5. Hypnosis, volition, and mind control

5.1. Is the hypnotist in control of me?

The exact nature of what we experience as 'will' or volition is an age-old philosophical problem that has yet to be resolved by brain scientists or psychologists.

Some aspects of hypnotic responding point out weaknesses in our understanding of the nature of volition, such as: its exact relationship to conscious awareness; the capacity and limitations of external stimulii (such as 'suggestion') to influence our sensory experience and behavior; and the details of the patterns by which specific phenomenological and physiological events influence each other.

The vast majority of hypnosis researchers seem to believe that the individual has a capacity for volition which may be influenced but not ablated by hypnotic suggestion. That the individual under hypnosis is still acting on their own will in some sense, although possibly with distorted or limited information presented by the hypnotist. In addition, there may be influences on their behavior which the subject is not consciously aware of responding to, or does not report an awareness of responding to. This has been challenged by some theorists by questioning the nature of self-awareness itself in various ways.

The question of volition becomes important when we consider the long-studied question of whether a hypnotist can influence an individual to perform behaviors which they would not 'ordinarily' want to perform, such as to commit crimes or to injure themselves or others.

This issue arose in part from the commonly held premise that an individual's character traits are more important than immediate stimulii in guiding their behavior. Some of the behaviorist theorists of hypnosis have historically downplayed the stable traits of individuals and attributed their behavior to a greater extent to responses to external stimulii. To them, there is less question of 'ordinary' behavior, and more a matter of conditioned responses. Andrew Salter's What is Hypnosis published in the middle of this (20th) century is a good representation of that viewpoint.

The likelihood is that the truth lies between stable character theory and conditioned response theory. There are seemingly what some call 'ecological' concerns in hypnotic responding, aspects of an individual's experience that will tend to be consistent with each other, or to move toward consistency (one older example being the theory of 'cognitive dissonance').

Individuals can probably be influenced under a situation of contrived hypnotic imagery to do things that would ordinarily be considered very unusual, and to do them at unusual times and places. But there are clearly 'ecological' limits to this as well.

For example, most studies have sugggested that the individual can and does reject suggestions of some types, in some way, both during hypnosis, and in the form of post-hypnotic suggestions, and is not being coerced directly under hypnosis to act against their 'will' in any meaningful sense, though they may act under false premises.

A classic early study supporting this view was done by Milton Erickson, published in Psychiatry in 1939 (2,391-414), "An experimental investigation of the possible anti-social use of hypnosis." M.T. Orne's similar view is represented by his chapter on hypnosis in the 1961 The Manipulation of Human Behavior, by Biderman and Zimmer (p. 169-215). Orne argues that the coercion or 'Svengali Effect' sometimes attributed to hypnosis is an artifact of the hypnotic experimental situation.

However, it has also been shown that an individual can be tricked by the hypnotist, and possibly led by their trust in the hypnotist, to perform unusual behaviors in unusual situations, even potentially dangerous or embarrasing ones. This potential is well known to fans of 'stage hypnosis,' particularly with that subset of individual's particularly susceptible to the dramatic tactics of the stage hypnotist. These tactics are for the most part different from the classical induction used in medicine and psychotherapy, relying on surprise, sudden confusion, social pressure, and other factors not unknown to medical hypnotherapists, but not normally emphasized by them either.

A classic study which illustrated how far individuals would go in hypnotic responses to contrived hypnotic situations was Loyd W. Rowland, "Will Hypnotized Persons Try To Harm Themselves or Others?", Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 34(1939):114-117. This study is described in William Corliss' The Unfathomed Mind: A Handbook of Unusual Mental Phenomena, pp. 120-123. This study showed subjects sticking their hands into boxes with what they presumably believed were live rattlesnakes, and throwing concentrated acid into what they presumably believed was the unprotected face of another person.

Other studies showing response to suggestions of anti-social behavior in an experimental setting included:

Various authors have reported attempts by the U.S. CIA to research or use hypnotic techniques for mind control. All seem to report failure rates consistent with the experimental findings. Some people in some situations are apparently vulnerable to sudden confusion techniques of suggestion, but the use of classical hypnosis as 'mind control' is entirely unreliable in general. If you consider the speeches of a powerful orator or evangelical preacher to be a form of hypnosis, this seems to be the type most powerful in influencing the minds of people. And this type of situation is perhaps as well described in terms of social/group psychology as individual response to hypnotic suggestion.

Another class of mind control technology reportedly attempted was the deliberate cultivation of secondary or multiple personalities. The true nature of multiple personality disorder is still under intensive research, with a few leads from PET scans suggesting that in some people, a true neurological distinction between personality states may occur, in spite of the apparent inability of EEG to pick up such a distinction. If true, this would tend to imply that at least for some individuals, Hilgard's neo-dissociation theory is closest to the truth, and that a cognitive dissociation of some sort does literally occur. As with the mind control attempts based on stage hypnosis, this never seems to have been considered practical as a means of controlling the minds of individuals in general.

The experimental studies showing people performing aberrant, criminal, or self-destructive acts have long been criticized, notably by M.T. Orne, as reflecting the implicit trust of the hypnotic subject that the experimenter would not put them into truly dangerous situations during the experiment, and that the experimental conditions were too contrived to represent what the individual would do in real life. The dialog here is obviously very reminiscent of the critiques of Stanley Milgram's "obedience to authority" experiments, where subjects believed they were giving progressively more painful and dangerous electric shocks to other subjects as part of a behavioral learning experiment.

Which brings us to reports of someone actually committing a crime, or becoming the victim of one, under the influence of hypnosis, outside of the experimental laboratory. Leo Katz, Bad Acts and Guilty Minds, 1987, University of Chicago Press, pp. 128-133, describes cases of crimes committed by patients of unethical hypnotists. The Fortean Times, #58, July 1991, reports in an article "The Eyes Have It," by Michael Gross, the prosecution of a man who sexually assaulted at least 113 women, preceded by hypnosis, and the revocation of the medical license of a psychiatrist in 1982 for abusing women under hypnosis.

Similar allegations and sometimes prosecutions of cases of misconduct or rape with the aid of hypnosis by therapists have been reported in the media in recent years as well.

The actual role of hypnosis in each of these cases is unknown. It is likely that it provided the abusing therapists assistance in the seduction of the women in question, but that again, it was a matter of using the hypnotic induction to abuse their already elevated trust in the therapist at least as much as any loss of their 'will to resist' at the time of the abuse.

For contrast, compare the case of a victim being drugged into helplessness. There is no evidence that hypnotic procedures ever 'drug' individuals into helplessness, or that they are in any sense actively resisting things that they do or allow under hypnosis. There is, however, good reason to believe that the relaxation and vivid imagery of the hypnotic situation makes it easier to 'trick' an individual in some sense into doing something that they wouldn't 'ordinarily' do in that particular situation with that particular person at that time. Thus the justifiable sense of remorse and violation when they realize what they've been led to do. Not dissimilar from the also controversial situation with abuse or alleged abuse by parents, where the child's implicit trust in the parent's interest in their welfare often complicates the evaluation and treatment of the situation after the fact.

5.2. Voluntary vs. Involuntary

Who or what is in control when a hypnotist gives a suggestion, and their subject apparently responds, but reports that they had no awareness of responding? Is it the same mechanism in some ways as that in control during biofeedback experiments when the subject has no direct awareness of altering markers of their physiological functions? Or is it closer to the mechanism that permits the well known 'automatisms' or behaviors performed by habit outside our awareness? Or are these all aspects of the the same mechanism in some way?

These behaviors have all long been called 'involuntary' responses, and this is what provides the impression that the hypnotist is directly controlling the subject. Weitzenhoffer in 1974 called this the "Classical Suggestion Effect," the "transformation of the essential, manifest, ideational content of a communication" into behavior that appears involuntary.

What exactly does it mean for a behavior to appear to be involuntary? In their 1991 Theories of Hypnosis, Lynn and Rhue identify three distinct views of involuntariness in hypnnosis:

  1. The experience of diminished or absent control over a behavior
  2. The inability to resist a suggestion
  3. An automatic response, experienced as effortless and uncaused by the subject, but with a capacity in reserve to resist if desired.

#1 above, apparently a blocking of awareness of feedback about a behavior, is a common experience in hypnosis. Some theorists contend that this kind of experience is actually the defining characteristic of hypnosis.

#2 above has very few supporters today. Most modern hypnosis experts agree that their subject can and does resist undesireable suggestions. Even the neo-dissociation viewpoint, which holds that cognitive function can split into differing factions, never admits to a complete relinquishing of control of the 'will,' more a removal from a usual high level executive planning function.

#3 above is the most controversial of the three views. The subjective perception of non-volition in hypnosis is widely agreed upon, and the idea of at least a latent capacity to resist suggestions in some way is also pretty much agreed upon by experts. But the notion of effortless reponse with no active involvement by the individual is controversial. The social-psychological view holds that the individual is actively carrying out the suggestion, the neo-dissociative view holds that the individual's volition is 'split' and that they are actively carrying out the suggestion with one part, and accurately reporting a lack of volition with another part. The older ideomotor theory held that the response was a direct result of the suggestion, presumably some automated language-behavior response mechanism ('the unconscious') that they believed a hypnotist could tap in to.

The final details of what aspects of the social psychological view, what aspects of the neo-dissociative cognitive view, and what aspects of various others are actually the best description for various hypnotic phenomena are largely up to future research to determine.

5.3. Conscious vs. Unconscious

Is there actually an 'unconscious mind' in some sense? And if so, does it explain certain kinds of response to hypnotic suggestion?

First, it is very likely that information is actually processed, at least under certain conditions, outside of conscious awareness, and that it can influence behavior. A modern look at this old topic can be found in Kihlstrom's 1987 Science article, "The Cognitive Unconscious," 237, 1445-1452. This is not to say that any particular 'subliminal learning' claims have support from this notion, only that it is possible for perception of a sort to occur without apparent conscious awareness.

One study demonstrating a subliminal influence on subsequent behavior was Borgeat & Goulet, 1983, "Psychophysiological changes following auditory subliminal suggestions for activation and deactivation," appearing in Perceptual & Motor Skills. 56(3):759-66, 1983 Jun.

This study was to measure eventual psychophysiological changes resulting from auditory subliminal activation or deactivation suggestions. 18 subjects were alternately exposed to a control situation and to 25-dB activating and deactivating suggestions masked by a 40-dB white noise. Physiological measures (EMG, heart rate, skin-conductance levels and responses, and skin temperature) were recorded while subjects listened passively to the suggestions, during a stressing task that followed and after that task. Multivariate analysis of variance showed a significant effect of the activation subliminal suggestions during and following the stressing task. This result is discussed as indicating effects of consciously unrecognized perceptions on psychophysiological responses.

A hypnotic subject clearly also takes an active and voluntary role in some sense as well when carrying out suggestions, as pointed out by Spanos and the social-psychological theorists.

Perhaps the data showing this contrast most strikingly is from the study of 'hypnotic blindness.' One example is Bryant and McConkey's 1989 "Hypnotic Blindness: A Behavioral and Experimental Analysis," Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 98, 71-77, and also p. 443-447, "Hypnotic Blindness, Awareness, and Attribution." Subjects given hypnotic suggestions for blindness behave in some ways as if they were truly blind, and in other, often subtle and unexpected ways, the information from their visual field influences their behavior.

It appears that some form of neurological events involving more or less intelligent response to information can occur, in or out of hypnosis, without our direct awareness of them. One theory proposes that the brain has a simultaneous parallel capacity for cognitive learning and for stimulus-response learning, independently of each other and by different neural mechanisms. This has been proposed by some as a partial explanation for automatisms and some hypnotic responses. One version of this view may be found in the article by Mishkin, Malamut, and Bachevalier, "Memories and Habits: Two Neural Systems," in The Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior, edited by McGangh, Lynch, and Weinberger, by Guilford Press.

It is important to recognize that the detailed physiological mechanisms underlying the processing of information in general are largely speculative, and that the gaps in our understanding of hypnotic phenomena (or 'states of consciousness' in general) complicate the situation. It has been contended that even some of the simpler forms of learning and information processing consist of a number of different processes, each with its own special properties.

One important distinction is between explicit and implicit learning. Explicit learning is what we commonly think of as doing as part of the conscious reasoning process when we try to learn something deliberately. It generally involves reasoning and hypothesis testing. Implicit learning is acquiring new information which either cannot be verballized, or which occurs apparently without conscious reasoning and hypothesis testing. Kihlstrom, one investigator of hypnotic and unconscious psychological processes, has shown that a particular variant of implicit learning, involving certain non-novel information (such as word pairings), can occur under medical anesthesia. The degree to which this can be considered a form of learning in the more general non-technical sense is difficult to say, and the precise neurobiological mechanism of anesthesia is likewise somewhat elusive. But it has also been observed that implicitly learned material has certain unique characteristics, as compared to explicitly learned material, such as that implicit material is more often preserved intact in cases of amnesia.

Some examples of research into learning and perception which occurs outside of sensory (visual) attention:

Some examples of research into multiple foci of attention:

On the concept of attention in general:


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