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(HYPNOTISM). From the Greek hupnos, “sleep.” By extension it is used verbally to mean “to put to sleep.” The term was first used about 1842 as a shortened form of neuro-hypnotism by James Braid of Manchester, England. This derivation has given rise to a prevailing misunderstanding which assumes that a person in a hypnotic state is necessarily asleep. It may be described as a psychological condition in which the subject seems to function at a different level of consciousness; this level might be termed the subconscious. It is characteristic of this condition that the subject exhibits heightened suggestibility, tending to be acquiescent to commands or suggestions made by the hypnotist.

The practice of hypnotism is of great antiquity since it is referred to in the Indian epic MAHABHARATA where Vipula protected his master’s wife by hypnotizing her (XIII, p. 107). During the nineteenth century the reality of hypnotism was hotly disputed, particularly when Franz Mesmer presented a number of demonstrations in Paris claiming to be using a psychic or occult force which became known as mesmerism. Mesmer’s claims were discounted by a committee of the Académie des Sciénces. The first scientific research seems to have been carried out by James Braid (1795-1860) a Scottish physician, but it was James Esdaile, a physician practicing in India during 1846 who was one of the first to report success using hypnosis to perform no less than 73 painless surgical operations during a period of eight months (Mesmerism in India. The Psychic Research Company, Chicago, 1902).

There are many degrees of hypnotic “trance” and indeed LeCron-Bordeaux has enumerated fifty, but there are, according to Weitzenhoffer (A.M. Weitzenhoffer, General Techniques of Hypnosis, Grune & Stratton, 1957, 1965, p. 183) essentially five major stages of hypnosis:

1. Insusceptible Hypnoidal. Mental and physical relaxation.

2. Light Trance. Lassitude; rapport between subject and operator. Simple post-hypnotic suggestions heeded.

3. Medium Trance. Complete muscular inhibition; optical and aural illusions; glove anaesthesia.

4. Deep Trance. Ability to open eyes without affecting trance; pupillary dilation; complete amnesia; bizarre post-hypnotic suggestions heeded; control of organic body functions such as heartbeat-blood pressure.

5. Plenary Trance. All spontaneous activity is inhibited.

There have been several alternative scales devised (Davis-Husband, Kluge, Dessoir, etc.), but the broad principles remain the same.

Present day psychology is emphatic that hypnotism itself presents no risk to the subject, being merely a state of heightened susceptibility, but is equally emphatic that the misuse of hypnotism may present significant risks. The following is an outline of some of the difficulties which may be encountered.

Physical. Under hypnosis the subject may not discriminate between what is possible and what is dangerous. Thus the induction of muscular rigidity and the suspension of the subject between spaced supports while a heavy person or object is placed on the stomach may enthral the audience, but severely damage the back muscles or injure the spine. The stage procedure having volunteers perform comical actions or dances may involve unaccustomed exertion to the extent of causing a heart attack or some other physical failure. Post-hypnotic suggestions have been known to hold good for over twenty years, but this would be the exception rather than the rule. However, for example, the suggestion that a subject should fall asleep when he or she hears a certain piece of music might persist long enough to put the subject at risk. Inexpert manipulation of bodily functions may expose the subject to life-threatening consequences.

Emotional. While under hypnosis a subject may manifest unexpected and quite disturbing behavior such as sudden outbursts of emotion accompanied by shouting or screaming, convulsive seizures, refusal to awaken out of trance. Post-hypnotic problems are not unknown and have on occasion included headaches, vertigo, various degrees of depression, and rarely, neurotic and psychotic episodes. Unskilled practitioners of hypnosis are seldom held responsible in connection with these matters because there may be some delay before difficulties manifest and thus the cause and effect link is difficult to establish.

In 1969 Theodore X. Barber, submitted that there was no scientific foundation for the claim that hypnosis is a special and distinct state of consciousness. He maintained that all the phenomena traditionally associated with hypnosis can be exhibited by any individual if that individual is positively motivated (Hypnosis, A Scientific Approach, Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York).

There are a number of notions that persist about hypnotism that are demonstrably incorrect, such as “the hypnotic eye” and “magic passes” and the hypnotist needing superior “will-power.” In practice the hypnotist merely makes suggestions in a quiet voice and carefully observes the reaction, if any, of the subject. Staring into the subject’s eyes will usually cause embarrassment or disquiet, either of which will impede the production of the hypnotic condition. It is a widely held belief that people cannot be hypnotized without their consent, but this is not so. Admittedly the procedure is more complex and time-consuming, but it has been done (Erickson-Kubie, Curative Hypnosis, Elek Books, London, 1952, p. 140). Another widely held belief is that being easily hypnotized indicates lack of will-power, but again this is not so. Yet another misconception is that the subject always goes to sleep when hypnotized. While it is possible to induce normal sleep following hypnosis, the various levels of trance state under hypnosis are quite different in nature from sleep and this can be demonstrated by the comparison of electroencephalogram readings.

For a time hypnosis was used by some dentists, surgeons and psychiatrists, but with the development of modern drugs it fell into disuse as far as medical purposes are concerned except for certain psychiatric procedures or in comparatively rare situations where the use of drugs is contra-indicated. The use of hypnotism has not been confined to the professions; it has been popular as a stage entertainment, but some countries have legislated against such use.

It has to be conceded that the scientific view of hypnosis and the opinions expressed by many early theosophical writers are very much in opposition. The scientific view is typified by a statement by the psychologist R. H. Rhodes, “Hypnosis is absolutely safe. There is no case on record reporting harmful results from its therapeutic use” (Curative Hypnosis, p. 1). Helena P. BLAVATSKY wrote at some length on her perceived difference between mesmerism and hypnotism, maintaining that whereas the former could be beneficial the latter was certainly harmful and akin to “black magic” (CW XII:214-28). This argument depends on the acceptance of the existence of the subtle bodies (see HUMAN CONSTITUTION), a theory central to theosophy. Early theosophical writers were fairly unanimous in their condemnation of the use of hypnotism maintaining that a separation occurs, temporarily, between the lower quaternary (physical, ETHERIC, ASTRAL and lower MENTAL) and the spiritual self; that the stronger “will” dominates the weaker with the result that the will of the subject is permanently weakened; that it is unethical to implant a thought or idea in the mind of another at a time when it is impossible for the subject to resist.


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