Peter Field on hypnotic communication and experience


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From “Humanistic Aspects of Hypnotic Communication in "Hypnosis: Research Developments and Perspectives". Ed. Fromm and Shor. (1973) London. Paul Elek. pp481-493

   Humanism as a coherent intellectual force is far more than a rejection of mechanistic and orthodox psychologies.  It is a commitment to the values underlying the humanities and the arts, as well as the sciences.  For example, the humanities and the arts value imagination, illusion, drama, and fantasy.  In contrast to technological and mechanistic movements, the humanities and the arts value myth over reality, idealism over materialism, feeling over thinking, intuition over analysis.  Creativity and originality are valued more than certainty.  Merely classical or academic values are subordinated to humane concerns.  The humanities and the arts do not communicate or reach understanding through detached objectivity, but through identification, participation, and emotional relatedness.

   What has this to do with hypnotic communication?   It is well known that hypnosis involves nonrational, emotional aspects, that there is an art to giving suggestions, and that  the hypnotist could not be mistaken for a detached transmitter of a logical analysis.  Moreover, there is already available an extended and persuasive comparison of hypnosis to one of the humanistic arts – the theatre.  In many publications Sarbin has presented a role-taking theory of hypnosis that points out analogies between an actor and a hypnotized subject, and between the hypnotist and a stage director (Sarbin and Andersen, 1967).  Obviously there are some important similarities between the hypnotized subject who “becomes” a child and the actor who merges with his role.  However, I would like to consider the possibility that there may be equally striking analogies between hypnotic communication and the imaginative, myth-creating processes found in the other humanities and arts.  The hypnotist is not only a stage director, but also a painter who communicates through vivid images; a creative writer, who holds his readers spellbound; a musician, who communicates through intonation, rhythm, and timbre; and a poet, who induces feeling through creative and evocative use of words. 

It is no accident that works of art that create emotional impact are called “hypnotic” or “fascinating”.  In fact, the same process of absorption is induced by both the hypnotist and by any artist whose works create interest or a sense of immediacy.

   Some aspects of hypnotic communication become clearer in this perspective.  The relaxation of the touch taboo during hypnosis means that the hypnotist is communicating emotionally, is touching the subject in the metaphorical sense of the term.  He is having impact upon the subject, touching his emotions, and affecting him, as a work of art touches us.  The hypnotist’s gestures perhaps grow out of this relaxation of the touch taboo.  They signify emotional impact, not mere logical communication.

   The musical aspects of hypnotic communication are another point of comparison between one of the arts and hypnosis. The singsong, lyrical quality of the hypnotist’s language means that he is not communicating mere facts, but is touching the subject at another level.  In primitive tribes, music, rhythmic chanting, drums, and so on, are used to induce hypnosis Gill & Brenman, 1959).  Music is wordless communication.  A person can listen to music closely, become absorbed in it, and lose himself in it, without the need to treat it logically, to analyze it, to be practical or realistic about it.  This receptivity without analysis is one of the hypnotist’s goals.  Shor (1960) has used absorption in music and art as one of the indices of susceptibility to trancelike experiences in everyday life.

   Josephine Hilgard (1970, and in E.R. Hilgard, 1965b) has presented a great deal of evidence concerning the importance of imaginative involvement in the personality of hypnotizable subjects.  She has found that the hypnotizable person is “capable of deep involvement in one or more imaginative-feeling areas of experience – reading a novel, listening to music, having an aesthetic experience of nature, or engaging in absorbing adventures of body or mind” (1970, pp. 4-5).  Her research shows that hypnotisability is related to individual differences in absorption in such humanistic pursuits as the dramatic arts, externally-directed fantasy, religion, exploration, and emotional response to nature. She also reports a relationship between hypnotisability and choice of major among her college-student subjects.  The humanities majors were the most susceptible, social science majors next, and science and engineering students the least hypnotizable.  The rigorous verbal, mathematical, and logical reasoning among science students may not be compatible with absorption in unrealistic or unconventional fantasy.  Similarly, Cor (1964) found that drama students were more hypnotizable that science students, and Shor (1970) has noted similarities between hypnosis and absorption in imaginative literature.  Apparently there is a close relationship between hypnotic susceptibility and the processes of imaginative fantasy, aesthetic involvement, and capacity for absorption in dramatic imagery.

   Another aspect of artistic and humanistic structuring of the hypnotic communication is the focus upon the subjective effect, and the progressive, gradual building toward it.  For example, on the Standord Hypnotic Susceptibility Scale (Weizenhoffer & Hilgard, 1959), some effort is made to convince the subject that he did in fact experience each phenomenon.  On the Hands Moving (Together) item, the hypnotist brings the subject’s hands together rapidly to demonstrate how much they had already moved together involuntarily.  Plainly, subjective effect is an important issue in hypnosis, just as it is in the humanities.  If a novel has no subjective effect or impact, it will not be read.  Subjective experience is also an important issue for humanistic psychology, since it provides an intuitive insight into private and intimate feelings, and since it provides an alternative to mechanistic features of behaviorism.  The progressive building up to a subjective effect can also be seen within the Stanford scale.  On all items, suggestions are repeated with variations in wording until the effect is ready for testing.  This is similar to the progressive building of tension with a motion picture, and to the presentation and re-presentation of a theme in music.

   The term “suggestion” has two meanings, one of which casts light on some of the problems of hypnotic communication.  Its more familiar technical meaning is the transmission of influence or ideas, and their uncritical acceptance.  Since this could be compared to molding plastic in a machine, it may be called the mechanistic meaning of suggestion.  It implies a passive recipient, a suspension of reason, and the implantation of an idea.  But suggestion also has a second meaning, as Young (1931) pointed out long ago.  This is suggestion as indirection, hinting, or intimating.  The hypnotist does not communicate ideas prosaically, but presents them indirectly, in images, or while the subject’s attention is distracted.  This, of course, is precisely the kind of communication seen in the humanities and the arts.  A playwright does not say a person is bad; he shows his actions and lets the audience respond appropriately.  An artist does not need to explain or to argue; he communicates by presenting concrete images.  This indirect communication may be called the humanistic aspect of suggestion.  It is prominent in hypnotic communication.  Instead of askng a person directly to do something, the hypnotist asks him to let it happen involuntarily, or to imagine that it is happening, and to find that it then does happen.  

   From the standpoint of putting across a specific formal message, suggestion is indirect.  But from the standpoint of emotional impact and access to primitive, nonrational modes of thinking, suggestion can be very direct.  The reason for this is that suggestion uses imagery and symbolism, and seeks to circumvent the logical apparatus.  As a result, suggestion at its best is very vivid, immediate, and concrete.  As a case in point, George Grosz’s drawings do not constitute a formal psychological analysis of pre-Hitler Germany, and from this purely logical standpoint they are indirect.  But when considered in terms of emotional impact, vividness of imagery, and immediacy, they are very direct indeed.  Similarly, the hypnotic suggestion to hallucinate an ideal self is indirect from the standpoint of a logical analysis of a person’s strengths and weaknesses, but it gives a very direct and concrete representation of a self-concept....

   The hypnotized subject is not a malfunctioning logician or a scientist manqué, but a humanist, an artist.  He is responding to themes, impressions, harmony.  He is feeling spontaneously and emotionally.  Humanistic and artistic concepts may help to understand these processes.  This does not mean abandoning hardheaded thinking, but it is possible to be too tough-minded as well as too tender-minded.  Humanistic and artistic issues that might  be relevant include the tension between variety and thematic unification, the rise and fall of dramatic suspense, absorption of interests, and preparation for one effect with another effect.  One practical example may help to illustrate these points.  The mechanistic approach to suggestion would emphasize repetitious implanting, while the humanistic approach might emphasize the interweaving of two or more suggestions, the introduction of a theme and the later return to it, or the modification of suggestions by feedback from the subject.  These ideas owe much to Erickson (1952), especially to his distinction between ritualistic and individualized induction methods, which is closely related to the distinction between mechanistic and humanistic suggestion.