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5. Hypnosis, volition, and mind control

5.1. Is the hypnotist in control of me?

The exact nature of what we experience as 'will' or volition is an age-old philosophical problem that has yet to be resolved by brain scientists or psychologists.

Some aspects of hypnotic responding point out weaknesses in our understanding of the nature of volition, such as: its exact relationship to conscious awareness; the capacity and limitations of external stimuli (such as 'suggestion') to influence our sensory experience and behavior; and the details of the patterns by which specific phenomenological and physiological events influence each other.

The vast majority of hypnosis researchers seem to believe that the individual has a capacity for volition which may be influenced but not ablated by hypnotic suggestion. That the individual under hypnosis is still acting on their own will in some sense, although possibly with distorted or limited information presented by the hypnotist. In addition, there may be influences on their behavior which the subject is not consciously aware of responding to, or does not report an awareness of responding to. This has been challenged by some theorists by questioning the nature of self-awareness itself in various ways.

The question of volition becomes important when we consider the long-studied question of whether a hypnotist can influence an individual to perform behaviors which they would not 'ordinarily' want to perform, such as to commit crimes or to injure themselves or others.

This issue arose in part from the commonly held premise that an individual's character traits are more important than immediate stimuli in guiding their behavior. Some of the behaviorist theorists of hypnosis have historically downplayed the stable traits of individuals and attributed their behavior to a greater extent to responses to external stimuli. To them, there is less question of 'ordinary' behavior, and more a matter of conditioned responses. Andrew Salter's What is Hypnosis published in the middle of this (20th)century is a good representation of that viewpoint.

The likelihood is that the truth lies between stable character theory and conditioned response theory. There are seemingly what some call 'ecological' concerns in hypnotic responding, aspects of an individual's experience that will tend to be consistent with each other, or to move toward consistency (one older example being the theory of 'cognitive dissonance').

Individuals can probably be influenced under a situation of contrived hypnotic imagery to do things that would ordinarily be considered very unusual, and to do them at unusual times and places. But there are clearly 'ecological' limits to this as well.

For example, most studies have suggested that the individual can and does reject suggestions of some types, in some way, both during hypnosis, and in the form of post-hypnotic suggestions, and is not being coerced directly under hypnosis to act against their 'will' in any meaningful sense, though they may act under false premises.

A classic early study supporting this view was done by Milton Erickson, published in Psychiatry in 1939 (2,391-414), "An experimental investigation of the possible anti-social use of hypnosis." M.T. Orne's similar view is represented by his chapter on hypnosis in the 1961 The Manipulation of Human Behavior, by Biderman and Zimmer (p. 169-215).Orne argues that the coercion or 'Svengali Effect' sometimes attributed to hypnosis is an artifact of the hypnotic experimental situation.

However, it has also been shown that an individual can be tricked by the hypnotist, and possibly led by their trust in the hypnotist, to perform unusual behaviors in unusual situations, even potentially dangerous or embarrassing ones. This potential is well known to fans of 'stage hypnosis,' particularly with that subset of individual's particularly susceptible to the dramatic tactics of the stage hypnotist. These tactics are for the most part different from the classical induction used in medicine and psychotherapy, relying on surprise, sudden confusion, social pressure, and other factors not unknown to medical hypnotherapists, but not normally emphasized by them either.

A classic study which illustrated how far individuals would go in hypnotic responses to contrived hypnotic situations was Loyd W. Rowland, "Will Hypnotized Persons Try To Harm Themselves or Others?", Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 34(1939):114-117. This study is described in William Corliss' The Unfathomed Mind: A Handbook of Unusual Mental Phenomena, pp. 120-123. This study showed subjects sticking their hands into boxes with what they presumably believed were live rattlesnakes, and throwing concentrated acid into what they presumably believed was the unprotected face of another person.

Other studies showing response to suggestions of anti-social behavior in an experimental setting included:

  • * W.R. Wells, "Experiments in the hypnotic production of crime," Journal of Psychology, 1941, 11:63-102,
  • M. Brenman, "Experiments in the hypnotic production of anti-social and self-injurious behavior," Psychiatry, 1942, 5:49-61.

Various authors have reported attempts by the U.S. CIA to research or use hypnotic techniques for mind control. All seem to report failure rates consistent with the experimental findings. Some people in some situations are apparently vulnerable to sudden confusion techniques of suggestion, but the use of classical hypnosis as 'mind control' is entirely unreliable in general. If you consider the speeches of a powerful orator or evangelical preacher to be a form of hypnosis, this seems to be the type most powerful in influencing the minds of people. And this type of situation is perhaps as well described in terms of social/group psychology as individual response to hypnotic suggestion.

Another class of mind control technology reportedly attempted was the deliberate cultivation of secondary or multiple personalities. The true nature of multiple personality disorder is still under intensive research, with a few leads from PET scans suggesting that in some people, a true neurological distinction between personality states may occur, in spite of the apparent inability of EEG to pick up such a distinction. If true, this would tend to imply that at least for some individuals, Hilgard's neo-dissociation theory is closest to the truth, and that a cognitive dissociation of some sort does literally occur. As with the mind control attempts based on stage hypnosis, this never seems to have been considered practical as a means of controlling the minds of individuals in general.

The experimental studies showing people performing aberrant, criminal, or self-destructive acts have long been criticized, notably by M.T. Orne, as reflecting the implicit trust of the hypnotic subject that the experimenter would not put them into truly dangerous situations during the experiment, and that the experimental conditions were too contrived to represent what the individual would do in real life. The dialog here is obviously very reminiscent of the critiques of Stanley Milgram's "obedience to authority" experiments, where subjects believed they were giving progressively more painful and dangerous electric shocks to other subjects as part of a behavioral learning experiment.

Which brings us to reports of someone actually committing a crime, or becoming the victim of one, under the influence of hypnosis, outside of the experimental laboratory. Leo Katz, Bad Acts and Guilty Minds, 1987,University of Chicago Press, pp. 128-133, describes cases of crimes committed by patients of unethical hypnotists. The Fortean Times, #58, July 1991,reports in an article "The Eyes Have It," by Michael Gross, the prosecution of a man who sexually assaulted at least 113 women, preceded by hypnosis, and the revocation of the medical license of a psychiatrist in 1982 for abusing women under hypnosis.

Similar allegations and sometimes prosecutions of cases of misconduct or rape with the aid of hypnosis by therapists have been reported in the media in recent years as well.

The actual role of hypnosis in each of these cases is unknown. It is likely that it provided the abusing therapists assistance in the seduction of the women in question, but that again, it was a matter of using the hypnotic induction to abuse their already elevated trust in the therapist at least as much as any loss of their 'will to resist' at the time of the abuse.

For contrast, compare the case of a victim being drugged into helplessness. There is no evidence that hypnotic procedures ever 'drug' individuals into helplessness, or that they are in any sense actively resisting things that they do or allow under hypnosis. There is, however, good reason to believe that the relaxation and vivid imagery of the hypnotic situation makes it easier to 'trick' an individual in some sense into doing something that they wouldn't 'ordinarily' do in that particular situation with that particular person at that time. Thus the justifiable sense of remorse and violation when they realize what they've been led to do. Not dissimilar from the also controversial situation with abuse or alleged abuse by parents, where the child's implicit trust in the parent's interest in their welfare often complicates the evaluation and treatment of the situation after the fact.


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