Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/March 1896/Normal and Heightened Suggestibility

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1232198Popular Science Monthly Volume 48 March 1896 — Normal and Heightened Suggestibility1896William Romaine Newbold



THERE is perhaps no question so perplexing to a worker in a relatively new field as that which arises with reference to his terminology. Not only must he be influenced by considerations of euphony and etymological correctness, but he must also be on his guard against using words the connotations of which would tend to lead both himself and his reader astray in their practical inferences. It is, for example, true that a quart of alcohol acts as a poison, but it does not follow that we should use an ounce of alcohol as we would an ounce of strychnine. It may be eminently proper to apply a bad name to a dog under certain conditions, but it does not follow that the dog should be forthwith hanged.

"Suggestion" and "suggestibility" are words which usage compels us to employ, and, as their connotations are apt to mislead us, I shall find it necessary to preface my account with a brief analysis of their various meanings.

In dealing with any mental state, we have to consider (1) its character, (2) its conditions and causes, (3) its effects. The word "suggestion" properly denotes either an agency which produces a mental state, or the state so produced, and in the latter use it connotes the notion of the agency. Its most common meaning, however, is still narrower, and is limited to mental states springing directly or indirectly from physical stimuli, especially from words.

The effects of mental states, to which I called attention in my second article, were long ignored in psychology. The first to obtain clear recognition was the property of producing ideas, and this has become famous as "the law of association." The motor effects of mental states have been more recently noted, and the study of such effects is now rapidly becoming the fashion in current psychology, much as the study of association came into vogue in England a century ago or thereabouts. Now, the study of association has been prosecuted for the most part by the psychologist's watching the flow of his own ideas, but the effects of mental states upon movements—what Prof. Baldwin calls dynamogeny—has hitherto been studied chiefly by noting the motor effects of ideas and sensations suggested from without by words or physical stimuli of other kinds. Hence the word "suggestion" has come to include among its connotations not only the notion of the cause but also that of the effect—especially the motor—effect of the suggested state, and in the derivative "suggestibility" the original meaning is almost lost; it does not mean "a condition in which mental states may be more readily initiated by suitable causes," but, "a condition in which mental states, however initiated, tend to work out their proper results more readily than usual." From this usage, which is nowadays the most common, is derived a still broader one which I shall not scruple to employ. By an individual's suggestibility we denote the fact that in him every mental state tends to work out definite results of its own. In this sense we are all suggestible. The word corresponds to dynamogeny, save that the latter term has reference to the motor tendencies only of the state, while suggestibility includes its tendency to development, its associative and metabolic tendencies as well. The condition commonly known as suggestibility, in which the results of the individual state are more easily traced than usual, I would strictly term "heightened suggestibility," but for the sake of brevity it may be allowable to call it also simply suggestibility; the context will usually show what degree of suggestibility we are talking of.

Suggestions may be subdivided with reference to their origin into suggestions from without, due to impressions received through the senses, and suggestions from within, arising from some pre-existing thought. These are usually termed auto-suggestions and hetero-suggestions. Both words are barbarous hybrids, but the former at least is too deeply fixed in usage to be displaced. The distinction is sometimes of importance, since many patients who are very suggestible from within are not at all so from without, and vice versa. Yet it is difficult to draw any sharp line of demarcation between the two classes, and in the account which I shall give of suggestion I shall confine myself to the latter. I may have occasion to recur to suggestions from within in a later paper. I shall also limit myself to the discussion of the tendency to development and the associative and motor tendencies of mental states, omitting for the present their effects upon the metabolic processes. Thus the chief phenomena which I shall pass in review are, (1) the development of a suggested idea into a "sensory" hallucination, (2) the expansion of a suggested idea into a complete dream by evocation of associated ideas, (3) the production of bodily movements by means of suggested sensations or ideas.

As I have already said, it is not easy to observe that one is one's self suggestible. One's present consciousness contains at all times such a mass of subnascent, nascent, and vivid states that it is impossible to trace the effects of any one group, yet occasionally one can catch a state on the wing, as it were, and note its effects. Some years ago, I came home about ten o'clock one sunny morning, deeply absorbed in thought; of the latter part of my walk I had no clear memories, but I came to myself to find myself standing in the sunlight, holding a lighted match aloft in my right hand, apparently looking for a gasjet. I always carried in a certain pocket my keys and a matchbox; the sight of the door had prompted me to thrust my hand into my pocket, but I had no clear thought of the latchkey of which I was in search. Had I had, the mere fact that my hand happened to come in contact with the matchbox would have produced no result. As it was, the feeling of the matchbox found no obstacle to its working out its own results my hand closed on the box, withdrew and opened it, took out a match and struck it, and this organized motor series was wrecked merely by the physical impossibility of lighting a gasburner where there was none to light, and not by the interference of inconsistent mental elements. Such phenomena are familiar to us all, but we rarely take pains to analyze them in detail, otherwise the precisely similar phenomena of hypnotic suggestion would not excite so much astonishment.

A large proportion of our acts are thus suggested by sense-impressions. Another large proportion is under the direct control of thoughts almost as simple, but the guiding thought is often so faint and phantomlike that it escapes attention. I was sitting once in a railway train on my way to Philadelphia; in the corner in front of me was an umbrella. I lifted my right hand, extended it, then let it fall. When I say that "I" did this I am not speaking with precision. "I" was at the time occupied with an entirely different train of thought, and the lifting and dropping of my hand struck "me" as something so strange that I fell to looking about in the dark nooks and crannies of my mind to find the culprit thought. Fortunately, I was in time. I had been looking out of the window, and the lowering clouds had suggested rain, walking the streets, getting wet; my hand reached out for the umbrella with some dim notion of taking off its cover and making ready for the rain. Then arose a vague, unformed thought which, if it had become articulate, would have taken some such form as, "Two hours yet before I get there": the hand was arrested half extended, and fell. The whole of this little comedy was enacted in an out-of-the-way corner of my mind, while "I," the thinking self, was absorbed in a train of abstract thought, and probably both the actors would have escaped notice and been straightway forgotten had it not been for the inconsistency of their motor results.

Every object of perception and thought is a center of innumerable diverging suggestions. Not all of these are of equal strength, and the manner in which any given object will affect a given individual will vary with his education, his habits, and his present mood. Many physical objects have, besides the lines of motor suggestion which they share with others, certain special lines peculiar to themselves. Of these perhaps the most important is the use of the object. Thus, of all the things which I could possibly do with a dagger, stabbing is to me by far the most attractive, and I find it very attractive indeed. I can not handle a dagger without feeling a marked propensity to strike the point into anything that comes handy. Many other objects are similarly suggestive. A gentleman, while visiting a friend of mine, was asked to examine a fine rifle which his friend had recently acquired. He loaded it, poised it, lifted it to his shoulder, took aim, remarking in a joking tone, "Suppose I fire?" "Do," said his friend—and he did. Happily, the ball contented itself with plowing its way through a cherry bookcase and four or five books, and no lives were lost. When asked why he did such a reckless thing, he could only say that he did not know—he did not intend to do it. To my mind there is nothing surprising about it. The rifle, to a man fond of shooting but without much experience, is instinct with dangerous suggestions. Ordinarily the immensely preponderating mass of inhibiting ideas keeps even the most reckless well within the danger line. But when the rifle was loaded, cocked, and aimed, and the finger on the trigger, a great mass of ideal and sensational suggestions were excited to the highest pitch and all converged upon the delicate muscles of the forefinger. Still, the inhibitory suggestions of time and place would, under most circumstances, have been sufficient to counteract all these; probably the command, "Do," re-enforced the latter at the very moment that it distracted attention from the former, and the slight advantage thus given to the weaker of the two systems of forces was sufficient to contract the finger and bring about the catastrophe.

The spontaneous phenomena which the Germans call Massenpsychosen—a word denoting a state of mind shared by a mass of people at once—are nothing more than Nature's experiments in suggestibility conducted on a large scale for our benefit. The panic is a familiar illustration. The terrifying suggestion which each man could easily brave alone becomes so intensified in being reflected upon him from a thousand frightened faces that he gives way and becomes for the time being an unreasoning, struggling animal. During every great strike such phenomena are common. A crowd gathers, the spirit of disorder is abroad, and the soberest of citizens feels his fingers fairly itching for mischief. A stone is thrown, another, and then another, and in a few moments every man is vying with his neighbor to see how much damage he can do. In these cases the frequently repeated suggestions given by the words, and still more by the deeds, of others overcome the results of years of training in orderly habits, and when the excitement has subsided many a participant in the late riot may fall to wondering "what in the world possessed him." The colloquial phrase, like many another, enshrines a truth. He was indeed possessed—not by any evil spirit, to be sure, but by myriads of delicate physical impulses, which, streaming in through eye and ear, prompted him with almost irresistible force to violence.

The so-called "contagion of crime" is somewhat analogous. There are at all times in the community "weak brethren" who, while not criminals, are drawn like moths to the flame by the fascination of a great crime. The Whitechapel murders and the assassination of Mr. Harrison, late Mayor of Chicago, are illustrations fresh in our minds. In each case a crop of dangerous "cranks" was brought to light, who, without the suggestion, might never have fallen into the hands of the police.

Turning now from these illustrations of suggestibility in general to the conditions under which it is heightened, the first phenomena to arrest attention are those of childhood. The consciousness of a newborn baby must be very unlike anything that we can picture. It contains perhaps sensations of pain and touch something like those with which we are familiar, but differing from them in lacking all localization and reference to an outer world. It is only by slow degrees that sight and hearing are developed, and we can never hope to know the various stages through which the raw material delivered to consciousness by the developing organs of sense must pass before it becomes anything like what we call sense-experience. Yet, however dim, confused, and rudimentary the baby's consciousness may be, the in-going nerve currents produce more or less definite movements, and, as consciousness becomes more highly evolved, not merely do the impressions of sense produce movements, but the ideas also, or copies of those impressions, acquire control over the body. The later history of volition merely records the steps by which the inner control, through its gradually increasing complexity, comes to supersede the outer. In the earlier years of life the child may almost be said to be a slave to his environment. His conduct is controlled for the most part either by what he actually sees and hears or by his most recent memories and immediate anticipations. The remote past and the distant future affect him but little: he is a creature of the present. Consequently, one can see the motor effects of sensations and ideas more directly in children than in the adult. At first definite responses are limited to a few reflexes. Sucking, winking, crying, swallowing, clutching, and one or two more, constitute the capital with which the child begins life. Besides these we find a mass of random movements out of which all later forms are evolved. At a somewhat later period the child enters upon the imitative stage, to which so much attention has been attracted of late; no sooner does he see an act performed than he attempts to do it himself. Of the mental and physiological conditions which lie at the basis of imitation we know very little. It probably marks a period in which the visible appearances of the grosser bodily movements are entering into associative union with those thoughts of how the movements feel when performed which are the immediate psychical antecedents of the movements which they represent. "Naughtiness," in children passing through this stage, is frequently nothing more than sheer inability to overcome the imperative suggestions of the environment by the relatively feeble thoughts which its parents' commands suggest. For children, example is indeed better than precept.

As the child grows older and his mind becomes more richly stored with memories, as his hereditary instincts come to view, and his increasing power of imagination enables him to picture the future more distinctly, he is little by little emancipated from his slavery to the present. Yet in many children marked suggestibility persists to a quite late period. In the normal adult the store of memories has become so rich and the power of anticipating the future so great that the primitive suggestibility seems almost to have disappeared. The man's conduct is no longer mainly controlled by this or by that suggestion of his environment, but springs naturally from the steady stream of thoughts and purposes that fill his mind. No suggestion can enter his mind without running the risk of encountering a mass of ideas which either are antagonistic to it or overcome it by sheer weight of numbers. Furthermore, most persons who closely watch their mental life can detect in it that at present mysterious activity of the "self" to which I alluded in my first article. We must conceive it as in some way originated by and dependent upon our past experience, and in it we see, as I have elsewhere expressed it, the present conscious representative of the net resultant of our past experience, brought to bear upon the nascent mental state. Its function in our life may be compared to that of the rudder on the ship: it serves to hold us steadily to the course already laid out, and makes our present and our future symmetrical with our past.

It is evident, then, that, if we would restore primitive suggestibility in an adult, we must either break up the consciousness of self, or weaken its power of control. If we can do that, we have removed from the path of the suggested state the most formidable possible impediment to. its free progress and development. But to give it full liberty we must abolish or enfeeble all other sensations and ideas as well. These would be, from the psychological point of view, the conditions of heightened suggestibility.

In many cases it is, unfortunately, impossible to get any evidence as to the mental condition of the patient, but such evidence as we have goes to support this hypothesis. The hypnotized patient, if asked what he is thinking about usually says, "Nothing." Sometimes you find that he is dreaming and will tell his dreams, but, like other dreams, they are readily guided or dissipated by the least sensory suggestion. In the few cases in which the patient remembers his experiences upon awaking, he says he felt drowsy, dull, or weak. One of my patients told me that it seemed to him as if the motor suggestions I gave him were executed by his body, mechanically, without his own concurrence. He did not feel disposed to resist, but, when he did, he either found himself helpless, or could overcome the suggestion by the most strenuous resistance only.

But the suggestibility thus produced differs widely from that observed in children. The consciousness of the child is so rudimentary in character that complex thoughts can not be awakened in it by any means; its suggestibility, therefore, is limited to the performance of relatively simple acts. But in the complex brain of the adult, with its myriad ramifications, the range of suggestibility, when once it is established, is far greater and its phenomena more striking. In language we possess an instrument which, although intangible, is as much physical as an axe, a saw, or a knife, and with it, as with an adjustable stamp, we can impress upon the still sensitive brain what modifications we will. Once started, they work out their proper results with almost fatal precision.

Turning now from the theory underlying these phenomena to the actual facts, we may say that heightened suggestibility is found under three chief groups of circumstances. First, it is found in sleep occasionally, and more frequently in the states akin to sleep termed hypnotic. Second, it is sometimes found as one of the symptoms produced by certain drugs. As we suppose these symptoms to be due to poisons circulating in the blood, the type is termed toxæmic suggestibility, from two Greek words meaning blood poison. In the last place, heightened suggestibility is found as a spontaneous phenomenon for which no reason can be given. This is called idiopathic suggestibility.

Of these three forms, hypnotic suggestibility is the best known and for many reasons the most interesting. Dreams, as I have already pointed out (February number), are largely due to suggestions given in sleep. A higher degree of suggestibility is sometimes found in normal sleep. A friend of mine told me that, when a boy, he had a schoolmate who became highly suggestible whenever he was slightly disturbed in sleep. Without awaking, he would become partly conscious and would do everything, no matter how preposterous, which the mischievous ingenuity of the boys could suggest. In hypnotic states suggestibility is so constantly found that some propose to regard it as an essential characteristic. Let me give a few illustrations of its varying forms. T—— B—— is a laborer, twenty-three years of age, neurotic, intemperate, easily hypnotized. His muscles are entirely at my command. I can stiffen a finger or an arm by a word so that he can not bend it. I can even contract one set of muscles while leaving the opposite set under his control. I bring his hands together, place the tips of his fingers in contact, and tell him he can not separate them. The systems of muscles necessary to hold them together are strongly innervated, while those that pull them apart are left under his control; he struggles in vain to part them, and his struggles are such as could not be easily imitated voluntarily. I can control his sensations in the same way. I can abolish his sensations of pain, of touch, of sight, and of hearing. I tell him he will feel in his right hand what I do to his left; I then put a lighted match to his left hand and it remains at rest, while the right jerks violently about in its efforts to escape from the fire. I tell him he is blind, and he is—deaf, and he can hear nothing. I tell him he can not see or hear such a man, and he acts as if he were unconscious of his presence. I can create hallucinations of all the senses also.

The limitations of suggestibility are even more interesting. R—— is a college graduate and is now a student of divinity. When hypnotized, he passes into a light sleep, remains vaguely conscious of his surroundings, and remembers all that happens. The smaller muscles, as those of the eyelids, lips, and fingers, are entirely under my control, but the larger groups only in part. I can affect all his senses to some degree except that of hearing. The sense of sight is also refractory, and, although I can obliterate it, it is only for a few moments. I lean over him, look him in the eyes, and say, "I am getting dim—you can not see me clearly—now I am fading out altogether—I am gone—you are blind." "No," he says, "I see you still." He tells me afterward that I did grow faint and for a moment vanished, but almost instantly reappeared in brighter colors than before. I put a chair before him and say: "There is Mr. S——. You see him clearly—he is looking at you." "No," is the reply, "I do not see him; he is not there." I repeat it over and over again, but without effect. I try again. We are in Prof. F——'s lecture room, and R—— is sitting in the large chair on the platform. "There," I say, "in front of you, is Prof. F——." R—— denies it, denies it several times, and then suddenly admits it. When I press him to tell me exactly what he sees, I find that he fancies himself sitting in the body of the room where he usually sits during lectures, and sees Prof. F—— standing on the platform in an attitude he frequently adopts. In other words, R—— is dreaming with his eyes open, and his dream is determined by my command, he himself supplying for the dream of Prof. F—— a suitable associative setting. At another time I told R—— to reflect upon the name "Henry Jones," and put in his hand a pencil. After some time the hand fell to twitching and then swiftly wrote "Henry." "What are you doing?" I ask. "Thinking of that name." "What is your hand doing?" "Nothing." "What did it do a moment ago?" "It moved." "Did you move it?" "No." "What did it move for?" "I don't know." No questioning on my part could elicit any consciousness of the writing. In other words, the touch suggestion given by contact with the pencil had re-enforced the motor tendencies of the thought, and the thought had literally written itself.

I have not myself seen any cases of toxæmic suggestibility, but many are reported in the literature of the subject. For example. Dr. Janet describes a patient suffering from alcoholic delirium who was suggestible in the highest degree. Dr. Carpenter quotes from Dr. Moreau a description of the effects of hasheesh, than which nothing could better describe the augmentation in the developmental and associative tendencies of the suggested states. "We become the sport of impressions of the most opposite kind; the continuity of our ideas may be broken by the slightest cause. We are turned, to use a common expression, by every wind. By a word or gesture our thoughts may be successively directed to a multitude of different objects, with a rapidity and a lucidity which are truly marvelous. Fear becomes terror; courage is developed into rashness which nothing checks; the most unfounded doubt or suspicion becomes a certainty. The mind has a tendency to exaggerate everything." So, also, De Quincey, of the effects of opium: "Whatsoever I happened to call up and trace by a voluntary act upon the darkness, was very apt to transfer itself to my dreams. Whatsoever things I did but think of in the darkness, immediately shaped themselves into phantoms of the eye; and, by a process apparently no less inevitable, when once thus traced in faint and visionary colors, like writings in sympathetic ink, they were drawn out, by the fierce chemistry of my dreams, into insufferable splendor that fretted my heart." In the delirium of fever and in the coma of ether and nitrous oxide suggestibility is sometimes noted, but it is not a common phenomenon, and more information is much needed.

Idiopathic suggestibility has been reported by many observers, but I shall limit myself to the description of one case which has fallen within my own ken. Florrie is a little girl aged twelve. Her father is a blacksmith in good health but not robust. Her mother is a work-worn woman, slow of speech and slower of wit, and is easily hypnotized. Florrie is a quiet child, has suffered from frequent and violent headaches, and is very forgetful. In all other respects she is quite normal. She was hypnotized some time ago by a traveling showman. Of her condition before that time there is no record, but since then she has been markedly suggestible. A command forcibly uttered, once, twice, or thrice, is sufficient to displace her upper consciousness and throw her into a dreamlike state in which she executes nearly all suggestions. A typical experience with her will serve as an illustration. I had been lecturing in an amphitheater crowded with students, and she had been waiting outside. The patients I had already shown aroused a great deal of laughter, and when I went for her I found her panic-stricken, sobbing bitterly: she would not go, no, she would not go before all those men—she was afraid. I said to her in a low tone: "Florrie, of whom are you afraid? Are you afraid of me?" "No." "Of your mother?" "No." "Well, there is no one else here." After much persuasion I got her to look out. "There," said I, triumphantly, pointing to a crowd of physicians and nurses, "don't you see that bare wall? There is no one here but us three." Her tears were dried at once. I led her into the amphitheater and said, pointing to the rows upon rows of men, "Don't you see, Florrie, there is nothing here but empty benches and ourselves?" She saw nothing save what I told her to see, was perfectly cheerful and happy, entirely at her ease, and absolutely subject to my commands. She seemed to be quite normal. and she acted out the dreams I suggested to her with a grace that any actress might envy. I told her there was a plate of strawberries on the table. "Oh," said she, "what beautiful berries! May I have one?" She began eating them, and took the stem off each imaginary berry with a precision that almost made an observer believe that his own eyes were at fault, and that the berries were really there. "Are they sweet?" said I. "Oh, yes." "Rather odd, in February, isn't it?" said I. "I would have thought they would be sour." As she ate the next berry she made a wry face. "Dear me!" she said, "it is as sour as sour can be." At another time I told her I had two bouquets for her, and wished her to choose the one she liked best. I gave her with my right hand a real bouquet—with my left, nothing. She took both, smelled each in turn, exclaimed over their beauty, and finally returned to me the real bouquet, saying the other was much the prettier.

I might cover pages with such illustrations, but one is as instructive as a thousand could be. This child was not "hypnotized," yet she was in a "secondary state" or dream. I was never able to determine precisely how much of the real, visible, tangible world entered into her dreams apart from what I deliberately suggested to her to see, but my impression was she saw and felt as the rest of us do unless my suggestions were inconsistent with the testimony of her senses—in that case the suggestion triumphed. The suggested dreams were remarkably permanent. If she were told there was a parrot or cat in the room, she would continue to see it until it was abolished in the same way. Once or twice she refused suggestions that I gave her. For example, when I told her she was a princess, she acted the part very well; but when I told her she was a horse and was pulling a cart, she said she was not, and no amount of insistence on my part could make her see that cart. Once I tried to "hypnotize" her—i. e., I told her I would put her to sleep—and she went to sleep so soundly that I had great ado to get her awake again. So also after suggesting dreams to her, it was not possible to restore her at once to her normal condition, although if left to herself she slowly returned to it. I always took pains to abolish all the hallucinations I had given her, and she would then seem quite normal, but upon questioning her afterward I always found that her memory did not begin until perhaps a half hour after she had left me, and the attempt to elicit recollections of the forgotten period by leading questions always resulted in throwing her into a similar secondary state. Yet there was no connection between her secondary states; in one she never recollected what had happened in another, and no suggestion could make her remember. Nor was I ever able to produce posthypnotic suggestions, although I frequently tried to do so. I wished very much to relieve her headaches in this way, but could produce no effect upon them whatever. In other words, she failed to present many of the most characteristic phenomena of hypnosis. I think, perhaps, I should say that my attention was called to this little girl's case by her physician, and although in all the experiments that we made upon her we kept a sharp lookout for any indication of evil results, we were never able to detect any. Her waking dreams did not seem to be more injurious than other dreams.

One may justly ask how one can guard against simulation in such cases. I do not think the possibility can be altogether excluded, and in this case I was at first very suspicious. But after a good deal of careful observation one forms a pretty clear opinion, based upon many slight indications. My chief reason for thinking that the phenomena in her case were genuine was that taken as a whole they differed widely from the type of hypnosis she had seen in the public shows she had attended, which would naturally have given the model for her to imitate, and agreed very closely with rare cases reported by other observers.