The hypnotist, dangling a swinging pocket watch before the subject’s eyes, slowly intones: “You’re getting sleepy … You’re getting sleepy …” The subject’s head abruptly slumps downward. He is in a deep, sleeplike trance, oblivious to everything but the hypnotist’s soft voice. Powerless to resist the hypnotist’s influence, the subject obeys every command, including an instruction to act out an upsetting childhood scene. On “awakening” from the trance half an hour later, he has no memory of what happened.
Despite the ubiquitous Hollywood depiction of hypnosis as a trance, investigators have had an extremely difficult time pinpointing any specific “markers”—indicators—of hypnosis that distinguish it from other states. The legendary American psychiatrist Milton Erickson claimed that hypnosis is marked by several unique features, including posthypnotic amnesia and “literalism”—a tendency to take questions literally, such as responding “Yes” to the question “Can you tell me what time it is?”
We have already seen that posthypnotic amnesia is not an inherent accompaniment of hypnosis, so Erickson was wrong on that score. Moreover, research by Green, Binghamton University psychologist Steven Jay Lynn and their colleagues shows that most highly hypnotizable subjects do not display literalism while hypnotized; moreover, participants asked to simulate hypnosis demonstrate even higher rates of literalism than highly hypnotizable subjects do.
Other experts, such as the late University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Martin Orne, have argued that only hypnotized participants experience “trance logic”—the ability to entertain two mutually inconsistent ideas at the same time. For example, a hypnotist might suggest to a subject that he is deaf and then ask him, “Can you hear me now?” He may respond “No,” thereby manifesting trance logic.
Nevertheless, research by the late Theodore X. Barber, then at the Medfield Foundation, and his colleagues showed that participants asked to simulate hypnosis displayed trance logic just as often as hypnotized people did, suggesting that trance logic is largely a function of people’s expectations rather than an intrinsic component of the hypnotic state itself.
By: Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz