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 nothing?
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 sleeper.
"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 again.