An on-going experiment on compliance and influence through extended degrees of separation or dissociation in reference to religion and psychopathology – Part 1


Hypnosis in a “macrocosmical” perspective

A useful definition of hypnosis can proceed on the basis that it is a mechanism whereby elements of reality become distorted in such a way, that reality contact is still retained at some level. It can also be suggested that “hypnotic” processes may be involved in the reality distortion that characterizes altered states of the psychopathological variety.

Hypnosis may also be defined as a social interaction in which one person (the subject) responds to suggestions offered by another person (the hypnotist) for experiences, which involve alterations in perception and memory. In the classically accepted case, these experiences are accompanied by feelings of involuntariness bordering on compulsion, and subjective conviction bordering on delusion. Even the most responsive subjects, however, appear to retain some degree of veridical awareness and voluntary control, so that their behaviour and experience represents a curious blend of illusion and reality – a sort of semi-conscious compliance.

Such a definition can be said to capture the essential paradox of hypnosis. We see that, while in a so-called hypnotic state, a person can create a fusion of reality and illusion so convincing that they will act in total accord with that hybrid of reality. It is also the case that the subject does not relinquish their ultimate hold on reality. Hypnosis as a natural phenomenon then, should be seen as the human need to comply with social and familial expectations inherent in all human interactions – the extent and capacity of which is determined by context and circumstance. It should also be apparent that it must be understood in terms of dissociation and a new model of the unconscious. In fact, this definition of hypnosis is couched in a wider discussion of the dissociation of memory that becomes possible during hypnosis. This includes hypnotic hypermnesia (heightened recollection), hypnotic age regression, hypnotic agnosia (loss of sensory ability), and post-hypnotic amnesia. While the etiology of these phenomena is not without controversy, and due to the possibility of similar psychogenic conditions, beyond the author’s full acceptance: one can nevertheless conclude that they seem to involve an alteration in consciousness. This is in the sense that the executive functions, which monitor and control memory functions are somehow disrupted. In all these cases the alteration in consciousness may be simply described as dissociation.

Several investigators of hypnosis have noted the fundamental distortive nature of this phenomenon. Specifically, it is a procedure that allows reality to become distorted in a number of ways. On this topic, Ronald Shor describes the good hypnotic subject as “a person who has the ability to give up his usual reality orientation to a considerable extent, and who can concurrently build up a new, special orientation to reality, which temporarily becomes the only possible reality for him in his phenomenal awareness.” Eugene Bliss depicts hypnosis as a “non-Newtonian world of realistic fantasy, where aberrations of all sorts can be perceived and experienced with a sense of total reality.” In fact, Ernest Hilgard has argued the case that hypnosis should be viewed as an expression of dissociation. He is on the right track, in proposing the “existence” of a “hidden observer” that retains a solid foothold in reality, even to the extent that the “observer” could force the person back to real reality if that was deemed necessary. He writes quite simply that “dissociation is the secret of hypnosis.“

As it turns out dissociation is the cornerstone of reality distortion, which can manifest itself in many different ways. Robert Shore was sensitive to this and described hypnosis as only one of the many methods by which people can become disengaged from their general reality orientation. He places this insight within the rightful context of culture by arguing that “hypnosis is a special form of trance developed in western civilization.” Shor’s observation resembles quite closely that of Fred Frankel, who wrote: “hypnosis is an event developed in the Western world, involving a subject and an operator, and dependent for its occurrence on the trance capabilities of the subject, their motivations, the situation, and the relationship between the subject and the operator.” This is an extremely important point. Yet books on the history of psychology frequently contain misleading information about the discovery of hypnosis, without reference to the many similar states, whose common denominator is also dissociation.

In truth, it is far more accurate to speak of hypnosis as one of the many possible procedures for bringing about a state of dissociative trance and dissociative responding. Therefore, what is actually celebrated, as the “discovery” of hypnosis is actually a very belated Western discovery of dissociation as it can become more manifest using culture-bound hypnotic techniques.  The end result is a culture (context) specific expression of dissociative trance. In other cultures, dissociative trance takes on different forms depending on the techniques used, as well as the cultural conditioning that guides a person’s behaviour during trance. Furthermore, there is nothing new about such procedures as those used in promoting hypnotic dissociation. For millennia, various cultures have been making use of related procedures, many of which work much better than the “hypnotic” techniques of Western society. The word hypnosis (from the Greek hypnos meaning sleep) is a relative new coinage, but that is all.

Restarting this slightly, a state of dissociation is fostered, sometimes very dramatically, as a result of the procedures known collectively as hypnosis. In this light, the term hypnotic dissociation is more meaningful and less confusing than our ordinary usage of the word hypnosis. The same type of dissociative state can be achieved by any number of other techniques, something that has been done by members of our species ever since we evolved the capacity to process information along independent pathways, the point at which religion and psychopathology also appeared.