Don E. Gibbons, Ph.D., NJ Licensed Psychologist #03513
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The New Center for Counseling and Psychotherapy, LLC, is located at 675 Route 72 E, Manahawkin, NJ 08050,
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Sunday, October 13, 2019

Hypnosis as Compounded Conviction

A Suggestion is an Induction -- E. R. Hilgard

It is often said that the two organisms most frequently experimented upon are the laboratory rat and the college sophomore, because of their easy availability to researchers. For example, the Harvard Group Scale of Hypnotic Suggestibility (Shor &. Orne, 1962) has been used with college classes in literally hundreds of studies to  investigate individual differences in responsiveness to suggestion.

In a typical class of about thirty students who are being administered this suggestibility measure, two or three will just be sitting there with their eyes open, looking around at the others with a mixture of boredom and curiosity, two or three will appear to be experiencing a trance, and the rest will be bunched up in the middle, responding to the suggestions to some extent.

Now let's perform a thought experiment. Imagine that  the Harvard Group Scale of Hypnotic Suggestibility is being given to a class of students in a politically sensitive part of the world, when someone dressed in a police uniform bursts into the room shouting that there is an active shooter in the building, and orders everybody to take immediate cover under their desks and await further instructions. Everyone, including the instructor, promptly cowers under their desks in a high state of emotion for an indeterminate time, until it gradually becomes clear that this was a hoax, i.e., a cleverly designed suggestion on the part of a dissident student group in order to disrupt the smooth operation of the school. 

What happened to the individual differences in suggestibility that the Harvard Group Scale was supposed to measure, and what happened to the individual differences in hypnotic depth that had been achieved? They disappeared! Under the right conditions, everybody is highly suggestible, because what we commonly regard as the trait of suggestibility is in reality the effect compounded conviction rather than a back door to the "unconscious mind."

Here's an experiment you can perform yourself. Call up a college or university near you and ask to speak to somebody who teachers in the psychology department. Ask them about the existence of the "unconscious mind" in light of current research on brain structure and see what they respond. If you prefer, you could call up the biology department and ask them the same thing. Both of these resources will tell you that in view of our current understanding of the structure of the brain, the notion of a separate "unconscious mind" is at best a crude approximation. It only sounds logical because it is circular. If we see two people fighting, we say that it's because they're angry. Why are they angry?  Because they're fighting! Why do hypnotized people so frequently experience a trance? Because hypnotic suggestions bypass the censor of the conscious mind. Why does the conscious mind have such a censor? Because this is how people  become hypnotized! 

Wouldn't it  be easier to say that you can reframe the perception of reality using the power of suggestion, without having to infer the existence of two separate minds, one conscious and the other unconscious, each one operating according to different principles and constantly scheming against each other? What kind of a contraption would that be, and how and why could we possibly have developed it, either by creation or by evolution?

Of course, we are able to do a number of things without the direct supervision of our conscious awareness. We do have ithe ability to make some actions as automatic and habitual as possible without having to attend to each separate detail, as is the case when we are able to drive from one end of town to the other, stopping at each red light and alternately braking and accelerating to keep up with the flow of traffic without consciously planning each movement in advance. In extreme cases, this can take the form of dissociative reactions such as amnesia, fugue, or dissociative identity disorder, in which  conflicts are split off from conscious awareness because they have become too painful to bear. But the reasons for this splitting can be readily understood in terms of a person's ongoing conflicts, without reference to a separate "unconscious mind" lurking beyond the bounds of our everyday awareness.

What, then, is hypnosis? There are so many ways to hypnotize people that entire books have been written on this subject, and more ways are being devised all the time -- so many, in fact, that it is easy to see that the only thing which they have in common is the actualization of the suggestion that one's conscious processes are beginning to operate differently, as defined by the suggestions of the hypnotist and the prevailing expectations of the culture, filtered through the imagination of the participants and their ability and  willingness to comply with the instructions and suggestions which they are given. 


Shor, R. E. & Orne, E. C. (1962) Harvard group scale of hypnotic susceptibility, Form A. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

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