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some thoughts on hypnotism

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hmm, are those waves or particles, or both, or neither?

hmm, are those waves or particles, or both, or neither?

Today I want to write about a subject I know bugger all about but which has always fascinated me – hypnotism. The first encounter with it that made an impression on me was as a schoolkid coming home for lunch, as we did every day – our parents were both at work – and catching some of the midday variety show, which regularly featured a bearded and mildly exotic hypnotist who, with nothing more, apparently, than snappings of fingers, intense gazes and a voice of calm command, got ordinary people to crawl on all fours and bark like dogs, or some other form of mild humiliation, to the incredibly complacent amusement of the studio audience – or so it seemed to me.

This was all very flummoxing to my nascent scepticality. Could this really be real? If so, the consequences, it seemed to me, were enormous for a person’s autonomy, or sense of self-ownership. More important, could this ever be done to me? My impulse would be to fight such an outrageous invasion of, indeed takeover of, what I held to be more dear to me than anything else – my independence of thought and action.

So I drew two conclusions from these observations. First, that it couldn’t be real – that there must be at least some fakery involved. Second, that if it was real, I, if not the entire human population, needed to be protected from such outrages, by law. If we could be made to bark like dogs, why couldn’t we be made, by an evil genius, to rip out each others’ throats, to murder our loved ones, to fly planes into buildings or to press nuclear buttons? In fact, if this power to control minds was real, no human law could prevent it from being abused. It followed, according to the Law of Wishful Thinking, that this power couldn’t be real.

But as life went on, the urgency of this issue receded, though the questions raised were never resolved. A lot of nasty things happened, people ripped each other apart, either physically or psychologically, and people murdered those they loved, and flew planes into buildings and declared wars that slaughtered thousands, but the motives seemed all too clear and basic and perennially human. No evil geniuses needed to be posited.  Manipulation might be suspected at times, but of the common and garden type. Hypnosis appeared surplus to requirements, so much that I never really considered it.

The old questions resurfaced on listening to Brian Dunning, of skeptoid.com, presenting a podcast on hypnosis, which provided some interesting historical background, for example that the term ‘hypnosis’ was coined by an English surgeon, James Braid, in the 1840s. Braid became obsessed with the practice after seeing a stage performance, and worked on utilising it for medical purposes. He even wrote a book about hypnotism which, according to Dunning, still stands up well today.

Dunning also addresses an issue that has always vexed me – that of susceptibility to hypnosis. In the 50s, Stanford University developed a rough measure of susceptibility which they named the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scales. Here’s Dunning’s description:

It’s a series of twelve short tests to gauge just how hypnotized you really are, scored on a scale of 0 (not at all) to 12 (completely). They are responses to simple suggestions like immobilization, simple hallucinations, and amnesia. Most people score somewhere in the middle, and nearly everyone passes at least one of the tests. There’s even a script you can follow to hypnotize anyone and put them through the scales, with a little bit of practice.

Not only do people score very differently, there’s been little progress made in predicting what types of people are most susceptible. Subjects’ suppositions about their own susceptibility don’t correlate at all with test scores. Supposed predictors like intelligence, creativity, desire to become hypnotized, and imaginativeness also have no correlation. Most likely, you yourself are a decent candidate who will score near the middle of the scale, regardless of whether you think you will or not.

These findings are not reassuring. Maybe it’s a male thing (and one of the reasons males are less willing to visit the doctor), but I’ve always wanted to be, and so felt myself to be, ‘in control’ of my physical and mental health. For example, I didn’t need a doctor to tell me I was creeping up in weight towards obesity, with all the attendant health issues. I realised it myself, took control, reduced my general food intake, introduced an exercise regime, and brought my weight back to normal. Similarly, with issues of getting older, such as the possibility of dementia, I reckon that keeping mentally active, learning new things, firing up new pathways, is the self-help solution, and with hypnotism, the defence is a strong mind and a profound unwillingness to be hoodwinked by any evil geniuses out there. But I’m not silly, and I’ve always known that I’m at least partially kidding myself, and that I can’t fully bullet-proof myself against cancer, dementia, or even mind control. So maybe I should subject myself to the above-mentioned susceptibility scales, and face the facts.

For the susceptible ones, there are certainly medical benefits in the application of hypnosis, in relieving stress, in pain management, and in preparing patients for, and managing them through, surgery. Attempts have made to use hypnotherapy, and to analyse its success, in weight loss programs and in treating addictive behaviour, with mixed results.

But what of that worst-case scenario, where the susceptible are manipulated into performing dastardly deeds? Dunning’s conclusions on this seemed reassuring. The susceptible clients certainly reported losing their memory of actions performed under hypnosis, and they certainly did perform those actions, or ‘see’ things they were commanded to see, but, according to Dunning ‘only so long as they were consciously willing to go along.’ He ends with a recommendation to try hypnotism, saying ‘you can’t lose control’ and that ‘you might just have a really wild ride’, two statements that might seem to contradict each other.

But these reassurances were all blown away by Derren Brown’s program on hypnotism, one of a series he presented on how the human mind can be made to believe things and do things that aren’t always in its best interest. Brown is a thorough-going sceptic and an atheist, and so on the side of the angels. I was primed for a dose of debunking, but, frankly, was left with far more questions than answers. I have to rely on my memory here, but the program began with some references to Sirhan Sirhan, the killer of Robert Kennedy in the sixties. Sirhan’s lack of remorse over the years has told against him at parole board hearings and the like, but since he bizarrely claims to have no recollection of the act, his lack of remorse would in that sense be consistent. Without going into too much detail about the assassination (conspiracy theories abound), Brown plants in our minds the germ of an idea that this could’ve been a mind-control event. The rest of the program involves an elaborate set-up in which Brown hypnotises a susceptible subject into ‘killing’ Stephen Fry, with a gun, while Fry is performing onstage, and the hypnotised subject is in the audience. Fry, who’s in on the act, plays dead, and the audience – well, here’s where my memory fails me. I seem to remember shock and confusion, but I don’t recall any heroes grappling with the gunman, or reacting as the gunman stood up and took aim at Fry. Maybe that’s just the behaviour of well-primed security guards. After all, shooting someone when they’re onstage, though theatrical, is hardly a real-life scenario. In fact I don’t recall it ever having happened.

More importantly – in fact far more importantly – the scenario, if we’re to believe it, completely disproves Dunning’s claim that you can’t be persuaded to do something entirely uncharacteristic when under hypnosis. The young man who ‘shoots’ Fry seems to be a pleasant, gentle soul. In an after-event interview with Brown, at which Fry is also present, he has no recollection of firing the gun, though he does remember attending the show (if my memory serves me correctly).

I was really shaken by all this. I tried to wriggle out of the conclusions. Obviously the shooter was using a toy gun – or maybe a real gun with blank bullets. Could it be that he wouldn’t have gone through with it had it been a real gun? That didn’t make sense, really – the gun was in its own case, and looked real enough to me, inexpert though I am (I truly loathe guns). It was no water-pistol or cap-gun. But maybe the whole set-up was a sham? In this and in other Brown shows I found it incredible that subjects could be so easily put into a hypnotised state. In fact ‘ludicrous’ is the word that springs to mind. There’s a part of me – quite a big part in fact – that just wants to dismiss the whole thing as arrant bullshit, a kind of sick joke. How can the human brain, the most complex 1300g entity on the planet, be so easily hijacked?

Well, apparently it can. One has to accept the evidence, however reluctantly. And of course it’s not accurate to say that the entire brain is hijacked. Or rather, just as you don’t have to have complete control of every aspect of a plane in order to hijack it, you just have to control the pilot, so hypnotism must involve control of some kind of consciousness-controller in the brain. Something like what we describe as ‘the self’, no less. A big problem, especially when some psychologists, neurologists and philosophers deny the very existence of the self.

But I’ll leave an exploration of how hypnotism works from a neurophysiological perspective for another post. I suspect, though, that not much progress has been made in that area. Meanwhile, I’m left with a much greater concern about hypnotism than ever before. As if there wasn’t enough to worry about!

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Written by stewart henderson

April 20, 2013 at 9:32 am

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