Popular Science Monthly/Volume 32/April 1888/Hypnotism in Disease and Crime


WHAT we have said of hypnotism, and particularly of suggestion, may lead the reader to understand the virtue of medicine for the imagination, of which the importance has already been intimated by earlier writers. Deslon asked why, if medicine for the imagination was the most effective, it should not be employed.

We must be permitted to dwell for a moment on this medicine for the imagination, which is entitled to the name of suggestive therapeutics. The process is as follows: Influenced by a persistent idea, suggested by external circumstances, a paralysis is developed. The physician makes use of his authority to suggest the idea of an inevitable, incontestable cure, and the paralysis is cured accordingly. This cure, as well as the development of functional disturbance, was directly effected by an idea. An idea may, therefore, be, according to circumstances, a pathogenic and a therapeutic agent. This notion is not new, but, since it was misinterpreted, it has remained unfruitful.

The most important of the organic disturbances produced by an idea is an experiment on vesication, performed by Focachon, a chemist at Charmes. He applied some postage-stamps to the left shoulder of a hypnotized subject, keeping them in their place with some strips of diachylon and a compress; at the same time he suggested to the subject that he had applied a blister. The subject was watched, and when twenty hours had elapsed the dressing, which had remained untouched, was removed. The epidermis to which it had been applied was thickened and dead and of a yellowish-white color, and this region of the skin was puffy and surrounded by an intensely red zone.

It was in 1869 that Russell Reynolds first noted the existence of motor and sensory disturbances, developed under the influence of an idea. The motor disturbance sometimes consists in spasms, in ataxic or incoordinated movements, and more frequently in paralysis which affects the upper limbs. Erb gives to these symptoms the name of imaginative paraplegia.

The type of this paraplegia is afforded by Reynolds's first observation, which concerned a young woman who was affected by paraplegia under the following circumstances: She lived alone with her father, who had undergone a reverse of fortune, and who became paralytic in consequence of protracted anxiety. She supported the household by giving lessons, which involved long walks about the town. Influenced by the fatigue caused by so much walking, it occurred to her that she might herself become paralyzed, and that their situation would then be terrible. Haunted by this idea, she felt a growing weakness in her limbs, and after a while was quite unable to walk. The pathology of the affection was understood by Reynolds, who prescribed a purely moral treatment. He finally convinced his patient that she was able to walk, and in fact she resumed the practice.

Diseases have been termed imaginary, or diseases caused by the imagination, and this confusion of terms has confirmed the confusion of ideas. We have, however, just shown, especially by means of the facts which relate to paralysis by suggestion, that diseases caused by the imagination—that is, produced by a fixed idea—are real diseases, and, at any rate in some cases, display undisputed objective. symptoms.

Since the existence of real diseases, produced by means of the imagination, is proved, it is thereby proved that imaginary diseases do not and can not exist; by this we mean purely fictitious diseases, since as soon as the subject has accepted the fixed idea that he is affected by any functional disturbance, such a disturbance is in some degree developed. It should be added that these diseases, produced by means of the imagination, are not merely influenced by a local disturbance; the subject who allows himself to be dominated by this idea of disease must be peculiarly excitable and open to suggestion; he must be endowed with a condition of congenital psychical weakness which is frequently found in conjunction with more or less strongly marked neuropathic manifestations, or with physical malformations. As Lasègue observed, not every one who pleases can be hypochondriac.

This distinction throws light on the therapeutics of diseases produced by means of the imagination, or suggested diseases.

When one of these victims to hypochondria, anæmic and emaciated, who are usually called malades imaginaires, has recourse to medicine, on the plea of suffering pain or some other subjective disturbance, he is usually told that it is of no importance, that he is rather fanciful and should think less about his health, and some anodyne is carelessly prescribed. The patient, who is really suffering from the pain he has suggested to himself, feels convinced that his malady is not known, and that nothing can be done for him. The idea that his complaint is incurable becomes intense in proportion to his high opinion of his physician's skill, and thus the patient, who was suffering from the chronic affection suggested by his imagination, often goes away incurable.

Those who undertake miraculous cures act very differently. They do not deny the existence of the disease, but they assert that it may be cured by supernatural power. They act by means of suggestion, and by gradually inculcating the idea that the disease is curable, until the subject accepts it. The cure is sometimes effected by the suggestion, and when it is said to be by saving faith, the expression used is rigorously scientific. These miracles should no longer be denied, but we should understand their genesis and learn to imitate them.

When a believer associates the Deity with his idea of cure, he is accustomed to expect it to be sudden and complete, as the result of a definite religious manifestation; and this, in fact, often occurs. We had a well-known instance at the Salpêtrière, when a woman of the name of Etcheverry was, after her devotions in the month of May, suddenly cured of a hemiplegia and contracture, by which she had been affected for seven years. Only a slight weakness of the side remained, which disappeared in a few days, and which could be explained by the prolonged inaction of the muscles. This may be termed an experimental miracle, since the physicians had prepared for it beforehand, having for a long time previously suggested to the subject that she would be cured when a certain religious ceremony took place, and it is a miracle which explains the numerous cures by the laying-on of hands which are recorded in the Bible, If we do not go further back than the last century, suggestion explains the cures by Greatrakes, the exorcisms by Gassner, Mesmer's successes, and the miracles performed at the tomb of the deacon Paris in the cemetery of Saint Médard; and in our day, in the famous caves on the slopes of the Pyrenees.

The resources of the physician, who does not profess to be a thaumaturgist, are more scanty. When he is consulted by a patient whose disease has a psychical origin, he is unable, unless in some exceptional circumstances, to inspire confidence in remedies which are not more or less gradual, but, whatever they are, he must prescribe with firmness and authority. It is a well-known fact that the hydropathic treatment of some forms of hysteria has afforded more speedy results than other modes of treatment, merely from the fact that suggestion has been employed at the same time. This remark also applies to massage, etc., under analogous circumstances.

We are particularly anxious to call attention to the effect of moral treatment, and to the part taken in it by suggestion. This is no new thing; when the so-called fulminating pills are administered, suggestion is employed in the pilular form, and when pure water is injected under the skin, suggestion takes a hypodermic form. This medicine for the imagination is particularly to be recommended in that category of diseases which are of definite psychical origin.

This is not the place for insisting on the special indications of suggestion in therapeutics. The study just made is enough to show to what extent it may act on motor, sensory, or psychical phenomena, and consequently how it may be usefully employed in the treatment of the dynamic disturbances which are due to the influence of a psychical action, of a moral shock, or even of a peripheral excitement. Its effect can not any longer be disputed. It is, however, still difficult to give a rigorously scientific account of the results obtained, since few observations have as yet been published, and in some of these it is impossible to find an objective characteristic of hypnosis. Others, again, are incomplete, or published by incompetent persons, whose descriptions do not carry with them a conviction of the reality of the morbid state in question. Finally, precisely on account of the nature of its action, which is exclusively exerted on diseases in which there is no definite material lesion, and which are, therefore, purely dynamic, suggestion only cures affections which are capable of spontaneous modification, or which are influenced by various external agents. At present, therefore, it is difficult to establish the real value of this mode of treatment, although less difficult than in the case of many remedies in general use. It can only be said that it is founded on accurate notions of mental physiology, and consequently on a rational basis.

Since the possibility of curing a certain number of nervous diseases by means of hypnotism is established, it can not be disputed that physicians are justified in making use of it, under the same reservation as any other methods of therapeutics. The physician's responsibility is diminished if he has to treat an affection which would not yield to other measures; if he has obtained the consent of his patient and the concurrence of the patient's friends; and, finally, if he can show that he has acted prudently, with due consideration of the danger incurred by the patient, and with proper precautions against these risks.

Since the past history of hypnotism verged upon the marvelous, it had the privilege of exciting the curiosity, not only of learned men but of people in general. Exhibitions with which science had nothing to do made the public acquainted with a certain number of phenomena of which a criminal use might be made, and hypnotic sleep and suggestion have played a part in several judicial dramas. We think it may be profitable to consider this subject, which is indeed entitled to further development.

Somnambulist subjects often display a kind of attraction for the experimenter who has hypnotized them by touching the scalp. As soon as the experimenter has pressed upon the scalp with his hand, or has breathed upon the subject with his mouth, the latter is attracted toward the experimenter; if the experimenter withdraws to a distance, the subject displays uneasiness and discomfort; he sometimes follows the experimenter with a sigh, and can only rest beside him. It is probable that the phenomena of electivity have their origin in the experimenter's contact with his subject. Bain, in his work on the emotions, remarks that animal contact and the pleasure of an embrace are the beginning and end of all the tender emotions.

The dangers of this attraction with respect to morality were pointed out in the secret report presented to the King of France in 1784, by a commission which had been appointed to investigate the practice of magnetism by Deslon, Mesmer's chief pupil. The following is extracted from this report:

Women are always magnetized by men; the established relations are doubtless those of a patient to the physician, but this physician is a man, and whatever the illness may be, it does not deprive us of our sex, it does not entirely withdraw us from the power of the other sex; illness may weaken impressions without destroying them. Moreover, most of the women who present themselves to be magnetized are not really ill; many come out of idleness, or for amusement; others, if not perfectly well, retain their freshness and their force, their senses are unimpaired, and they have all the sensitiveness of youth; their charms are such as to affect the physician, and their health is such as to make them liable to be affected by him, so that the danger is reciprocal. The long-continued proximity, the necessary contact, the communication of individual heat, the interchange of looks, are ways and means by which it is well known that nature ever effects the communication of the sensations and the affections. The magnetic treatment must necessarily be dangerous to morality. While proposing to cure diseases which require prolonged treatment, pleasing and precious emotions are excited—emotions to which we look back with regret and seek to revive, since they possess a natural charm for us, and contribute to our physical happiness. But morally they must be condemned, and they are the more dangerous as it becomes more easy for them to become habitual. A condition into which a woman enters in public, amid other women who apparently have the same experience, does not seem to offer any danger; she continues in it, she returns to it, and discovers her peril when it is too late. Strong women flee from this danger when they find themselves exposed to it; the morals and health of the weak may be impaired.

It is possible to suggest to a subject in a state of somnambulism fixed ideas, irresistible impulses, which he will obey on awaking with mathematical precision. The subject may be induced to write down promises, recognitions of debt, admissions and confessions, by which he may be grievously wronged. If arms are given to him, he may also be induced to commit any crime which is prompted by the experimenter. We could cite several acts, to say the least unseemly, committed by hysterical patients, which were crimes in miniature, performed by an unconscious subject, and instigated by one who was really guilty, and who remained unknown. At the Salpêtrière a paper-knife has often been placed in the hands of an hypnotic subject, who is told that it is a dagger, with which she is ordered to murder one of the persons present. On awaking, the patient hovers round her victim, and suddenly strikes him with such violence that I think it well to refrain from such experiments. It has also been suggested to the subject to steal various objects, such as photographs, etc.

To give an idea of the mathematical precision with which the suggested act is executed on awaking, one of the present writers performed the following experiment: We showed to the somnambulist an imaginary spot on a smooth surface, which we could only afterward ascertain by means of careful measurement, and we ordered her to stick a penknife into this spot when she awoke. She executed the order without hesitation and with absolute correctness: a criminal act would have been as punctually executed.

It is interesting to ascertain whether the subject who is actuated by an irresistible impulse behaves like an automaton subsisting on a basis of the past, on his memory and habits, or if, on the contrary, the subject is capable of reflection and of reasoning like a normal individual. This latter is more frequently the case. When care is taken to suggest a somewhat complex act, for the performance of which some combination is necessary, we may observe that the subject invents such combined expedients although they had not been suggested to him, and this inventive process shows that everything is not explained by comparing him to an automaton. For instance, it was suggested to a subject that she should poison X—— with a glass of pure water which was said to contain poison. The suggestion did not indicate in what way the crime was to be committed. The subject offered the glass to X——, and invited him to drink by saying, "Is it not a hot day?" (It was in summer.) We ordered another subject to steal a pocket-handkerchief from one of the persons present. The subject was hardly awake when she feigned dizziness, and staggering toward X——, she fell against him and hastily snatched his handkerchief. When a similar theft was suggested to a third subject, she approached X——, and abruptly asked him what he had on his hand. While X——, somewhat startled, looked at his hand, his handkerchief disappeared.

These facts show that the hypnotic subject may become the instrument of a terrible crime, the more terrible since, immediately after the act is accomplished, all may be forgotten—the crime, the impulse, and its instigator.

Some of the more dangerous characteristics of these suggested acts should be noted. These impulses may give rise to crimes or offenses of which the nature is infinitely varied, but which retain the almost constant character of a conscious, irresistible impulse; that is, although the subject is quite himself, and conscious of his identity, he can not resist the force which impels him to perform an act which he would under other circumstances condemn. Hurried on by this irresistible force, the subject feels none of the doubts and hesitations of a criminal who acts spontaneously; he behaves with a tranquillity and security which would in such a case insure the success of his crime. Some of our subjects are aware of the power of suggestion, and, when absolutely resolved to commit an act for which they fear that their courage or audacity may fail when the moment arrives, they take the precaution of receiving the suggestion from their companions.

The danger of these criminal suggestions is increased by the fact that, at the will of the experimenter, the act may be accomplished several hours, and even several days, after the date of suggestion. Facts of this kind, which were first reported by Richet, are not exceptional, and have been repeatedly observed by us.

The reality of this class of facts can not now be disputed, but the difficulty of proof in any given case is considerable. We have not, in the case of impulsive acts, the same objective criterion as we have in hallucinations and in the paralysis of movements and of sensation. It is, therefore, necessary for the expert to be cautious in his judgment.

Loss of memory is one chief characteristic of the facts of suggestion. The hypnotic subject does not know from whom, when, and how the suggestion was received. This amnesia may be either spontaneous or suggested, and it is a phenomenon of the waking state, which disappears when the subject is hypnotized anew. The recollection of all which occurred during hypnosis is then revived, and the subject is able to indicate, often with remarkable precision, the author of the suggestion, the place, day, and hour when it was made to him, always supposing that he has received no special suggestion of complete oblivion. Hence the question occurs whether an accused person who appeals to an hypnotic suggestion for his defense, and who submits to experiment, can be profitably examined at a time when he displays all the physical characteristics peculiar to the somnambulist state, so that there is no danger of imposture. We have had occasion to show that some subjects are in this state capable of suppressing the truth, and Pitres has shown that deceit was not impossible. An hypnotic subject may at the same time be criminal, and suggestion must be accepted only so far as it admits of material proof, or at any rate as far as it can be necessarily deduced from the facts of the case.

Dr. Schunk, in the British Association, prognosticating the future of chemistry, thought that pure or systematic chemistry becoming practically exhausted in the course of time from the want of new compounds to prepare, the future fields of the science would lie in such lines as the growth-processes of plant-substances and of those agents to which decomposition and decay are due.
  1. Abridged from "Animal Magnetism," by Alfred Binet and Charles Féré. "International Scientific Series," vol. lix. D. Appleton & Co., 1888.