One might say auto-suggestion arises from the unconscious or from a dissociated stream of consciousness, and this would make it account for hallucinations and obsessions, but here we must again take account of borderline cases. The person who feels a cold shiver at the mention of a snake cannot tell us precisely to what extent the shiver is due to conscious thoughts, or whether he feels it just because he must; and the feeling may be due to what he remembers being told about snakes, in which case it would not be due to pure auto-suggestion.
The explanation of the success of suggestion in particular cases is to be sought in the emotional state of the subject. When I was the victim, as described above, my readiness to believe arose from my being accustomed to nocturnal interruptions when my patients were in trouble and also from my reliance on the hospital staff, my emotional state being one of expectation and confidence. If to these influences are added stronger emotional forces, such as wonder or terror, acceptance of suggestion is still easier, and when people assembled together are swayed by these feelings the Herd Instinct reaches its full strength and we have the ingredients for the manufacture of a collective delusion. There are many examples of strange and supernatural occurrences vouched for by masses of observers, and I see no reason to doubt the good faith of the historians. We all know how infectious is emotion and how hard it is for one man to remain unmoved when around him are others all under the influence of some excitement, and man always insists on finding reasons for his feelings or objects for his emotions. When wonder or terror are roused by the operation of the Herd Instinct, the individual, not knowing their origin, projects them externally and seeks an object for them. He is now ready to see or hear anything that will fit his emotions, and when an object is suggested he will speedily accept its existence as a reality.
I will give some further examples of suggestion in varying degrees of strength. During the arrival of recently wounded men at a hospital in France, I was in a ward with two eminent members of my profession and another medical officer. As one man seemed bad the sister asked me to see him at once; his left arm was paralysed, and he had a wound on the head where in the brain beneath lies the ‘motor area’ of the left arm. Looking at the wound, which was obscured by hair and blood, I said, ‘That’s pulsating’; the two consultants and the other officer agreed with my observation, and appropriate treatment was recommended. The importance of pulsation lies in the fact that it is a sign of the exposure of brain substance, which pulsates strongly, and in this case it signified the presence of a hole in the skull which allowed the pulsation to appear; but in the operating theatre shortly afterwards the skull was found intact, and therefore pulsation had not been present.
How did this joint error of observation arise? The combination of a gunshot wound of the head with a paralysed limb may occur in connection with a hole in the skull, and such penetrating wounds were common before the introduction of helmets. My unconscious had worked out the probabilities and led me to expect the signs of penetration; deceiving myself, by my confident manner I imposed my belief upon my colleagues, who had, I may assume, placed unjustified confidence in my reliability as an observer; and we all saw that which was not.
Another example shows how ghost stories arise: A man related to me how at the age of sixteen he was sleeping with his brother, and woke up to see a ghostly face on the wall. So far we have an ordinary half-awake hallucinatory condition, which is not uncommon; but the lad became terrified and tried to cover his head to hide the sight, when the brother woke up, and, being told of the face, promptly saw it too. The brother’s evidence is strongly corroborative, not of the presence of a ghost, but of the power of suggestion when the way is prepared by strong emotion. It may be remarked that the man was one of those nervous people who fear the dark or being alone; seeing a ghost was not the cause of his condition, but resulted from the inculcation of a belief in ghosts in a person predisposed to fall a prey to his own unconscious.
The next example is a well-worn tale which has been quoted by Frank Podmore, W. H. Myers, Sir William Barrett, and probably many others. I take it from pages 62 and 63 of _Human Personality_, vol. i.
[Footnote 12: Longmans & Co., London, 1903.]
It (the account) was given by Mr. Charles Lett on December 3, 1885, and reads as follows:–
‘On the 5th of April, 1873, my wife’s father, Captain Towns, died at his residence, Cranbrook, Rose Bay, near Sydney, New South Wales. About six weeks after his death my wife had occasion, one evening about nine o’clock, to go to one of the bedrooms in the house. She was accompanied by a young lady, Miss Britton, and as they entered the room–the gas was burning all the time–they were amazed to see, reflected as it were upon the polished surface of the wardrobe, the image of Captain Towns. It was barely half-figure, the head, shoulders, and part of the arms only showing–in fact it was like an ordinary medallion portrait, but life-size. The face appeared wan and pale, as it did before his death; he wore a kind of grey flannel jacket, in which he had been accustomed to sleep. Surprised and half alarmed at what they saw, their first idea was that a portrait had been hung in the room, and that what they saw was its reflection, but there was no picture of the kind.