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1. What is hypnosis? Does hypnosis exist? How and why did the concept of hypnosis evolve?


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, and imagination.

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."



 
 

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