Is there such a thing as hypnosis?
Those people that are said to be hypnotised, are they in some sort of special state, distinct from other states of consciousness, or not?
When you see video clips whereby hypnosis is being used and people are doing some very clever things like turning their body into a seeming steel bar and creating analgesia in their arms so a pin can pass through without any pain… Can those types of things be performed equally well by people who have not undergone any kind of hypnotic induction?
This is one of the major debates in hypnotherapy and throughout the entire philosophy of hypnosis. Is hypnosis a magical, mystical state that the hypnotist does to people?
The big debate in the field of hypnosis is therefore the state vs nonstate debate, let me explain it…
If I attempt to put it as succinctly as possible, state theorists argue that hypnosis is a special state, an altered consciousness, or even a magical state… Like Mesmerism and so on. They tend to believe the following:
– There is a special state of awareness called ‘the hypnotic trance.’
– This state is marked by increased suggestibility, and enhancement of the imagination and ability to use imagery.
– The state involves a number of reality distortions such as amnesias and hallucinations. They also believe in varying ways of perceiving reality whilst in the state.
– The state involves some involuntary behaviour, often yielding the control of behaviour to the behest of the hypnotist.
– Now whilst admitting that there is currently no conclusive proof to support this, state theorists often support the idea that EEG results will one day demonstrate a unique physiology for the special state of hypnosis. In fact, there is some types of evidence already around that they believe partly proves this.
State theory tends to emphasise differences between hypnosis and everything else.
On the other hand, or in the other corner, we have the non-state theorists, who oppose all the above mentioned points. They tend to believe:
– Concepts such as `trance’ or ‘dissociation’, taken from the field of abnormal psychology, are misleading, in the sense that responsiveness to suggestion is a usual psychological response.
– Differences in response to hypnotic suggestions are not due to any special state of consciousness, but rather to the individual’s attitudes, motivations and expectations, or to the level of which the imagination is involved in the process.
– All the phenomena associated with hypnotic suggestions are within usual human abilities. That is, that things that are done in hypnosis that seem amazing can be done without the aid of hypnosis.
– The apparent involuntary behaviours of subjects can be explained otherwise, without bringing in a special hypnotic trance.
– They predict that no such physiological proof will ever be found, because there is no such state.
So, contrary to what I wrote about state theory, the nonstate theorists emphasise similarities between hypnosis and everything else. It is also known as sociocognitive or cognitive behavioural theory of hypnosis.
Nonstate theorists are also sometimes known as sceptical, rational or common sense theorists.
This debate was reignited by R. W. White in 1941 in his paper, that was way ahead of its time entitled “A preface to the theory of hypnotism” whereby he states:
“Hypnotic behaviour is meaningful, goal-directed striving, its most general goal being to behave like a hypnotised person as this is continuously defined by the operator and understood by the subject.”
(White, 1941: 483)
Most of the argument really then got going in the 1950s and 1960s… Theodore Sarbin, a man also known as Mr. Role Theory and some of his fellows had employed concepts from “role theory” to understand hypnosis.
What they took from that field was the idea that the hypnotic subject has a “role perception” which may or may not adequately define the behaviour of a good hypnotic subject… You know what I mean, where you expect your eyes to turn squiggly, your arms to be stretched out like a zombie, and that you speak in a montone voice in response to any questions… I am kidding of course.
In hypnosis settings, Sarbin suggested that individuals take the role suggested to them and in doing so actively enact the associated behaviours. He was not saying that hypnosis was just people pretending, instead he compared it to the process of “heated” acting of the kind taught by the Strasberg “method acting” school… And boy, do those guys get into their roles! In fact, some studies have suggested that actors are better than average hypnotic subjects, but that’s a discussion for another day.
When Sarbin worked alongside William Coe, they made the claim that the subject simply wanted to please the hypnotist, and as a result, plays out the expected role of hypnotised subject… Maybe even feeling some pressure to comply with the hypnotist’s instructions.
So is that a reason to deny that there is such a special state as the hypnotic trance?
If I was in a hospital, in an operating theatre, choosing to use hypnosis instead of chemical aneasthesia to have an epigastric hernia removed there is no way that I’m going to play a role while someone is probing my innards with a scalpel! I’m going to have to be in a deep enough trance to be analgesic in the relevant area, no?
Now, the main man as far as the non-state theory is concerned has really been Theodore Barber.
Hypnotism is defined by many (especially non-state theorists) as an induced state of increased suggestibility. Yet when a person is hypnotised, they are supposed to produce the phenomenon of increased suggestibility. Thus the argument is circular according to Barber and many other supporters of this view. Some state theorists may reject this idea by not defining hypnotism merely in terms of suggestibility. For many, suggestibility is just one of the phenomena of the hypnotic state and not all.
If you research his work, you’ll see Barber wrote a mountain sized amount of documents to demonstrate that certain hypnotic phenomena (especially amnesia, enhanced muscular performance and arm levitation) can be equally achieved with subjects who were not hypnotised. Instead, the research participants were led by the researchers to have a positive attitude towards the outcome of the task they have been set, to be motivated to perform well, and to expect that they will be able to perform the task.
More recently, one of the main researchers in the field of hypnosis, Irvine Kirsch, echoed this notion of expectation creating ‘hypnotic’ effects, and built upon it stating that expectation was the dominant factor in hypnosis. Response expectancy was his main thing.
Irvine Kirsch has argued that the response expectancy created in the subject by the hypnotist and the environment are the very essence of hypnosis itself. The mere fact that the process is called “hypnosis”, as opposed to “relaxation”, “meditation”, or “CBT”, therefore is of considerable importance. I have to compete with many common misconceptions each and every from people who have no other education about hypnosis than having seen a stage hypnotist make people do silly things on stage. The word “hypnosis” evokes all kinds of preconceptions which appear to heighten expectation.
Also, and as I tell my students the perceived credibility of the hypnotist are factors which contribute to hypnotic responsiveness too.
I love this… Kirsch has suggested that hypnosis can be seen as a “non-deceptive mega-placebo”, insofar as it operates in a similar, but more powerful manner, than placebos in medicine and it is not deceiving the individual into thinking it is anything other than hypnosis.
Non-deceptive mega-placebo… Cool use of words.
Returning to Barbers research then… Critics of his work may postulate that if research shows that both hypnotised and task-motivated people are equally capable of a particular task, Barber would say that the hypnotised people are actually task-motivated rather than hypnotised.
If A produces X and B produces X, it does not follow that A and B are identical; they may simply have the same effect.
Some state theorists have actually arguedand demonstrated that suggestions given to susceptible or fantasy-prone individuals in the waking state, or in a very relaxed state, can often produce the same effect as suggestions given to hypnotised individuals.
There are other non-state theorists who hold the view that hypnosis is also an act of the imagination. This is called the ‘cognitive- behavioural’ approach, and the main guys supporting this theory in literature are psychologists Nicholas Spanos and John Chaves. They claim that being ‘hypnotised’ is like reading a book or watching a film and that a responsive hypnotic subject . . . ‘has intense and vivid experiences that are produced by the words or communications he is receiving.’
Elsewhere, Spanos claims that ‘hypnosis’ is actually nothing more than ‘goal- directed fantasy’: the individual imagines a situation which, if it actually occurred, would produce the results which the suggestions imply. With this viewpoint, hypnosis is reduced to behaviour rather than a state.
For anyone looking to get into all the piles of research and documents that exist to support the non-state theorists I would say this… Experiments can be made to prove or disprove all sorts of things, depending on what you want to read into them.
For example, in a classic experiment, the psychologist Seymour Fisher showed that subjects responded to post-hypnotic cues only when they thought the experiment was still ongoing; if they thought the experiment had ended, they stopped scratching their ears in response to the trigger-word ‘psychology’ (which was the post-hypnotic suggestion that had been implanted in them).
This experiment delighted non-state theorists of course, since it cast doubt on the validity of hypnotic phenomena. But actually it is arguable that, the way the experiment was set up, Fisher had implicitly asked his subjects to respond to the cue only as long as the experiment was in progress, in which case it is not surprising that he got the results he did. This is a subtle point, but it goes to show that experimental results are not as hard and fast as they can seem to be.
The reason I say this is because I think many people think the sheer volume of research supporting non-state theorists renders it conclusive.
The ‘Hypnosurgery’ programme on More4 TV channel here in the UK recently (can be found on YouTube) showed a man being operated on using hypnosis instead of having any anaesthesia… Nicholas Spanos has an interesting take on analgesia. He argues that the phenomena attributed to hypnosis are what he calls ‘social behavior’. Subjects are so motivated to respond in keeping with their expected role that they develop ‘cognitive strategies’ to do things such as overcoming pain.
Like I said earlier, they are not suggesting that people are totally pretending, they are actually saying that the individuals make use of ‘cognitive strategies’ such as imagery, self-distraction and verbalisations that help to convince them that the pain is not so bad, and these strategies do genuinely raise pain thresholds.
When Paul Mckenna’s court case in the late 1990s versus Christopher Gates came into the public domain, (case notes can be found online) Mr Judge Toulson cites evidence given non-state theorist Graham Wagstaff who promoted the theory of non-state hypnosis in Paul Mckenna’s successful defence.
Wagstaff agrees with this view that hypnotic subjects are so motivated to respond in keeping with their expected role that they develop ‘cognitive strategies’ to do them. Rather ironically, Wagstaff has first hand experience of this, because in 1970, as a student, he was ‘hypnotised’ on stage by the magician Kreskin, and put through some of the usual tricks of a stage hypnotist.
In response to the above mentioned non-state theorists…. State theorists often quote the work of Swiss psychologist Edouard Claparede (1873-1940) whereby he read his subjects ten bizarre words when they were deeply hypnotised, and ten equally unfamiliar words while they were awake.
These twenty words were then jumbled together with a number of other words. The subjects, after being dehypnotised, were then asked which words they recognised. They always recognised only the ten they had heard while awake, and never the ten they had heard while hypnotised. People in a non-hypnotised state can only pretend not to recognise the words. Post-hypnotic amnesia, state theorists believe, is therefore a genuine, state-dependent phenomenon, which makes it look as though the hypnotic state is genuine too.
Yes indeed, experiments have shown that unhypnotised individuals can indeed resist pain, either under conditions of distraction, or because they are suitably motivated and so on.
State theorists argue that Barber and his colleagues rely heavily on experimental evidence and tend to ignore the real-life evidence of hypnotists who have performed surgical operations. Some of the surgical operations performed under hypnotism are still painful, there is no doubt about that. Take for example the work of Dr James Esdaille, which highlights the unthinkable; that an eight-hour operation could be performed under hypnosis, that patients would lie still for amputations, the removal of breast cancers, scrotal growths and so on!! Not all of them did, but a good 50 per cent did throughout the recorded works of James Esdaille in the 1830s and 1840s.
Another issue that many state theorists have is the occurrence of what we term post-hypnotic suggestions. These are suggestions given in hypnosis that effect them when out of hypnosis and away from the influence of the hypnotist. If an individual displays behavioural changes after the hypnosis session, when the hypnotist is no longer present and the individual has no knowledge that his or her behaviour is being monitored, state theorists would ask how hypnosis can be compliance, role-playing, or the desire to please?
State theorists argue that the fact that some people can reproduce the effects of hypnotic phenomena without being hypnotised, by the use of their imagination or whatever, does not disprove the reality of hypnotism at all; it just proves that the same or similar phenomena can be produced by other means as well.
There is so much discussion, debate, argument, evidence, research and so on to truly document all facets of this debate, but I hope to have highlighted some key points to get the main bulk of this discussion.