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Hypnosis is a much misunderstood phenomenon. The layman tends to conceive of it in the most mystical terms, and there are many amateur Svengalis who, actually, know very little about what they are doing but are entranced with the notion that someone else is in their "power." In the wake of such books as DuMaurier's Trilby and Mann's Mario the Magician the idea that hypnotism is something supernatural had come to be a generally accepted fact.
Since 1956 a study of hypnosis has been going on at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center under the direction of Dr. Martin T. Orne, an instructor in the Psychiatry Department of the Medical School, a teaching fellow in the Social Relations Department and member of Mental Health Center. The primary purpose of the study has been "to elucidate the nature of the hypnotic state," to discover exactly what hypnosis can and cannot do. Over 200 Harvard and Radcliffe students are participating in these tests along with students from other local schools. The results of these studies have tended to remove much of the mysterious fog that surrounds hypnosis and to clear up many of the popular misconceptions.
Hypnosis is perhaps best understood as an "interpersonal relationship" between the hypnotist and the subject. In everyday life, most individuals have experiences of a trance-like nature. Such experiences as falling asleep in a lecture, getting totally absorbed in a book, or sleep-walking occur quite frequently. In hypnosis "the individual gets permission to function at this level," and he is more able to tolerate logical inconsistencies than he would be in the waking state.
The individual who falls asleep in class attributes this either to his own tiredness or to the dullness of lecture, and yet were sleep to be hypnotically induced, the subject would tend to blame this on the "occult" powers of the hypnotist. In reality, what happens in hypnosis depends more on the person under hypnosis than it does on the hypnotist.
Tests Preconceptions of Hypnosis
One of Dr. Orne's experiments was designed to test the importance of the subject's own views about hypnosis. This idea was derived from the classic formulation of the motivation view of hypnosis by Robert W. White, professor of Clinical Psychology. Basing his experiment on the hypothesis "that much hypnotic behavior results from the subject's conception of the role of the hypnotic subject, and by explicit and implicit cues provided by the hypnotist and the situation," Dr. Orne set up two groups of hypnotic subjects. Two separate lectures on hypnosis were given in an introductory psychology course. In one the erroneous impression was given that catalepsy of the dominant hand (the hand stays put wherever it is placed) is typical of the hypnotic state. This point was omitted entirely in the other lecture. Volunteers were then selected from both groups and hypnotized. (As a control measure, the hypnotist was not told which lecture the subjects had attended until the session was concluded.)
Five of nine volunteers who had been at the lecture where catalepsy of the dominant hand was demonstrated exhibited this same phenomenon under hypnosis. "No students in control group, who were given a similar lecture and demonstration but with no mention of catalepsy, showed the phenomenon," Dr. Orne reported. The results tended to support Dr. Orne's hypothesis that subjective role-playing is an important part of hypnotic behavior.
Thus an important adjunct to understanding the hypnotic state is the preconceptions of the person who is to be hypnotized. A person in hypnosis will behave the way he thinks a hypnotized subject should behave. This will be modified by implicit and explicit cues from the hypnotist.
Motivation also plays an important part in hypnotic reactions. No one can be successfully hypnotized unless he is willing, and in an experiment the subject often is motivated by what Dr. Orne calls "the demand characteristics of the situation." In an experiment, for instance, the subject feels he has to cooperate with the experimenter for "the sake of science," and thus his behavior in trance is motivated by a desire to help the hypnotist.
In the past, one of the problems has been that two experimenters doing the same thing have obtained different results. Dr. Orne feels this can be explained by the fact that the experimenter conveys to the subject by means of subtle clues in the experiment (the demand characteristics) what he expects the subject to do. Since subjects want to cooperate, they are sensitive to these cues and will perform in such a way as to confirm the experimenter's expectations.
In these experiments, however, there has been a constant effort to minimize and control this confusing element in hypnotic research. Contrary to many ideas, the individual even in the deepest hypnosis is aware of his actions to some degree. And since an individual is conscious of his actions, these demand characteristics may be major determinants of his behavior in the hypnotic state.
Hypnosis can motivate subjects to perform extraordinary feats of endurance and strength, but appropriate motivation in the wake state, if properly applied, can also increase the physical capacity of the subject. In an experiment designed to test the effect of hypnosis versus that of motivation on the physical capacity, Dr. Orne had hypnotized subjects hold a kilogram weight at arm's length. They were told that their arm was resting on a table (hallucinated) and that they could feel no discomfort in it. They were asked to hold the weight as long as possible without dropping it or lowering their arm. Every effort was made to maximize their performance. Then post-hypnotic amnesia was induced and they were motivated (they were told such things as "it is vital that we get your true capacity") and put through the test again. Each subject was asked to better his previous performance under hypnosis (but it must be remembered that amnesia had been induced and the subject had no recollection of his first test). All the subjects were able to hold the weight up longer in the motivated waking state than in the hypnotic state. Dr. Orne, from this, and other experiments, concluded, "We have not found any unequivocal evidence to date that hypnosis increases an ability to a greater degree than high motivation would in a wake state."
In another study of the research project, Ronald E. Shor, Public Health Service Research Fellow, tested the purely physiological reactions under hypnosis. In many previous similar experiments, it had been discovered that the physiological responses to pain were considerably reduced by hypnosis. The results in Shor's experiment were substantially different and quite unexpected.
Volunteer subjects were trained to go into hypnosis easily and deeply. After they were thoroughly familiar with the nature of the trance state, they met Shor for the first time. The subjects were then placed on an apparatus called a polygraph, an amazing device built by Bernard Tursky, and developed at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center. The polygraph measures the changes in perspiration, heart rate, respiration, and muscle tension.
The subjects were then told, in such way as to minimize any anxiety they might have, that they would be given electric shocks. Each subject was asked to take a shock that was highly painful, but he was allowed his own level of shock, which then remained constant in the rest of the experiment.
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