Monday, January 5, 2015


Reading the chapter on Hypnotism in Frederic W.H. Myers’ Human Personality—which describes the state of this art or practice at the end of the nineteenth century, the thought occurred that hypnotism might be classified as a branch of paramedicine. I use that term in a new way. The word, I just discovered, is already in use in connection with emergency medical services—in which the paramedics are highly active. But in that usage, the para prefix (meaning “beyond”) is here derived from parachute, seeing that the earliest use of “paramedic” was to designate medical corpsmen arriving on the scene after jumping from airplanes.

In my usage here, the analogue is parapsychology—thus the extension of psychology into regions where the scientific proof of observations or diagnoses are difficult-to-measure or difficult-to-replicate, neutrally described as alternative medicine (much as acupuncture is), aggressively derided as hokum.

Hypnosis fits this designation because its uses are not as unfailing (or as close to unfailing) as the dominant mechanical or chemical approaches; yet when they work, they are rather spectacular. The main variables in this art are the personalities of the hypnotist and of the patient. Significantly enough the practice has, from its days of inception under Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) tended to be associated with unusually charismatic figures—of which the last I am aware of was Milton H. Erickson (1901-1980). Thus the practice appears to resist “institutionalization” —much as talents in parapsychology effectively decay when put to use in, say, trying to play the stock market, as shown by the parapsychologist, J.E. Kennedy (see papers here).

It appears to me that hypnosis involves that famously mysterious borderland between mind and body—much as does faith-healing and a very well-known but not-at-all-understood phenomenon, the placebo effect. The “faith” part of the placebo effect is indicated by its name; it derives from the Latin for “I shall please” and comes from doctors giving patients innocuous pills, thought to have no effect at all, just to please the patient. Yet, miraculously, the white flour just worked. Somehow.

Two views of hypnosis divide the field today (Wikipedia tells me). One theory is called the Altered State, thus it is “an altered state of mind or trance, marked by a level of awareness different from the ordinary conscious state” (link). The other is called Non-State and viewed as imaginative role-playing. If the first theory is correct, the state of mind can be produced by an individual without the help of a hypnotist: self-hypnosis. The most famous teacher of that technique was Émile Coué (1857-1926), the French psychologist, he of that famous “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” The field’s second and perhaps most influential practitioner, the Scot James Braid (1795-1880) thought that hypnotism was induced by concentration; he also believed, and indeed successfully practiced, self-hypnosis in pain control.

A state of the mind? A certain level of awareness? Reached by concentration when fully relaxed with external stimuli maximally muted? We’re starting to think that meditation has something to do with it. Parameditation perhaps?

1 comment:

  1. It's certainly true that when parapsychology went under the name 'Psychical Research', hypnosis was one of the things that was regularly studied. Its moving from Para to Plain psychology seems only to have happened very slowly. I've always found it very interesting that the two modern scientific accounts of hypnotism basically boil down to 'There's something really there' and 'There's nothing really there', with neither side being able to get much traction against the other. A sign, perhaps, that there's more mystery here than scientists want to admit.