SPR's investigation on hypnosis



Edmund Gurney and the research on hypnosis 

As we have seen, hypnosis is a state of mind, even today not fully understood, whose effects have generally been interpreted on the basis of the suggestion that one person can exert on another. Among the various investigations carried out in the past on this important phenomenon, it should be remembered that carried out on behalf of the SPR by the Committee on Mesmerism. In fact, in the attempt to better understand the functioning of the human mind, the SPR paid particular attention, since the beginning of its activity, to some enigmatic phenomena such as mesmerism and thought transference. Two committees were created (the Committee on Mesmerism and the Committee on Thought Transference) with the task of investigating the nature of these phenomena and carrying out experiments under control. To illustrate and spread the research carried out, each year the committees drafted one or more reports that were then read and debated at the SPR meetings and published in the Society's Proceedings.   

As members of the investigative committee on hypnosis, or rather on mesmerism (as was still defined at the time, with some valid reasons), Myers, Barrett, Gurney and Podmore were appointed, in addition to other prominent personalities, but the leadership in the research and interpretation of the phenomena was soon assumed by Gurney and Myers, who – in addition to writing the reports – published both together and separately several studies on the subject. These investigations greatly influenced the subsequent orientation of Frederic H. Myers in the study and interpretation of human personality, especially in relation to the development of his Subliminal Self theory and the hypothesis of survival to death, and remained Gurney's main interest until his untimely death. Since the figure of Gurney is less known than that of Myers, I mention here some biographical notes.       

Born in 1847 in a wealthy London family, Edmund Gurney studied classical cultures at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he obtained his doctorate in 1871 and a subsequent teaching assignment. Gifted with brilliant intelligence and having no economic problems, he cultivated various interests including the study of music and piano. Although he did not have enough talent to excel as a pianist, he wrote an essay on music philosophy (The Power of Sound) published in 1880. He then devoted himself to the study of medicine (more to broaden his knowledge than with the intent to practice), applying with particular interest to physics, chemistry and physiology. These studies, which continued even after his doctorate, contributed to refine his research skills, as he was gifted with an intellect inclined to logic, a remarkable ingenuity in the planning of new experiments, and the necessary patience and perseverance to carry out them to a successful conclusion. These qualities were used by him also in the experiments on hypnosis and in other fields of parapsychology. With a strong physical and athletic structure, he could also count on a remarkable personal charisma for his kind character, his intelligence and his sense of humor. He was a friend of many eminent intellectuals of his time, from William James to George Eliot. However, he was subject to periods of depressive crisis: for him the existence of suffering in human life was a problem of such magnitude that it negated the value of anything else. He himself had soon been involved in the sorrows of life, since both his parents died when he was still a child, and three of his sisters drowned in the sinking of the family boat. From time to time he suffered neuralgia attacks on his face, and his negative reaction to the sufferings of the sick in hospitals was the main obstacle that prevented him from exercising the medical profession.    

From 1880 until 1888, the year of his premature death, he devoted all his energies to psychical research. At first his curiosity prompted him to wonder if there exists, as many cultural traditions claim, an unexplored region of human faculties that transcends the natural limits of sensible knowledge. In the philosophical field, the existence of such a sphere was already part of the Hegelian system, and had subsequently been theoretically developed by Hartmann, Shopenhauer and others within the philosophy of the subconscious or the unconscious. But Gurney's aim was to tackle the problem with the scientific method of observation and experimentation, so he devoted himself to research especially in the field of hypnosis, which was still characterized by a vague anecdotal information, not supported by well-documented evidence. Precisely because of the importance that the theme of human suffering had for him, Gurney tried also to investigate any fact that could corroborate the ancient belief in the survival of the conscious personality to bodily death. Although his mental orientation was skeptical in this regard, he believed that the widespread diffusion of this conviction made it worthy of investigation with the methods of scientific research. He began, like Myers, to critically attend the séances of paid professional mediums, which at that time were not scarce, especially in America and England. Although he did not publish anything about it, he did not get a good impression from those investigations (as also happened to Myers), so much so that when in 1882 the SPR (of which he was one of the founding members) started his own activity, professional mediums were declared untrustworthy for the research.    

Gurney's experiments and his death 

Gurney then devoted himself above all to research on hypnotism, while not neglecting other investigations, especially those on hallucinations that led him to collaborate with Myers and Podmore in the drafting of the book Phantasms of the Living and the essay Census of Hallucinations. Gurney's experiments on hypnosis were characterized by great accuracy, ingenuity and regularity. Their purpose was to prove – as far as possible for a small group of experimenters – that the induction of hypnotic state may be due to an operative agent that is neither constituted by ordinary nerve stimuli (monotonous or sudden) nor by the transferred suggestion through normal sensory vehicles. The results of these experiments, once their validity was recognized, supported the thesis of telepathy. Gurney's work, prematurely interrupted by his death, was intended to confirm the hypothesis that there is indeed an unexplored region of human faculties that should not be overlooked by scientific research, nor rejected as if it were only the residue of primitive superstitions. Regarding these ideas, none of those who knew Gurney described him as a naive character or a person easy to suggest or deceive.    

In 1888 Gurney was found dead in Brighton, in the bed of a hotel room, with a handkerchief soaked in chloroform on his face. Since he used chloroform to soothe the pains caused by his facial neuralgia, the coroner's verdict was accidental death, although the suicide hypothesis was not ruled out. According to some testimonies, he had gone to Brighton after receiving a letter, without informing even his wife of his departure. Against the hypothesis of suicide lays out the sincere affection Gurney felt for his wife and daughter, to whom he would never consciously cause any pain.        

Mesmerism and hypnotism 

The Investigative Committee on Mesmerism appointed by the SPR had vary clear the difference – at least theoretical – between mesmerism and hypnotism, and from the beginning it stated that the use of the term mesmerism (today little used, but still widespread at the time) was purely conventional and did not imply any stance or adherence to any theory about the origin and causes of the investigated phenomena. This implied an open attitude towards the study of the phenomena themselves: as we will see, the experimental results led to validate also the mesmeric hypothesis alongside the hypnotic one. It should be noted that terms such as hypnosis and hypnotic sleep – today commonly widespread and accepted – are not entirely satisfactory, since the observable states of consciousness in hypnotic phenomena have little in common with ordinary sleep, but rather imply the activation of particular faculties, inaccessible to ordinary consciousness. Braid himself in 1847 felt the need to replace the term hypnosis with monoideism, but the new term coined by him was unsuccessful. The fact is that in 1883, year of the first report of the Committee on Mesmerism, the Braid theory on hypnosis as a practice of activation of hypnotic phenomena was widely accepted, while that of mesmerism was almost completely rejected. However, precisely the investigations and experiments carried out by the Committee gave unsatisfactory results regarding the application of hypnotism.    

As we have seen, so that the hypnotic state can be induced and the phenomena under study can occur, at least two people are needed, the operator (commonly referred to as a hypnotist or hypnotizer), and the subject. The practice by which the operator induces the hypnotic state in the subject is called method. The necessity of these three elements also implies the possibility of variations which must be taken into account in the evaluation of the phenomena: for example, the effectiveness of a method should ensure that, if it is correctly applied, the desired results occur independently of the operator who applies it (a fact that is the base of the hypnosis theory). At least theoretically, it should therefore be possible to create an isolated room, inside which are installed operating systems able to induce the hypnotic state in the subject even without the presence of any operator.     

Inconsistency of Braid techniques to induce hypnosis

The Committee researchers almost immediately realized that things were not like that at all. Braid in his book on hypnosis accurately described some techniques that, he said, induced the hypnotic state in the vast majority of people. The same techniques, carefully used by the Committee experimenters, had a partial success only on one subject among the many tested. It was observed that a second variable had to be taken into account, that is the suggestibility of the subject, i.e. his/her ability to enter more or less readily into the hypnotic state. Since long time it had been observed that some subjects were more easily hypnotized than others, so that a graduated scale can be made, placing at level 10 those subjects who enter the hypnotic state almost spontaneously and easily, and at zero level those subjects absolutely refractory to hypnosis.      

The results of the Committee's experiments   

In his second report on mesmerism, the Committee came to the following conclusions: once defined «power» the ability of an operator to hypnotize different subjects, and «susceptibility» or «suggestibility» the possibility of a subject to be hypnotized by different operators, all the possible variations both of power and of suggestibility could occur. In particular, taking a group of people at random and excluding from this group only a few that were not in any way hypnotizable, the various subjects of the group could be classified according to an order of suggestibility, as highlighted below. 

  • Some subjects (group A) were able to self-hypnotize, either by turning their gaze upwards or by closing their eyes, or – as in some cases happened – by effect of the imagination or expectation  alone.   
  • Some other subjects (group B) were not able to self-hypnotize, but could be hypnotized practically by anyone else through a rhythmic and gentle touch of the hands.
  • Some of the remaining subjects (group C) could be hypnotized almost by anyone else, but only partially and in a long time, while they were immediately and completely hypnotized only by an operator X (the hypnotist).     
  • All the other subjects (group D) they could be hypnotized by the operator X and only by him, even if they had no knowledge that X had this power, and even if they were told that not X, but another operator Y had the power to hypnotize them: even with such premises, Y could not do in an hour what X could do in a few minutes.       

It was also observed that the operator X, in addition to being the only one able to put the subjects into a hypnotic trance, was also the only one who could awaken them from the trance: in some cases this fact was observed even without X being aware of his hypnotist power. Once some people at a party began almost for fun trying to hypnotize each other. One of the guests, after having induced the hypnotic state in a boy, took his leave and went away for other commitments. At the end of the evening the boy's parents tried to wake him up from the trance, but despite all their efforts they did not succeed: the boy was talking and shaking in an inconsistent way, and if they spoke to him or touched him it was even worse. The next morning, very worried, they looked for the person who could have hypnotized him and, identified their host, they made him come. He managed to awaken the boy, who however remained for one week in a state of depression with frequent headaches.      

The revenge of mesmerism

This and other observations and the results of the investigation convinced the Committee that mesmerism hypothesis could not be ruled out as unfounded. Therefore, several experiments were conceived and performed, especially thanks to Gurney, the resultsof which led the Committee to hypothesize the existence of a sort of psychic or special energy able to pass from one organism to another through the mesmeric process. These experiments were carried out and controlled by people of high intelligence and undoubted good faith, driven by the desire to expand the boundaries of human knowledge. Some doubts may possibly remain about the possibility that the experimenters (in spite of all the precautions taken in the execution of experiments) were deceived by the people with whom they experimented, in case operators and subjects had agreed to each other behind the experimenters themselves. Although this hypothesis does not seem plausible in light of the ways in which the experiments were conducted and the precautions taken, some critics argued that Gurney and the other members of the Committee had been cheated (without explaining how). This is the same skepticism that is often found in relation to mediumistic events, for which the undoubted existence of many fraudulent phenomena casts a shadow of doubt, difficult to remove, even on genuine phenomena. However, it is possible to experiment in the field of hypnosis even in our day, with greater frequency and under control conditions much better than for mediumistic phenomena, and therefore the conclusions reached by the Committee could be easily verified.      

Phenomena of the hypnotic state 

Before reporting some of the experiments carried out by Gurney, Myers and the other members of the Committee, it is appropriate to briefly describe the most relevant phenomena encountered when a subject goes into that particular non-ordinary state of consciousness known as hypnotic trance. The first remarkable effect is the activation, by the operator, of highly suggestive nerve networks in the subject, to whom the operator is able to give orders and hallucinatory suggestions, even posthypnotic, which will be considered by the subject as real and undoubtable. Not only the will of the subject, but also all his sensory and vegetative system are prone to submit to what is suggested by the operator. For instance, if the operator suggests to the subject that he will be offered a tasty biscuit, and then hands him a candle, the subject in hypnotic state will eat the candle showing the same satisfaction and the same appreciation with which he would have eaten the biscuit, even if it is possible that he later gently refuses to taste another one! Similarly, he can be given salt by telling him that it is sugar, or a strong dose of hot pepper making him believe that it is mayonnaise: not only will he taste these substances showing the typical mimicry and appreciation corresponding to what had been suggested to him, but he will not show any of the marks of irritation or reaction that these substances normally arouse in people in an ordinary state of consciousness. Similarly, if he/she is offered a harmless substance by telling him/her, for example, that it is pepper, the subject will also violently manifest all normal reactions to pepper, including sneezing and forms of irritation of mucous membranes.       

Precisely the automatic and uncontrollable nature of such reactions ascribable to the vegetative sympathetic system makes it difficult to consciously simulate hypnotic phenomena, unless the subject is endowed with an extraordinary ability to control the vegetative system at will (which can not be excluded a priori, even if it can happen exceptionally only in the ordinary state of consciousness of some gifted subjects). For example, by rubbing the subject's arm with a harmless hen's feather and suggesting that it is nettle, not only will the subject try to retract the arm and scratch it, but the characteristic reddening due to urticating irritation will also appear. A hypnotized subject can drink a glass of vinegar with great satisfaction, if it is suggested that it is milk or fresh water. Even his physical performances can be changed. If the operator says to him, «you are a frog», he will start to jump around with much greater vigor and energy than he would be able to do in his ordinary state of consciousness. Hallucinatory suggestion can also result in localized analgesia, i.e. the ability to not feel pain in certain parts of the body under the effect of stimuli that normally cause pain. As is known, subjects in hypnotic trance may undergo surgical operations even without anesthesia. Inversely, a subject can feel pain even without any stimulus on his body, as the Committee could verify in a series of experiments that we will deal with later.        

Catalepsy and hypnotic states   

Another characteristic of the hypnotized subject is the possibility of being put into a cataleptic state, that is, in a condition for which his/her limbs can remain in any position, without any effort on the part of the subject, who, for example, can remain for a very long time in a perfectly horizontal supine position, suspended like a bridge between two chairs at the edges of which he/she is supported only by the nape on one side and the heels on the other. It is known how some stage hypnotists can get the subject, placed in this position almost like a bridge, to support the weight of one or more people standing on his stomach and chest.      

Gurney carried out long and accurate investigations on the states of hypnotic trance, distinguishing between a state of alertness, in which the behavior of the subject was not very different from that of his ordinary state of consciousness, and a state of deep trance – much more similar to a sleepy state – in which the subject in hypnosis tended to fall if his attention was not kept awake by the operator. These states were correlated both to the ability of the subject to remember what happened in one or the other stage, and to the execution in the waking state (that is, a state of ordinary consciousness) of orders given by the operator when the subject was in hypnosis. As we have said, there is an abundant literature on these phenomena, which usually reports the facts in these terms: the subject, once received a certain order in a state of hypnosis (such as performing an action or a series of actions) to be executed after waking up, is awakened and – despite having forgotten what happened in hypnosis – soon enters a state of agitation that does not calm until the order given to him/her is executed, explaining his/her behavior with a conscious motivation as far as possible coherent with the performed action. For example, if you order a subject to go out with an umbrella on a sunny day, he will take an umbrella saying: «You never know, it might rain».    

Possibility to commit a crime under hypnosis

As for the debate on the possibility of inducing the subject to commit immoral or even criminal actions, Gurney dealt with this topic in one of his studies (Peculiarities of certain post-hypnotic states): he too came to the conclusion that, more than from the suggested action, the possibility that such orders were executed depended on the subject's ability to resist. A very suggestible subject, in fact, presents in any case a lability of the conscious personality (including the volitional component) due to which the order received under hypnosis – especially if strengthened by the dominant personality of the operator – can prevail over the resistance offered by the conscious personality, who would never carry out the suggested action. On the other hand, subjects endowed with greater capacity to resist refuse to execute commands related to completely harmless actions, if such actions are in conflict with strong personal motivations. For example, Gurney cited the case of a postal delivery boy who hated his job: he executed almost all the commands that were given him under hypnosis, except to deliver a telegram, even if he had been promised a good reward for carrying out this action.    

Gurney showed that the more a subject is hypnotized the better he/she organizes a secondary personality whose memories are dissociated from those of the conscious personality, maintaining their own coherent autonomy. If a sentence A is communicated to a subject in a waking state, and then, after placing her in a state of hypnosis, she is asked to report the sentence communicated to her, she will say that she does not remember any sentence. A sentence B is then communicated to her and, after having awakened her, she is asked to repeat the last sentence communicated to her. The subject immediately reports the sentence A. Put again into a state of hypnosis, she instead responds to the same request with the sentence B. However, in case of early hypnosis or subject not fully hypnotized, the memory of what happened in the state of hypnosis may persist, with greater or lesser clarity, even in the waking state.    

Post-hypnotic execution of the commands received

As for the post-hypnotic execution of commands received in hypnosis, the phenomenon is of interest only because the subject completely forgets to have received the command and considers the impulse to perform the action as coming from his/her mind, from his/her own personality. From this point of view, a normal subject will deal with the command in the light of his/her state of ordinary awareness, and if the requested action proves strange in relation to circumstances, he/she will give a reason as plausible and rational as possible to justify his/her actions. For example, a subject who was at Gurney's home was given the order to turn off a particular candle placed near Gurney's wife (who was embroidering in the room) when Gurney would get up from his chair for the fourth time. Once awakened, the subject began to converse with Gurney in a perfectly natural way. From time to time Gurney got up from his chair, took a few steps into the room or stoked the fire in the fireplace and sat down again. When he got up for the fourth time, the subject said: «Here there is too much light!» Then he took a candlestick with a lighted candle that stood next to Gurney's chair and brought it to his wife's side, and then went to turn off the other candle, thus executing the command in the most plausible manner. After a few minutes he was asked if he remembered his previous actions, and he correctly reported what he had done.      

Similarly it was ordered to Miss S., hypnotized by Myers, to remove a large curled leaf by a plant that was in another room: when she woke up, the subject immediately went near the plant, took it, and asked the landlady permission to remove the leaf, as she thought that the plant would be more elegant without it. She found nothing strange in this impulse. On another occasion, however, the same Miss S. refused to execute an order that had been given to her (to move some spoons from the dining room, where they were, into the living room) saying: «I know what you want me to do, but I'm not going to do it because it's absurd». In some cases the action performed on command was completely forgotten a few seconds after its execution. A subject was told that when Gurney would cough for the fifth time the room would fall into darkness. Once the subject was awakened, Gurney began to talk to him and found him perfectly lucid and master of himself. Occasionally Gurney coughed, but there was some counting or memory mistake because nothing happened on the fifth cough. But when Gurney coughed a sixth time the subject immediately began to behave as if the room were immersed in pitch darkness: he asked for matches, stumbled against the furniture and fell, fumbled for candles (which were already lighted) trying to light them. This state of consciousness was so intense that the subject had to be awakened a second time, and when he woke up he had no memory of what had occurred.    

Gurney published various reports on the experiments performed, no doubt interesting and worthy of attention, but on which I shall not dwell further. On the following page we will briefly examine the controlled experiments performed by the Committee, which are of particular interest as evidence of a possible transfer of thought (today we would call it a telepathic rapport) between the operator and the subject.     


Kant & Swedenborg
Hypnotism & psyche
Hypnosis research
Research hypotheses
Myers' research
Frederik van Eeden
Dualism of theories
Research in Italy: 1
Research in Italy: 2
Research in Italy: 3
Ernesto Bozzano
Theories about spirit
Joseph B. Rhine
G. A. Rol's faculties
Ugo Dèttore
Limits of paranormal
Psyche, reality & will