The history of hypnotism is closely associated with that of charlatanry, though at some periods the practice has reached an honourable position in therapeutics. The ‘temple sleep’ of ancient Greek medicine was a hypnosis, but in later days hypnotism fell into oblivion till the time of Mesmer, when it was so mingled with quackery and theatrical display that some disrepute is even to this day attached to its honest use in curative medicine.
The common attitude to it is one of mistrust. Thanks to its exploitation by novelists, ‘hypnotic power’ is regarded as marvellous and uncanny, and the mysterious person who exercises it is able to lead his victims along any path. The fashion for public shows of Mesmerism has apparently died away, their place being taken by thought-reading performances which cater for the desire of man to believe that he is seeing a manifestation of the occult.
The ‘mesmeric eye’, whose pupil dilates or contracts at the will of its owner while its gaze remains fixed, has by imaginative writers been ascribed alike to Lord Kitchener and the monk Rasputin, and presents a phenomenon unknown to physiologists. The ‘will-power’ of the hypnotist is as much a product of imagination, whilst the confident and willing co-operation of the subject is really the factor of most importance.
Nobody but a very credulous person can be hypnotised against his will, and at the beginning of the process the full co-operation of the subject is necessary, though with repeated sittings his suggestibility becomes increased and to that extent his ‘will-power’ may be said to have diminished.
In the induction of hypnosis the essentials are quiet surroundings and confidence of success on the part of both operator and subject. The subject is then led to think only of the operator and his remarks and directions, whilst generally some mechanical method is used which by tiring the eyes produces a feeling of sleepiness. Success varies according to the skill and confidence of the operator and their persuasive effect on the subject.
Several sittings may be necessary before any depth of hypnosis is obtained. If the result is successful the stream of consciousness is thinned out and its place is taken by other thoughts and suggestions supplied by the operator. In light hypnosis there is produced a condition in which suggestions concerning, say, the cessation of bad habits or modes of thought are more readily accepted than in the normal state of consciousness, the subject having afterwards a complete memory of the sitting. In deeper stages hypnotic sleep is produced, suggestions concerning the bodily functions–producing, for example, temporary rigidity or paralysis or loss of feeling–may take effect, and the memory of the sitting may not be recalled afterwards; the subject may carry out various movements by direction of the operator, and may believe what his senses should contradict. In this deeper stage he is in a condition to receive suggestions as to actions to be performed after the hypnotic state has ceased.
The explanation of the increased suggestibility of the hypnotic subject lies in the abolition, total or partial, of his stream of consciousness. Such critical powers as he possesses are suspended and he has no standard by which to judge assertions presented to him, like a man in a dream who through a similar absence of standards of comparison sees no absurdity in the suspension of the laws of gravity. The unconscious of the subject is now accessible to suggestions which may be planted there and will bear fruit even if the subject is unaware of them. It is an experimental commonplace for a subject, told in a hypnotic state to perform a simple but unnecessary action after waking, to invent a rationalisation to account for doing it, whilst having no suspicion that he does it as a result of suggestion.
But throughout all the stages he still has a volition of his own and will do nothing that seriously conflicts with his well-rooted ideas of conduct. If he is persuaded that an imaginary some one is sitting in a chair, and is directed to stab him with an imaginary knife, he will perhaps do so, for he would not object to doing so in his waking state; but suggest to him that he should steal a real watch, and if he be a man of ordinary honesty he will find reasons for not stealing it, though perhaps the man of criminal tendencies would fall to the suggestion.