DO OUR SOLDIERS FEAR HYPNOSIS ? (May, 1945)
DO OUR SOLDIERS FEAR HYPNOSIS ?
by R. A. Montherlant
The real story of “hypnoanalysis,” miraculous mind-healer used by Army medicos. It cures almost everything from anxiety to asthma.
THREE months after he had made a split-second escape from the fast-flooding engine room of his torpedoed ship, a 21-year-old merchant seaman reported as a patient to the U. S. Marine Hospital at Ellis Island, New York. He complained of severe and constant headaches, sleeplessness, and told of two distinct occasions when he had “blacked out”
Like many other soldiers and sailors who have undergone the hardship and terror of battle, this seaman was suffering from what the public has learned to call “combat fatigue” or “psychoneurosis” and medical science more accurately terms the “acute traumatic war neuroses.”
Obtaining the seaman’s consent, Dr. Charles Fisher, psychiatrist for the U. S. Public Health Service, gave him a course of hypnotic treatments. In an amazingly brief period, after having been hypnotized only four times, the seaman left the hospital completely cured! And more important, he was well enough to return to his old job in the engine room of a troop-carrying transport.
Five months later he revisited the hospital and told Dr. Fisher of his experiences in the invasion of Sicily, where his ship had been heavily bombarded. To Dr. Fisher’s skilled diagnostic eye it was evident that the seaman had come through the ordeal without the least sign of a possible relapse.
To appreciate the full meaning of this medical miracle, one must remember the large numbers of life-long inmates of Veterans’ Hospitals throughout the country, ghostly, fear-frozen survivors of the First World War who can never hope to be rescued from their benumbed psychic paralysis. And remember also that it is hypnotism, or hypno-analysis, in Dr. Fisher’s scientific lingo—long regarded by both the general public and the medical profession with a confused mixture of superstitious awe and downright disbelief—that opens a brighter future for the psychoneurotic casualties of today’s battlefields.
Dr. Fisher’s masterly use of hypnosis is only one of an ever-growing list of successful cases in the records of war-time psychiatry. In U. S. Army, Navy and Merchant Marine Hospitals, behind every battle front and at the terminus of every supply line, hard-pressed doctors in search of short-cut but efficient methods of mental therapy are turning to one form or another of hypnosis.
A psychiatrist has often been likened to a detective of the soul’s dark depths, a Sherlock Holmes on the track of psychic clues. Once he has the all-revealing .key in his possession, he can with little difficulty unlock those hidden and elusive chambers in the mind where mental trouble breeds. As Sigmund Freud, Viennese doctor who trail-blazed the path for modern psychiatry with his theories of dynamic psychology, pointed out long ago. mental patients are chiefly suffering from bad memories which they have pushed deep down within their minds in a seemingly successful effort to forget them. Freud laid it down as the cardinal tenet of psychoanalytical law that before a cure could possibly succeed the patient himself, under the expert guidance of the psychoanalyst, must dredge up these painful, repressed memories out of the murky and tangled depths of his “unconscious.”
Though Freud’s illuminating interpretation of the dynamics of the neurotic mind is quite generally accepted by psychiatrists today, his methods of cure, which involve a long and expensive treatment, are particularly impractical during war-time. For time-pressed, hard-working psychiatrists like Dr. Fisher, confronted with battle casualties in need of immediate and effective attention, the job is the tricky one of retaining Freud’s searchlight-like analytical ideas while devising new and speedier techniques. And hypnoanalysis, combining Freudian insight with the sharp uncovering probe into the recesses of mind that hypnotism provides, does the job.
Hypnosis can be induced by a number of well-tested procedures. However, the procedure used by Dr. Fisher so neatly epitomizes the whole process of suggestion, so important to the induction stage, that it is worth describing in some detail. In the early days of hypnotism it was customary for the hypnotist to assume a rather dictatorial pose towards his subject, brow-beating him into the hypnotic trance. But with the development of a rational psychiatry the hypnotic subject is fully informed and understands each step as it is taken.
When the seaman had his first interview with Dr. Fisher, he was arrogantly convinced that no one could ever hypnotize him. Like a lot of misinformed people he thought that hypnotism was in some way a “battle of wills” between the person being hypnotized and the hypnotist. Before another step in the treatment could be taken, Dr. Fisher had to dispel this prejudice. For unless the subject is willing and actively cooperates with the hypnotist not even Svengali can turn the trick.
Dr. Fisher then told the seaman to stand in the center of the room, holding his arms rigidly in front of him, his fists tightly clenched. “Make your arms just as straight and rigid as you possibly can,” Dr. Fisher commanded. “Just as rigid as you possibly can!” After thirty seconds Dr. Fisher said, “Now look at me. I’m going to hold your arms and I don’t believe you can bend them. Try it. You can’t do it. You can’t do it. YOU CAN’T DO IT!”
The seaman tried to move his arms and found that they would not bend. He strained and strained, his face becoming contorted with the muscular effort, but his arms remained rigid. Suddenly Dr. Fisher said in a sharp voice, “Now you can bend them. When I snap my fingers!” With the sound of Dr. Fisher’s snapping fingers the tension in the seaman’s arms disappeared and he bent them easily. Impressed by the suggestive power latent in hypnosis, from that time on the seaman made an excellent subject.
Besides his role of detective, the psychiatrist must also become a kind of playwright, reconstructing the subterranean drama that lies behind each patient’s illness out of the fragmentary memories and re-enacted scenes that are brought to light during the hypnotic trance. Take the case of the seaman. Dr. Fisher, purely through dramatic instinct, drastically shortened the entire treatment by guessing that the “black outs” or attacks of amnesia were in some manner crucial moments in the seaman’s psychic life.
So, after hypnotizing him, Dr. Fisher had him re-live the events leading up to and during the amnestic attacks. Immediately it became apparent, from the vivid enactment the sailor performed under hypnosis, that the cause of his mental trouble was traceable to the salient fact that each time he had lost consciousness, it had been the sight of two valves that set off the psychic explosion in his mind.
In the next hypnotic session Dr. Fisher, mindful of the clue already unearthed, requested the seaman to re-enact what had happened to him during the actual torpedoing. Displaying all the emotional intensity he had felt during the original experience, the seaman again lived through those stifling, terror-laden minutes when he had been trapped in the engine room of a rapidly sinking ship. And time and again he returned to one insistent theme: whether or not he had really turned off the valves that controlled the ship’s boilers before he escaped.
Here was the source of his illness! The conflict between his fear and his sense of duty, which produces the majority of war neuroses, was graphically expressed by the repetition of two simple but dramatic sentences: “I better go back and see. No, I better go overboard.” Now that Dr. Fisher had uncovered the crucial, or as psychiatrists put it, the “traumatic” episode, he could go on and effect a cure.
What has just been described is the “uncovering” or “acting out” method of hypnoanalysis. But when that method fails, hypnotism has by no means exhausted the procedures at its disposal. The simplest and most widely used technique is that of direct, post-hypnotic suggestion; the hypnotist convincing the patient while under hypnosis that his illness will vanish when he awakens.
If you think that this sounds far-fetched, here is the testimony of Drs. Margaret Brenman and Merton M. Gill, Menninger Clinic psychiatrists: on the basis of extensive research they say that almost every known disease from asthma to epilepsy has been caused to disappear by this almost magical means!
Scientists are not lavish with explanations of the power of suggestion; most times they’ll tell you that they know it works, whatever it is. From the innumerable examples that might be instanced, here’s one from the psychological laboratory of Andrew Slater, practicing hypnotist. Slater hypnotized a young woman and told her that when she returned to her normal state she would be stone deaf. A gun was fired frequently right behind her head and she didn’t even flutter an eyelash. To double check, pulse counts were taken, showing her beat to be even and normal throughout the gun firing. Now just apply the same tactic to organic disease and, given reasonably favorable conditions, the disease will literally be driven out by the post-hypnotic suggestion.
Of course, there are conditioning factors at work; not all persons react to the hypnotist with the same intensity. Some will go under very quickly, arriving at a state of rigid immobility in a short time, while others take much longer and then only reach a point halfway on the road to complete trance. The ideal hypnotic subject has been described by Dr. Bramwell: he has a fair intelligence, is usually under 50 years of age, does not have great difficulty in concentrating, and is, above all, willing to cooperate in the experiment.
Which brings us to the biggest obstacle in the forward path of hypnoanalysis—the false and outlandish ideas that the layman, educated by the more fanciful comic strips, has accumulated. The standard foggy notions are succinctly summarized by Dr. Fisher, who has encountered all variations on the theme in his work with hundreds of merchant marine casualties. Some men objected to hypnosis on the ground that once asleep they would never wake up again. Others thought that while in the trance they might commit criminal acts. More imaginative fellows dreamed up the idea that if they once succumbed to the hypnotist they would be forever in his power.
All of these ideas are as insubstantial as moonshine and phony as a seven dollar bill. The hypnotic state can never result in perpetual sleep for, even if the subject is not “brought back” by the hypnotist, the trance will eventually wear off by itself. As for committing criminal or silly acts, the potential hypnotic subject can rest easy. Under the hypnotic trance we control our actions by the same moral code that guides us during our everyday behavior. And any command or suggestion that contradicts this moral code will not be obeyed.
But the layman is not wholly to be blamed. Such fantastic misconceptions can be traced to the atmosphere of impenetrable mystery and blackest magic which has enshrouded the subject since the days of Anton Mesmer, the discoverer of hypnotism. The average man heard nothing about the many surgical operations performed with hypnosis used as an anaesthetic. Instead, he read novels like George Du Maurier’s “Trilby,” in whose highly-colored pages the long-haired, glittering-eyed Svengali exercised his awful powers. He did not know that long before the First World War Jean Charcot, famous French neurologist, was curing cases of nervous hysteria by hypnotism. But he did read with fascination and amused skepticism of the tremendous potency conferred upon the magical wavings of hands by comic-strip artists with overheated imaginations.
Once the misconceptions of the layman have been cleared away, the most puzzling scientific question still remains unanswered: What actually happens to the hypnotic subject before and during the hypnotic state?
It’s easy enough to describe the procedure of the hypnotist, which hasn’t varied a great deal since the discovery of the art. Everyone knows how the hypnotist puts the subject in a dimly lighted room, seats him in a comfortable chair, tells him to look fixedly at one object, and then repeats over and over again in a steady monotonous voice the suggestion that he go to sleep. But more difficult to understand is the mysterious and truly remarkable transformation that takes place in the hypnotic subject, from the beginning of the hypnotic seance, when he falls into a light sleep, until the fully developed hypnotic state, when he seems to once again assume his normal personality.
Medical science has been divided up until now into two hostile camps. One group, composed of the followers of Freud’s teachings, say that the answer can be found in the emotional relationship that develops between the hypnotist and the person being hypnotized. They see hypnotism as very much like the emotion of love: the absence of criticism, the blind obedience, the withdrawal of interest from the world in general by the hypnotic subject and his exclusive concentration on the hypnotist, are all emotional reactions true of both states. Another group takes up a diametrically opposite stand, arguing that physiological factors, an altered condition of the brain or the influence of the left ventricle of the heart, are responsible for the hypnotic state.
And now a recently published scientific paper in the American Journal of Psychiatry attempts to compromise between the warring positions by making a synthesis of the two points of view. This paper, the outcome of intensive experimental work with hypnosis by two psychoanalysts, Drs. Lawrence S. Kubie and Sidney Margolin, might well mark a revolutionary turning point in the entire history and understanding of the hypnotic state. For the doctors advance the astonishing contention that hypnosis is simply the intensification of a fundamentally normal process, the process of concentration, and should be obtained in the future by the use of simple physical procedures, dispensing with the hypnotist himself!
Have you ever fallen asleep in a railroad train, lulled by the regular, monotonous rhythm of the clanking wheels, being awakened every time the train stopped at a station? Well, according to Drs. Kubie and Margolin, you were experiencing the same thing that a hypnotic subject does, when he is put into a trance and is subsequently awakened by the hypnotist. Or have you ever noticed a baby being rocked to sleep in his mother’s arms? And how quickly the baby awakens when his mother stops rocking him?
Break down the process involved in both these ordinary, everyday happenings, and what you have are the psycho-physiological elements that go to produce the hypnotic state. Thus hypnosis, in its induction stage, can be compared to a kind of sleep in which communication with the outside world is mechanically limited, by means of monotonously repeated verbal suggestions and prolonged immobility, to one person—the hypnotist. In the doctor’s graphic image, the subject becomes a telephone switchboard with only one plug in.
But how does this explain the still-mysterious power of the hypnotist? Drs. Kubie and Margolin emphatically deny that the hypnotist is directly wielding any power at all over his subject. What happens is a wonderfully complex and subtle psychological metamorphosis within the subject.
All of us in our ordinary wakeful lives maintain our personalities, our egos, through the various sensory channels of communication with the world around us, our senses of hearing, seeing, and so on. But under hypnosis the wall between the ego and the outer world becomes dim and fragile, after a while it completely dissolves. Which means that the personality of the hypnotic subject becomes vague and ill-defined.
At this point the almost-magical transformation takes place! Like a sponge sopping up water, the subject’s diffused and amorphous personality absorbs and incorporates the personality of the hypnotist as a part of himself. So, when he hears the hypnotist telling him what to do, he imagines that it is his own voice issuing commands, his own desires that are being carried out. The “power” of the hypnotist is an illusion, since in actuality the hypnotized person thinks that the hypnotist has become an integral part of himself!
This also accounts for the remarkable change that comes over the hypnotic subject, after he passes from the light sleep of the first stage of hypnosis into the fully developed hypnotic trance. Now he no longer remains motionless and silent; he walks, talks, acts in general as though there were no hidden tie binding him to the hypnotist. His ego has again expanded and his sensory communication with the outside world has returned to its normal state. But one decisive element of the induction stage still remains intact. The subject carries around inside of him—like a secret will—a still, small voice of conscience, the personality of the hypnotist which has become merged and interwoven into his own personality.
This startling theory is still being hotly discussed by all the medical practitioners of hypnosis, though most of them would go along with its main points. But Drs. Kubie and Margolin, like all scientists on the track of new discoveries, have not waited for the laggards in the medical ranks to catch up with their exploratory flight into the uncharted and mysterious regions of hypnosis. As proof of their contention that hypnosis can be obtained by simple physical procedures, they have already invented and patented a machine that induces a hypnagogic state, that transition period between sleep and wakefulness when ideas and images flow swiftly through the mind.
The machine is based on the fact that the rhythm of one’s breathing is an important sleep-producing stimulus. The patient’s own breath sounds are picked up by a contact microphone placed over his neck, amplified, and brought back to him through earphones. He has his attention sharply focused by silently thinking, “In, out, one, two,” in time with the rhythmic rise and fall of his own breathing. In a short while, he falls into the hypnagogic trance and freely expresses the ideas and images that crowd his mind. Drs. Kubie and Margolin have used this machine to great effect with neurotic patients who were reluctant to talk about what was bothering them.
And now the next logical step for the scientific control of hypnosis is the invention of a machine that will produce the full hypnotic state—without the hypnotist!