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The Danger Lines In Hypnotism

( Originally Published 1904 )

THERE are two danger lines in hypnotism. One pertains to the moral well-being of the subject, and the other to his physical and mental health.

Two questions are thus presented for consideration. The first is, how far and under what conditions may hypnotism be employed for the promotion of vice, immorality, and crime? And the second is, under what conditions may hypnotism become a source of danger to the physical and mental health of the subject?

The first of these questions has been so thoroughly discussed of late, under the title of Hypnotism and Crime, that there is little to be said that would be new - to the reader. Indeed, so persistently has this question been discussed, and so ably has it been obscured by the newspaper press, that the public is fast settling down into the belief that two monstrous entities have recently sprung into existence, formed a copartnership, and are now engaged in a diabolical business under the firm name and style of Hypnotism and Crime. I will not attempt to disabuse the public mind of the favorite idea, but will content myself with pointing out to the professional reader the principal source of error which besets those who hold that the two, if not necessarily inseparable, belong to the same category of offences against the peace and dignity of the state.

The truth is that the whole difficulty arises from the inability of a certain class of persons to take more than one step in the process of reasoning. Thus, when such reasoners have once been able to master the broad idea that " the hypnotized subject is constantly amenable to control by the power of suggestion," they at once jump to the conclusion that said subject, in the hands of the hypnotist, is as clay in the hands of the potter ; that he is a mere automaton, without volition of his own; that he has surrendered his personality and his will to the keeping of the operator, and is, consequently, irresistibly compelled to obey the slightest injunction of his custodian, even to the extent of perpetrating high crimes and misdemeanors. Such reasoners, when informed that gravitation is a universal force, and that the sun attracts the earth, would affirm, with equal confidence and reason, that the latter must inevitably plunge into the former and be consumed. They would forget, or be unable to comprehend, the further fact that other planets attract the earth, and thus, by virtue of the universality of the law of gravitation, counter forces exert their ever-present influence upon the earth and upon the whole planetary system, in such a way as forever to prevent the anticipated " wreck of matter and crush of worlds."

Strange as it may seem to those persons, the hypnotic subject is hedged about and protected by counter forces that operate to preserve his moral equilibrium in ways that are as nearly analogous to those I have used as an illustration as a moral force can be to a physical force. In other words, the suggestions of the operator to the hypnotized subject may be, and are, constantly counterbalanced by other suggestions. This is a fact which the average student of theoretical hypnotism is slow to learn ; and yet it is the most important fact in the whole science. These counter-suggestions, as I have pointed out elsewhere, may arise from the instinct of self-preservation, education, experience, religion, principles of moral rectitude, or even from a sense of personal dignity. These I have classified under the term " auto-suggestions."

I do not undertake to say that suggestions arising from either one of the sources named, or from all of them combined, would in all cases afford protection to a hypnotized subject against suggestions of a criminal character. In other words, I do not deny the proposition that it is possible, under certain conditions, for a hypnotized subject to be induced by a criminal hypnotist to commit a crime ; and I know of no one who does deny it.

This being conceded, it becomes important to locate the danger line, or rather the line of safety, — the line beyond which neither an immoral nor a criminal suggestion can ever prevail.

That line is clearly defined by Conscience, —that sleepless sentinel on the watchtower of the human soul, which guards and protects each one. who is endowed with that faculty from the assaults of sin and shame.

By this I do not mean that quality of "conscience " which " makes cowards of us all," which consists of, or is manifested in, fear of the consequences of wrong-doing. By " conscience I mean " that power or faculty in man," whether it be connate with him or the result of moral education or training, " by which he distinguishes between right and wrong in conduct and character, and which imperatively commands and obligates him to do the right and abstain from doing the wrong."

It is obvious that, given a criminal hypnotist and a weak and criminal subject, no one of the other sources of auto-suggestion which I have named would of necessity protect the latter against the determined and persistent oral suggestions of the former. Thus the " instinct of self-preservation," which is ordinarily the source of one of the strongest auto-suggestions, is not always adequate, since it is well known that men, in an apparently normal condition, often place themselves in imminent and deadly peril in pursuit of a criminal object. " Education and experience" are plainly inadequate, for it is well known that many of the most notorious criminals have not been lacking in these advantages. " Religion," per se, is notoriously inadequate as a means of protection, since it is well known that the brigands of Italy are as devout as they are devilish. " A sense of personal dignity constitutes a strong auto-suggestion against doing that which would excite ridicule ; but obviously it would only operate indirectly against criminal suggestion. " Principles of moral rectitude," however, stand upon a somewhat different footing, inasmuch as they are, if genuine, but another name for conscience. But unfortunately there are many men who are imbued with " principles of moral rectitude " for revenue only "; who are honest only because honesty is the best policy; who take the law for their guide in all business transactions.' Such men are seldom either truly honest men or good citizens. Plainly their "principles, although they may constitute the best available substitute for a conscience, would of them-selves furnish no adequate or certain protection against criminal suggestion.

Let me not be misunderstood. I do not mean to say that auto-suggestions arising from the sources named would afford no protection against the suggestions of a criminal hypnotist. I merely say that they may not afford adequate protection in the absence of conscience. That each constitutes a powerful bulwark against the assaults of a criminal hypnotist, I most unhesitatingly affirm. They are constantly alert, jointly and severally, for the protection of the individual; the instinct of self-preservation, in the absence of conscience, being always the dominating factor. But when a man has risen in the scale of humanity and civilization to the dignity of being in possession of that power or faculty which " imperatively commands and obligates him to do the right and abstain from doing the wrong," he is in-trenched within a citadel against which no power of criminal suggestion can prevail.

The simple rule is that when two opposing suggestions are presented to the subjective mind of a hypnotized subject, the stronger must prevail. This is a rule which admits of no exception or variation. It follows that when the plea is offered in a court of justice, in extenuation of a criminal or immoral act, that the subject was coerced by criminal suggestion, it amounts to a general confession that his immoral or criminal desire is stronger than all other considerations combined ; and it amounts to a specific proclamation of the fact that the alleged victim is devoid of conscientious scruples regarding the particular crime which he has committed.

From the nature of things it can never be specifically known how many, or what character of adverse auto-suggestions may have been overcome by a successful criminal suggestion ; but one thing is always certain, and that is that in reference to the particular crime, the guilty subject is devoid of conscientious scruples.

Conscience not only marks the line between the realms of danger and safety in the hypnotized subject, but it also defines the limit of control which the objective mind normally exercises over the subjective mind. That is to say, in the normal man the objective intellect exercises supreme control over the dual mental organ-ism, up to a certain limit. That limit, again, is defined by conscience. When, in the progress of mental and moral evolution, man reaches that stage of development — that moral altitude - where conscience becomes an attribute of the soul, the love of the right and hatred of the wrong become an emotion of such supreme potentiality that nothing, not even the love of life, nor the fear of the tortures of the Inquisition, can prevail against it. This emotion, of course, varies in strength and in-tensity with each individual, in accordance with his education and moral development ; and it may be perverted, even to the extent of causing insanity. The point is that it is an emotion, and therefore belongs to the subjective mind ; and in the normal man, whose environment has been favorable, and whose training and education have been along the lines of truth and right, and in harmony with reason, this emotion becomes the dominant characteristic of his mental organism. It is then that the subjective mind, rightfully and normally, assumes the ascendancy, conscience becomes instinctive, the perception of the eternal principles of right and wrong becomes intuitive ; and the immortal part of man, drawing inspiration from the Eternal Source of Truth and Right, becomes an " inward monitor " whose sleep-less vigilance guards and protects him and repels every assault upon the integrity of his character.

I am not unmindful of the fact, as I have before intimated, that conscience, like every other human emotion or faculty, may be perverted, and its forces expended in wrong directions. Witness the great army of cranks who infest every civilized community. No more conscientious men or women exist than they whose zeal in the cause of " reform " has led them into the belief that whatever is, is wrong. Many of them, had they the power, would crucify, or exterminate with fire and sword, all who differ with them in opinion. No nobler or purer race existed in their day and generation than those of whom history records the fact that they would suffer martyrdom or expatriation for conscience' sake, but who, in turn, would apply the fagot and the torch to those whose views were not in harmony with their own.

I need not dwell upon this branch of the subject, how-ever, for it does not pertain directly to the question under consideration. It is mentioned here, first, for the purpose of showing that the noblest attribute of civilized man may be perverted by an unfortunate environment or the suggestions embraced in a false education ; and, second, for the purpose of exhibiting in a stronger light the fact that conscience, when once aroused, is the dominating force in the whole character of man. The fact that it may be perverted, however, does not militate against or modify the proposition I have advanced; for it does not follow that because a man would wish to see exterminated all whose views on social or religious questions do not accord with his, he would commit a private murder, rape, or arson in obedience to hypnotic suggestion, or of his own volition. Only those whose perversions have reached the stage of insanity could be thus influenced.

The proposition, therefore, still holds good that the auto-suggestions embraced in conscientious scruples against the commission of immoral or criminal acts are more potent than any possible suggestion of a criminal character.

The next question is, under what conditions may hypnotism become a source of danger to physical and mental health?

Students of theoretical hypnotism are about equally divided into two classes, namely : i, those who hold that hypnotism can never be otherwise than beneficial to the subject; and, 2, those who can see untold evils environing a hypnotized person and threatening him with nervous wreck and imbecility. As usual, the truth lies somewhere about half way between the two extremes.

Hypnotism may become an unmitigated evil to the subject, or it may result in unqualified benefit to him. Between the two extremes there are all grades and degrees of good results, as well as of evil, to the hypnotic subject.

This being true, it is of the highest importance to all concerned to locate the danger line; for obviously there must be some broad, fundamental principle underlying the subject matter which has not yet been discovered or definitely formulated, and which will account for the wide range of difference of opinion among experts of apparently equal skill and capacity for correct observation.

It is true that in this connection we often hear hypnotists speak of degrees of skill in the induction of hypnosis ; and we infer from their observations that they regard skill in that line as the essential element of success in the production of good results ; but, whilst the importance of skill and experience is not to be underrated, it is nevertheless true that often the most skilful and experienced hypnotist will leave his subject a nervous wreck. I admit that this is rare, but it is possible, nevertheless. It is not, therefore, skill alone that defines the danger line.

I have not space, however, to discuss the various theories which have been advanced to account for the fact under consideration; but will proceed to suggest, tentatively, a hypothesis which may throw some light upon the subject and induce others to consider the facts, experimentally, from that standpoint.

It seems to me that the chief difficulty arises from not fully comprehending the true import of the law of suggestion. Like every other law of nature, it is simple ; but that quality lies largely in the simplicity of the terms in which it can be formulated. The law itself embraces many complications, which, if left out of consideration in any given case, will involve the student in a maze of apparent contradictions.

The subjective mind, while it is always amenable to control by the power of suggestion, and while it often accepts a false suggestion with the same readiness with which it accepts a true one, is, nevertheless, normally a lover of truth. It may be, and often is, perverted in the extreme by a lifelong series of false suggestions; but normally it loves the truth, and it has, moreover, an intuitive perception of truth when it is presented.

Now, there is no fact better known to hypnotists than that when two antagonistic suggestions are made to a hypnotized subject, even though the subject matter of the suggestions may be of trivial character, it invariably produces the most unmistakable mental distress ; and, if the suggestions are persisted in, the subject often awakens to normal consciousness suffering from a severe nervous shock. Reverting again to the subject of hypnotism and crime, it is well known to hypnotists that a criminal suggestion, acting upon the principle mentioned above, will often awaken a subject; and when this occurs, it is invariably accompanied by a violent shock to the nervous system. Dr. Cocke, of Boston, reports a laboratory case in which a criminal suggestion threw the subject into a violent fit of hysterics. I have myself seen a subject thrown into a state of hystero-catalepsy by a persistent suggestion (insisted upon at the instance of a fool) that she perform an act which, in her normal condition, she regarded as sacrilegious.

Every one who has witnessed even the common stage experiments knows how vigorously, at first, a suggestion will be resisted when it is contrary to an obvious and well-known fact. For instance, a suggestion that the subject is some one else will be instantaneously resisted, and sometimes with stubborn persistence for a short period, the strength of the resistance varying with the character of the personality suggested. But, when conscience, or some other powerful adverse motive is not involved, if the suggestion is strongly enforced the subject will yield to it and carry it to its legitimate conclusion with marvellous fidelity to the logic of the situation.

Again, common observation will bear me out in the assertion that subjects who have been long and continuously employed on the stage for the purposes of exhibition invariably become nervous wrecks, especially if skilful care has not been persistently exercised in re-storing the normal tone to their nervous organizations. It is, indeed, with this class of subjects that the evils of hypnotism have been made manifest to the general public as well as to professional observers. In this class I mean to include all subjects who have been continuously used for purposes of amusement, whether on the public stage or in the private drawing-room. The " amusement " which hypnotism affords is necessarily due to the antics which the subject performs in response to false or ridiculous suggestions, and these are often of a painful character. The depth of the injury inflicted upon the mind of the subject is measured partly by the character of the suggestions, and partly by the frequency and suddenness of the changes from one false suggestion to another of an opposite character ; and it is true, unfortunately, that many stage hypnotists, ignorant of the principle involved, and anxious to amuse their audiences and to demonstrate the potency of suggestion, inflict incalculable injury upon their subjects by suddenly and frequently changing the character of their suggestions from one extreme to another. It may be amusing, and possibly instructive, but the subject is a martyr to the cause of popular education in hypnotism. Of course the evil can be minimized by making easy and natural transitions from one hallucination to another; but the average stage hypnotist is either ignorant of the principle involved, or is careless of the well-being of his subjects.

And it may be remarked here that much of the popular prejudice against hypnotism arises from witnessing such performances. All that the public is permitted to see is a crowd of subjects, usually of limited intelligence and vain and egotistic to the last degree, put through a series of antics, sometimes amusing, often painful, and occasionally disgusting; and the popular conclusion is that what they have witnessed is the sum total of hypnotism. The more thoughtful spectator of average intelligence will inevitably come to two conclusions. One is that if such performances are necessary in order to avail oneself of the benefits of hypnotism, he wants none of it. The other is that if suggestion is such a powerful agent as to cause a subject to lose his identity, forget his name, or imagine himself to be a dog, with all that the name implies, he can just as easily be persuaded to slaughter his grandmother. In any event he is sure to come to the conclusion that the dangers of hypnotism are very prominently exemplified by such practices. On the other hand, the proposition that hypnotism, or its chief handmaiden, suggestion, has proved to be an unalloyed blessing to millions of the human race, cannot be successfully controverted. No intelligent observer who has made an honest and unprejudiced investigation of the subject will deny its value as a therapeutic agent or gainsay the fact that it has been the means of restoration to health of untold numbers of otherwise incurable sufferers from physical and mental maladies. Its value as an anaesthetic in surgery has been demonstrated by the profession in many notable instances ; and it is thought, as I have pointed out elsewhere, that when its laws are better understood, it will be found to be an agent of universal application for the inhibition of pain in surgical operations. Its value as a means for the eradication of habits of drunkenness, as well as of many other habits equally destructive to health and reason, no one who has given the slightest attention to the subject will seriously question. Its availability as an auxiliary to the usual processes of education is rapidly becoming known throughout the world ; and so is its value as a means of training children to correct habits of mind and body, and, above all, of eradicating from the human mind the tendency to immorality, vice, and crime.

It is a noteworthy fact that from those who have employed hypnotism or hypnotic suggestion for the beneficent purposes I have just named, and for those purposes only, we hear no complaint of the evil effects of that agent.

It will be apparent to the intelligent reader by this time, that the dividing line between the realms of danger and of safety in hypnotism is clearly defined by Truth.

Truth follows along the lines of least resistance in the intellectual realm, as the physical forces of nature do in the material world ; for the universe is the embodiment of truth, and hence every truth is consistent and in harmony with every other. Falsehood, on the other hand, follows the lines of greatest resistance, for it is in harmony with nothing; and it finds its strongest antagonism in that innate love of verity which is inherent in the unperverted human soul.

And so it happens that when therapeutic suggestions are made, they find a ready acceptance; for health is normal and disease is abnormal. The same is true of every suggestion in harmony with, and in promotion of, the well-being of the normal subjects, morally, intellectually, or physically.

The only question, then, which remains for consideration in this immediate connection is whether hypnotic sleep, per se, produces any deleterious effect upon the human system. The obvious answer is that inasmuch as hypnotic sleep, undisturbed by unpleasant hallucinations arising from false suggestions, is identical with natural sleep, it follows that the hypnotized subject is in no more danger of untoward results than is the man who " wraps the drapery of his couch about him and lies down to pleasant dreams." Moreover, the recuperative effects are the same as in natural sleep, though ordinarily greater in degree, for the reason that hypnotic sleep is usually accompanied by therapeutic suggestions.

It is not, therefore, the method of inducing the condition that constitutes the essential difference between natural and hypnotic sleep. That difference is wholly due to the suggestions which accompany it. Hypnotic sleep, unaccompanied by suggestions as to its duration or object, merges into natural sleep so perfectly that the closest observer cannot detect the time when the transition occurs. When it is attended by therapeutic suggestions, or others of a pleasant character and in harmony with truth, the result is always beneficent, for the simple reason that no antagonism is provoked.

A false suggestion, on the other hand, invariably produces a nervous shock of greater or less intensity in proportion to its character, and the consequent amount of resistance it encounters. This occurs on precisely the same principle and for the same reason that a criminal suggestion will produce that result. A criminal suggestion provokes an antagonistic auto-suggestion of an intensity proportioned to the subject's character for moral rectitude. A false suggestion, in like manner, provokes an adverse auto-suggestion of varying intensity proportioned to the subject's education, experience, and inherent love of truth. In either case a shock, of greater or less severity, is produced. The shock may be light, and doubtless is, in many cases, especially in stage exhibitions ; but the effects are cumulative, and when a series of such experiences is long continued there can be but one result, --a shattered nervous organization.

From the foregoing facts four very important conclusions are inevitable :

1. That the hypnotized subject is not the unresisting automaton that has been pictured by popular imagination ; that, on the contrary, he is hedged about and protected from evil influences in exact proportion to his deserts, and that if crime is ever a possible result of hypnotic suggestion, it is only so with those who, in their normal state, could be more easily influenced to commit a crime than they could in a condition of hypnosis.

2. That all the manifold benefits of hypnotism can be obtained by perfectly normal means, without the necessity of producing an unpleasant hallucination with its consequent shock to the nervous system, by simple adherence to truth when making a suggestion for any beneficent purpose whatever.

3. That the laws of hypnotism constitute no exception to the rule that the forces of nature, when once understood and intelligently utilized, are always promotive of the highest good to mankind.

4. That hypnotism is no exception to the rule that in all the relations of life the boundary lines between the realms of good and evil, between danger and safety, are clearly defined by conscience and truth.

For further information about hypnotism:
Hypnosis @ Wikipedia
The Nature Of Hypnotism
Is Hypnotism Humbug?
Hypnotism And Suggestion
The Therapeutic Value Of Hypnotism


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