Experiments on hypnosis: Myers' point of view
The Committee's experiments
A first series of experiments was cariied out to verify the transfer of sensations from the operator (Mr. G. A. Smith, gifted with remarkable mesmeric faculties) to the subject (Fred Wells, a 20 years old baker). Wells sat up in a chair and was blindfolded, while Smith, standing behind him, performed some mesmeric steps that induced the hypnotic state. Then some parts of Mr. Smith's body were pinched or pricked so as to cause him some pain, albeit bearable. This operation lasted from one to two minutes, during which Smith asked Wells (who under hypnosis was able to hear only the operator's voice) if he felt anything. In the first series of experiments Smith held one of the hands of Wells, while in the successive series all contact between the two was eliminated. Here is a report of the first series of experiments, dated January 4th, 1883.
In this first series of experiments, some circumstances could lead us to think that there could have been an exchange of information, even unconsciously, between the operator and the subject, through hands contact, noises or other signals. So in the next series a screen was interposed between Mr. Smith and Wells, which prevented any contact, even visual, between the two. Also, during some of the tests, Mr. Smith was in another room, divided by thick curtains from the one in which Wells stayed. Here are the results of the second series of experiments of April 10th, 1883.
At this point, being Mr. Smith in another room, Wells began to fall asleep saying he no longer wanted to be bothered. But he was partially awakened, and the experiments were resumed.
After this Wells became still more sulky, and refused to give any indication whatever. With considerable acuteness he explained the reasons for his contumacy: «I ain't going to tell you, for if I don't tell you, you won't go on pinching me. You only do it to make me tell». Then he added in reply to a remonstrance from Mr. Smith: «What do you want me to tell for? They ain't hurting you, and I can stand their pitching». In light of the results of these experiments, others were devised to verify if there was a form of communication out of the ordinary between Mr. Smith and Fred Wells. In one of these Wells was seated in a corner of the room with his face turned towards the wall, while Smith and two members of the Committee whispered at irregular intervals and turns his name from the opposite corner, so that an observer with a normal hearing could barely hear them a couple of meters away, while nothing could be heard where Wells was. Moreover, Wells' eyes were closed and blindfolded. Under these conditions, Wells answered only when his name (Fred) was whispered by Smith, and never when the others did. This experiment was also successful when Smith and the others were isolated in an adjacent room, separated with thick curtains from the one where the subject was located.
Telepathic control of the subject's will
To exclude any possibility of fraudulent agreement between operator and subject, Mr. Smith was asked to hypnotize a trusted friend of Gurney, Mr. Beard. Once the latter was placed in a deep hypnotic state, with his eyes closed, an experimenter put a tuning fork near the subject's ear and asked the question «Do you hear it?» At the same time another experimenter indicated to Mr. Smith a yes or a no answer, so that the operator could influence at a distance the will of the subject, who was to respond according to the indication mentally given by Smith. The experiment was successful in all twelve cases in which it was repeated. Upon his awakening, Mr. Beard (who had been chosen as a trusted person by the members of the Committee) stated to have heard the sound of the tuning fork all the times, but in some cases he felt obliged not to answer the question, as if his will had been subjugated by that of the hypnotist.
Insensitivity to pain of single fingers
Another experiment was repeated forty times without a single failure. A subject was blindfolded and seated at a table on which he laid both hands, his fingers wide open. A screen made up of sheets of brown cardboard was then placed in front of him so that it rested on his forearms and completely covered his chest and face, extending much higher, and on the sides (so as to ensure that he could not see his fingers). All those who witnessed the experiment were absolutely certain of the impossibility that the subject could see what happened to his fingers. Two of the ten fingers were then chosen by the experimenters and silently indicated to the operator (always Mr. Smith), who, staying more than a meter away from the screen, performed some delicate steps on the fingers indicated to him. Every precaution was taken to avoid not only any contact, but also the sensation of air flow. As an extra measure, also one of the experimenters made movements similar to those of the operator on two of the other eight fingers of the subject. In some experiments the operator simply kept his fingers above those of the subject, without performing any movement. After a minute or so, the two selected fingers became totally rigid and insensitive: if the sharp points of a fork gently pricked one of the other fingers, the subject immediately complained, but he could be stung in each of the two chosen fingers without showing the least physical or verbal reaction. Even when the blow was given strongly (which the experimenters themselves reluctantly did), so as to cause a lot of pain even in a person with leathery skin, the victim remained silent or quietly continued to speak, without showing any reaction. If the subject was asked to close the hand in a fist, the order was correctly executed except for the two mesmerized fingers, which remained unnaturally protruded forward.
It should be noted that during these experiments the subject was literally subjected to small tortures, in order to be able to rule out the possibility that the insensitivity to pain he showed could be simulated: lit matches were placed in the sensitive area around his nails, or increasing electric shocks were applied to him. The experiment was successful even when a lady with a delicate skin was selected as subject, who went literally into crisis as soon as the tip of the fork touched one of her sensitive fingers, but showed no reaction when the mesmerized fingers were heavily pricked. Another interesting experiment showed the ability of the subject to choose, among a group of ten objects of similar type, only those two or three that had been previously mesmerized by the operator (in another room) through steps performed on them without any contact . Purposely, metal objects, such as coins and the like, were discarded to prevent any form of heat transmission from the operator's hands to the object.
Some other tests of control of the will
Subsequently, a second series of experiments was devised and carried out to verify the operator's ability to influence the subject's will telepathically. First of all, a subject (a young man named Fearnley) was chosen, whom the hypnotist (tha same Mr. Smith) had never met before, and to whom nothing had been revealed about the goals of the experiment. The subject, in a state of hypnotic sleep, had to open or close the fingers of his hand in response to the question of the experimenter (in this case Professor Barrett): «Now, do you want to open your fingers?» In asking the question, Barrett himself indicated to Mr. Smith, who was next to him, an answer (yes or no) written on a note that the subject could not see under any circumstances, even if he kept his eyes wide open. Without any sound, without any change of expression and remaining at a distance from the subject, the operator had to try to influence, by his own will, the subject's response according to what Barrett indicated to him. Out of twenty tests performed, 17 were successful, while three failed: in the cases of failure, Smith declared that he had not focused enough.
The experiment was repeated placing Mr. Smith at a variable and gradually increasing distance from the subject. In this case the answers (yes or no) were written on two different cards that were given to Smith by Barrett while the latter asked the subject: «Can you hear me?» Obviously, if the card indicated no, the subject should not give any answer. 25 trials were first conducted in which Mr. Smith was one meter away from the subject: all the tests were successful. Six tests were conducted at a distance of two meters, then other six at a distance of four meters and six more at almost 12 meters away, all without a single failure. In the last series of tests Mr. Smith was in another room, with the door closed, and the cards were passed to him under the door. In order not to unintentionally influence the subject through his tone of voice, Barrett shuffled the cards and gave them to Smith face down, so that he himself did not know the answer. Mr. Smith was then isolated in a room located 10 meters away from the previous one (that is, two rooms away), in which the cards were delivered to him by a third person: the first three tests were successful, then the subject fell into a deep sleep and it was not possible to continue. Other experiments of the same kind were carried out in a fully dark room, in which Barrett, holding Mr. Smith's hand, indicated the answer by squeezing it once to say no and twice for yes. In this case too the 12 tests performed were successful.
I thought it interesting to mention these experiments because, beyond the results obtained, I consider them indicative of the seriousness and the attention with which the investigations were conducted by the Committee's members. In no case, then, they themselves assumed to have to reach definitive or hasty conclusions, but each time they tried to devise new experiments to confirm the advanced hypotheses.
Myers' point of view on the evolution of psychic processes
The experiments on hypnotism are part of that wide field of investigation, aimed at clarifying the functioning of the human mind, which Myers called experimental psychology and which had its period of most intense activity right between the late nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century. The same development of dynamic psychiatry and psychology, although marked by theoretical, methodological and experimental limits, had as a premise the effective observation of a large number of phenomena of mental origin and nature (or nervous, as was said at the time). Since its first observations, the Committee took care to highlight the fact that most of the observed phenomena did not occur exclusively in the hypnotic state and in mesmerized subjects, but had long been in the repertoire of non-ordinary states of consciousness known as somnambulism, spontaneous anesthesia, catalepsy, trance, clairvoyance, automatism, etc. The medical literature of the time contained a vast assortment of precise observations related to cases of this kind, as well as to multiple personality phenomena.
It was mainly Myers who was struck by the complexity of various phenomena related to the anomalous functioning of the mind, which attracted his interest to the point of inducing him to elaborate an original theory of human personality. As is often the case, Myers' ideas later had much less success and spread than those of Freud or Jung (probably also because Myers was not a professional in the clinical field), especially because these latter, and the their followers, proposed themselves as creators of therapeutic solutions, while Myers preferred to operate in a more experimental and speculative context. Although Myers openly stated that he believed (and he hoped he could prove it) that we possessed a kind of soul or spirit (the Transcendent Self, as he preferred to call it), that in some rare cases can show in this life powers that go beyond those of our organic system, however he believed that this spirit was an entirely separate entity from the human mind, the Ego and the psychic experiences, which are almost exclusively connected to the process of natural evolution. Myers' attention to the scientific discoveries of his time and his acute and very actual considerations on the functioning of the mind are exemplary, and remove any character of mysticism from his investigations in the most diverse areas of psychical research.
To remain in the field of hypnosis, it is undoubted that it opens a window on mental suggestibility, a phenomenon that today is widely recognized by all those working in the political, advertising or mass entertainment field. The recognition of the fact that the conscious psychic contents depend on the functioning of the mind and are largely influenced by social interactions, and that ultimately the Ego knows very little about the way the mind works and the sources from which the psychic contents originate, represented a remarkable achievement of experimental psychology, and at the same time had a disturbing effect on many humans, comparable to the discovery that the Earth is not at the center of the universe, or that our body and our brains are the result of natural evolution.
Myers emphasized the behavioral reactions that indicate the presence of sensitivity already in the primordial unicellular organisms, at the dawn of evolution, and the possibility that a colonial consciousness has formed in organisms consisting of colonies of undifferentiated cells, such as sponges, jellyfish or corals. Finally, he recognized the emergence of an individual consciousness, and its subsequent evolution, in differentiated multicellular organisms, noting how even in this case the unity of the individual is a unity of coordination, a unity of aggregates that derive from multiplicity, that is, ultimately, a social unity. And in the same way that even in a complex human society, single individuals delegate to others many functions and choices, expecting however that these operations explicate their effects in the interest of everyone and therefore also in their own, so the mind of an animal reflects this function (that we could define politics) of decision, mediation, and government.
As has been many times observed, when we examine the human psyche we find that it is not in itself the bearer of any reliable information about the functions of the evolutionary process, which – as far as we know – manifests itself as if its nature were completely unconscious. If this were not the case, we would know everything about our functioning, our state of health, the process of evolution and the laws that rule it. Instead we know nothing, and the first glimmers of knowledge have been obtained by some scholars only in the last two centuries. Previously (and even today) the human psyche has produced and produces a large number of representations of a symbolic and fantastic kind, whose origin remains hidden in its enigmatic meanders.
The social functioning of our mind
According to Myers the true basis of our human personality is formed by our physical organism, that is the colony of cells of which we are made of (today it would be more appropriate to refer to our genetic inheritance), and by our personal history, which is grafted on the biological basis as a result of social and cultural interactions, as the cellular colony of our body must be included in the other and wider colony formed by human society. Usually we are accustomed to think of having an autonomous and independent identity, character and personality, based on our will and memory. But precisely the phenomena of hypnosis, which Myers (quoting the words of professor Beaunis) defined a real moral vivisection, show how in principle both memory and will originate from the functioning of the mind, and can be artificially manipulated and altered so that our consciousness remains unaware of the real causes from which the inner impulses we perceive originate (that we almost always naively attribute to our free will), and on certain circumstances hallucinatory phenomena can be considered as events actually happened and memorized, while at the same time those that actually occurred are forgotten.
In conclusion Myers, on the basis of an objective analysis of facts, deduced that we human beings are, even in our extreme complexity, living automatisms endowed with consciousness, whose functioning however, in general and with some exception, does not imply to become fully aware of the way our structure operates. Only in recent times has knowledge begun to investigate the complexity of mental functioning, in an attempt to shed light on the origin and causes of psychic phenomena, and even today we are far from having a comprehensive and satisfying cognitive picture on the psyche, as the result of the interaction between the conscious and unconscious elements of our mental activity, and of the functioning of our brain and nervous system. The undeniable fact that only consciousness constitutes the true essence of our existence as human beings has already been highlighted: when I am not conscious I do not exist, nor do I know I do not exist, even if someone else, in his conscious state, can witness the presence of my body and even the movements made or the words pronounced, always by my body, but in a state of unconsciousness. Moreover, everything that is deleted from my memory also disappears from my consciousness, so for me it is as if it did not exist or had never existed, unless another person worthy of faith gives me a testimony, as various experiments conducted by Myers demonstrated.
According to Myers, if we, as human beings, are associated with a spirit, we are absolutely not aware of it: we know nothing about our spirit's nature or identity, and at most we can be aware of the idea of having a spirit. From this point of view, Myers proves to be already – at the end of the nineteenth century – far more profound and closer to the understanding of human existence of other scholars, even of a more recent era, who either denied the existence of the spirit or confused the spirit with the psyche, attributing a spiritual character to what are nothing but psychic elements tuned by mental activity in the complex human socio-cultural context.
Use of hypnosis for social therapy
Myers stated in no uncertain terms that experimental psychology radically changes all ancient metaphysical ideas. But precisely for this reason, according to him, the nature of automatism of human beings can be used to favor their evolution. In fact, in accordance with the idea of civilization prevailing in Europe in the late nineteenth century, human evolution arises from the inhibition that the higher mental functions are able to exert on the lower ones, inherited from our animal origin. Without this inhibition, due in large part to social needs (hence the term civilization to indicate the evolution of the human beings with respect to their animal nature), human beings would be much more inclined to give in to instinctual behaviors, as happens whenever social trends allow removal of inhibitions. In this respect, Myers was in full harmony with the orientation of some pioneers of the knowledge of the psyche: see for example the essays by Freud, from Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921) to Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). Myers also claimed that hypnosis could be used to help socially misfits or dangerous people (and therefore criminals and delinquents) to improve on, and even to become virtuous, since hypnotism, like education, is mainly a inhibition process. To substantiate these claims, Myers mentioned some examples of people whose character had changed significantly for the better after a hypnotic therapy, although he recognized that some individuals (such as chronic alcoholics) are very difficult to hypnotize.
Psyche and spirit
After more than a century from these observations of Myers, today we take note of the fact that our civilization has taken very different paths from those he imagined. In recent times we have witnessed the spread and accentuation of disinhibited attitudes towards instinctual drives, probably due to the attempt to seek a new and more harmonious synthesis between the animal nature of the humans and the evolutionary function of civilization. We can not currently predict whether this evolution experiment will succeed, or if (as is likely) it will end in failure like so many other historical processes. What is most important to highlight is the fact that all these phenomena, which are part of human history and, more generally, of the evolution of life on this planet, and have an undoubted influence on the behavior of human beings, are determined by psychic contents that emerge in our consciousness and have very little to do with the spirit (if we actually have a spirit, according to Myers' hypothesis). The problem remains, indeed the enigma, of the relationship between the spirit and the conscious Ego and of the meaning of human experience for the spirit: issues to which Myers dedicated his efforts and his intellectual resources until his death, which took place in Rome in 1901 (and on which, perhaps, his spirit devoted even after his death).