Popular Science Monthly/Volume 9/June 1876/Experiments on Hypnotism



SOME time ago my attention was called to two articles on "Hypnotism in Animals," in the columns of The Popular Science Monthly,[1] in which I became very deeply interested.

For the sake of those who may have forgotten what the author, Prof. Czermak, said in regard to these very curious phenomena as observed in fowls, I will briefly describe his mode of proceeding, and afterward give the results of my own experiments.

And, first, of the crawfish experiment. If a crawfish is held firmly in one hand, while with the other "passes" are made along the back of the animal from head to lower extremity, the animal will become so quieted as to allow itself to be placed in any position whatever, even the most unnatural, without once stirring. Among people generally this has been called "mesmerism" or "magnetism." Prof. Czermak proved that neither magnetism nor mesmerism is active in the production of this phenomenon.

This case is simple enough, that of the fowls is more complex. It has been thought that if "a chalk-line" were drawn the length of a hen's beak, or from eye to eye across the beak, while held upon a flat surface, she would remain perfectly quiet for more or less time when the hands were removed. I think this is commonly believed in our own country. Here, the chalk-line seemed intimately connected with the phenomenon.

Kircher varied the experiment by erasing the chalk-line. He also tied a ribbon around the legs of the fowl, and then removed it; and the hen still remained quiet. According to him the imagination of the fowl plays an important part; and he laid great stress on the acts of "tying" and "chalking."

Prof. Czermak does not attach much importance to Kircher's conclusions, in his first lecture. But, in his second, he seems to believe that the "tying and chalking" exert some slight influence through the imagination. He relies mainly, however, on the "stretching out" of the fowl's neck. Pigeons gave him more trouble in this respect; and this caused him to modify his theory to some extent. He agreed, however, that after a hen had once been subjected to this neck-stretching process, she could be caught and placed upon the floor or any other surface, without being again subjected to it; that is, hold her firmly until all struggling has ceased, and she can be placed in almost any position without once touching the neck. Here Prof. Czermak stops, and from this point my own experiments begin.

I first repeated many of his experiments on fowls, without using chalk and string, and with as successful results. Afterward I varied the mode of experimenting. Hens, ducks, cats, and canary-birds, have thus all succumbed to this peculiar procedure at my hands, and in every instance without my subjecting them once to "neck-stretching," except, of course, when I was repeating his experiments.

My first experiments, since repeated, were made upon some pet canary-birds when I was quite a child, and knew nothing of this phenomenon. I had three of these little birds, one male and two females. These I would often remove from their cage, hold them in my hand until they became quiet, and then place them upon the floor. In this way I would often have all three lying out upon the floor perfectly motionless. As to whether their eyes remained closed or not I have no recollection. The male was very wild, and, if not watched carefully, would fly from the floor.

This experiment I have since practised on a canary, and obtained the same results as I did when I first noticed the peculiarity. Here let me say again that I never touched the head or the neck of the bird.

When quite a lad, and residing in a Western State, I often observed the farmers brought their poultry alive to market, preventing the escape of the fowls by tying their legs together. The fowls, whenever I saw them, were always quiet.

Prof. Czermak thought that the stretching out of the neck of the fowl caused, in some manner, a "slight mechanical extension of certain parts of the brain, . . . . apart from the fear which the animal experiences," etc.[2]

Now, since my last experiments I dispensed entirely with all "neck-stretching." Prof. Czermak's explanations do not tend to throw that light upon the subject which he believed they would; and we must look to Kircher for a fuller explanation of this phenomenon—that of the power of the imagination.

Those parts, then, which it has been said were necessary to touch for the success of the experiment, I have latterly entirely let alone.

I usually, after catching my fowl, hold it firmly upon the ground, floor, etc., as the case may be, until all struggling has ceased. Then I remove my hands, making-no "passes," nor any more movements than are necessary to take them away from the animal. Now I have the fowl stretched out before me motionless, and breathing deeply; the eyes are generally open. Some hens are more easily subjected to this experiment than others. Tame hens will allow much handling, and are hence never good subjects. A very wild fowl is an excellent animal upon which to make these experiments.

As in the cases instanced by Prof. Czermak, so I find different fowls must be differently treated. Some require to be held a shorter, some a longer time, than others. But this fact is evident, that the animal must be held firmly until perfectly quiet.

It was only the other day, while writing the above, I visited a neighbor's poultry-yard to verify still further my views upon this subject. After catching a huge Brahma cock, which I had great difficulty in holding, as he was very violent, I held him fast until he as well as I knew he could not escape, and then took away my hands. He lay just as quiet as though my hands were holding him. But his eyes were open and his head was somewhat raised from the ground. In this condition I placed him in his coop, where he remained in a most awkward position upon his side until a hen came along, and seemed to assure him of his liberty.

Thinking that the "stretching out of the neck and bill" had simply the effect of closing the animal's eyes, I held a duck firmly in one hand, and with the other threw my handkerchief over its head. The same phenomena resulted, but they were of shorter duration. I next treated a little bantam pullet in the same way; but, being a tame and gentle little creature, I could do almost anything with her. One singular feature was that, while upon her back, and the handkerchief over her head, she began to sing. She remained very quiet, but only for a short time.

A gentleman told me of a somewhat similar process he employed in the West, when he had entrapped in the same box several prairie chickens. It being difficult for him to hold more than one chicken at a time, he would take one from the trap, hold it until quiet, shake it a little, and then lay it upon the snow. Sometimes he would have two or three thus lying there with their eyes closed. They would remain in this condition long enough for him to secure the whole catch. But, if one chanced to open its eyes when he was not looking, it would most certainly escape.

The explanation of all this does not seem difficult. In fact, we do not feel obliged to bring forward mesmerism, magnetism, nor even hypnotism, as having anything to do with the phenomena. They result simply from fear, as any one may easily prove for himself: the animal appreciates the power acting on it, and the uselessness of resisting the injury or the supposed injury inflicted. Here, of course, we must allow animals a certain amount of intelligence for such perceptions. After the animal has made resistance, and finds itself incapable of removing the obstacle, it lapses into quietude, to act again only when it supposes the restraint has been removed.

Hence, Kircher, apart from his "ribbons" and "chalk-lines," or "remembrance of chalk-lines and ribbons," is not so far out of the way in believing these phenomena to be due to the power of the animal's imagination. The same thing, under certain circumstances, is observed in man, and every one must be aware of the power the imagination often possesses over him.

In the "charming" of the lower animals by serpents we notice similar phenomena. The so-called "charmed animal" cannot move, from the fact that it does not believe it can. It has no power of will to put into operation those muscles necessary to carry it from danger. In other words, it is paralyzed with fear.

The cat playing with the mouse still further illustrates the same principle. The mouse knows he cannot escape, for, at every attempt to move, pussy's paw is put gently upon him, and he is pulled back within her reach. Hence, after a while the mouse does not move at all unless pussy "stirs him up," so to speak, with her paw.

Hence we cannot see anything very wonderful, after all, in these phenomena: they depend wholly and only upon fear, and are but an illustration of the power of the imagination among animals, and add to the evidence daily accumulating of the possession by the lower animals of a certain amount of intelligence.

  1. September and November, 1873.
  2. Vide Popular Science Monthly, loc. cit.