Hypnosis in Modern Times Debated - History of Hypnosis Part 4

Hi, we're glad you made it to the final installement of our History of Hypnosis 4 part series. You can find parts 1, 2, and 3 here:

Part 1: Exorcists and Magnetizers takes us back to the very beginning and first practices of hypnosis that we know of.

When you are done with part 1, please move on to Part 2: The Rise of Neuro-Hypnotism - Trance and Suggestion.

Part 3: Is Hypnosis Art or Science? is an interesting read that looks into some of the most heated times in the history of hypnosis.

In part 4 of our History of Hypnosis series we take a look at what modern hypnosis is, how the mainstream media views hypnosis, who it's practicioners are, and answer many other interesting questions like - who owns hypnosis? Please enjoy the read.

April 1971 - Hypnosis, Entertainment or Therapy

Readers of Science Digest are alarmed to find an article in which psychologist George Estabrooks claims to have used hypnosis to create super-spies able to carry messages and perform missions without conscious knowledge of what they are doing.

In the article, Estabrooks claims that he can hypnotize people to commit treason, murder, and other crimes -- all without their knowledge.

He draws parallels to psychiatric cases of multiple personality disorder, an extremely rare condition which has entered the public consciousness through such films as The Three Faces of Eve. His pronouncements reinforce the fictional perception of hypnosis as mind control shown in films like The Manchurian Candidate.

The claims Estabrooks makes not only cast a sinister shadow over the public view of hypnosis, possibly putting the brakes on the momentum built by such leaders as Erickson and Elman, but they also bring to the fore several questions which will dominate the hypnosis world of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries:

  • Is hypnosis a special state in which people can be made to act against their will? Does such a state exist?
  • Can anyone be hypnotized, or only certain people?
  • Can hypnosis cause or reveal repression of memories?
  • Finally, who owns hypnosis-the academics, the clinicians, the performers?

The State Debate: What is Hypnosis?

Since Puysegur first began working with mesmeric trance, public and to a large degree professional opinion has viewed hypnosis as a special state in which people behave differently than they normally would.

Though this idea has been challenged time and again, by Faria, by Braid, and even by Bernheim -- the question of whether hypnosis can be described as a state continues to this day.

Ernest and Josephine Hilgard were amongst the most prominent proponents of "Altered State Theory" (also called "Special Process Theory"). Working in their Stanford Laboratory of Hypnosis Research, they developed the Neodissociation Theory of Hypnosis, which asserts that in a trance, the executive function of the brain splits into two parts, which are "dissociated" from one another, divided by a barrier of amnesia.

According to the Hilgards and other State Theorists, we enter into a special dissociated state (trance) in which we become open to suggestion.

The Non-State (or Sociocognitive) Theorists instead view "trance" behavior as the result of expectancy, belief, and suggestion, arguing that nothing ever happens in "trance" that can't occur outside of "trance."

Theodore Sarbin and William Coe are generally seen as the fathers of the Sociocognitive school of thought, even though their ideas echo those of Faria and Bernheim.

In 1950, Sarbin and Coe pioneered "Role-Taking Theory," which explains hypnosis in terms of a culturally dictated interaction in which the client unconsciously takes the role of the hypnotic subject and the clinician unconsciously takes the role of hypnotist; each behave according to their roles. It should be emphasized that this is not role-playing, but rather an extension of the normal way that we take multiple roles on a constant basis.

In 1969, Theodore Barber challenged Sarbin and Coe's theory, emphasizing instead the importance of the imagination in hypnosis.

It was in 1980 that Graham Wagstaff published the vaguest and possibly the most accurate definition of hypnosis: "a collection of phenomena that can't be accounted for by a single explanation."

Though in many ways the debate died down as most hypnotists agreed that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, the application of fMRI brain scans to hypnosis research has led to a resurgence of the dispute, as researchers claim to have identified a unique brain state that indicates hypnosis.

The Trait Debate: Can Everyone Be Hypnotized?

Alongside the question of what exactly hypnosis is, there rages the debate as to whether everyone can be hypnotized.

Like the state vs. non-state discussion, this question stretches back into the 1850s, when a group of stage hypnotists called the "electro-biologists" began separating high-responders from low-responders, and myths that those who were easily hypnotized were either weak-willed or suffering from hysteria gained actual currency.

As was discussed in the last installment, the Hilgards at Stanford performed some of the most comprehensive experiments aimed at answering that question, and findings based on those experiments are often quoted without context by people who wish to appear to know something about hypnosis.

In general, though, positions on this question fall into three categories:

  • First, the Ericksonians take the position that everyone can respond to hypnosis, provided that the hypnotist is flexible enough to apply the appropriate procedures and techniques. They focus on developing the clinician's ability to adapt to the client.
  • Second, most of the sociocognitive theorists and some state theorists view the ability to respond to hypnosis to depend partly on a stable trait (such as imaginative ability) and partly on belief, expectancy, and understanding. This position has led to training programs intended to enhance hypnotic response.
  • Third, some of the researchers most invested in the Standardized Approach insist that the more advanced hypnotic phenomena, such as amnesia and hallucination, are available only to those with an inborn talent for hypnosis. They focus mostly on weeding out clients and test subjects who do not fit their criteria.

Peter Brown, in his 1991 book The Hypnotic Brain, posited that brain and body rhythms may affect hypnotic response, so that a client who responds well at one part of the day or month may not respond as well at a different point in the cycle.

While the state and trait debates are mostly academic, hypnosis found itself at the center of a controversy that rocked the therapeutic world in the late 1980s and 1990s. In fact, both the hypnosis and therapeutic communities are still reeling from a series of events that would shape how we see memory.

The Memory Wars: Is there such a thing as repressed memory, and can hypnosis retrieve one if there is?

Media Portrayal of Hypnosis

Chowchilla, California, 1976; a kidnapper abducts 26 school children and their bus driver. The driver manages to escape, but the children are moved before he can lead police back to the criminal's hiding place ("Chowchilla kidnapping").

However, under hypnosis, the bus driver is able to recall part of the kidnapper's license plate, which provides enough information that police are able to track down the criminals and rescue the children.

The Chowchilla case brought hypnotic regression and memory retrieval to the forefront. Of course, Freud had used regression, and Elman's followers based most of their therapy on the premise that we can recall events in hypnosis which we have either forgotten or repressed, but Chowchilla's events generated considerable interest in law enforcement.

Even though the late nineteenth-century had seen hypnotists exploring the ease of creating false memories. in the 1980s, the general public led by law enforcement and licensed therapists, began to believe that anything remembered in hypnosis -- especially a "repressed" memory -- must be true.

This false assumption sat at the center of the 1980 book, Michelle Remembers, an account of horrific events involving Satanic rituals and abuse "remembered" under hypnotic regression. (These details, minus the hypnotic element, riffed on a conspiracy theory promoted by fundamentalist Christian speakers such as comedian Mike Warnke, whose "eye-witness accounts" of Satanism were later exposed as fraudulent.)

Michelle Smith, along with her co-author, psychiatrist, and husband, Dr. Lawrence Pazder, became internationally famous consultants on the alleged Satanic conspiracy, even training law enforcement agencies.

In 1983, the mentally-ill, alcoholic mother of a preschool student in Manhattan Beach, California, accused the preschool owners of performing bizarre sexual rituals on the children. (She also accused one of the owners of being able to fly.)

In the seven years that followed, apparent eye-witness testimony was extracted from children by parents, social workers, and prosecutors, as well as Smith and Pazder, all of whom were ignorant of how easy it is to create false memories by means of suggestion.

In 1990, all charges were dropped, in part because of the testimony of cognitive psychologist and memory expert, Elizabeth Loftus.

Starting in the 1970s and continuing to the time of this writing, Dr. Loftus has performed numerous experiments that have verified just how open to suggestion memory is, even how easy it is to suggest a traumatic memory by means of interviewing.

Her research has seriously undermined the Freudian model of repressed memory, which had for a time enjoyed popularity as the basis of Recovered Memory Therapy, a method using visualization, hypnosis, narcotics, and interviewing to "recover" forgotten trauma.

This work is important to the hypnosis community because most of the general public clings to the outmoded Freudian view of memory and trauma while believing the misconception that hypnosis invariably recovers true memories.

Who Owns Hypnosis?

Hypnosis practitioners fall into several categories. There are:

  • Researchers dedicated to explaining it
  • Licensed therapists dedicated to using it with clients
  • Vocational practitioners with similar aims
  • Entertainers using hypnosis to amuse their audiences

Turf wars between these groups date back to Mesmer's time and persist to this day.

  • When the medical community rejected Elliotson, mesmerism became a pursuit for the amateur; Victorians of all social stations experimented with the technique (Winter, 2008).
  • When Braid coined the term "hypnotism" in the mid-1800s, he declared that only medical doctors should practice it.
  • In 1891, the British Medical Association received a report that called for the banning of not only stage hypnosis, but any therapeutic hypnosis performed by those who are not "qualified medical men."
  • In 1957, Milton Erickson founded the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH). Being a psychiatrist, he initially limited membership to medical doctors and PhD psychologists, adopting the stance that anyone who did not qualify for membership had no business doing hypnosis. That is still ASCH policy, though membership requirements have been eased to admit licensed health and counseling professionals of various backgrounds. The ASCH policy on vocational hypnosis practitioners and stage hypnotists remains officially disapproving.
  • In contrast, the 1950s saw the creation of the Association for the Advancement of Ethical Hypnosis (AAEH), the brainchild of former stage hypnotist Harry Arons and his wife, a medical nurse. The organization worked hard to build bridges between the medical/dental community and vocationally trained hypnotists, who were termed "hypno-technicians" by Arons. However, the organization's strict ban on past life regression alienated many vocational hypnotists, and the organization is now defunct.

Interestingly, despite nearly two centuries of disapproval from licensed practitioners, both stage hypnosis and vocational hypnotherapy are going strong in most of the English-speaking world.

From Casting Out Demons to Wrestling Inner Demons

From Mesmer's encounter with Gassner to today's studies in suggestibility, the history of hypnosis has followed a fascinating trajectory in which the same phenomena have been explained in various ways.

Though it is tempting to view each of these as a distinct chronological stage, history is rarely that neat and orderly; adherents of each view still exist today. Also, the explanations are not mutually exclusive; some accept multiple explanations simultaneously.

Stage One: The phenomena are viewed as supernatural and possibly demonic.

Exorcist Josef Gassner held this position in the 1700s. The Spiritualists of the 1850s -- and their philosophical descendants today -- explain hypnotic phenomena as the actions of ghosts. On the other side of the coin, evangelical Christians, at least as far back as 1842, have claimed that hypnosis is simply the work of the Devil.

Stage Two: The phenomena are caused by an invisible fluid or energy which responds to our thoughts and intentions.

This was Mesmer's premise for Animal Magnetism, and it is the idea that underlies Reiki, acupuncture, and the Star Wars movies. Even though this idea has been debunked within mesmerism and hypnosis time after time, it has been reinforced by influence from the New Age community.

Stage Three: The phenomena are caused by a special trance state.

Puysegur introduced the mesmeric trance, and Braid re-interpreted it, first as a physiological condition and later as a purely psychological condition. Today, trance still seems to be the defining factor of hypnosis for such researchers as Dr. Herbert Spiegel.

Stage Four: The phenomena are induced by expectancy, belief, and suggestion.

Abbe Faria was the first to propose this, as Braid did later in his career.

It was Hippolyte Bernheim who stated it most dramatically, denying the existence of trance, and Coue who built an entire method on this premise. Today, this is the position of the Sociocognitive theorists.

It's fascinating to note that the Nancy School began in Stage Two, with Liebeault giving credence to fluidism until Bernheim dissuaded him from it.

They two spent years examining trance as Bernheim slowly began to pay less and less attention to the special state and more and more attention to suggestion. In that sense, the trajectory of the Nancy School is a microcosm for the entire history of hypnosis.

What Does the Future Hold for Hypnosis?

The future of hypnosis is "up for grabs."

On one hand, both the scientific community and the general public are becoming more and more accepting of the mind-body connection, the effectiveness of auto-suggestion, and the use of meditative techniques (such as mindfulness and yoga) for self-improvement.

At the same time, hypnosis fails to be connected with these things in the popular mind; the media still portrays hypnosis as either something dangerous or something comical.

Practitioners of hypnosis are not helping. Longstanding rivalries between different schools of thought and different approaches to training mean that practitioners do not present a united front. For the time being, hypnosis remains a modality with great promise, employed by the few who can see past the media myths to the amazing potential of their own minds.

Wow, you've made it through our entire 4 part series on the History of Hypnosis! To thank you, we've prepaired a special gift - a free hypnosis mp3 which you can download immediately by clicking here! Enjoy it. :)

Recommended for Further Reading - Part IV: