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2. What is a hypnotic "trance" ?

2.8. Highly extraordinary experiences while under hypnosis

One of the most persistent of the many controversies surrounding hypnosis is its use in facilitating the recall or (re)experience of events which are distinctly out of the range of what most people think of as usual human experiences. For the present discussion, we might divide these extraordinary experience into three overlapping types:

  1. Experiences which seem extraordinary because what is remembered (while under hypnosis) as having previously happened seems to defy commonly accepted canons of plausibility, such as the controversial UFO abduction phenomenon,
  2. Experiences which, perceived as happening during hypnosis, seem to defy commonly accepted canons of plausibility, or would require a drastic theoretical revision to accept, such as psychic phenomena,
  3. Experiences which seem extraordinary because they have an unusually powerful or lasting effect on the individual, such as certain deeply religious or mystical experiences,


2.8.1. Bizarre remembrances under hypnosis

The veracity of events recalled under hypnosis is considered by most experts today to be problematic to determine. Hypnosis facilitates the recall of details in good subjects, and also facilitates the manufacture of details during recall that were not necessarily present previously. This in fact is characteristic of recall in general, which has been demonstrated to be far from a permanent and unchanging record, but more a dynamic and adaptive process; a shape-shifting moire pattern of sorts, conforming to inner needs and ongoing mental activity, more than a videotape recording of the precise details of perceptual events.

There is also some evidence that hypnosis may additionally aid in providing 'state-specific' context to aid in the recall of information and experience of which the individual is otherwise normally unaware.

Which of these complex and incompletely understood processes is dominant in the recall of someone's extraordinary memories of seemingly implausible events is extremely difficult if not impossible to determine from the hypnotic session alone.

Neither claims of unimpeachable veracity under hypnosis (the 'hypnosis as truth serum' idea) nor those of hypnosis being completely unreliable in facilitating recall ('false memory') stand up to close scrutiny as a general principle applicable to all cases of controversial hypnotic recall. The best evidence available seems to indicate that hypnotic methods can sometimes be valuable in a number of ways, both to the individual's psychological health and in helping to gather factual information, but that they should not be relied upon by themselves or given special preference over other kinds of testimony for such things as legal evidence, nor considered to be accessing anything like a perfectly faithful permanent record of past perceptual events.

This section closes with an illustrative philosophical excerpt from a recent book investigating perception, memory, and consciousness, based on years of observation of Synesthesia (cross-sensory perception); "The Man Who Tasted Shapes: A Bizarre Medical Mystery Offers Revolutionary Insights into Reasoning, Emotions, and Consciousness," Richard E. Cytowic, MD, Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam Publishing 1993, ISBN 0-87477-738-0:

"While pointing out the overlap between emotion and memory, I want to emphasize that memory is not simply a fixed look-up table. It too is a creative process during which the state of the brain's electrical fields change. The sensory cortices generate a distinct pattern for each act of recognition and recall, with no two ever exactly the same. They are close enough to cause the illusion that we understand and have seen the event before, although this is never quite true. Each time we recall something it comes tainted with the circumstances of the recall. When it is recalled again, it carries with it a new kind of baggage, and so on. So each act of recognition and recall is a fresh creative process and not merely a retrieval of some fixed item from storage."

"Furthermore, persons, objects, and events are not perceived in their entirety but only by those aspects which are, have been, or can be experienced and acted upon by an observer..."

"... All that we can know about anything outside ourselves is what the brain creates from raw sensory fragments, which were actively sought by the limbic brain in the first place as salient chunks of information..."

"... Put in a more familiar context, artists and creative writers look at the world in a certain way. It is the same world that everyone else sees, but seen differently. Contemporary people often call artists weird because they do not seem to be seeing the same things that the majority sees. It is critical to realize that the sensory gateways that feed into the brain establish their own conditions for the creation of images and knowledge. Artistic giants knew full well that their visions were not shared by most people. Even when persecuted or abandoned because of their vision artists persist. That is all the can do because their visions are their reality, and for many of us they subsequently become our reality when we experience their art."

(copyright © Richard E. Cytowic, MD)


2.8.2. Psychic phenomena under hypnosis

There are a number of links between the sorts of situations commonly associated with hypnosis, and the experience of what are often called 'psychic phenomena,' (herein primarily meaning apparent extrasensory perceptions, and psychokinesis, but also such related experiences as apparitions mediumistic phenomena, and such strange occurrences as the apparent suspension of death).

Hypnosis has a strong historical connection with spiritualism, as evidenced partly by the shared traditional emphasis on 'trance,' especially 'trance' appearing as a stupor (contrasted with the confusing notion of an 'alert trance' or 'waking trance' in some kinds of hypnotic situation). Spiritualism, in turn, has very strong associations with both the origins of various schools of psychology, and modern parapsychology, and the study of 'psychic phenomena' in general. The reason for quoting that term here is to emphasize that the term originally meant such subtleties of mental life as what we today often think of as the 'subconscious' or 'unconscious' mind, rather than specifically and exclusively such things as ESP, hauntings, or poltergeists. At the time, it seems there had been less of a feeling that there was a distinct difference in plausibility between 'unconscious processes' and those today generally considered paranormal. Because of this, the term may tend to be ambiguous when used in a discussion where a wide variety of experiences are being included.

Early (circa late 19th century, early 20th century) psychology was largely a philosophical endeavor, which included a wide range of areas of investigations that were grouped in ways that might seem a little strange today. For example, the American Society of Psychical Research (ASPR), today probably thought of mostly as having been a pioneering organization in the study of the paranormal, devoted a great deal of its early efforts (and an explicit section of its charter) to studying what we today usually consider mundane aspects of hypnosis.

Hypnosis has thus long had a popular traditional association with such controversial psychic phenomena as ESP, PK, poltergeist activity, and clairvoyance, as well as various forms of occultism and some kinds of religious healing rituals.

Of particular pertinence here, there is also a tenuous but persistent experimental link between hypnotic processes and laboratory psi. The link is particularly prominent in anecdotal evidence, but this is often of questionable reliability, for reasons that will be described here. It is in the more controlled laboratory psi data that the more truly demonstrable anomalous results appear that give us cause for further investigation.

First, the difficulty with this sort of experiment, and the kinds of protocols and controls required should be recognized. While the open-minded researcher of anomalies might not wish to reject the useful subjective verbal reports of hypnotic subjects, they also have to contend with the remarkable subtlety of non-paranormal (conventional sensory) human perception and communication.

Milton Erickson, for example, described an experiment with hearing impaired 'lip readers.' He discovered that they actually read a much richer panorama of cues than simply the moving lips. The lip reading subjects would sit with their backs to a blackboard on which there were various geometric designs. The designs were then covered with sheets of paper. In front of the lip readers sat a group of non-hearing-impaired participants, who were instructed to look at the blackboard and say and do nothing. Someone else removed the paper covering the geometric symbols, one at a time. The lip readers were instructed to write down anything that they read from the participants in front of them who were observing the geometric figures.

The lip readers were able to "read" the names of the geometric figures apparently from their partner's faces, with varying degrees of accuracy. One subject, a diagnosed paranoid psychotic, who believed they heard other people's thoughts about them, was reported as having perfect accuracy.

Erickson applied this insight to his hypnotic technique, by recognizing the significance of messages he himself didn't realize he was giving. A similar analysis has frequently been applied to anecdotal reports of cases of apparent telepathy, but where 'cold reading', or the skill of gathering information surreptitiously through subtle but conventional sensory clues, appears to be a likely factor.

Someone might actually suggest that the paranoid psychotic patient in this particular experiment, and some or all of the other hearing-impaired patients, were actually employing some telepathic faculty to some degree. But most interpretations would probably focus on the use of subtle clues that the participants observing the blackboard were unaware of providing. The nature of hypnotic communication ('rapport') is such that the participants are particularly well attuned to the nuances of each other's movement, speech and expression. This, combined with the lip readers' existing capacity for attending to subtle body language, contributes to the appearance of an even more extraordinary, even paranormal, information transfer, and makes it more difficult to sort out the precise mechanisms of information transfer involved.

Modern psychological reviews might also focus on the hypothesis that the paranoid psychotic subject was likely dissociating their perception of what they were reading from their awareness of its source (rather than the obvious appearance of receiving it from an extrasensory source). This resembles the dissociation theory of how trance mediumistic (trance channeling) behaviors and some religious experiences (such as hearing the voice of God) may occur, at least in some cases. The concept of cognitive dissociation is a central one to many modern psychological descriptions of hypnotic and peripheral phenomena, as we will see in more detail later. In particular, we will see that dissociation provides an extremely useful description, but not necessarily an adequate explanation of all of the data.

Today, most psychologists, and virtually all of those investigators known as parapsychologists, are aware of the complexity of human perception under even conventional circumstances. They would generally tend not to consider a psi hypothesis to be demonstrated in this sort of situation, given the apparently demonstrated correlation of exceptional body language reading skills and high hit rates. This is of course entirely different from demonstrating that a psi faculty is not operating. Just that the experimental situation in this particular case does not provide evidence of psi.

But there are other experimental results, with protocols more specifically designed to rule out subtle conventional sensory communication. These give us reason to at least consider and test a psi hypothesis, with an eye toward ruling out subtle body reading effects, in hypnotic situations. It appears from some results that under certain kinds of conditions hypnosis may at least be slightly conducive to anomalous information transfer, even when subtle cues are eliminated.

One well known difficulty of even this result, though, is that it is not clear whether hypnosis is facilitating some elusive 'ESP' faculty in some general way, or more specifically improving the percipient's ability to perform on the particular kinds of tests in use. In other words, the dramatic interpretation of hypnosis as an altered state in which paranormal capacities are provided or enhanced may not be the best or only explanation, even if the psi hypothesis itself were to receive growing experimental support. There is also the crucially important matter of just exactly what it is about the process of hypnotic induction and its effects on the subject that changes hit rates in certain laboratory psi tests.

In another section, we briefly review T.X. Barber's work demonstrating that most if not all of the unusual phenomena reported during hypnosis are also seen under other conditions. He and his colleague Sheryl Wilson in their work on the theory of the 'Fantasy Prone Personality' also provide us with another link between psi and hypnosis, the observation that there are distinct similarities in personality variables between people who are excellent hypnotic subjects, and those who report large numbers of psychic experiences.

It should be emphasized here that this theory does not support the once popular notion that good hypnotic subjects are simply gullible or neurotic, or otherwise mentally ill; as no correlation with any of these personality variables has ever been determined. Rather, the FPP theory paints a picture of natural visionary individuals with a rich inner life and often extraordinary psychosomatic responses, but who are perfectly well able to distinguish their vivid fantasy life from reality, just as most of us can distinguish a dream from a memory of actual events, most of the time.

In other words, among the factors that the FPP does NOT correlate with well at all is any diminished capacity for reality testing. This should be born in mind particularly because of the popular connotations of the term 'fantasy-prone,' and the questionable veracity of recollections occurring under hypnotic procedures. A report from an FPP subject is not inherently either more or less reliable than one from other subjects, in or out of hypnosis. Their rich mental life does not necessarily intrude on their external perceptions, except under various very unusual kinds of conditions, such as spontaneous hallucination triggered by hypnotic suggestion.

Additionally, there is the complex psychological question of whether the individual interprets their experience as 'real' or 'imagined.' When an LSD user comes down from their trip, they don't generally continue to believe that their face was melting or that the sky actually changed to fluorescent green during their experience, they distinguish it as an 'altered state.' However, during the trip, the altered perception may be quite convincing.

In hypnotic extraordinary experiences, we find both cases where the individual believes that their perceptions were due to an altered state, even though it seemed real at the time, and those where they believe something quite bizarre actually happened, not the result of an unusual perceptual state. And the two types of cases are not at all easy to distinguish by any means other than relying on the report of the subject.

It has also been observed that even a polygraph is of extremely limited value in distinguishing whether a bizarre occurrence actually happened to an individual or was hallucinated or 'confabulated.' In many cases, the individual believes that a hallucinated or hypnotically constructed event happened, when unambiguous independent historical records indicate that it did not.

The particular conditions under which spontaneous hallucination can occur, and under which they can be confused with external perceptual experiences are not well known, nor is there any known method of distinguishing a spontaneous hallucination from an external sensory perception. Even theories of how drug action (e.g. LSD) causes hallucinations are highly speculative, and spontaneous hallucinations are much more slippery.

Two current theories of spontaneous hallucination concern changes in the chemical environment of endogenous neurotransmitters or neuro-modulators which influence perception (endorphins and serotonin being the most commonly cited); and possibly some unique mode of function of temporal or temporolimbic brain pathways, perhaps influenced by electromagnetic fields.

How these unusual brain conditions relate to psychic phenomena and to other observations related to hypnosis in general is not yet well established.


2.8.3. Experiences of extraordinary personal significance


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