Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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By William H.R. Rivers (1920)

Posted April 2000



I have already mentioned hypnotism in this book on more than one occasion as a means of recalling to memory suppressed experience. I have now to consider more fully its relation to instinct and the unconscious.

I will begin with a brief general account of the nature of hypnotism. The first point to be noted is its intimate relations with suggestion. When hypnotism was first studied the general tendency, as is usual in such cases, was to regard it as a manifestation of some new force, and in accordance with the prevalent conceptions of the day, a force of a physical kind allied to those which were already known. Misunderstood observations in which hypnotic manifestations were produced by means of magnets led to the choice of magnetism as the prototype of the new force, and animal magnetism was widely used, and is still sometimes heard, as a term for this state. It was not long, however, before it was established, chiefly through the work of the Nancy school, that the chief or only agency by which hypnotic manifestations are produced is suggestion. Moreover, one of the most important features of the hypnotic state is the greatly enhanced suggestibility of the hypnotised person. It is one of the characteristic features of hypnotism that the receptivity of a hypnotised person towards suggestion is greatly increased, and there is reason to believe that this increase is especially great in relation to suggestions given by the hypnotiser unwittingly.

A second feature of the hypnotic state, which is closely linked with the heightened suggestibility, is a great increase in sensitiveness [p. 102] to sensory stimuli, or at least to certain kinds of sensory stimulus. A hypnotised person may become aware of and utilise indications given by organs of sense which produce no effect whatever upon his consciousness in the normal state.

A third feature of hypnotism is that it affords a characteristic example of suppression. When a person is hypnotised it is possible to blot out from his memory experience which in the normal state is directly accessible to consciousness, while, as already mentioned on more than one occasion, other experience which is normally inaccessible to consciousness may by means of hypnotism be brought to the surface. Moreover, any experience gained during the hypnotic state may become inaccessible to memory when the hypnotic state comes to an end, and seems to do so spontaneously unless special suggestions are given that it shall be remembered. A striking feature of this aspect of the hypnotic state is the ease with which it is possible to produce suppression of sensibility. Any sensory surface may be rendered wholly insensitive to stimuli to which it ordinarily responds. It is especially striking that this anæsthesia may occur in conjunction with the heightened sensibility which I have already mentioned. A hypnotised person may be wholly insensitive to certain kinds of sensory stimulus and show a vastly exaggerated receptiveness to others.

In the fourth place hypnotism affords a characteristic example of dissociation. During the hypnotic state in response to suggestion a person performs acts, it may be of a highly complex kind of which he is completely unconscious when the hypnotic state is over. The hypnotic state only differs from a characteristic attack of dissociation or a fugue in having been produced by the suggestion of another person.

Hypnotism is thus not only a means by which it is possible to tap the unconscious, but through its agency it is possible to produce at will the two most characteristic mechanisms of the unconscious, suppression and dissociation, and study them experimentally. Moreover, hypnotism is closely linked with suggestion which in the last chapter I have regarded as another mechanism or process of the unconscious. [p. 103]

I have now to consider whether these four characters of hypnotism allow us to bring it into relation with instinct and with the general scheme of this book. I will begin by considering whether the views concerning suggestion put forward in the last chapter help us to understand the very difficult problem of the nature of hypnotism.

In the first place the idea that suggestion is a process of the unconscious evidently accords with its relation to hypnotism. It is not so obvious how the phenomena of hypnotism fit in with the view that suggestion is essentially the expression of the gregarious instinct. At first sight there seems to be no obvious relation between hypnotism and the instrument working unwittingly by means of which unity of purpose and unity of action are given to a group or herd of animals. In the form in which we know it best, hypnotism is an individual and not a collective process. In the instances which usually come before our notice one person is hypnotised by another person, and in general the aim is individual and is directed to affect the health or character of the person who is hypnotised without any necessary relation to the society to which he or she belongs. Collective hypnotism occurs, but it takes a place in our experience insignificant beside the individual relation.

I believe, however, that the individual character of hypnotism, in the form in which it is most familiar to us, only masks and has by no means obliterated its essentially collective character. Especially instructive from this point of view is the heightened sensibility to sensory stimuli which we have found to accompany the heightened suggestibility. For perfect harmony of action among the members of a group of animals, it is necessary that they shall divine or intuit how the rest of the group is going to act before it does so. It will not do to wait until the actions of the rest are in full swing. It is essential that every member of the group shall be ready to react with the rest, this readiness being dependent upon awareness of the minute and almost imperceptible movements which accompany the impulse preceding a definite act.

Some degree of a similar process is needed for the success of [p. 104] the social reactions of man of which I gave several examples in the last chapter. If my interpretation of their actions is right, my Melanesian boatmen must have become aware of the intended movements of their fellows before there was any movement sufficiently great to become the object of conscious attention, and some degree of such intuition is necessary for the success of the daily reactions upon which depends the harmonious character of the traffic of our crowded streets.

Whether we consider animals or Man, it is natural that suggestion should be associated with a high degree of sensory acuity and that the enhanced suggestibility of the hypnotic state should be accompanied by heightening of the sensibility to which suggestion owes so much of its peculiar power. The heightened sensitiveness of the hypnotic state is thus altogether in accordance with its relation to the gregarious instinct.

This relation is less obvious when we turn to the third character of the hypnotic state -- its connection with suppression. I have supposed that the process of suppression in its most complete form is associated with the instinctive reaction to danger by means of immobility. Moreover, I have tried to show that unity of action, or rather of inaction, is essential to the success of this instinct and have therefore put forward the view that, in this connection at least, suggestion and the instinct of immobility are intimately associated with one another. Let us inquire, therefore, whether any connection can be found between hypnotism and the instinct of immobility.

It has long been recognised that a state resembling hypnotism may be induced experimentally in animals. A fowl placed in front of a chalk line will become quite motionless and remain so for a considerable time. A frog stroked on the back will also become, and for a time remain, motionless. It has been supposed that these states depend on the paralysis of fear,[1] but the view more widely taken is that the suppression of movement is of the same order as that which can be induced in Man by suggestion and that the whole process is allied in nature to hypnotism. [p. 105] If the existence of an instinct of immobility is accepted, it will involve no great stretch of the imagination to see in these animal reactions expressions of this instinct. The hypnotic or quasi-hypnotic manifestations of animals thus furnish an intermediate link between hypnotism and the instinct of immobility. They may be regarded as manifestations of the instinct of immobility occurring in the individual animal under the influence of a human being.

The question which is suggested by these animal reactions is whether the hypnotism of the human being may not have a similar connection with the instinct of immobility. It is possible by means of hypnotism to produce a very large range of sensory and motor reactions, but it is noteworthy that it seems especially easy to produce anæsthesias and paralyses, or what is more to the point, there is a great tendency for these states, and especially anæsthesias, to occur as the result of unintended and unwitting suggestion on the part of the hypnotiser. I hope to deal with this topic later from another point of view. I must acknowledge that in so far as hypnotism itself is concerned, it may seem to be stretching the facts to suggest that there is a special tendency for the manifestations of hypnotism in the human subject to take the form which would be dictated by the instinct of immobility, though this form is definite in the allied behaviour of animals which has been so widely regarded as hypnotic.

I have now to consider the fourth character of hypnotism, its exhibition of the process of dissociation. It is one of the dangers of hypnotism, especially when unskilfully employed, that the state may come to occur spontaneous, a person passing into the hypnotic state as the result of some condition which resembles, or seems to resemble, that by which the state was originally produced. In this spontaneous hypnotic state a person may carry out complex actions and behave in a manner wholly indistinguishable from that of the subject of a fugue. We may regard hypnotism as a process by means of which it is possible to produce and study experimentally the process of dissociation. Moreover, there is little doubt that most of the classical cases of [p. 106] multiple personality, such as that of Miss Beauchamp so fully recorded by Dr. Morton Prince, are largely artificial products of hypnotism or have had their characters largely determined by this process.

At this stage it will be useful to sum up the conclusion to which the argument has led. I have given reason to suppose that the hypnotic state is a complex blend of four processes; (a) suggestion with heightened suggestibility; (b) heightened sensibility; (c) suppression; and (d) dissociation. Or perhaps, rather, hypnotism may be viewed from these four different aspects. Moreover, I have advanced arguments to explain why there should be this association of processes or aspects. I have regarded the heightening of suggestibility and of sensibility as being essentially manifestations of the gregarious instinct, arising out of the need of animals as soon as their association in groups required harmony of purpose and action. I have supposed that they are additions to, or modifications of, the earlier process of suppression which had already come into being as a means of meeting certain individual needs, and I have explained the connection of suggestion with suppression as due to the importance of common action in relation to the instinct of immobility. From this point of view the primary aspect of hypnotism is its suppression with the accompanying dissociation, and in the so-called hypnotism of animals there is little more than this, the only feature pointing to the influence of suggestion being the fact that the state is produced by the activity of Man.

According to the view here put forward the complex hypnotic state has arisen through the influence of certain factors which became connected with the primary states of suppression and dissociation through gregarious needs, through the needs of animals when associated together in groups. These factors are heightened sensibility as a means of reading immediately to sensory indications given by other members of the group and heightened suggestibility as a means of responding immediately to the more complex states existing in the minds of the other members of the group. If we put the so-called hypnotism of animals on one side, hypnotism is a process in which Man has [p. 107] discovered how to utilise the processes of suppression and dissociation by turning to advantage the power of suggestion. Hypnotism is an artificial process in which Man has wittingly utilised a process, or group of processes, which normally take place unwittingly.

In the last chapter I have put forward the view that suggestion has been one of the means by which the crude "all-or-none" reactions of primitive instinct have become subject to the principle of graduation. If this were the sole graduating principle, we may suppose that the two more or less conflicting principles would have long ago reached a modus vivendi, a state of stable equilibrium in which such a phenomenon as dissociation could not occur. If, as I have supposed, suggestion forms the essential controlling factor in such creatures as insects, one may suppose that in them such stable equilibrium has been attained. The high degree of adaptation of means to ends in these animals and the perfection of their social organisation would be results and aspects of this equilibrium.

In Man, however, suggestion does not exist alone as an instrument of discrimination and graduation, but is accompanied, and even surpassed in efficacy, by the principle of graduation belonging to the order of intelligence. In the ordinary life of Man there has been produced a state of fairly stable equilibrium in which the graduating activity of intelligence is able successfully to control instinctive tendencies. From this point of view we may regard hypnotism as a process in which Man has discovered that he can direct the instinctive process of suggestion and annul the activity of intelligence, thus giving the mastery to suggestion with its three aspects of mimesis, sympathy and intuition. According to this view, the essence of hypnotism is the annulment of one of the two lines of activity by which the cruder instinctive processes are brought under subjection, leaving in full power those other activities which we subsume under the heading of suggestion.

Those who are acquainted with the subject will have noticed that I have said nothing about one feature of hypnotism which must be explained if the view I have put forward is to hold [p. 108] good. I refer to the process known as post-hypnotic suggestion. If a person in the hypnotic state is told to perform a certain act at a given interval of time after being awakened from the state, he will do so in spite of the fact that he has no knowledge in the normal state that he has received the suggestion. He performs the act at or about the time indicated without knowing why he is so acting, though he will often rationalise and give reasons for an act which, without the knowledge of the suggestion in the hypnotic state, would appear to be irrational. We have here a striking example, in the first place, of what I call unconscious experience, and, in the second place, of the independent activity of such experience. The hypnotised person when in the hypnotic state has a definite experience which becomes inaccessible to his consciousness when he awakes, and this experience has so definite an independent existence that it determines conduct of a highly specific kind. The behaviour has a highly organised and complex character. Not only may the actions carried out be very complex, but the estimation of time involved in the operation may be more accurate than the similar operation carried out wittingly and with full consciousness.

The complexity of the operation raises the questions whether there is not only independent activity but also independent consciousness, and whether there may not be true co-consciousness in Morton Prince's sense. We have no direct evidence of such independent consciousness, but if we accept Morton Prince's account of such a case as that of Miss Beauchamp, in which the different personalities had such independent consciousnesses that one was able to act upon and torment the other, we should expect to find other similar examples. It is a question whether the hypothesis which will best meet the facts of post-hypnotic suggestion is not one which assumes the co-existence of an independent system of experience carrying out the post-hypnotic suggestion. This may be regarded as the germ of the far more highly organised system which makes up an independent personality.

Moreover, this hypothesis would naturally lead us to an [p. 109] interpretation of the fugue on similar lines. It would lead us towards, if not to, the view that in a fugue the normal consciousness is there underlying the split-off consciousness accompanying the activity of the fugue, in which case the terms "co-conscious" and "co-consciousness" would be appropriate. Though I regard this hypothesis as possible and even legitimate, I do not propose to adopt it, but to continue to speak of the fugue as an example of alternate consciousness and to reserve "co-consciousness" for cases of double or multiple personality. When speaking of post-hypnotic suggestion, I shall regard it as an example of the independent activity of suppressed experience, and leave it an open question whether this experience is or is not co-conscious.


[1] See especially W. Preyer, Die Kataplexie und der thierische Hypnotismus, Jena (1878)