Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/June 1896/Posthypnotic and Criminal Suggestion

1232732Popular Science Monthly Volume 49 June 1896 — Posthypnotic and Criminal Suggestion1896William Romaine Newbold



IN my two preceding articles (March and April numbers) I have discussed what may be termed categorical suggestions and other closely related topics. I shall now take up certain other forms of suggestion.

From the conception of suggestibility it follows that any mental state, however initiated, tends to produce certain results. The most familiar method of initiation is through the instrumentality of language, but there are other methods. What is known as waxlike catalepsy, for example (flexibilitas cerea), is merely a form of suggestibility to motor impressions. When I take the arm of a cataleptic patient and bend it into a given position it remains fixed where I put it. In bending it I produce certain sensations, approximately those of a movement; among the possible results of such sensations is the production of the movement in question, and in the patient's disordinated condition this is the only apparent and perhaps the only actual result. It is also true that a pseudo-catalepsy may be found in less complete forms of disordination, in which the movement which I impress upon the arm is felt by the drowsy upper consciousness and accepted as indicative of a command. I saw some years ago a very curious illustration of an analogous motor suggestion in the case of a man who was subject to hystero-epileptic convulsions. Dr. B—— had hypnotized him standing; he then fell backward, and we allowed him to recline with his heels on the floor and his back fiat upon the bed. This brought him into a very uncomfortable position, in which his head was bent backward toward his heels. He at once began to show signs of a convulsion, and, in spite of our imperative suggestions to keep quiet, grew worse every second. Then it occurred to me that the attitude in which he was lying was one of the stages through which the patient regularly passes in the course of the hystero-epileptic convulsion—it is known as the opisthotonic position—and that the convulsion might be due to the tactile-motor suggestion given by the feeling of the attitude. As soon as we put him in a sitting posture the symptoms of convulsion disappeared.

The mode in which the suggestion is initiated is not essential to the theory, but it is often important in practice. Commands are usually realized more readily than mere suggestions, but the latter are sometimes the more efficacious. In general, the phenomena differ in degree only and not in kind from those of normal life, and just as a categorical suggestion may be realized at once, so may a hypothetical suggestion be realized under the circumstances indicated by the operator. Most of the illustrations which I have been using belonged to the former type; to the latter belong the still more curious phenomena of deferred and posthypnotic suggestion.

Simple deferred suggestions executed during the state of heightened suggestibility may be dismissed with a mere mention. The really interesting cases are those in which the execution of the suggestion given during a suggestible condition is deferred until the patient has returned to the normal state. As the phenomena have been studied chiefly in hypnotic states, artificially produced deferred suggestions of this kind are termed posthypnotic suggestions.

Analogous phenomena are found, however, as we would expect, under other circumstances. We are familiar, for example, with the effect sometimes wrought by dreams upon the waking life of the succeeding day. A happy mood or its reverse can often be traced to the effect of some vivid dream, and doubtless many of the mornings on which we "get out of bed on the wrong side" have been preceded by nights filled with disagreeable but forgotten dreams. M——, of whom I have before spoken, has given me an excellent illustration of the possible after-effect of a forgotten dream. He once told me that he had been for some months tormented by an apparition. He would wake in the middle of the night to find a hideous man beside him. The man held in his hand a knife, looked at him threateningly, then slowly moved backward, and, when at a considerable distance, vanished. Occasionally he saw in the place of the man a young woman with a black shawl wrapped about her head. He knew that these figures were unreal and had no belief in ghosts, yet they always left him terrified and suffering from nervous shock. I questioned him closely, but could get no clew to their origin. He had never had a dream in which they figured, and had never heard any story that could have suggested them, save that he had heard when a child of a young woman having been strangled by her lover on the site of his father's barn, out in the country. There was no knife in that case, however, and he was sure it could have nothing to do with the apparitions. I then hypnotized him, and he at once told me the whole story. I had to question him somewhat, but I was keenly alive to the danger of asking leading questions, and am convinced that the story was told spontaneously. The girl had had her throat cut, he said; a coachman had claimed to have seen her ghost in the barn and had told him of it. After that, four or five coachmen in succession declared they had seen the ghost, and left the employ of M——'s father rather than sleep in the barn. M—— was greatly frightened and began dreaming about it. After the lapse of some years the dreams ceased, but about two years ago they began again. He never saw the apparition, he said, except when he had been dreaming about the murder, I told him he would never have such a dream again and would never see the ghosts. That was in August last, and in November he told me he had had no recurrence. I have not seen him recently. Another most interesting fact in this case was that, although M—— had totally forgotten all this in his waking state before being hypnotized, and although after being awakened he had not the slightest recollection of anything that passed while he was hypnotized, he did then remember most of the facts he had just been talking of and told me them again, expressing surprise that he could not do it when I first asked him.

Now, here we have a true posthypnotic phenomenon. It is precisely parallel to those cases in which the hypnotized patient is told that at a certain time and place, while awake, he will see John Smith, who will say this or that to him; the time comes; a phantom John Smith walks into the room and does what is expected of him. But the state which in M——'s case survived the shock of waking was not a suggested state in the common sense, nor was it revived upon the occurrence of some appointed condition or signal. The story is of interest as showing how purely arbitrary is the line which some writers would draw between the "normal" and "abnormal" in this field.

There are three especially interesting problems connected with posthypnotic suggestion: 1. What is the relation of the suggestion to the signal? 2. In what form does the suggestion exist between the time of awaking, when it is usually unknown to the upper consciousness, and the moment of execution? 3. What is its relation to the upper consciousness in which it reappears?

To the first of these questions no very clear answer can be given. We can say that the suggestion is "associated" with the signal, and it of course is, but that does not explain to my mind the reason why this dynamic state remains inactive until the signal sets it in operation. In some few cases, when a sensory signal is to call a posthypnotic hallucination into the upper consciousness, we can conceive of the sensory stimulus as the spark necessary to explode the stored-up energy of the cells and raise the idea to sensory level—make a thought seem vivid, intense, and external like a perception. But this conception is of limited application. The signal need not be sensory at all. It may even be a process of the higher orders, such as a perception of resemblance or difference, or even may consist in the lapse of time. I gave T—— some numbers to multiply and told him that if the figures 1 and 4 happened to stand side by side in the course of his work he would tear the whole up. When the numbers appeared in that relation he at once noted it and carefully tore the paper to tiny fragments. It is not easy to conceive of the suggestion as held in check by the mere lack of such a complex process of reasoning as this. Such difficulties I can not, I confess, explain away, and as long as they remain unexplained, the theory with which they are connected can not be accepted as final. It is to avoid them that some writers have introduced the conception of a subconscious personality which hears, remembers, and obeys without reference to the condition of the upper consciousness, and this brings me to the second question.

We usually conceive of our potential memories as existing in the form of a functional predisposition on the part of the nervous mechanism, and as having no actual mental existence while we are not thinking of them. At the first glance one would suppose that the posthypnotic suggestion exists in the same form. But cases have been reported which seem to prove that sometimes at least the posthypnotic suggestion enjoys an actual existence, even while the upper consciousness knows nothing of it. Thus Mr. Gurney says of P——ll, one of his patients: "He was told on March 26th that on the one hundred and twenty-third day from then he was to put a blank sheet of paper in an envelope and send it to a friend of mine whose name and residence he knew but whom he had never seen. The subject was not referred to again until April 18th, when he was hypnotized and asked whether he remembered anything in connection with this gentleman. He at once repeated the order and said: 'This is the twenty-third day; a hundred more.' S——. 'How do you know? Have you noted each day?' P——ll. 'No, it seems natural.' S——. 'Have you thought of it often?' P——ll. 'It generally strikes me in the morning early. Something seems to say to me, You've got to count.' S——. 'Does that happen every day?' P——ll. 'No, not every day, perhaps more like every other day. It goes from my mind; I never think of it during the day. I only know it's got to be done.'" Here it is conceivable that the counting was merely forgotten and not strictly subconscious; but sometimes the suggestion can be elicited by automatic writing while the upper consciousness is apparently quite normal and entirely unaware of what is written. At other times the subconscious state seems to effect partial union with the upper consciousness. Thus P——ll was told "The baking trade is failing." Next day while awake he put his hand upon the planchette and the instrument slowly produced the words "The baking trade is failing." While the writing was proceeding he said that some one seemed to be "hallooing in his ear something, he could not make out what, about the baking trade." Another of Mr. Gurney's patients, when told to see his wife, thought he saw a face in an air ball. It was dim and soon faded away. Later, the suggestion having been repeated, he said he "saw a lot of faces floating before his eyes" that night. Such cases are precious as throwing light upon the origin of the "spirit voices" and "visions" which many automatists hear and see.

Mr. Gurney also got interesting evidence of subconscious time reckoning. The patient, W——s, was "told in trance on March 19th

that, when he came next, he was to poke the fire six minutes after his arrival, and that when he wrote he was to record the number of minutes that had run. On March 21st he arrived at 6.57


, and I set him down to the planchette in about a minute. The writing, which it took about a minute to produce, was '2,—3


more.'. . . He was told on March 23d that a quarter of an hour after his next arrival he was to open and shut the door of the room and note the course of time as usual. The next time he arrived at 7.6


. He was set to the planchette at 7.19. The writing, produced at once, was '13 minutes and 2 more.'" At 7.22 he executed the suggestion.

Analogous phenomena in normal life are familiar. Many persons, of whom I am one, by giving themselves a suggestion upon going to bed to wake at a given time next morning, can make themselves wake at or about the time appointed. When the time is fixed by habit there is still more striking evidence of subconscious processes. For several months it was my practice to get up at 6.50 every morning. Not only did I usually wake about that time, but I would also often, after lying awake for some time, get out of bed suddenly without any clear intention of doing so or thought of the time. While busily thinking of something else I would suddenly find myself out of bed and beginning to dress; then, looking at my watch, I would find it was within a few minutes of 6.50. There was no striking clock within my hearing or other means of consciously reckoning time, as also there was not n these experiments of Mr. Gurney's.

It is upon such phenomena that the doctrine of subconscious mental states rests, and to my mind the evidence for their existence is strong. Yet I do not think that we are compelled to infer that all posthypnotic suggestions exist actually nor yet that all potential memories have an actual existence. For the present I would rather regard the subconscious state as something to be accepted only when definite evidence of its existence is forthcoming. Nor would I ascribe these states in all cases to a secondary or subconscious "self," although I regard the existence of such a self distinct from the upper self as in some cases probable. Subconscious states when they do exist are probably like our dreams.

The emergence of the suggested state into the upper consciousness sometimes seems to have no appreciable effect upon its constitution. The new element presents itself to the patient much as other elements do, and may meet with opposition from those already existing as would any other. Thus one of Mr. Gurney's patients "was told to bring the spoons out of the dining room into the drawing room, which was properly the maid's duty. She was left to wake in the dining room, and presently followed the rest of the party into the drawing room, saying, 'I know what you want me to do, but I don't mean to do it; it is too absurd.'" She had no recollection of what she had been told, but when the irrational impulse presented itself she suspected its origin and refused to obey it.

At other times, by a species of illusion of memory, the suggested impulse is referred by the patient to some consideration from which it might very well have sprung. A friend of mine hypnotized a young girl, and told her that when he coughed three times she would say good-night to the assembled company and leave the room as if going to bed, but at the foot of the stairs she would turn back. She did it punctually. When we asked her next day why she changed her mind, she said that as she got to the foot of the stairs it occurred to her how rude it was of her to go to bed while the callers were still there, so she turned back.

When a posthypnotic hallucination presents itself to an approximately normal consciousness of this kind it is received with appropriate emotions, and the same is true of negative hallucinations. X—— was told that after waking he would be blind to me.

I then took a pencil and, holding it by one end, wagged it to and fro. The patient stared at it with a puzzled and somewhat frightened air. "There ain't nothing to hold it," he said, "but it stands right up and wags. Guess it must be hung by a string to the ceiling." But a diligent search revealed no string. I then grasped the pencil by two fingers about the middle. He became still more troubled, stooped as near the pencil as he could and examined it closely. "Somehow I can't see the middle of it," he said. "There are just two ends and no middle." It is dangerous to give a patient of this type an alarming suggestion, for the terror which it inspires may do more mischief than the operator can readily undo.

Sometimes while the upper consciousness is apparently unaffected it will be found that the performance of the suggestion is either forgotten or entirely unnoticed. Prof. Janet says of his patient Lucie: "She seemed at the moment quite normal, talked and kept record well enough of the acts she performed spontaneously, but in the midst of all these normal acts she also performed as if by distraction the acts commanded in sleep. Not only did she forget them when performed like most subjects, but she did not seem to be conscious of them the moment she did them. I tell her to raise her arms over her head after waking. Scarcely is she in her normal condition before she raises her arms above her head, but she does not inconvenience herself thereby. She goes, comes, talks, and all the while keeps her arms overhead. If asked what her arms are doing, she is astonished at such a question and says: 'My hands are doing nothing at all; they are like yours.' By this method I make her put her fingers to her nose and walk across the room. I command her to cry, and upon awaking she actually sobs, but in the midst of her tears talks of the most cheerful matters. The sobs over, there remains not a trace of her grief; indeed, she seems to have been unconscious of it."

These may be regarded as the extreme types, the posthypnotic suggestion in the one case coalescing with the upper consciousness, and in the other remaining absolutely dissociated from it. There remains a third type in which the suggestion emerges into the upper consciousness, but in so doing seems to disordinate it to a greater or less degree, thus reducing the patient to a condition analogous to that in which he was when the suggestion was given.

The disturbance is often very slight and it is then not easy to detect or define it. It may be limited to a transient look of abstraction, of vacancy, as if a cloud were passing over the mind. What I have described as failure to coalesce may be conceived as a form of interference in which the suggested state expels from consciousness all inconsistent states without much affecting the balance. At other times if one gives a suggestion the execution of which takes some time, the patient will be found sensitive to fresh suggestions while the first is being executed, or will be found to recollect at that time previous states of somnambulism which are forgotten in his normal condition and are again forgotten, together with the act just performed, a moment afterward. Sometimes the disturbance of the upper consciousness goes further and results in complete disordination or "unconsciousness." I have often seen this as the result of giving suggestions which were too difficult for the patient's already partly disordinated consciousness to execute or were resisted by elements already present. A good case of the latter type is quoted by Mr. Gurney from Prof. Delbœuf. "He told the patient to straighten a crooked knitting needle at a future moment when he foresaw that to do so would necessitate drawing the needle out of the stocking and spoiling the work. When the moment arrived she solved the difficulty by going to sleep and dreaming that she straightened the needle." I told T—— that he could not see two chairs, and then caused him to walk into them. Asked what impeded his progress, he said "The wall." When I showed him that could not be true, and insisted upon his telling me what it was, he fell into a deep lethargy and collapsed in a heap on the floor. He nearly always falls asleep when told to execute any complicated suggestion. Patients who pass into a secondary state during the execution of a suggestion often manifest no more surprise at the most extraordinary hallucinations than one usually feels when confronted with the marvels of dreamland. T—— described in all detail how a cup of chocolate, which was held by a person I had forbidden him to see, was hanging in the air all alone, how the spoon was traveling around in it quite of its own accord, but he seemed to find it entirely natural. This is due to the fact that surprise is one of the ideal emotions originated in the clash of inconsistent states. Here the hallucination found no sensations or thoughts in the disordinated state with which to clash.

The whole question as to the relation between the posthypnotic suggestion and the normal consciousness is involved in much obscurity, which is the more to be regretted when one considers that upon it depends the solution of that other vexed question as to whether suggestions can be used to further a criminal end.

To the best of my knowledge, no indubitable cases are on record in which a person was impelled by posthypnotic suggestion to the commission of a crime which he would not have committed of his own motion, although there are a few cases reported in which criminal assault was probably committed during the hypnotic state. The evidence, therefore, is almost entirely experimental.

It is clear that the control of the operator over the patient during the hypnotic state is often almost unlimited, and undoubtedly might be used for the commission of crimes which could be completed during the state without danger of detection to the suggester. There are, however, not many crimes that could so be committed. Signatures could be got by such means, but even when got the suggester would often have difficulty in making use of a signature which was not witnessed or which was repudiated as a forgery by the man who was supposed to have written it.

The possibilities of posthypnotic suggestion would seem at first glance to open a wider field for criminal suggestion, but the evidence does not, I think, justify much apprehension on that score.

When the patient's consciousness is much disordinated by the suggestion, he is usually unable to co-ordinate himself to his environment, and is, of course, not fitted to do anything requiring alert mental powers, much less a crime. When the suggested idea expels inconsistent states the case is almost as bad. Prof. Liégeois dissolved a white powder in water and told Mme. C——, one of his patients, that it was arsenic. "I said to her: 'See M. D——, he is thirsty, he is always wanting something to drink; you will offer him this.' 'Yes, monsieur.' But D—— asked a question which I had not foreseen; he asked what was in the glass proffered him. With a candor which set aside all thought of simulation, Mme. C—— replied, 'It is arsenic.'" Clearly it would not do to intrust to Mme. C—— the execution of a suggested crime.

Again, when the emergence of the posthypnotic suggestion does not affect the upper consciousness at all but coalesces with it, it is apt, as I have already pointed out, to meet with resistance from the patient's habitual principles of conduct. Dr. De Jong reports that a little Jewish girl of ten, whom he found very suggestible, repeatedly obeyed his posthypnotic suggestion that she should steal a piece of money left lying upon the table, but one Saturday she disobeyed. When asked why, she said: "It is the Sabbath day; I can not touch money." Another of his patients performed all manner of make-believe crimes at his suggestion, but, when he suggested something the performance of which would have shocked her modesty, she refused, and she refused also to betray a trivial secret which he had got his cook to confide to her.

When one contrasts cases of this sort (and they are common) with the long series of "laboratory crimes" recorded in the annals of hypnotic literature—murder committed with sugared water, with a roll of newspaper, with an unloaded pistol, the theft of purely imaginary objects, or of articles obviously the property of the man who suggests that they be stolen, etc.—it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that for evidential purposes such experiments are almost worthless. And in the few cases where it seems probable that the patient has really committed what he believes to be a crime, it is often not shown that the crime would have been especially abhorrent to his normal self. This objection attaches, I think, to one of the most striking cases on record, recently reported by Prof. Liébeault. A certain Dr. X—— and himself gave a young fellow of seventeen or eighteen years of age the following suggestion: "To-morrow, at 11.30, you will go to call upon M. F——. You will be received in his room and will see upon the chimney-piece two statuettes; you will carefully possess yourself of them after talking of sundry things, and will carry them off hidden under your clothes. But day after to-morrow you will repent of what you have done, and, seized with remorse, will return the statuettes to M. F—— at about the same time of day." Then, just before Prof. Liébeault awakened the patient. Dr. X—— said: "You will steal, you understand; you will steal." The suggestion was punctually executed. Two months later the boy was arrested for the theft of an overcoat which he took in a very stupid and obvious fashion, and upon his person was found a written list of petty thefts recently committed, among them being that of some visiting cards. Dr. Liébeault, believing that the indeterminate suggestion given by Dr. X—— was at the bottom of the whole matter, got a lawyer to undertake the defense, and secured the diminution of the penalty to two months' imprisonment. Four years later, when the boy came of age. Prof. Liébeault hypnotized him again, his parents not allowing it while he was a minor. In the hypnotic state he claimed that about the time he stole the overcoat "he had met Dr. X—— in the street, had gone with him to a café, had been hypnotized and told to steal watches, pocketbooks, gloves, etc." The theft of the overcoat was specifically suggested. This case proves that theft can be occasioned by suggestion, but it does not prove that it could be successfully suggested to an honest and upright patient. For aught that appears, the boy would have stolen if a companion had put the idea in his head in his waking state.

A still better illustration is given by M. Focachon, which I take from Prof. Liégeois: J. D—— is a seamstress, aged twentyseven, nervous, not hysterical, not very intelligent, uneducated, of recognized honesty. While hypnotized, M. Focachon suggested to her that she should steal from the closet of one of her employers some cloth, should bring it to M. Focachon's house, and should borrow the use of the sewing machine to make it up. "J. D—— at first protested very vigorously, asked what I took her for, wept and begged me to wake her, that she might no longer hear such propositions, but quieting her little by little, minimizing the importance of the theft, telling her it would never be known, and playing upon her vanity, I finally got her to say she would think about it." The suggestion was obeyed, but before she made the goods up M. Focachon hypnotized her again, took it from her, and abolished her recollection of the whole matter.

If such cases put it beyond question that suggestion may be used for the performance of crime, they also, I think, make it evident that the danger is not one of great magnitude. If there are in the community a few individuals who, although of good natural disposition, are so weak that they can be used as passive instruments for the performance of crimes, there are probably very few of them; those few are seldom known; if known, they will seldom fall into the hands of a person inclined to abuse their weakness, and, if they do, the part played by the hypnotizer will frequently be detected.

But if the dangers of criminal suggestion do not appear serious, there is a real danger connected with its possibility. The plea of "emotional insanity" often adopted by sympathetic juries is becoming somewhat timeworn, and in hypnotic suggestion adroit lawyers may find an even more dangerous substitute. Suppose, for example, that A—— is accused of a crime for which no adequate motive can be shown. But B—— had a motive for its commission; B is acquainted with the phenomena of suggestion, A—— is known to be extremely suggestible, and B—— has had ample opportunity of influencing him. In such a case no amount of evidence that A committed the crime could set aside in my mind a "reasonable doubt" of A——'s guilt. The occasional escape of a criminal on this pretext I would not regard as a great matter, but the stigma which his acquittal would cast upon B——, a stigma not the less real because incapable of proof or disproof, is a serious thing.

A similar line of reasoning has been used once at least with what seem to me more happy results. On the 25th of January, 1888, a young married woman—Mme. G——, the wife of a French engineer living in Algiers, and said to be one of the most beautiful women in the country—was found lying dead not far from her home, with two bullets through her head. Near by lay a man named Chambige, a friend of her husband's, seriously wounded but living. Chambige claimed that Mme. G—— had been in love with him and he with her, and that they had agreed, in view of the hopelessness of their passion, to die together; he had shot her first and then himself. There was not a shred of evidence to show that Mme. G—— had ever had more than a friendly regard for Chambige, mingled perhaps with the pity a happy woman feels for a lonely and disappointed man. To all appearance she had always been a most loving and virtuous wife, with no thought for anything but her husband and children. It was proved that on the day of her death she had seemed as placid and cheerful as usual, showing not a sign of mental perturbation; that she was in the highest degree hypnotizable and suggestible, and had frequently unwittingly hypnotized herself by looking too long at a fixed point. It was also shown that Chambige had been madly in love with her, that he probably was acquainted with hypnotism, that he was a restless and unbalanced spirit without religion and without morality. Prof. Liégeois, of the Faculty of Law at Nancy, has published a study of the case, in which he endeavors to show that Mme. G—— was in all probability innocent, that Chambige hypnotized her in the parlor of her own home on the morning of the day of her murder, and then lured her to ruin and death by a posthypnotic suggestion. No one, I think, who is at all acquainted with the possibilities of suggestion will deny that Prof. Liégeois's interpretation is within the realm of possibility, and for my own part I am inclined to regard it as more probable than the tale told by Chambige. If the theory of suggestion had done no more than clear this young wife's memory from the stain cast upon it by her murderer, it would be worthy of serious consideration.

To sum up, I believe, with Prof. Delbœuf, that the danger from criminal suggestions, although real, is not much greater than that arising from criminal dreams. It is known that crimes have been committed by somnambulists as the result of the dreams which possess and control them, but we do not regard the fact as a reasonable ground of apprehension. We can not lay too much stress upon the fact that the phenomena of hypnotic suggestion, strange as they appear to the uninitiated, find their nearest normal analogues in those of sleep and dreams, and are subject to much the same limitations.