Although the nature and phenomena of hypnosis are still incompletely understood, there are a multitude of theories which attempt to explain its mechanism and results. The most that can be done at this time is to explore various views which are held by leading authorities at present. It can be said, however, that a majority of authorities agree that hypnosis ensues as a result of natural laws which have been incorporated in the human organism since the beginning of man as he is today.
The older theories show almost as much disparity as today, but for the purposes of history it is probably necessary to enumerate only the “animal magnetism” of Frederick Anton Mesmer, and a mention of the “hysteria syndrome” of Jean Martin Charcot. Both names loom large in the history of hypnosis. Mesmer, an 18th century physician, believed that hypnosis occurred as a result of “vital fluids” drawn from a magnet or lodestone and which drew their unique qualities from the sun, moon and stars.
Charcot, as well as Pierre Janet and others, was convinced that hypnosis was a form of hysteria and that only hysterics could be hypnotized. The former (Mesmer) thought further that metal became imbued by the solar qualities, and his system is also known as metalogy by which he meant the proper application of metals. Naturally, these theories have been largely abandoned today, although there are still a few who think that hypnosis is a form of hysteria.
Some pioneers, notably Dr. William S. Kroger, a psychiatrically-oriented obstetrician and gynecologist who limits his practice to hypnotherapy, believe hypnosis is a conviction phenomenon which produces results that parallel the phenomena produced at Lourdes and other religious healing shrines. His formula is that faith, hope, belief and expectation, all catalyzed by the imagination, lead inevitably to hypnosis.
He, like Emile Coué before him, is convinced that you cannot “will” yourself to be hypnotized, and that whenever the will and the imagination come into conflict, the imagination wins out. This fits in perfectly, of course, with the author’s already discussed visual-imagery technique which requires a high degree of imagination. Dr. Kroger, like a few others, has proved to his own satisfaction that all hypnotic phenomena can be produced at a non-hypnotic level.
A large number of hypnotists, including the author, has come to believe that hypnosis is a semantic problem in which words are the building blocks to success. Not just any words, but words which “ring a bell” or tap the experiential background of the subject. This is why “sleep” continues to be in the lexicon of the hypnotist even though hypnosis is the antithesis of sleep. The word is used because hypnosis superficially resembles sleep inasmuch as the eyes usually are closed, the body in a posture of complete relaxation. Actually, the mind is hyperacute. Pavlov, however, believed that there was an analogy between sleep and hypnosis in that each involved cerebral inhibition. Words, of course, would be of little use without the added effect of his conditioned reflexology.
Probably the most widely held theory is that hypnosis is a transference phenomenon in which the prestige of the hypnotist and his relationship to the subject plays an important role. This theory is bolstered by the fact that all schools of psychotherapy yield approximately the same results even though the methods differ. This would logically indicate that the relationship between the therapist and the subject was the determining factor. The only trouble with this theory is that it does not explain self-hypnosis. On the other hand, we know that a strong interpersonal relationship is necessary for hypnosis.
In the opening chapter of the book, I explained that hypnosis was a state of heightened suggestion in which the subject adopted an uncritical attitude, allowing him to accept suggestions and to take appropriate action. This is excellent as far as it goes, but it does not explain how suggestion works. This is the crux of the hypnotic dilemma and the answer is far from solved. Hypnotists are much like those who use electricity every day of their lives, but have no idea of the nature of electricity. It is enough for them to know it has been harnessed for their use.
If there is one thing virtually certain about hypnosis it is that some parts of the brain are inhibited and other parts expanded by the process. Pin-point concentration is given as the reason for this selective procedure which narrows the horizon of the subject to what the hypnotist (or he, himself) is saying, screening out all other stimuli. But why is this high order of concentration so easy under hypnosis when Asians, notably the Chinese, have been trying for centuries to concentrate on one subject for as long as four or five seconds. We do not know the mechanics of this metamorphosis of an ordinary brain into an organ of concentrated power. According to Janet, this is accomplished through the formation of a group of unconscious memories and activities which takes over the usual stream-of-consciousness type of thinking. It is implied that the process may be atavistic.
One of the newer theories—one held by Dr. Lewis R. Wolberg, a psychoanalyst—is that hypnosis is a psychosomatic process in that it is both physiological and psychological in character. Physiologically, Wolberg believes that hypnosis represents an inhibition of the higher cortical centers, and a limitation of sensory channels such as takes place in sleep. He also believes that the psychological process operates through transference. Others agree that it is a transference process, but that it is more of an extension of the subject’s own psychic processes which is enlarged to include the voice of the hypnotist or his own thoughts or voice. Incidentally, an excellent book along these theoretical lines is Hypnotism—An Objective Study in Suggestibility by André M. Weitzenhoffer, Ph.D.
The newest theory in the field is of particular interest to those reading this book inasmuch as it postulates that all hypnosis is self-hypnosis, that the patient always hypnotizes himself and that it is a wise hypnotist who knows who is hypnotizing whom. This is a logical conclusion and it disperses any ideas that hypnotic patients become dependent on their therapists. Actually, hypnotists today always teach their subjects self-hypnosis so that any chance of dependency is obviated.
Milton V. Kline, professor of psychology at Long Island University, postulates that hypnosis is primarily retrogressive. He has written that the organism functions differently on various levels of behavior (regression), and that the behavior breaks down into component parts. The theory that regression can spotlight personality disorders found in more infantile states is also widely held. He also is a proponent of the idea that hypnosis is an abnormal manifestation of a normal process, an opinion he shares with many.
Dr. Kline thinks that retrogression and regression alter perceptions and feelings, and, in the case of the latter, causes us to go backward in time to the point where re-education may be employed. This is a legitimate use of regression although it is not used so much these days to uncover past traumatic incidents. Actually, regression, by duplicating the exact earlier age, manner of speech and thought, etc., makes us once more as little children, a condition to be desired for certain forms of therapy.
An atavistic theory, held to some extent by Dr. Jerome M. Schneck, clinical associate professor of psychiatry, State University of New York College of Medicine, is that hypnosis should be equated with states of immobilization on the basis of his observation that some subjects equate hypnosis with “death.” He suggests this is comparable to the “death-feint” of animals to avoid danger. Others, primarily Europeans, have pointed out the analogy between the hypnotic state of animals and man.
Another widely-held theory is that hypnosis is a state of dissociation, meaning that it constitutes a group of unconscious memories and activities which may be dredged up to replace the stream of consciousness. Automaticism, of course, is inherently part of this view, and is presumed to negate volition. Activity of the cerebrum, which controls the conscious and voluntary system, is rendered non-operational.
My own thoughts on the matter are that hypnosis results from, first of all, a good transference; secondly, from a conditioned reflex; thirdly, from the person acting as a hypnotized person (role playing), and, fourthly, from a suspension of the critical faculties. Along the last-named line, I believe that hypnotic suggestions have an autonomy of their own which supersede all else in the hypnotic situation. There are many more theories I believe are partially correct, but the ones named will do for the purposes of this volume. Incidentally, all the hypnosis theories presented are equally applicable to self-hypnosis except where, as in transference, it is obvious a therapist is needed.
In conclusion, the author would like to take issue with those who believe that it is the monotonous intonations of the therapist that cause the subject to lapse from the deeply relaxed state into true sleep. I have observed many times, by comparing verbalization with silence, that the former gives the subject’s mind a focal point of attention which prevents him from entering a sleep state where hypnotherapy is impossible. Like the man who cannot sleep because of an active mind, sleep and myriad thoughts and suggestions are incompatible, and I believe, once a hypnotic state has been attained, that the subject is kept awake (unless definite sleep suggestions are given) by the therapist’s series of suggestions. We have discussed the effect of the experiential background at length, and surely nothing connotes sleep more than closing one’s eyes—test No. 1. And so, in my view, you are doing two things when you talk to the subject; you are giving him helpful suggestions, but you are also keeping him awake and hyperacute so that these suggestions will sink in.