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A Scientific Explanation Of Hypnotism

Dr. Hart's Theory.

In the introduction to this book the reader will find a summary of the
theories of hypnotism. There is no doubt that hypnotism is a complex
state which cannot be explained in an offhand way in a sentence or two.
There are, however, certain aspects of hypnotism which we may suppose
sufficiently explained by certain scientific writers on the subject.

First, what is the character of the delusions apparently created in the
mind of a person in the hypnotic condition by a simple word of mouth
statement, as when a physician says, Now, I am going to cut your leg
off, but it will not hurt you in the least, and the patient suffers

In answer to this question, Professor William James of Harvard College,
one of the leading authorities on the scientific aspects of psychical
phenomena in this country, reports the following experiments:

Make a stroke on a paper or blackboard, and tell the subject it is not
there, and he will see nothing but the clean paper or board. Next, he
not looking, surround the original stroke with other strokes exactly
like it, and ask him what he sees. He will point out one by one the new
strokes and omit the original one every time, no matter how numerous the
next strokes may be, or in what order they are arranged. Similarly, if
the original single line, to which he is blind, be doubled by a prism of
sixteen degrees placed before one of his eyes (both being kept open), he
will say that he now sees one stroke, and point in the direction in
which lies the image seen through the prism.

Another experiment proves that he must see it in order to ignore it.
Make a red cross, invisible to the hypnotic subject, on a sheet of white
paper, and yet cause him to look fixedly at a dot on the paper on or
near the red cross; he wills on transferring his eye to the blank sheet,
see a bluish-green after image of the cross. This proves that it has
impressed his sensibility. He has felt but not perceived it. He had
actually ignored it; refused to recognize it, as it were.

Dr. Ernest Hart, an English writer, in an article in the British Medical
Journal, gives a general explanation of the phenomena of hypnotism which
we may accept as true so far as it goes, but which is evidently
incomplete. He seems to minimize personal influence too much--that
personal influence which we all exert at various times, and which he
ignores, not because he would deny it, but because he fears lending
countenance to the magnetic fluid and other similar theories. Says he:

We have arrived at the point at which it will be plain that the
condition produced in these cases, and known under a varied jargon
invented either to conceal ignorance, to express hypotheses, or to mask
the design of impressing the imagination and possibly prey upon the
pockets of a credulous and wonder-loving public--such names as mesmeric
condition, magnetic sleep, clairvoyance, electro-biology, animal
magnetism, faith trance, and many other aliases--such a condition, I say,
is always subjective. It is independent of passes or gestures; it has no
relation to any fluid emanating from the operator; it has no relation to
his will, or to any influence which he exercises upon inanimate objects;
distance does not affect it, nor proximity, nor the intervention of any
conductors or non-conductors, whether silk or glass or stone, or even a
brick wall. We can transmit the order to sleep by telephone or by
telegraph. We can practically get the same results while eliminating
even the operator, if we can contrive to influence the imagination or to
affect the physical condition of the subject by any one of a great
number of contrivances.

What does all this mean? I will refer to one or two facts in relation
to the structure and function of the brain, and show one or two simple
experiments of very ancient parentage and date, which will, I think,
help to an explanation. First, let us recall something of what we know
of the anatomy and localization of function in the brain, and of the
nature of ordinary sleep. The brain, as you know, is a complicated
organ, made up internally of nerve masses, or ganglia, of which the
central and underlying masses are connected with the automatic functions
and involuntary actions of the body (such as the action of the heart,
lungs, stomach, bowels, etc.), while the investing surface shows a
system of complicated convolutions rich in gray matter, thickly sown
with microscopic cells, in which the nerve ends terminate. At the base
of the brain is a complete circle of arteries, from which spring great
numbers of small arterial vessels, carrying a profuse blood supply
throughout the whole mass, and capable of contraction in small tracts,
so that small areas of the brain may, at any given moment, become
bloodless, while other parts of the brain may simultaneously become
highly congested. Now, if the brain or any part of it be deprived of the
circulation of blood through it, or be rendered partially bloodless, or
if it be excessively congested and overloaded with blood, or if it be
subjected to local pressure, the part of the brain so acted upon ceases
to be capable of exercising its functions. The regularity of the action
of the brain and the sanity and completeness of the thought which is one
of the functions of its activity depend upon the healthy regularity of
the quantity of blood passing through all its parts, and upon the
healthy quality of the blood so circulating. If we press upon the
carotid arteries which pass up through the neck to form the arterial
circle of Willis, at the base of the brain, within the skull--of which I
have already spoken, and which supplies the brain with blood--we quickly,
as every one knows, produce insensibility. Thought is abolished,
consciousness lost. And if we continue the pressure, all those automatic
actions of the body, such as the beating of the heart, the breathing
motions of the lungs, which maintain life and are controlled by the
lower brain centers of ganglia, are quickly stopped and death ensues.

We know by observation in cases where portions of the skull have been
removed, either in men or in animals, that during natural sleep the
upper part of the brain--its convoluted surface, which in health and in
the waking state is faintly pink, like a blushing cheek, from the color
of the blood circulating through the network of capillary
arteries--becomes white and almost bloodless. It is in these upper
convolutions of the brain, as we also know, that the will and the
directing power are resident; so that in sleep the will is abolished and
consciousness fades gradually away, as the blood is pressed out by the
contraction of the arteries. So, also, the consciousness and the
directing will may be abolished by altering the quality of the blood
passing through the convolutions of the brain. We may introduce a
volatile substance, such as chloroform, and its first effect will be to
abolish consciousness and induce profound slumber and a blessed
insensibility to pain. The like effects will follow more slowly upon the
absorption of a drug, such as opium; or we may induce hallucinations by
introducing into the blood other toxic substances, such as Indian hemp
or stramonium. We are not conscious of the mechanism producing the
arterial contraction and the bloodlessness of those convolutions related
to natural sleep. But we are not altogether without control over them.
We can, we know, help to compose ourselves to sleep, as we say in
ordinary language. We retire into a darkened room, we relieve ourselves
from the stimulus of the special senses, we free ourselves from the
influence of noises, of strong light, of powerful colors, or of tactile
impressions. We lie down and endeavor to soothe brain activity by
driving away disturbing thoughts, or, as people sometimes say, 'try to
think of nothing.' And, happily, we generally succeed more or less well.
Some people possess an even more marked control over this mechanism of
sleep. I can generally succeed in putting myself to sleep at any hour of
the day, either in the library chair or in the brougham. This is, so to
speak, a process of self-hypnotization, and I have often practiced it
when going from house to house, when in the midst of a busy practice,
and I sometimes have amused my friends and family by exercising this
faculty, which I do not think it very difficult to acquire. (We also
know that many persons can wake at a fixed hour in the morning by
setting their minds upon it just before going to sleep.) Now, there is
something here which deserves a little further examination, but which it
would take too much time to develop fully at present. Most people know
something of what is meant by reflex action. The nerves which pass from
the various organs to the brain convey with, great rapidity messages to
its various parts, which are answered by reflected waves of impulse. If
the soles of the feet be tickled, contraction of the toes, or
involuntary laughter, will be excited, or perhaps only a shuddering and
skin contraction, known as goose-skin. The irritation of the nerve-end
in the skin has carried a message to the involuntary or voluntary
ganglia of the brain which has responded by reflecting back again nerve
impulses which have contracted the muscles of the feet or skin muscles,
or have given rise to associated ideas and explosion of laughter. In the
same way, if during sleep heat be applied to the soles of the feet,
dreams of walking over hot surfaces--Vesuvius or Fusiyama, or still
hotter places--may be produced, or dreams of adventure on frozen surfaces
or in arctic regions may be created by applying ice to the feet of the

Here, then, it is seen that we have a mechanism in the body, known to
physiologists as the ideo-motor, or sensory motor system of nerves,
which can produce, without the consciousness of the individual and
automatically, a series of muscular contractions. And remember that the
coats of the arteries are muscular and contractile under the influence
of external stimuli, acting without the help of the consciousness, or
when the consciousness is in abeyance. I will give another example of
this, which completes the chain of phenomena in the natural brain and
the natural body I wish to bring under notice in explanation of the true
as distinguished from the false, or falsely interpreted, phenomena of
hypnotism, mesmerism and electro-biology. I will take the excellent
illustration quoted by Dr. B. W. Carpenter in his old-time, but
valuable, book on 'The Physiology of the Brain.' When a hungry man sees
food, or when, let us say, a hungry boy looks into a cookshop, he
becomes aware of a watering of the mouth and a gnawing sensation at the
stomach. What does this mean? It means that the mental impression made
upon him by the welcome and appetizing spectacle has caused a secretion
of saliva and of gastric juice; that is to say, the brain has, through
the ideo-motor set of nerves, sent a message which has dilated the
vessels around the salivary and gastric glands, increased the flow of
blood through them and quickened their secretion. Here we have, then, a
purely subjective mental activity acting through a mechanism of which
the boy is quite ignorant, and which he is unable to control, and
producing that action on the vessels of dilation or contraction which,
as we have seen, is the essential condition of brain activity and the
evolution of thought, and is related to the quickening or the abolition
of consciousness, and to the activity or abeyance of function in the
will centers and upper convolutions of the brain, as in its other
centers of localization.

Here, then, we have something like a clue to the phenomena--phenomena
which, as I have pointed out, are similar to and have much in common
with mesmeric sleep, hypnotism or electro-biology. We have already, I
hope, succeeded in eliminating from our minds the false theory--the
theory, that is to say, experimentally proved to be false--that the will,
or the gestures, or the magnetic or vital fluid of the operator are
necessary for the abolition of the consciousness and the abeyance of the
will of the subject. We now see that ideas arising in the mind of the
subject are sufficient to influence the circulation in the brain of the
person operated on, and such variations of the blood supply of the brain
as are adequate to produce sleep in the natural state, or artificial
slumber, either by total deprivation or by excessive increase or local
aberration in the quantity or quality of blood. In a like manner it is
possible to produce coma and prolonged insensibility by pressure of the
thumbs on the carotid; or hallucination, dreams and visions by drugs, or
by external stimulation of the nerves. Here again the consciousness may
be only partially affected, and the person in whom sleep, coma or
hallucination is produced, whether by physical means or by the influence
of suggestion, may remain subject to the will of others and incapable of
exercising his own volition.

In short, Dr. Hart's theory is that hypnotism comes from controlling the
blood supply of the brain, cutting off the supply from parts or
increasing it in other parts. This theory is borne out by the well-known
fact that some persons can blush or turn pale at will; that some people
always blush on the mention of certain things, or calling up certain
ideas. Certain other ideas will make them turn pale. Now, if certain
parts of the brain are made to blush or turn pale, there is no doubt
that hypnotism will follow, since blushing and turning pale are known to
be due to the opening and closing of the blood-vessels. We may say that
the subject is induced by some means to shut the blood out of certain
portions of the brain, and keep it out until he is told to let it in

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Previous: Hypnotism Of Animals

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