Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/April 1896/Hypnotic States, Trance, and Ecstasy

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1232355Popular Science Monthly Volume 48 April 1896 — Hypnotic States, Trance, and Ecstasy1896William Romaine Newbold



I SHALL deal in this paper with abnormal states of several types, all of which, in my opinion, may be grouped under the one concept of disordination. The normal consciousness is in all apparently destroyed or displaced, and very often memory of the abnormal states is lacking. Hence we are often compelled to rely upon ambiguous external indications for our knowledge of the patient's condition during the abnormal state, and any attempt to explain it from the psychological point of view is attended with difficulty and open to attack.

In the first place, I must clear away a prolific source of confusion. All the states which I now have occasion to examine are akin to sleep, and many have in addition a superficial resemblance to sleep: the eyes are closed, the countenance is placid, the breathing regular. In others it is less marked: the eyes may be open, fixed, and staring, the body may be rigid and contorted, the face may express intense emotion, movements may occur, and so on. This distinction is purely accidental, and is of no importance from the theoretical point of view. Yet it has become set in our nomenclature, and we can not well get rid of it. For the first group I shall therefore use the generic word "hypnotic," which means simply "sleeplike." The chief characteristics of hypnotic states are: (1) the closed eyes, expressionless face, and relaxed muscles—in general, absence of any spontaneous sign of mental life; (2) the presence of heightened suggestibility. The chief characteristics of the trance states are: (1) spontaneous evidences of mental life, afforded in talking, writing, emotional expression movements of other kinds, or by memory after the state is over (2) the absence of suggestibility. But it is needless to say that many states are found which can not be put into either of these classes.

There are many ways of inducing hypnotic states, but all agree in involving an arrest of the flight of thought, concentration of attention upon one element, restriction of the conscious field. In some very susceptible patients any sudden arrest of attention, such as that produced by an intense and unexpected stimulus, may induce a hypnotic state or some other form of disordination. A sudden flash of light, or the clang of a loud gong, has been known to produce this effect. But generally the concentration of attention must last some time, and it is usually necessary that the patient should voluntarily co-operate with the hypnotizer. One of the easiest methods of getting him to do this is to tell him to go to sleep, for we all, in trying to go to sleep, do precisely what we should do in order to be hypnotized. Often the attention is riveted upon a bright spot, upon a sound, a sensation of touch, or even upon a thought. As it is very difficult to hold attention upon an absolutely unchanging thing, it is customary to help the patient by providing some monotonous variation. This is the chief function of the "mesmeric passes" of which we hear so much, of the revolving mirrors, oscillating pendulum, etc.

Whenever the normal flow of consciousness is thus interrupted, there is a tendency for the patient to fall asleep. It would seem as if the other elements—those which are prevented from getting into the upper consciousness—lose their co-ordination and coherence; they no longer faithfully mirror the past or paint the future, they become broken, dislocated, "dreamy," and finally die away altogether. Then the element which has occupied attention also dies away, and the patient has reached the deepest stage of hypnotic lethargy. I asked one of my patients, while he was apparently sunk in a deep lethargy, what he was thinking of. He told me in a halting, broken way that he was in his own home, it was about eight o'clock at night, he was playing cards with So-and -so; I was at a neighboring table, also playing cards, etc. In what respect does this differ from the ordinary dream? But more often the mind seems like a slate erased, and the only thoughts existing are those which the hypnotizer suggests.

It is often possible to trace the stages through which consciousness passes in its progress toward complete disordination and coma, and many have tried to discover some fixed relation between these stages. There is, I think, none, but there are some recurring sequences. Usually the control of movement by thought is first impaired. The patient feels himself becoming weak, his limbs grow heavy, the more delicately co-ordinated muscle groups of the eyelids, lips, and fingers become paralyzed, then the larger groups are affected. Sometimes one side of the body yields before the other; and sometimes, instead of paralysis, rigidity supervenes. I remember one patient who, when commanded to shut his eyes, instantly "went off" like a spring released, becoming as rigid as a log, and we had great ado to "limber him up" again.

If the patient be left to himself he will either awake of himself or fall into a normal sleep, from which all signs of suggestibility, catalepsy, etc., have disappeared. This is most easily interpreted upon the supposition that hypnotic states are in fact only imperfect forms of sleep, and therefore unstable, tending to resolve themselves in either the one direction or the other. The fact that hypnotic states may be produced not only by putting a waking man partly asleep, but also by partly waking a sleeping man, would point to the same conclusion.

The suggestibility which is so characteristic of hypnotic states probably depends upon the persistence of that portion of the patient's consciousness which represents the hypnotizer, while all else has either disappeared, or become much weakened by dissociation from its accustomed re-enforcing elements. The hypnotizer keeps talking to the patient, touching and stroking him. and he has in consequence no opportunity to fall asleep to him, R—— told me that even when his consciousness of the position of his own body was almost lost, and the sounds of the outer world seemed dull and muffled, the tones of my voice and my lightest touch remained as distinct as ever. The consciousness of the hypnotizer is a center from which radiate new forces, and sometimes, when memory is preserved, the patient may be able to describe the first collisions between the enfeebled upper consciousness and the foreign element. Take Dr. Cocke's account of his own experiences:

"He then said to me, 'You can not open your eyes.' The motor apparatus of my lids would not seemingly respond to my will, yet I was conscious that while one part of my mind wanted to open my eyes, another part did not want to, so I was in a paradoxical state: I believed that I could open my eyes and yet could not. The feeling of not wishing to open them was not based upon any desire to please the operator. . . . He told me that I was asleep, and placed my hand over my head, and stated that it was rigid, and that I could not put it down. Again, a part of my consciousness wanted to put it down and another part did not. He stroked my arm and told me that it was growing numb, that it was growing insensible. He told me that I had no feeling in it. He said, 'You have no feeling in it, have you?' I said 'No,' and I knew that I said 'No,' yet I knew that I had feeling in it, and yet believed that I had no feeling in it. . . . I was not conscious of my body at all, but was painfully conscious of the two contradictory elements within me. I knew that my body existed, but could not prove it to myself. I knew that the statements made by the operator were, in a measure, untrue. I obeyed them voluntarily and involuntarily."

As a brief outline of the salient features of typical hypnotic states the above must suffice, but one must remember that many anomalous states are found to perplex the student. Sometimes one meets with profound lethargy with no suggestibility; at others, the patient becomes extremely suggestible without a sign of sleep, and is afterward found to have no memory of the suggestible stage. Occasionally the attempt to produce a hypnotic state throws the patient into a trancelike nightmare, from which it is very difficult to rescue him. Sometimes it is difficult to get the patient entirely awake, or, even if awake and conscious, some disordinated elements may persistently refuse to effect union with the upper consciousness. A friend of mine, on awaking a patient, found her unable to speak or swallow, and some anxious hours slipped by before he succeeded in restoring her power over the paralyzed muscles. Altogether hypnosis is decidedly a dangerous thing to meddle with.

Many typical trance states are brought about, it would seem, by what may be described as the hypertrophy of some perception or sensation or system of ideas. This abnormal growth may be in either or both of two directions. In the first place, it may be an actual increase in intensity and complexity. This is not uncommon in all forms of disordination; thus. Dr. Cocke says that when he tried to hypnotize himself, he first noticed a ringing in the ears, then this "noise in my ears grew louder and louder. The roar became deafening. It crackled like a mighty fire. . . . I heard above the roar reports which sounded like artillery or musketry. Then, above the din or the noise, a musical chord. I seemed to be absorbed in this chord. I knew nothing else. The world existed for me only in the tones of this mighty chord." But the development of the state may be not merely a development in intensity and complexity, but also in its importance considered as an element of consciousness. I have shown in my previous papers that consciousness tends to assume a certain form in which some one group is more clear and distinct than the others. This is what we call the "center of attention" or "focus" of consciousness. I have also shown that when any one group becomes focal all others become less clear and distinct, and may even be driven out of consciousness altogether. Now, in trance states this seems often to happen. In the hypnotic states the element upon which attention is fixed itself disappears; in trances, it and its associated states take possession of the focus, drive out all other states, and serve as the starting point for dreams, hallucinations, and visions of the most complex kind. For the same reason, suggestibility is seldom found in trance. There is no awareness of the hypnotizer to serve as a center of activity and the hypertrophied state usually proves strong enough to resist interference from without.

The close relation between hypnosis and trance is well shown by the case of M——. He is about twenty-five years of age; by profession a bookkeeper, he has proved himself capable and efficient, and, although he has always been of somewhat delicate health, he is quiet in his demeanor, and not in the least hysterical in the vulgar sense of the word. Once, when a child, he was playing with a toy locomotive; the alcohol used to generate steam was spilled upon the floor and caught fire; in great terror he ran away, seized the doorknob, and then became fixed and motionless, unable to cry for help or to run. At another time, when about twelve years old, his grandfather died. He stole unobserved into the room where the body lay and lifted the shroud. No sooner had his eyes fallen upon the dead face than he lost all power of thought and of movement and remained fixed, the shroud uplifted in his hand and his eyes staring at the corpse, until some one came in and drew him away. As soon as I heard this account it struck me that he would probably prove to be a good hypnotic patient. Although himself very skeptical, he allowed me to try, and in three minutes I had him in a deep lethargy in which he was almost absolutely suggestible. It did not occur to me at the time to look for signs of incoördination, but two years later I found that his visual field was much restricted—that is, he was blind to its outlying portions—and also that his sensation of touch was more or less impaired. I have no doubt that the facility with which his upper consciousness was both accidentally and intentionally displaced sprang from the same conditions of which these symptoms of sensory incoördination gave evidence.

Hypertrophy of these two kinds may be the lot of any mental state. When it is a percept that usurps the conscious field, we speak of the patient as being "fascinated"; if the percept is attended by great emotional disturbance, we use such phrases as "spellbound with horror," "drunk with joy," etc. When the hypertrophied states are chiefly ideas without marked emotional accompaniments, we speak of the patient as being "in trance," "seeing a vision," or simply as "dreaming." If the visions are accompanied by intensely pleasurable emotions the state is termed "ecstasy." In the higher grades of ecstasy the concrete visions disappear and clear consciousness is lost in a flood of emotions of an intensely pleasurable character. The types of trance in which the emotion is acutely disagreeable—grief, terror, remorse—are usually classed as diseases, partly because they unfit the patient to a greater degree for the duties of life, and partly because they often spring from organic disease, especially of nutrition. The disordered physiological processes give rise to floods of vague but intensely disagreeable sensations, and these in turn generate the horrible and terrifying visions. Many trance states are revealed in the patient's movements, but for the present I shall speak only of those which are remembered and described afterward.

The attainment of ecstasy has been the aim of many religious sects in ancient and modern times, by whom it is conceived to be a direct union with the Divine; these form an important branch of the group of religious mystics, all of whom believe that the human soul is capable of direct union with God during this present life. But our information as to the various possible types of ecstasy is very defective. The essential element is the flood of pleasure, but the sensory elements may be of any and all kinds.

One form is characterized by the appearance of a beautiful light, far more pure and brilliant than any commonly experienced. It is probable that this light is due to the hypertrophy of the vague visual sensations which we always experience in darkness—what the Germans call the eye's Eigenlicht, Plotinus, the Neo-Platonic philosopher {circa 204-269 a. d.), seems to have experienced this type of ecstasy, and has left us many descriptions of it, and of his methods of attaining it, albeit couched in rather obscure language. "Often," he says (Ennead IV, book viii, chap. 1), "I awake from the body to myself, I come to be outside all else but within myself, I see a great and wonderful beauty. Then am I most assured of the supreme happiness of my lot, for I have entered into the best life and am become one with God. . . . After thus abiding in the Divine, I descend from intuition to thought, and while descending I can not tell how I descend, or how my soul has got within my body." He thus describes his method (Ennead VI, book ix, chap. 7): "In your contemplation cast not your thought without, for God is not in any one place, depriving other things of himself, but is present there to him that can touch him, and to him that can not he is not present. As in other cases one can not think anything while thinking and attending to something else, but must add nothing to that which is thought, that it alone may be that which is thought; so also here one must know that he can not, while he has the image of anything else in mind, apprehend God, that other image being active the while, nor can the soul, while possessed and controlled by other things, receive the image of their opposite. . . . Every soul must let go all without and turn within, must not be attracted toward any outer thing, but must lose consciousness of all such, first of her condition and then of her thoughts, and after losing consciousness of herself also must be given over to the vision of God." In another passage (Ennead V, book v, chap. 7) he draws a distinction between light proper and that which is illumined by it; usually we see the latter only, but we can become conscious of the former also. For example, with closed eyes and in total darkness we see a pure light which is generated by the eye itself. "So also the mind, wrapping itself about from other things, and withdrawing within, seeing nothing, will behold light, not here and there, but pure light alone, of itself suddenly shining, so that" (chap. 8) "it can not tell whence it shone, whether from without or from within, nor can one say, after it has departed, that it was within or not within. One should not ask whence, for there is no whence; it does not come, nor does it go any whither, but shines, and then ceases to shine. One should not therefore seek it, but quietly wait until it shines, first preparing one's self to behold it, as the eye awaits the rising of the sun. The sun appearing above the horizon—out of the ocean, as the poets say—presents itself to our eyesight. But this other light, of which the eun is an imitation, whence is it to rise, and above what is it to appear? It rises above the contemplating mind, for the mind fixes itself upon the contemplation." Again (Ennead VI, book ix, chap. 9), "There the soul beholds God and herself in the only way permitted, herself radiant, full of intelligible light, nay rather herself all pure light, weightless, buoyant (κοῦΦον), becoming God nay, already become God."

The sect known in the eleventh century as Hesychasts, and later the Omphalopsychics of Mount Athos, claimed to have, and doubtless did have, the same experience. Prof. Preyer, in a note to his Hypnotismus, has given an interesting account of them. Their method was to drop the chin upon the breast, fix the eyes upon the navel, and wait for the light to burst upon them. A great ecclesiastical controversy arose over these practices. The language which George Fox and the early Quakers use of the "inner light" seems to point to the same thing. One of my graduate students, while under ether, had a similar experience, which makes an excellent commentary upon Plotinus's statement that the soul is "pure light." "I took form, I was a body of light in an abyss of ethereal gray; in form I was, as memory reproduces size, eighteen inches by eight, a rounded disk: I was not looking at myself, but I knew and saw myself." Such experiences would seem, from my own inquiries, to be far from uncommon, and I would be grateful to any of my readers who can give me more cases.

Among the monks and nuns of the mediæval Church ecstatic states were common. The constant fasting and loss of sleep to which many of these saints condemned themselves are known upon independent evidence to be fruitful sources of hallucinations, and prolonged meditation upon a given topic determined the general form of the vision. The enforced celibacy of the monastic life and the practice of self-torture were further conditions of the greatest importance. Enforced celibacy frequently gives rise to reflex neuroses, and self-torture is in many neurotic individuals a direct stimulus to the very passions which the celibate most desires to repress. It is not surprising, therefore, that the religious ecstasies of the ascetic frequently assume a highly erotic form, although expressed in the most chaste language, and alternate with apparitions of the devil in the forms of incubi and succubæ. Prof. Mantegazza has given interesting accounts of some of these religious ecstatics and visionaries, and I shall abbreviate a few of them.

Margareta Maria Alacoque was possessed by a desire to emulate the sufferings of Jesus, and inflicted upon herself such horrible tortures that her Mother Superior felt called upon to interfere, although some were inflicted by the express command of God. Is it surprising that she passed much of her time in a state of delirious love for her "heavenly bridegroom," constantly seeing visions and receiving revelations?

Anna Katharina Emmerich has described for us most vividly a condition of ecstatic trance in which the consciousness of the real world was not wholly lost. It is analogous to the above quoted experience of Dr. Cocke. "I see this not with my eyes, but rather, as it seems to me, with my heart here in the midst of my breast. This causes perspiration to break out on that spot. At the same moment I see the persons and objects about me, but do not trouble myself about them; I do not even know who they are—and even at this moment, as I speak, I see. . . . For some days I have been continuously in a supernatural vision. I have to use compulsion upon myself, for in the midst of my conversation with others I see entirely different pictures before me and hear my own voice and the voices of others sounding dull and muffled as from an empty vessel. . . . My reply to what is said to me falls from my lips easily, and often with more vivacity than usual, although afterward I do not know what I said, yet I speak coherently and intelligibly. It is very hard for me to keep myself in this double state. With my eyes I see my surroundings dimly, enshrouded in a veil, as one does when trying to fall asleep and just beginning to dream. The inner vision desires to sweep me away with violence, and is far more clear and brilliant than the natural, but it makes no use of my eyes."

But St. Theresa has left us, perhaps, the best account of ecstasy that we possess. One should note the complex hallucinations of all the senses which served to bring about the true ecstasies.

"One day, after I had prayed and besought the good God that he would help me to do his will in all things, I began the song of praise, and as I invoked him there came to me an ecstasy that almost put me beside myself. . . . I heard these words: 'Henceforward it is my will that thou shalt speak no more with men but with angels only.'" "These inner addresses of God to the soul consist of quite clear and plain words, but are not heard with the bodily ear. . . . One day, as I was praying, God vouchsafed to show me his hands only; their beauty was so great that I have no words with which to describe them. A few days later I saw his divine countenance also, and was, I think, entirely absorbed in it. . . . While he spoke to me, I beheld that majestic beauty, and the words which that beautiful, divine mouth spoke to me breathed an infinite sweetness. In those happy moments I felt an intense desire to see the color and size of his eyes, that I might tell of them afterward, but this favor I never won. All my efforts only caused the vision to disappear" "As the clouds draw to themselves the vapors of earth, so does he draw our souls to himself, ravishes them out of themselves, brings them upon the clouds of his majesty to heaven with him, and begins to reveal to them the mysteries of the kingdom which he has prepared for them. . . . In these ecstasies the soul seems to leave the body. Hence the natural warmth diminishes, the limbs slowly grow cold, although one feels the while most comfortable. In the prayer of union, in which we find ourselves already in our native country, we can almost always resist the divine attraction, though it be with difficulty and with great effort, but not in ecstasy; all resistance is then usually impossible. Before one thinks there comes a shock so sudden and mighty that one sees and feels as if that cloud from heaven, or that divine eagle, had swept one away and borne one off in flight." "This condition is a sleep of the mental powers, in which they, without being wholly merged in God, yet can not tell how they work. The pleasure, the bliss, is incomparably greater than in the preceding state of prayer. The soul is overflowed with the water of God's grace, which flows full to the banks. She can not and will not go either forward or backward, and only glows with the desire to enjoy such transcendent majesty. . . . My state then seems to me an absolute death to all worldly things and a ravishment in God. I know no fit simile for what the soul then feels. She no longer knows what she does, whether she talks, is silent, laughs, or weeps. It is like a blissful delirium, a heavenly madness, in which one learns true wisdom; in short, it is a sort of most exquisite bliss."

With these few illustrations I must turn from the forms of trance which appear to result from the hypertrophy of some mental state to a very different type. From the theoretical point of view we would expect to find the lines of cleavage—so to speak—in disordination taking different directions in different people. In the cases of which I have been speaking the mental co-ordination would seem to be pretty much dissolved or displaced. In other cases, to which I shall return later—those of so-called secondary—personality we shall find the lines of cleavage relatively few, and constant in their direction and location. But to the trance states proper belong those forms of disordination in which the inner life of thought is left intact while dissociated from movement, from sensation, or from both. The chronic cases in which some movements or some sensations only are lost are grouped under hysteria rather than under trance; the more complete and transitory forms properly belong to trance.

Of the second of these three conceivable cases, in which all sensation is lost while the power of movement remains, I know of no illustration. But the earlier experience of Ansel Bourne comes very near it. He was walking down a road and felt slightly dizzy; went and seated himself upon a stone. "In an instant. . . . it seemed as though some powerful hand drew something down over his head, and then over his face, and finally over his whole body; depriving him of his sight, his hearing, and his speech, and rendering him perfectly helpless. Yet he had as perfect power of thought as at any time in his life." In his case all was gone except touch and the power of voluntary movement with the exception of speech. The details of this classical case can be found in Dr. Richard Hodgson's article, in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. vii, page 221.

The converse, loss of movement without loss of sensation, is not uncommon; indeed, is probably only too common. A case is given by Alexander Crichton, M. D., in his work on Mental Derangement, vol. ii, page 87: "A young lady, an attendant upon the Princess of ———, after having been confined to her bed for a great length of time with a violent nervous disorder, was at last, to all appearance, deprived of life. Her lips were quite pale, her countenance resembled the countenance of a dead person, and her body grew cold. She was removed from the room in which she died, was laid in a coffin, and the day of her funeral was fixed upon. The day arrived, and, according to the custom of the country, funeral songs and hymns were sung before the door. Just as the people were about to nail on the lid of the coffin, a kind of perspiration was observed to appear on the surface of her body. It grew greater every moment, and at last a kind of convulsive motion was observed in the hands and feet of the corpse. A few minutes after, during which time fresh signs of returning life appeared, she at once opened her eyes and uttered a most pitiable shriek. Physicians were quickly procured, and in the course of a few days she was considerably restored and is probably alive at this day. The description which she herself gave of her situation is extremely remarkable, and forms a curious and authentic addition to psychology. She said it seemed to her, as if in a dream, that she was really dead; yet she was perfectly conscious of all that happened around her in this dreadful state. She distinctly heard her friends speaking and lamenting her death at the side of her coffin. She felt them pull on the dead-clothes and lay her in them. This feeling produced a mental anxiety which is indescribable. She tried to cry, but her soul was without power, and could not act upon her body. She had the contradictory feeling as if she were in her own body and yet not in it, at one and the same time. It was equally impossible for her to stretch out her arm or to open her eyes as to cry, although she continually endeavored to do so. The internal anguish, of her mind was, however, at its utmost height when the funeral hymns began to be sung, and when the lid of the coffin began to be nailed on. The thought that she was to be buried alive was the first one that gave activity to her soul, and caused it to operate upon her corporeal frame."

This account, being anonymous, is not as well authenticated as one could wish, but to me it seems credible because I have not only known several persons who have had analogous experiences, but I have had one or two myself. My experiences belonged however to the third type, in which both movement and sensation are dissociated from thought. The first was in March of 1892. I was staying at a pension in Florence. I had arrived the preceding evening and was in excellent health. I came to consciousness after a dreamless sleep, to find myself paralyzed, I think anæsthetic also, but am not sure of that, and I felt as if I were struggling with an alien and hostile personality for the possession of my own body. With a violent effort I regained control of myself, turned over with the thought, "What a horrible dream!" and tried to go to sleep. The same thing recurred. Again I shook it off. This happened three or four times, and the last time it was only with the greatest difficulty and after the most desperate struggles that I expelled, as it seemed to me, my enemy, got out of bed, and opened the shutters. I was somewhat frightened, but knew enough of such phenomena to interpret it. much as I have here done. Four or five times in the next four months I had similar experiences. The last was in July. I was at a hotel in Liverpool, and awoke to find myself absolutely paralyzed and absolutely anæsthetic, but with no consciousness of the alien personality. I was vividly conscious; a little alarmed, I remembered the previous occurrences of the same state, remembered writing to a friend about it, speculated about its cause, tried frequently in vain to break it. Finally, as I thought, I succeeded. With a great effort I sat upright in bed, still in total darkness, and at that moment the spell was broken. I was lying flat on my back. It was a bright summer morning and the sunlight was streaming in through the windows. Two of my friends—one an artist and the other a professor of law in a well-known university—have told me of the same experience, and both had noted that the execution of the least movement, as of the little finger, would break the spell.

We must conceive of such states as due to an imperfect awakening. The normal co-ordination of waking life is not yet fully restored. Very often in cases of this sort the patient's consciousness seems to be separated from his body, sometimes appears to visit distant parts of the earth and at others to go into the other life and have communion with angels and spirits, occasionally it even sees God himself. In many such hallucinatory experiences there is a curious constancy of type which, with our scanty information, we can not at present explain, and I would be glad to receive authentic accounts of any cases known to my readers.