What is hypnosis? Does hypnosis exist? How and why did the concept of
1.3. The scientific
deconstruction of hypnosis
The 'skeptical' modern conception
of hypnosis was pioneered by Theodore Sarbinin 1950, as a social-psychological
alternative to the views that (1) a single distinctive neurological and
psychological state underlies all hypnotic phenomena (Paris school), and
(2) that suggestions somehow mechanically produce responses without the
participation of the subject (Nancy school).
Sarbin instead saw hypnosis
as a social encounter, in which the hypnotist and subject play out pre-determined
roles. Sarbin's role theory was influenced by R.W. White, who in his "A
Preface to a Theory of Hypnotism," in The Journal of Abnormal and Social
Psychology in 1941 discussed various serious limitations of both the
Ideo-motor action and dissociation theories. He pointed out that the responses
of hypnotic subjects are too complex to consider them as automatic results
of suggestions, that subjects often creatively and actively improvise
a performance based on their interpretation of suggestions. Thus for just
about the first time posing hypnotic behavior as creative and goal
directed, rather than mechanical.
In addition to the use of social
role theory to replace mechanistic theories of hypnotic response, 'skeptical'
theories of hypnosis often refer to empirical research to illustrate that
hypnotic subjects do not in fact transcend the behavioral capabilities
of non-hypnotic subjects. The empirical objective approach to hypnosis,
effectively introduced to the study of hypnosis by Clark Hull in the 1930's,
involves an implicit mistrust of verbal reports of subjective experience,
and the use of quantifiable response indices.
Key questions remaining in
the modern study of hypnosis within active role theory and other non-special-state
frameworks include: (1) whether a hypnotic procedure is necessary (first
studied by T.X. Barber in the late 1960's and in the 1970's); (2) in what
specific ways active cognitive functioning might be altered in hypnotic
contexts (studied by Orne and by Shor starting in the late 1950's), and
(3) the degree to which dissociation of aspects of consciousness
actually occurs in each of the various hypnotic phenomena (Janet, Prince,
later E.R. Hilgard).
All this leads to the crucial
theoretical distinction of whether it is meaningful and useful to postulate
such a thing as unconscious goal directed activity, and the global psychological
questions of what exactly are the nature of volition, compliance, belief,
Graham Wagstaff of the University
of Liverpool expresses the non-special-state view of hypnosis:
"... studies of hypnosis
have drawn our attention to a number of mundane yet fascinating phenomena
that do beg for explanations, even though, as I have pointed out, a
theory of hypnosis per se doesn't need to provide such explanations.
"For example, we need to
know how a placebo works; how suggestions can affect dermatological
responses; how imagination can produce the experience of a dry mouth,
an itch, or nausea; how coping strategies can affect the experience
of pain; and so on.
"However, I would consider
these phenomena to be best investigated without any reference to 'hypnosis'
because placing them in a context called 'hypnosis' probably serves
only to confound them with extra demand characteristics."
At another point, Wagstaff
acknowledges the practical consideration:
"... for some patients
there may actually be unique advantages to defining a context as 'hypnosis,'
for example, 'hypnotic amnesia,' if only pretended is a potentially useful
device not only for saving face but also for providing a legitimate context
for controlling the vivid remembering of traumatic experience."