To The Skeptic's Dictionary - Table of Contents
An alleged state of consciousness which resembles sleep, but is probably a relaxed state of extreme suggestibility and conformity to the idea of what is expected of a hypnotized person. It is usually induced by a hypnotist using techniques such as repetition of sounds or gestures to relax the subject and put him or her in a suggestible state. Some people cannot be hypnotized, and individuals vary greatly in their susceptibility to hypnosis. Hypnosis is thought by some psychologists to be an act of social conformity rather than a unique state of consciousness. That is, the subject acts in accordance with expectations of the hypnotist or others and behaves as he or she thinks one is supposed to behave while hypnotized.
The alleged hypnotic state is said to be characterized by heightened suggestibility. Hypnosis is used in behavior modification treatment for people who are trying to quit smoking, lose weight, overcome their fear of flying or break other undesirable habits. Some psychologists believe that the hypnotized person is not in a trance but in a self-induced state of suggestibility involving psyching oneself up and conforming to social expectations. There is little scientific evidence that there is a unique brain state for hypnosis which would support the notion that hypnosis is a unique state of consciousness.
One of the more common myths about hypnosis is that it necessarily enhances the accuracy of memory and can be used to recall memories of past lives. Because a person under hypnosis is very suggestible, their memory is easily "filled-in" by suggestions made under hypnosis. Also, confabulation is quite common while under hypnosis. For this reason, many states do not allow testimony which has been induced by hypnosis.
One of the wisest things Freud did was to give up using hypnosis in therapy. Unfortunately, however, hypnosis continues to be used in a wide variety of therapeutic sessions, not all of which are beneficial. Using hypnosis to help people quit smoking or stick to a diet may be useful, and even if it fails it is probably not harmful. Using hypnosis to help people remember license plate numbers of cars used in crimes may be useful, and even if it fails it is probably not harmful. But using hypnosis to help people recover memories of sexual abuse by their closest relatives or by aliens in spaceships is dangerous, and in some cases, clearly immoral and degrading. For, in some cases, hypnosis is used to encourage patients to remember and then believe events which probably never happened. If these memories were not of such horrible and painful events, they would be of little concern. But by nurturing delusions of evil suffered, therapists often do irreparable harm to those who put their trust in them. And they do this in the name of healing and caring. How many times has evil visited us under the guise of salvation!
Hypnosis is also used to help people recover memories of past lives. Some do this under the guise of personal growth; others under the guise of healing. As a tool for New Age explorers, there may be little harm in encouraging people to remember what are probably false memories about their living in earlier centuries. But as a method of healing, it must be apparent even to the most superficial of therapists that there are great dangers in encouraging patients to create delusions. Some false memories may be harmless, but others can be devastating. They can increase a person's suffering, as well as destroy loving relationships with family members. The care with which hypnosis should be used, seems obvious, and yet many therapists today treat both hypnosis and their patients with contempt by using it as if it were a truth serum.
An example of one of the more bizarre uses of hypnosis comes from the work of Charles Tart, Ph.D. and psychology professor, now retired from the University of California at Davis. (He has moved on to the illustrious and scientifically metaphysical Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.) (Tart's work as a parapsychologist is mentioned in the entries for astral projection, and esp.) Tart is the editor of a psychology text, "Altered States of Consciousness" (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: 1969). He is also the author of several of the articles in his anthology, one of which is entitled "Psychedelic Experiences Associated with a Novel Hypnotic Procedure, Mutual Hypnosis". Tart's scientific experiment involved two people, or Ss. An S is a scientific notation for a subject. I guess psychologists think one S is like any other S so you don't need too many of them in a scientific experiment. What's true of one S is probably true of any other S. But, when you only have two subjects, you might as well call them A and B. Tart had A hypnotize B. Then, while under hypnosis, B hypnotized A. Then A would deepen B's hypnotic state; then B would deepen A's hypnotic state, "and so on". Tart claims in his paper that what he was testing was the claim that "the depth of hypnosis an S could reach was a relatively constant factor for a given S". He wanted to see if he could increase the depth of hypnosis a given S could reach by having S en rapport. (A little French always looks good in a scientific paper.) Rapport is defined as "the special relationship supposed to exist between hypnotist and S". Says Tart: "I reasoned that if rapport was greatest in deep hypnotic states, a technique which markedly increased rapport would likely increase the depth of hypnosis". (292) Undoubtedly.
His experiment consisted of three sessions with three graduate students over a period of several months. He started out with just two subjects but "Carol accidentally participated in the second experimental session". (293) What physicist would write in a scientific paper "but several unplanned atoms wandered through the lab at just the crucial moment, so we included them in the study"?
You might wonder how depth of hypnosis is to be measured. Well, there really isn't any way to measure depth of hypnosis, since hypnosis isn't a state of consciousness like sleeping or wakefulness. Not to worry; Tart invented a way to measure depth of hypnosis. He even says he was preparing a paper on his invention. The gist of his argument, he tells us, is "that the degree to which an S reports feeling hypnotized may be used as the criterion of hypnosis...". He calls this the Self-Report Depth Scale. (Sounds pretty scientific.) He gave his subjects a complicated scale that goes from 0 (the waking state) to 50+ ("extremely profound trance, so profound that your mind becomes naturally sluggish or slow.") There were seven ranges of depth on his Self-Report Depth Scale. A fully awake and attentive person would have a very difficult time remembering the distinct depth ranges. Why think that a hypnotized person would remember the scale? Worse, what evidence is there that any two Ss would apply the scale in the same way?
Anyway, Bill and Anne, the two Ss, had no trouble in responding with a number when asked how deep they were hypnotized. Anne variously reported a 27, a 40, a 43, a 47, a 32, a 48, and a bunch of other numbers. Bill reported a 13, a 36, a 43, a 47, a 25, a 57, 48, 53, a 12 and a bunch of other numbers. What do these numbers mean? Who knows and who cares. Tart could not control his subjects. For all he knew, they were dropping LSD before coming to the sessions. He claims the subjects hallucinated during the mutual hypnosis sessions. While some people might find his description of the hypnotic sessions, amusing or entertaining, there is nothing very scientifically interesting about them. Yet, Tart concluded: "Although this report is based on only two Ss, the results with them were dramatic enough to warrant considerable research on mutual hypnosis". (307) He even notes that mutual hypnosis "might offer a way to produce psychedelic experiences in the laboratory without the use of drugs and with more flexibility and control than is possible with drugs". (308) Note the weasel word might. Then again it might not. But, even if it did, why would anyone want to produce psychedelic experiences in the laboratory, with or without drugs?
As to his alleged primary interest--increasing the depth of hypnosis of a given S--he says, "the possibilities of substantially increasing hypnotizability in Ss who are moderately responsive are worth looking into". Why? He doesn't say.
Parapsychologists have an extremely broad understanding of what counts as good science. On the other hand, to many non-psychologists it appears that not only can one do sloppy or junk science, or invent harmful therapies, and get away with it in parapsychology; it seems to be the norm. Thus, it is an attractive field for a wide array of bumblers with doctorates, which is a shame because its parent, psychology, is also a field with some brilliant thinkers and many competent scientific researchers who are contributing to a better understanding of human behavior, as well as to the well-being of the many patients who are helped by competent therapists.
See related entries for channeling, dianetics, Bridey Murphy, New Age Therapies and reincarnation.
Baker, Robert A. They Call It Hypnosis (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990).
Loftus, Elizabeth F. Eyewitness Testimony (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979).
Spanos, Nicholas P. and John F. Chaves, editors Hypnosis: the Cognitive-behavioral Perspective, (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989).
Robert Todd Carroll