(Investigator 174, 2017 May)
The history of hypnosis goes back to the days of sorcery and magic.
Incense, chants, drugs and soft music were used by the ancient
Egyptians and Greeks to induce sleep during which curative suggestions
were given to the sufferers. Its scientific history however, did not
begin until the latter half of the 18th century with Friedrich Anton
Mesmer (1734-1815), a graduate of medicine in Vienna and a believer in
Termed "animal magnetism" or "mesmerism", his work was carried on by
his most influential pupil, the Marquis de Puysegur (1751-1825). By
1850, the "mesmeric" movement had grown enormously on the Continent, in
the United States and in Britain, and the word hypnosis was coined by
the English physician, James Braid.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Joseph Bauer (1842-1925) both used
hypnosis in psychotherapy, and British psychologist William McDougal
(1871-1944) used hypnosis to treat soldiers suffering from
"shell-shock". Charles Hull (1884-1952), a professor at the University
of Wisconsin, published his classic Hypnosis
and Suggestibility in 1933.
Between World Wars I and I1, there was some scientific progress made in
the study of hypnosis, and a further impetus was given to its study
after the 1939-1945 conflict.
In the mid-1950s, both the American and British Medical Associations
formally approved its medical use.
Mesmer conceived the idea that the planets affected human beings
through a form of magnetism and he began treating his patients with
magnets. He later abandoned this method of treatment having decided
that the true curative influence emanated from the hand and nervous
system of the operator. He called this influence "animal magnetism".
Puysegur's explanation of the phenomenon was similar to Mesmer's, in
that he believed that "magnetised" objects could send subjects into a
"magnetic sleep", and that magnetism was collectible and storable. He
was convinced too, that the magnetic fluid or therapeutic energy could
also be directed by the will of the operator upon the body and nervous
system of the subject.
In 1813, J. P. F. Deleuze wrote of magnetism, that the important
question was not "whether there is a fluid spread throughout the whole
of nature, but whether there exists a modification of that fluid of
which man can make himself master for the purpose of directing it in
accordance with his wish".
In defining the common perception of hypnosis, Spanos and Chaves point
out in Hypnosis: The
Cognitive-Behavioural Perspective, that most lay people believe
that it involves a trance or at least an altered state of
consciousness, brought about by a repetitive verbal ritual after which
the person hypnotised becomes amenable to the wishes and directions of
An important consideration in inducing hypnosis is that the subject be
willing, co-operative and interested. A hypnotist can then
progressively, persuasively and repetitiously suggest tiredness,
relaxation, eye closure and loss of interest in external stimuli. Once
achieved, the subject can then function at the level of unconscious
Like the pros and cons of herbal medicine, we again tread on thin ice.
On the one hand we have reports of success, on the other — scepticism.
With regard to Mesmer's basic theories, one who was not convinced was
Frank Podmore, a former spiritualist turned ardent sceptic and a member
of the British Society for Psychical Research, who wrote:
"the whole machinery on
which the early writers relied as demonstrating the existence of a
fluid-celestial, magnetic or electric, were due to the imagination of
the subject, preternormally alive to the suggestion by word, look,
gesture, or even unexpressed thought by the operator".
The popularity of electromagnetism as a therapeutic medium however, led
to the entrepreneurial introduction of some remarkable and often
They include Dr. Perkins Patent Tractors, consisting of two dissimilar
metal rods used to prod and caress magnetic impulses into the vitals of
the stricken. The doctor died of yellow fever unable to save himself
with his own gadgets. The Electropathic Belt, designed to give vitality
to the internal organs, relax morbid contractions and renew nerve
force. Dr. Scott's Electric Hairbrush, which not only cured dandruff
but also "soothed the weary brain". The Patent Electric Eye Battery —
an ordinary eye bath in which was immersed a small battery which it was
claimed, would cure specks before the eyes and eye weakness caused by
advanced years or early excesses. And in his Temple of Health, "Dr."
James Graham's Electro-magnetico Celestial Bed was very popular with
those who could afford it. The bed was guaranteed to ensure consummate
pleasure and pregnancy for the couples who queued to pay fifty pounds a
time for magnetically assisted copulation.
For those males inflicted with the curse of impotency, a live nude
goddess would attend with the promise of a cure. The latter I would
suggest would probably be more efficacious than the magnets.
Not all pseudoscientific or paranormal phenomena can be dismissed out
of hand simply because they seem farfetched, although many of the
concomitant claims need to be examined closely rather than accepting
them uncritically — hypnosis is one.
In the twentieth century, hypnosis is used by serious medical
practitioners and New Age hypnotherapists alike. It is the latter with
which I am primarily concerned.
That hypnosis allows accurate and reliable memory retrieval is a common
and fallacious belief. Hypnosis is widely used by practitioners seeking
confirmation of extraordinary claims such as reincarnation, past lives
and UFO abductions, yet in reality studies have shown that memories
retrieved under hypnosis are even more unreliable than normal memories.
Leading questions, auto-suggestion and fabrications by both the
hypnotist and the subject can contribute to creating false memories and
both the subject (and especially a parapsychologist with a proclivity
to believe), are convinced that the memories so retrieved are true
recollections. When specific questions are put to a person under
hypnosis about details of a past life or about a past event, they are
under pressure to provide information of which no memory exists, in
which case the gaps will be filled in with memories and fantasies from
other places and times.
In recent times, the widespread and unregulated advocacy of hypnosis as
a therapy to recover repressed memories has led to uncorroborated
allegations being used as evidence to destroy people's lives.
Through recovered memories, adults who now believe that they were
sexually abused as children have brought legal action against those who
loved them most.
An internationally recognised authority on hypnosis, Martin T. Orne,
(October 1979), had this to say in a paper published in The International Journal of Clinical and
"The courts have
recognised that hypnotic testimony is not reliable as a means of
ascertaining the truth ... that it is possible for a person to feign
hypnosis and deceive even highly experienced hypnotist … and further,
that itis possible for even deeply hypnotised subjects to wilfully
Confirming this, Emest R. Hilgard, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at
Stanford University, sees the use of hypnotic recall as an abuse of
hypnosis, first because of the role that fantasy plays for hypnotically
responsive subjects and second, because abundant evidence exists that
fabrication can take place under hypnosis.
Like so many other groundless beliefs, hypnosis fails to measure up to
many of the claims made on its behalf. In the 1950s and 1960s, control
groups were used in experiments designed to lay the ghost once and for
One experiment consisted of three groups. The first was given the usual
hypnotic induction procedure, the second group was asked to imagine
suggested to them and a third was simply urged to do their best to
respond to suggestions. While all three groups responded to suggestions
for age regression, hallucination, amnesia and pain reduction, the
subjects who showed up best in tests of hypnotic susceptibility were
those who had been asked to pretend to be hypnotised. Furthermore,
their performance could be improved with some training. In other words,
what had been thought of as a genetically-endowed susceptibility was in
fact a skill which could be learned. The fact is that the hypnotic
subjects knew how they were supposed to behave and endeavoured to
behave in the manner defined by the hypnotist and understood by them.
Post hypnotic suggestion, that is, when a subject is told that he will
perform a certain action on cue after waking up, has also been shown
Thirteen subjects were told to scratch their ear when they heard the
word "psychology". They all did so. The hypnotist gave the impression
that the experiment was over and had an informal conversation with a
colleague, in which the cue word was used. Nine of the subjects failed
to respond. When told that the experiment was still in progress, seven
of those nine began responding again. Later, when a confederate posing
as a lost student asked for the Psychology Department, none of the
subjects responded to the cue word.
In his book, The Superconscious World,
Peter J. Reeven, a professional hypnotist, relates how David Marks, a
New Zealand psychologist, selected three secretaries from a TV station
and invited them to lunch. As their car drew up at the restaurant door,
an armed robbery took place outside a garage across the road. Later,
the three secretaries were questioned under hypnosis about the colour
of the get-away car, a detailed description of the robbery, and the
number of people involved. All three gave different answers, even to
the sex of the criminals. The whole event had been staged in order to
prove that hypnosis does not work in enhancing total recall.
While there have been many claims of hypnosis being used to reduce the
effects of pain, medical workers worldwide have been unable to
replicate successes claimed by physicians employing hypnotic analgesia.
Where thorough investigations have been carried out, hypnotic analgesia
has suffered the same flaws that have ruined the claims for acupuncture
analgesia; the treatment has almost always been accompanied by chemical
anaesthetics, sedation or local anaesthesia.
There appears to be little consensus in law for the validity of
hypnosis. In Los Angeles, it was ruled that testimony from hypnotised
witnesses was not admissible. In Canada, hypnotic suggestion is allowed
as a defence along with such influences as drugs and alcohol, and the
American Law Institute's Model Penal Code claims that anyone following
hypnotic suggestion is not acting voluntarily and therefore cannot be
considered criminally liable.
Of concern to sceptics is the rash of accusations of sexual abuse
levelled at members of the community in recent years by people who have
sought the services of psychologists using hypnotherapy. Patients
seeking treatment for depression who have been hypnotised to "recover"
childhood memories are coming out of therapy claiming to be sexual
abuse victims. Opponents label it the "false memory syndrome" and claim
that therapists trigger the memories by asking leading questions and
suggesting that the abuse happened. The results of these false
accusations have had devastating results.
Dlhopolsky, J.G. 1984. "Hypnosis Memories Found Error-Prone and
Pliable." Skeptical Inquirer.
Dywan, J. and Bowers, K. 1983. The Use of Hypnosis to Enhance Recall. Science, 222, 184-185.
Gibbs, Andrew. 1997. The Reality of Recovered Memories. the Skeptic, Vo1.17, No.2. p.21-29.
Australian Skeptics Inc.
Hilgard, E. 1977. "Hypnosis Gives Rise to Fantasy and Is Not a Truth
Serum." Skeptical Inquirer.
Hobson, J. and McCarley, R. 1922. "Brain as a Dream State Generator." American Journal of Psychiatry.
Reveen. Peter J. 1987. Fantasising Under Hypnosis. Some Experimental
Evidence. Skeptical Inquirer,
Sleet, Roger. 1988. Hypnotherapy: Is
it for you? Element Books, Longmead, Shaftsbury, Dorset.
Smith, M. 1983. "Hypnotic Memory Enhancement of Witnesses: Does It
Work? Psychological Bulletin,
Spanos. Nicholas P. 1987. Past-Life Hypnotic Regression: A Critical
Review. Skeptical Inquirer,
Venn, Jonathan. 1988. Hypnosis and Reincarnation: A Critique and Case
Study. Skeptical Inquirer,
Williams, Barry. 1994. Abuse by Whom? the
From: Edwards, H. 1999 Alternative, Complementary, Holistic &
Spiritual Healing, Australian Skeptics Inc