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Hypnosis Research in Australia

John F. Kihlstrom

University of California, Berkeley


Symposium discussion presented at the annual meeting of the Australian Psychological Society, Hobart, Tasmania, September 1999.


The scientific investigation and practical use of hypnosis has deep roots in Australia -- beginning with Ainslie Meares, one of the great wizards of hypnotherapy, and J.P. Sutcliffe, a leading theorist of the "second golden age" of hypnosis research, which began in the early 1960s.  Along with A. Gordon Hammer, his Sydney colleague (who was an important influence on me when I was a graduate student), Sutcliffe unleashed a flood of Australians who have done wonderful hypnosis research, including Peter Sheehan, Campbell Perry, Fred Evans (my own teacher, Wendy Walker, and Kevin McConkey.  Prof. McConkey's group, first at Macquarie, and now at New South Wales, continues this tradition.  And so it was a great honor to have been asked by Dr. Barnier to serve as the discussant for this symposium.

These papers illustrate what I have come to think of as a particularly Australian style of hypnosis research -- one that avoids the theoretical confrontation which is characteristic of the North American scene -- Sarbin and Coe versus Orne and Evans, Hilgard versus Barber, Bowers vs. Spanos (and Spanos vs. everyone), and Kirisch and Lynn vs. Woody and myself.  The Australian approach sidesteps this kind of confrontation.  Instead of forcing subjects into the investigator's Procrustean categories, it encourages subjects to speak for themselves, so that the investigator can find out how it is that they're having the experiences they're having.  

The source of this approach is in Sutcliffe himself, who in his classic analyses of hypnosis sought to avoid both credulity and skepticism.  Instead, Sutcliffe proposed that the hypnotic subject is essentially deluded about reality.  He or she constructs a mental representation of the world, in accordance with the hypnotist's suggestion; behaves in accordance with this subjective reality; and has to work out conflicts that might ensue between the imaginal and the real worlds.  

This approach blends features of cognitive and social psychology.  Cognitive psychology seeks to understand how delusions are constructed and maintained.  Social psychology seeks to understand how subjects interpret the hypnotist's suggestions, and how they resolve the conflicts between the real and imagined state of affairs.

We can see this clearly in Prof. McConkey's program of research on hypnotically suggested sex change.  A subject who responds positively to suggestions for sex change doesn't really change sex, any more than the subject who receives suggestions for age regression grows smaller in the chair.  But the subject believes that he or she is now the other, and works out the consequences of this belief for personal identity and social interaction.  

Along the way, Prof. McConkey has retailored Martin Orne's real-simulator paradigm of hypnosis.  The question here is not 'Is the hypnotic subject faking?" -- but rather what are the differences between delusional and simulated sex change?

Dr. Barnier's research on autobiographical remembering is also relevant.  When I do research on hypnosis and memory, I teach my subjects "grocery lists" of words.  By contrast, Barnier looks at memories with genuine personal significance.  This is pioneering research.  We know that hypnotic suggestion can get subjects to forget material that has been memorized under laboratory conditions.  But can we also get the subjects to forget memories that they bring with them into the laboratory in the first place? 

The only precedent for this research is early clinical work by Pierre Janet, with hysterical patients suffering the effects of traumatic experiences.  Janet used hypnosis to modify these memories, and achieve remission of hysteria.  It's a great clinical story - -but can you really do it?  The answer appears to be "yes".  Hypnotic subjects can forget both wordlists learned prior to hypnosis and events that occurred in the real world outside the laboratory.  Now, this effect is on explicit memory: Can we still see the forgotten memories slipping through unconsciously, as implicit memories? We don't know yet for sure, but Dr. Barnier's approach is really clever.  She asks what happens when the subject has to confront conflict -- if he can no longer remember the first day of high school, but then meets up with a high-school friend who remembers it well.  And can you, like Janet, substitute a new memory for the old one?

David Mallard's work looks at conflict resolution in another context.  He is quite right that understanding the social and motivational processes involved in resolving conflict is crucial to understanding hypnosis.  Previous research paradigms really hit subjects over the head with this conflict.  For example, in the double hallucination, we first have the subject hallucinate a familiar object, and then confront the subject with the real thing.  Mr. Mallard's manipulation is more subtle, a variant of the "magic room" discussed by Orne and McConkey.  He manipulates objective reality so that it either accords with or contradicts the hypnotist's suggestion.  

The question is: How do subjects distinguish between what's in the world and what's in their heads?  Mallard focuses on a distinction between active and passive cognitive styles, but the situation quickly gets more complicated.  A subject may start out passive, but the experience of involuntariness itself may be delusional.  Or the conflict between imagination and reality may shift a subject from a passive to an active cognitive stance.  Sir Frederick Bartlett characterized mental life as "effort after meaning", and hypnosis doesn't change this.  The hypnotic subject is actively engaged in the process of becoming hypnotized and responding to hypnotic suggestions.  

Prof. Bryant takes us back to cognition.  He points out that hypnotic experience is not merely that of imagery.  In imagery, we know that our mental representation of the world has an internal origin.  By contrast, the hypnotic experience is more delusional, more hallucinatory.

Bryant picks up on the "magic room" technique.  With modern computer technology, we can do so much more than what was possible for Perky or for Sydney Segal.  On a computer monitor, subjects are asked to "see" a circle when a circle is either there or not there.  It turns out that lows are greatly influenced by the presence or absence of the real stimulus, and highs aren't influenced much at all.  Again, the results underscore the active nature of hypnosis.  The hypnotic subject is not a passive automaton, reflexively responding to the hypnotist's suggestions.  

One limitation of this research, in its early phase, is the simplicity of the stimulus materials being employed at this early stage of the research.  A circle is a circle, and it may be relatively easy to confuse reality with fantasy.  But with natural objects, the situation may be more complex.  Perky had his subjects imagine an elephant, raising the possibility that they might imagine an African elephant, with its wrinkled skin and huge ears, while the screen projects an Asian elephant, with its smooth screen and small ears.  Now, there's a conflict between illusion and reality!

Still and all, Prof. Bryant's approach, like that of the others on the symposium, reveals the paradoxes of hypnotic experience and behavior that got psychologists interested in hypnosis in the first place.  I look forward to more of the same in the future; and for now, I thank you for your attention.

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