1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Suggestion

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25189821911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 26 — SuggestionWilliam McDougall

SUGGESTION. By the older British writers on psychology the words “suggest” and “suggestion” were used in senses very close to those which they have in common speech; one idea was said to suggest another when it recalled that other to mind or (in the modern phrase) reproduced it. Modern studies in mental pathology and hypnotism (q.v.) have led to the use of these words by psychologists in a special and technical sense. The hypnotists of the Nancy school rediscovered and gave general currency to the doctrine that the most essential feature of the hypnotic state is the unquestioning obedience and docility with which the hypnotized subject accepts, believes, and acts in accordance with every command or proposition of the hypnotize. Commands or propositions made to the subject (they may be merely implied by a gesture, a glance, or a chance remark to a third person) and accepted with this peculiarly uncritical and intense belief were called “suggestions”; and the subject that accepted them in this fashion, was said to be “suggestible.” It has also been made abundantly clear, chiefly by the labours of French physicians, that a high degree of “suggestibility” is a leading feature of hysteria, and that this fact is the key to the understanding of very many of its protean manifestations.

It is also becoming widely recognized that the suggestibility of hypnosis and of hysteria is conditioned by a peculiar state of the brain, namely a cerebral or mental dissociation, which in hypnosis is temporarily induced by the operations of the hypnotist, and in hysteria arises from some deficiency of energy in the whole psycho-physical system. In respect to these points there is now a wide consensus of opinion among the leading authorities; but as to the range and scope of suggestion in our mental life great differences of opinion still obtain. We may distinguish three principal views. Firstly, it is maintained by a number of physicians (notably by Professor Pierre Janet, whose profound studies of hysterical patients are justly celebrated) that all hypnotizable persons are hysterical and that suggestibility is a condition peculiar to hysterical subjects. In view of the assertions in recent years of several physicians of high repute to the effect that they find more than 90% of all subjects hypnotizable, it would seem that this view cannot be maintained, and that this restriction of suggestion to hysterical subjects only, and the stigmatization of suggestibility as in every case a morbid symptom, are errors arising from too exclusive occupation with its manifestations in this field. A second group consists of writers who admit that suggestion may operate in normal minds, but who, while recognizing that it is not an essentially pathological process, maintain that it is a process of very peculiar and exceptional nature that has little or no affinity with normal mental operations. They hold that suggestion, whether it occurs in morbid or in healthy subjects, always implies the coming into operation of some obscurely conceived faculty or region of the mind which is present in all men, but which usually lies hidden or submerged beneath the flow of our more commonplace mental activities. This submerged faculty or system of faculties, which is held by these authors to be operative in all processes of suggestion, is variously designated by them the secondary or submerged stratum of consciousness, the subconscious or subliminal self (see Subliminal Self). The writers of this, group insist upon the more startling of the effects producible by suggestion, the more profound changes of bodily and mental processes, such as paralysis, contracture, hyperaesthesia, increased power of recollection, hallucinations (q.v.), &c.; and they regard dissociation as the process by which the submerged and supernormal faculty (or faculties) that they postulate is liberated from the dominance of the normal waking self.

A third view has been rapidly gaining ground and is now predominant. It connects itself with, and bases itself upon, the view of Professor Bernheim and his colleagues of the Nancy school of hypnotism. According to this view all men are normally suggestible under favourable conditions, and the hypnotic subject and the hysteric patient differ from the normal human being chiefly in that their normal suggestibility is more or less (sometimes very greatly) increased, owing to the prevalence of the state of cerebral dissociation.

According to this third view, suggestion may be defined as the communication of any proposition from one person (or persons) to another in such a way as to secure its acceptance with conviction, in the absence of adequate logical grounds for its acceptance. The idea or belief so introduced to the mind of the recipient is held to operate powerfully upon his bodily and mental processes in proportion to the degree of its dominance over all other ideas or mental processes; and the extraordinary character of the effects, both bodily and mental, of suggestion in hypnotic and hysterical subjects is held to be due to the fact that, in these conditions of mental dissociation, the dominance of the suggested idea is complete and absolute; whereas in the absence of such dissociation the operation of the suggested idea is always subject to some weakening or inhibition through the influence of many opposed or incompatible tendencies and ideas, even if these do not rise into explicit consciousness.

This third view seems justified by the facts that no sharp line can be drawn between the suggestibility of normal men and that of hypnotized or hysterical subjects, and that under favourable conditions many of the most striking results of suggestion (e.g. hallucinations, contractures, inability to move, insensibility of various sense-organs, and so forth) may be produced in subjects who present at the time no other symptom of the hypnotic or hysterical condition.

If, then, we recognize, as we must, that the alogical production of conviction is the essence of suggestion, and that this frequently occurs in normal minds as well as in those suffering from various degrees of dissociation, it becomes necessary to define the conditions that favour the operation of suggestion in normal minds.

These conditions are resident, on the one hand, in the recipient of the suggestion, and, on the other hand, in the source from which the suggestion comes. Of the conditions of the former class three seem to be of principal importance.

(a) Defect of knowledge: the defect may be quantitative or qualitative, i.e. it may consist in the lack of knowledge or of firmly established beliefs about the subject of the proposition, or it may consist in the lack of systematic organization of such knowledge as the mind possesses. The well-trained mind is relatively insuggestible, firstly because it possesses large stores of knowledge and belief; secondly, because this mass of knowledge and belief is systematically organized in such a way that all its parts hang together and mutually support one another. On the other hand, the young child, the uncultured adult, and especially the savage, are apt to be suggestible in regard to very many topics, first, because they have relatively little knowledge; secondly, because what little they have is of a low degree of organization; i.e. it does not form a logically coherent system whose parts reciprocally support one another. Suggestion in such cases may be said to be conditioned by primitive credulity or the suggestibility of ignorance. (b) But the same person will not be found to be equally suggestible at all times under similar external conditions. There are changes of mental state which, without overstepping the limits of the normal, condition varying degrees of increased suggestibility. A man is least suggestible when his mind works most efficiently, when he is most vigorous and most wide awake; every departure from this state, due to fatigue, bodily ill-health, emotional perturbation, drugs or any other cause, favours suggestibility. (c) Persons of equal degrees of knowledge or ignorance will be found, even at their times of greatest mental efficiency, to be unequally suggestible owing to differences of native disposition; one person is by nature more open than another to personal influence, more easily swayed by others, more ready to accept their dicta and adopt their opinions for his own. Differences of this kind are probably the expression of differences in the native strength of one of the fundamental instinctive dispositions of the human mind, an instinct which is called into play by the presence of persons of superior powers and the excitement of which throws the subject into an attitude of submission or subjection towards the impressive personality.

Considered from the side of the agent, suggestion is favoured by whatever tends to render him impressive to the subject or patient—great bodily strength or stature, fine clothes, a confident manner, superior abilities of any kind, age and experience, any reputation for special capacities, high social position or the occupation of any position of acknowledged authority; in short, all that is summed up by the term “personality,” all that contributes to make a personality “magnetic” or to give it prestige renders it capable of evoking on the part of others the submissive suggestible attitude. A group of persons in agreement is capable of evoking the suggestible attitude far more effectively than any single member of the group, and the larger the group the more strongly does it exert this influence. Hence the suggestive force of the popularly accepted maxims and well established social conventions; such propositions are collective suggestions which carry with them all the immense collective prestige of organized society, both of the present and the past; they embody the wisdom of the ages. It is in the main through the suggestive power of moral maxims, endowed with all the prestige of great moral teachers and of the collective voice of society, that the child is led to accept with but little questioning the code of morals of his age and country; and the propagation of all religious and other dogma rests on the same basis. The normal suggestibility of the child is thus a principal condition of its docility, and it is in the main by the operation of normal suggestion that society moulds the characters, sentiments, and beliefs of its members, and renders the mass of its elements harmonious and homogeneous to the degree that is a necessary condition of its collective mental life. Normal suggestion produces its most striking effects in the form of mass-suggestion, i.e. when it operates in large assemblies or crowds, especially if the members have but little positive knowledge and culture. For, when a belief is propagated by collective suggestion through the large mass of men, each falls under the suggestive sway of the whole mass; and under these conditions the operation of suggestion is further aided by the universal tendency of mankind to imitation and sympathy, the tendency to imitate the actions of, and to experience the emotions expressed by, those about one.

Conditions very favourable to mass-suggestion prevailed during the middle ages of European history; for these “dark ages” were characterized by the existence of dense populations, among whom there was free intercourse but very little positive knowledge of nature, and who were dominated by a church wielding immense prestige. Hence the frequent and powerful operations of suggestion on a large scale. From time to time fantastic beliefs, giving rise to most extravagant behaviour, swept over large areas of Europe like virulent epidemics—epidemics of dancing, of flagellation, of hallucination, of belief in the miraculous powers of relics or of individuals, and so forth. In these epidemics all the conditions favourable to normal suggestion were generally present in the highest degree, with the result that in great numbers of persons there were produced the more extreme effects of suggestion, such as are usually associated with the hysterical or hypnotic state. At the present time similar manifestations occur in modified form, as e.g. the popular pilgrimages to Lourdes, Holywell and other places that from time to time acquire reputations for miraculous curative powers.

Auto-suggestion.—Although auto-suggestion does not strictly fall under the definition of suggestion given above, its usage to denote a mental process which produces effects very similar to those producible by suggestion is now so well established that it must be accepted. In auto-suggestion a proposition is formulated in the mind of the subject rather than communicated from another mind, and is accepted with conviction in the absence of adequate logical grounds. Generally the belief is initiated by some external event or some bodily change, or through some interpretation of the behaviour of other persons; e.g. a man falls on the road and a wagon very nearly passes over his legs, perhaps grazing them merely; when he is picked up, his legs are found to be paralysed. The event has induced the conviction that his legs are seriously injured, and this conviction operates so effectively as to realize itself. Or a savage, suffering some slight indisposition, interprets the behaviour of some person in a way which leads him to the conviction that this person is compassing his death by means of magical practices; accordingly he lies down in deep despondency and, in the course of some days or weeks, dies, unless his friends succeed in buying off, or in some way counteracting, the malign influence. Or, as a more familiar and trivial instance of autosuggestion, we may cite the case of a man who, having taken a bread pill in the belief that it contains a strong purgative or emetic, realizes the results that he expects.

Literature.— H. Bernheim, De la Suggestion, et de ses applications à la thérapeutique (2nd ed., Paris, 1887); Pierre Janet, The Major Symptoms of Hysteria (London, 1907); Otto Stoll, Suggestion und Hypnotismus in der Völkerpsychologie (2nd ed., Leipzig, 1904); Boris Sidis, The Psychology of Suggestion (New York, 1898); W. M. Keatinge, Suggestion in Education (London, 1907); F. W. H. Myers, Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (London, 190; 2nd ed., abridged, 1907); A. Binet, La Suggestibilité (Paris, 19003. See also literature under Hypnotism.  (W. McD.)