Re: Hypnosis

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Sun Nov 26 1995 - 17:50:25 GMT

> From: "EMMA FLETCHER" <>
> Date: Fri, 17 Nov 1995 10:20:44 GMT
ef> Can the hypnotic state really be seen as being displayed through
ef> unconscious, yet deliberate and responsive actions? The subject may
ef> claim, and genuinely believe, that their actions originated from an
ef> inexplicable source; [whether they just] carried out the
ef> demands of the experimenter or experienced sensory stimulation remains
ef> unanswered in their minds. (But how can one provide substantial evidence
ef> as to how and why we do anything)?

It's not just a problem for hypnotic SUBJECTS to know whether or not
they have really been in a "special" state; it is also a problem for the
hypnotist or experimenter. This is a special case of the "other minds"
problem: How can you tell for sure what (if anything) is going on in
someone else's mind. We are not, after all, mind-readers. And if with
hypnosis even the subject can't know for sure, how can anyone?

You're right to point out that we don't really know the causal story --
the how/why story -- of anything we do, from the simplest thing to the
most complicated. Nor can we read other people's minds and say what the
internal causes of what they are doing or feeling are. So the problem
of ascertaining what is or is not really going on in a hypnotic
subject's head is just a special case of the problem of ascertaining
what is or is not really going on in anyone's head.

Hypnosis is special, though, in that it seems to involve unusual
perceptual effects (analgesia), memory effects (amnesia), and cognitive
effects (trance logic). The fact that they are unusual -- normally you
can trust a person's report that they do not feel pain, or do not
remember -- makes them especially problematic.

ef> Perhaps the central issue should be "does a hypnotic state exist?". Is
ef> hypnotic behaviour really a response to the mind's processing of
ef> unconscious reasoning?

I'm not sure what you mean by the "processing of unconscious processing"
(one processing seems enough!), but the question about the reality of
the hypnotic state concerns whether subjects hypnotised not to feel pain
REALLY don't feel it (in which case they really are in a different
state from the rest of us, since we would presumably have felt the
pain), and whether those hypnotised to forget REALLY forget. Or are they
just being compliant in some way, acting as if it doesn't hurt because
that's what's expected of them?

ef> "...genuine hypnotic responses are involuntary phenomena
ef> rather than deliberate actions" p.449
ef> Do "amnesic barriers" really develop in the mind, or are the subjects
ef> just highly suggestible, and thus influenced by the type of words
ef> within the command sentences?

In other words, do they really forget, or do they just act as if they

ef> The dominance that the experimenter holds
ef> over the subject may account for the extent to which the subject
ef> responds to the suggestions.

Not sure what you mean by "dominance." It is currently believed that if
hypnosis is indeed a special state, then the ability to be hypnotised is
a property of the subject rather than the experimenter. (A very good
subject can be hypnotised even by a very unskilled hypnotist.) It is not
"dominance" that is involved, but suggestibility: The subject's ability
to not feel pain when told not to.

ef> Similarly the expectations, and
ef> preconceptions held by the subject may have some impact on the
ef> results, as self-induced, false experiences may result due to the fact
ef> that the subject feels a need to fulfill the criteria, and please the
ef> experimenter. (The" fake good" factor). But this does not resolve the
ef> question of whether the hypnotic state exists.

If we could know whether subjects hypnotised not to feel pain really
don't feel pain or just act as if they don't, that would resolve it.

If it is true that those subjects who get very high scores on tests of
hypnotic susceptibility can have surgery performed on them without
anesthesia, this would settle the matter, as there is no reason people
can go THAT far in just acting as if it doesn't hurt!

Note, though, that Spanos sticks to the cases of mild analgesia that
people CAN fake, so his experiments don't settle the matter one way or
the other.

ef> Evidence may be seen to be questionable, as [] whether the
ef> hypnosis occurred can only be truly substantiated by the subject
ef> himself. What happens then if the subject KNOWS that he was hypnotised,
ef> but really he only THINKS that he was? (e.g. I may believe that I was
ef> in a hypnotic state, when really the phrasing used led me to believe
ef> that my response was due to "involuntary phenomena rather than
ef> deliberate actions" p449).

To keep it in focus, stick to the example of pain: We often use pain as
an example of the kind of thing Descartes (correctly) said we could not
doubt: If it feels to me as if it hurts, I can't doubt that. Same if it
feels as if it DOESN'T hurt. So a subject cannot be "unsure" about
whether or not something hurts. (They can be unsure about whether it
hurts a tiny bit, but not about whether or not it hurts a LOT.)

So with a hypnotic subject, if you are that subject, and the hypnotist
says I will extract your tooth without anesthesia and it won't hurt, and
he does it, and it doesn't hurt, YOU can be sure you were hypnotised.
But how can WE be sure you were hypnotised? With a tooth extraction, I
think we can take your word for it without much fear of getting it
wrong. With Spanos's experiments involving only a tiny bit of pain, pain
that normal subjects can put up with without any effort, it's much
harder to say whether or not you were really in a special state: It's
hard for you to know, and hard for anyone else to know.

ef> However, how does this account for phenomena like hypnotic analgesia?
ef> Would subjects allow themselves to be subjected to potentially painful
ef> treatments if hypnosis was just a figment of their imagination,
ef> implanted by a few words?

That's right. For extreme pain, there is little room for doubt.

ef> Perhaps the withstanding of pain may be
ef> accounted for in a similar way. i.e. Does the subject's belief that he
ef> can suppress pain lead to pain suppression?

No. The subjects' hypnotic susceptibility is the predictor of whether
or not the hypnosis will work, not their belief in hypnosis, one way or
the other.

ef> Experiments with "low
ef> suggestibility" groups may be seen to point towards this explanation,
ef> although once again no clear evidence can be submitted. Which leads us
ef> back to the question "Does a hypnotic state exist ?"...

Low susceptibility subjects and low intensity pain unfortunately cannot
settle the matter, and Spanos avoided looking at the high-susceptibility
subjects and high-intensity pain too closely. All in all, I don't think
he shows that hypnosis is just social compliance.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Tue Feb 13 2001 - 16:24:14 GMT