenth century science had to recognize them, above all thanks to the works of the physician Auguste Lièbeault (1823-1904) and the famous neurologist Hippolyte Bernheim (1837-1919), who together founded in France the Nancy School.
The physiological interpretation of hypnotic phenomena and the introduction of the term hypnosis are due, however, to the Scottish physician James Braid (1785-1860), according to whom hypnotism consisted in a technique by which an operator, performing certain movements or using particular objects or sensitive effects (visual or auditory), could induce the hypnotic state in a subject. This technique is, or at least should be, completely independent of the operator who uses it: in essence, the theoretical difference between hypnotism and mesmerism should consist in the fact that the first negates and the second states the existence of a specific influence (of a psychic, energetic, or other nature) that is transmitted by a certain operator, endowed with charisma, to one or more receptive subjects, and whose effects depend on the will of the operator and the ability to be influenced by the subjects themselves. According to Braid, no particular skill was required of the operator, and the success or failure of the hypnotic process had to be attributed only to the suggestibility of the subjects. However, in the second half of the nineteenth century and in the early years of the '900, several stage hypnotists were successfully working (like the Danish Carl Hansen or the Belgian Alfred d'Hont, well known under his artistic name of Donato) whose ability to suggest suitable subjects (obviously in the case of authentic phenomena not obtained with tricks and complicities) were certainly mesmeric rather than hypnotic. Moreover, as reported in the page dedicated to the research on hypnosis carried out by the SPR, the results of the experiments conducted by the appointed Committee confirmed the importance of the figure of the hypnotist as a person endowed with a particular charisma and strong will, contrary to what Braid affirmed.
Magnetism and hypnotism: an Italian book
To better frame the hypnotic phenomena in the period in which they were most studied, we can read a book published in 1888 with the title L'ipnotismo e gli stati affini (Hypnotism and Related States), whose author, Dr. Giulio Belfiore, was a doctor at the Municipal Hospital of Naples for infectious diseases. The book, republished in 1898 under the title Magnetism and Hypnotism, had several reprints and for some decades was the main reference Italian text for anyone interested in hypnotism. Although it is a text that certainly does not excel for literary elegance or communicative effectiveness, the first 1888 edition is more complete and contains more information elements (even if exposed in a rather confusing and not always reliable way), compared to those published later. The introduction of the first edition consisted of a letter by Cesare Lombroso, in which he praised the popularizing work of Belfiore. The first chapter was then dedicated to a concise historical revision of all the various forms of manifestations of non-ordinary powers or states of consciousness which, from antiquity to the early eighteenth century, had been recorded in literary chronicles, attributing them to the most varied (and often fanciful) causes. This is the summary of the work done, with much more effort and effectiveness, by Cesare Baudi di Vesme in the two volumes of his Storia dello Spiritismo (History of Spiritism), which is mentioned in the page dedicated to spiritism in Italy.
The historical news presented by Belfiore are not however without interest: for example, the author informs us about the therapeutic use of the magnet made by the Swiss doctor Paracelsus (1493-1541) and the physicist and physician of Queen Elizabeth I, William Gilbert ( 1544-1603), who studied electricity and magnetism and introduced the term electricity, or about the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), another scholar of magnetism to whom we owe the expression animal magnetism which was later used again by Mesmer. In fact, it was precisely starting from Kircher's studies on the possibility of inducing a cataleptic state in chickens that later various operators developed different techniques and practices to successfully induce hypnotic sleep in animals. In the book we read that in 1839 a certain Wilson, in London, induced the hypnotic state in pigs, dogs, chickens, geese, cats, leopards, parrots, frogs, and in a she-wolf that remained motionless for several minutes with a piece of meat between her teeth, without being able to chew it. In any case, what is induced in animals is a cataleptic state, probably associated with the instinctual reflex for which an animal pretends to be dead when it is in danger of life for the attack of a predator or a rival. By activating a search on YouTube you can see several interesting examples of this phenomenon, in which, compared to hypnosis – and in particular to the aspects related to suggestion and fascination – the verbal component is completely absent.
More recent experimental investigations
The most recent studies on hypnosis, also conducted with scans of brain activity by magnetic resonance imaging, show that hypnotic techniques – including verbal suggestion – actually affect the functioning of certain parts of the brain. Not all people, however, are hypnotizable: it seems that no more than 10% of the population falls into the easily hypnotizable category, while about one third of the total can be hypnotized only in long times and with considerable use of energy by one or more hypnotists, and a 10÷15% is totally refractory to hypnosis. I do not think there can be doubts about the animal origin of the human body and brain: only a small percentage of our mental activity – no more than 12÷15% – can be attributed to the higher critical functions of thought and conscious attention, while over 80% of the functioning is subconscious or unconscious, due to the successive evolutionary stratifications. Hypnotic techniques operate in order to weaken or cancel – through appropriate stimuli – the conscious functions, allowing the operator to directly access the subconscious centers that automatically execute the orders given to the subject. So it is not true, as has been maintained by some, that hypnosis consists in a sort of voluntary and conscious subordination of the subject towards the hypnotist, due to social interactions: even if this may happen in some cases, in authentic hypnosis the subject actually enters into a trance state in which the functioning of his brain is altered. On the other hand, as we have already observed, our mind is actually and naturally predisposed to receive socio-cultural conditioning mainly through verbal and imitative ways, and our daily functioning is largely automatic, due to hypnotic-like suggestion forms.
Forecasts and telepathy
Returning to the book by Belfiore, the re-enactments of the historical facts contained in the first chapter show us the different (and largely fanciful) ways in which the human psyche has interpreted (and still today interprets) certain anomalous phenomena that repeat over time, and the consequences (almost always unpleasant) that the psychic tuning dominant in a certain period have had for some individuals. Later, when in the nineteenth century the hypnotic interpretation replaced the mesmeric one, it was decided to explain the various phenomena through a physiological and psychological key, attributing them to hysterical pathologies or to the usual effect of various fluids, currents, and occult forces – hypothesized but not identified – on the functioning of the brain. However, two types of phenomena that fall within the sphere of the paranormal were left out of this kind of interpretation: the ability to predict future events and the transmission of thought at a distance. This last faculty was demonstrated by the experiments conducted by the Committee for the Study of Mesmerism of the SPR, reported in the following pages, while various anecdotes concerning the prediction of the future by persons in the somnambulic state are reported in the literature, both old and recent. Obviously this does not mean that these faculties are proper to the hypnotic state, but only that their manifestation may be helped by the hypnotic trance, similarly to what happens in the mediumistic trance.
The cataleptic and the somnambulistic states
The most interesting aspect of the book by Belfiore, as well as other texts on hypnotism, is given by the descriptions of the cataleptic and somnambulistic states of hypnotized subjects: in these conditions the human body shows automatic modes of operation, controlled or controllable by the hypnotist's will. The twilight state of consciousness, or its complete absence, determine in the hypnotized subject the body anesthesia and analgesia, or – through suitable suggestions by the hypnotist – anomalous reactions to certain stimuli, not congruent with those associated to them in the waking state: the hypnotized subject can find fresh water disgusting, the salt sweet and a piece of soap palatable, and his/her organism reacts, mimically and physiologically, just as if the assimilated substances were the suggested ones and not the ones he/she actually ingested. On the other hand, as we know well, in the ordinary waking state we continually give commands to our body on the basis of conscious decisions (even if we are often not aware of the real causes that determine our decisions), and we take for granted that our body executes these commands and reacts according to our expectations. The studies on hypnotism make us perceive a much more complex scheme of the interactions between the conscious Ego and the body, and can give us an idea of the efficiency and effectiveness of the programs that determine the way we work since we are born. This leads us to wonder about which part of us can possibly escape the determinism that regulates and directs the highly complex functioning of a human automaton, however advanced.
Also interesting is the fact that in the somnambulistic state a hypnotized subject can perform some activities usually associated with the intellect (for example, playing an instrument or writing a story), with performances superior to those he/she would get in the ordinary waking state. In these cases it can not be affirmed that the subject obeys the suggestion of the operator, as the latter can order him/her to write a story, but without giving any indication of the plot. We are therefore in a field connected to certain phenomena typical of mediumship, such as automatic writing, with the difference that to explain hypnotic states, the need to resort to the spirit hypothesis has never been felt, as it is considered sufficient to attribute certain performances to the unconscious functions of the subject, and it is precisely from the study of hypnotic phenomena and certain psychic pathologies – as cases of multiple personalities – that the concept of the unconscious originated and developed. The fact that in some cases it seems that there is a direct mental communication between the hypnotized subject and the hypnotist, has meant that some faculties, usually inactive in the ordinary waking state, were attributed to the unconscious, such as telepathy, giving some scholars of mediumistic phenomena the opportunity to develop alternative hypotheses with respect to the intervention of occult intelligences.
The revival of hypnosis
Unlike mediumship, hypnotism continues to be actively studied and used – especially in the clinical field – even today. In fact, we can say that there has been a real revival since the 60s of last century, probably also due to the remarkable impact on the public of a small volume published in 1956, The Search for Bridey Murphy, in which author Morey Bernstein – a successful businessman and amateur hypnotist – told in detail the hypnotic regression obtained by him on an acquaintance of his, Virginia Tighe (1923-1955) – in the book called Ruth Simmons – over the course of six séances during which Virginia described her presumed previous life in 19th-century Ireland, where, under the name of Bridey Murphy, she had lived from 1798 to 1864 first in the city of Cork and then in Belfast. This book sold millions of copies all over the world, and a movie of the same title was also made from it. Nothing of what was narrated in the book was invented by the author, since all the séances were recorded with a tape recorder and then transferred on a record, copies of which were also put on sale. As for the truthfulness of Tighe's statements, investigations conducted by some journalists interested in the case led to the conclusion that most of the indications given by the subject in her hypnotic state were due to cryptomnesia: an interesting article of 2002 by Melvin A. Gravitz, The Search for Bridey Murphy: Implications for Modern Hypnosis, deals with this case and its importance for the subsequent development of hypnosis. A less critical and more possibilist assessment about the veracity of the communications obtained through Tighe during her hypnotic regression is contained in chapter 25 of the book A Critical Examination of the Belief in a Life After Death, published in 1961, whose author, philosopher Curt John Ducasse (1881-1969), was a professor at the University of Washington and at Brown University, and vice-president of American Society for Psychical Research.
Another aspect of hypnotism, emphasized by Belfiore and other researchers, is related to the so-called fascination, already operating in the animal world and successfully used by particularly gifted stage hypnotists. The state of fascination is distinguished from hypnotic somnambulism by the fact that the subject is not asleep and remembers exactly everything that happens, but can not help but follow the hypnotist's gaze and imitate his gestures, subjugated by a will that forces him to do so. The many examples of suggestions, both hypnotic and post-hypnotic, then reported in the book, offer a comprehensive picture on the various types of influence (motor, psychic, physiological, etc.) that the operator can exercise on the hypnotized subject. In summary we can say that since the end of the nineteenth century, when Belfiore wrote his book, to this day, not much has changed in the knowledge and practice of hypnosis. Then and now we can distinguish two main fields of activity in which hypnosis is used: psychotherapy and entertainment. While in the medical field the study of hypnosis is part of the wider field of research on the functioning of human mind (currently defined neuroscience), stage (or television) hypnotizers still resort to mesmeric techniques, based on the charisma and the willpower of the operator and on the suggestibility of the subjects. In fact, as the nineteenth century researchers had already observed, it is only in the context of the relationship between the hypnotist and a certain subject that hypnotic phenomena occur: what can succeed with a subject, fails with another subject, even if the hypnotist is the same, and what can be obtained by an operator on a subject cannot be obtained by another operator. This is one of the reasons why, for example, the use of hypnosis to induce anesthesia and analgesia has not spread in the surgical field, even though it has proven effective in several cases: one could never know with certainty if and in how many hours a person was hypnotizable, and how long anesthesia could last in case the hypnotist could produce it.
Lack of certainty in the study of hypnosis
The substantial objectivity necessary to carry out scientifically reliable research can not be applied to hypnotic phenomena, precisely because of the prevalence of that individual psychic component which determines different results due not only to the studied subject, but also to the psychic orientation of the observer. From this point of view, the legal implications of hypnosis, which at the end of nineteenth century had aroused heated debates, are still very interesting. Could a hypnotist induce a criminal behavior in a hypnotized subject? Not a few experts strongly argued that this was certainly possible, since it depended only on the level of suggestibility of the subject or, in other words, on his strength of character in case he had not been prone to crime in the ordinary waking state. In fact, some subjects put in a hypnotic state categorically refused to perform, for example, thefts or murders when they were ordered to do so (even if the crimes were just simulated, without the simulation being revealed to the subjects, like shooting a person with a gun loaded blank, telling them that the weapon had real bullets), while others, after possibly opposing some initial resistance – overcome by the repeated and categorical command of the hypnotist – ended up yielding, and carried out the suggested crime.
The power of suggestion
Hypnosis therefore offers a dynamic representation pushed to the extreme of the possible relations of mutual influence between the psychic tunings of people who interact: the willpower of some people has a dominant character, and is able to influence the psyche of other people, who it is instead remissive and suggestible. Moreover, it is well known that the psychic tunings shared by a certain number of individuals acquire a force (of hypnotic type) that influences other individuals, as can be observed in the phenomena of fanaticism in the religious and political sphere, but also in the sport or in the show business. The study of mass psychology offers a bleak picture of the weaknesses of the individual human mind – at least in most people – and of its natural inclination to be programmed, influenced and subjected. This weakness is at the root of many of the greatest tragedies in human history, but at the same time the docile plasticity of the individual mind allows the possibility of building and operating complex societies like those in which we live today. Although our conscious mind is deluded and deceived every day by all kinds of hypnotic messages from the media (which not only inform us, but also persuade and direct us), it is also true that without this type of illusion most of us would feel lost, without a guide, like the subjects fascinated by a hypnotist who can never detach themselves from his dominant gaze.
An important text by Enrico Morselli
Another book of 1886 that is worth reading, also because it is written much better than the book by Belfiore, is Il magnetismo animale - La fascinazione e gli stati ipnotici (Animal Magnetism - Fascination and Hypnotic States) by Enrico Morselli. The famous Italian psychiatrist had experimented on himself, in private, the effects of the technique used by the Belgian Alfred Edouard D'Hont (1840-1900), a former army officer who became a stage magnetizer and performed successfully in various European theaters – as we said – with the stage name of Donato. He had developed, over many years of observation and training, his own technique of fascination and magnetization, which was distinguished from the usual hypnotic practices and for this reason was called Donatism. After attending a Donato show at the Scribe theater in Turin, Morselli and his assistant Eugenio Tanzi got a private séance in the hotel where they were staying: both magnetized by Donato, they clearly perceived the effects of fascination – which, as we remember, does not require hypnotic sleep, but manifests itself in the waking state, allowing the subject to remember what happened – as an effective alteration of some of their intellectual and volitional faculties. Morselli's testimony assures us, if it were still needed, that the phenomena related to hypnotism are real and do not depend either on connivance or simulation.
At the time he wrote the book, Morselli had not yet been interested in mediumistic phenomena, and so he rejected with firm determination – and with the contemptuous sarcasm that characterized his judgments of everything he believed to be attributable to superstition, deceit and humbug – those aspects of magnetism for which he could not find a plausible scientific explanation: for example, some forms of clairvoyance of which some subjects placed in a state of hypnotic trance were said to be capable. This attitude was certainly widespread in the scientific entourage of the time: today leave us perplexed, and sometimes make us smile, the efforts made by those men of science – undoubtedly intelligent, determined and capable – to explain with theories presented as scientific but totally devoid of experimental confirmation (given the limits of the knowledge of the time on the functioning of the brain and the nervous system) certain phenomena of hypnosis, the dynamics of which are not well understood even today. Unfortunately, even Morselli occasionally indulged in this temptation, sometimes giving the impression that almost everything was already known about the functioning of the brain and the mind. However, with regard to telepathy at a distance between the operator and the subject (which Morselli defined mental suggestion through transmission of thought), attested by the research of Charles Richet, Pierre Janet, Henri-Ètienne Beaunis and other scholars, the psychiatrist stated loyally that further verification and confirmation experiments would be needed: he thought that, if the existence of mental suggestion would be proven by demonstrating that psychic activity can go beyond the periphery of the nerves and propagate at a distance, psychology – normal and pathological – would have undergone a real revolution! But he believed, as always, that it was possible to get a scientific explanation of the phenomenon (something like the transmission of electromagnetic waves, as vehicle of modulated signals), forgetting the uncertainty and lack of reliability that characterize psychic phenomena.
Arbitrary associations between behavior and consciousness
But beyond the attempts to explain that sometimes may seem premature or naive, Morselli clearly understood the importance of suggestion also in the context of normal interpersonal and social dynamics, and therefore his observations on hypnotic phenomena and the way in which the psychic processes, originating from an unconscious system, then enter into the sphere of consciousness, generating a series of illusions (such as free will, or the sense of importance of the Ego as a command center), must be carefully considered. In any case, the study of hypnotic phenomena is of particular interest to understand the correlations between the functioning of the human body, the elaboration of the psychic states connected to this functioning, and consciousness. On the one hand, in fact, the hypnotic state emphasizes the automatism of certain functions and some forms of behavior, so that the role of consciousness may seem irrelevant or superfluous, regardless of what the subject's body manifests according to (psychic) interpretations by the consciousness of external observers. This is the condition that occurs both in young babies (more or less up to the second year of age), and – in my opinion – in many animals: complex behavior forms, finalized and articulated, do not correspond to any inner consciousness, but their manifestation is such as to induce in external observers the idea that some form of consciousness must be present. For example, a young child can cry and complain as if he/she were in pain (and his/her body may be afflicted by some illness), without any consciousness involved in that state of pain, or any memory that can record it: nevertheless, the mother or father of the child will participate emphatically in the manifested pain, just as if this pain were actually and consciously felt by the little baby.
The need to free oneself from conditioning
On the other hand, the phenomenon of consciousness, from the moment it emerges, shows a need to acquire (naively) from the psyche the information needed to develop an interpretative picture of what consciousness experiences, so as to be able to intentionally determine (at least in part) new experiences in the future. As hypnosis shows, the psychic influences that contribute to the formation of this picture are mostly induced by the environment through various forms of suggestion, and only in a small part due to an autonomous inner elaboration by the individual mind, whose conscious Ego feels the need to develop a more satisfactory picture than what is supplied to him/her. There is therefore a quid, in human consciousness, that pushes some people to try to escape the normal psychic suggestions that distinguish and determine interpersonal relations, precisely because the automatisms activated by such suggestions come into conflict with something deeper that gives the impression of trying to free itself from the hypnotic domain of the psyche.