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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 chara
ter 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