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USA v. Peterson, et al.

What About Hypnosis?


Spencer Harris Morfit

October 11, 1998

Spencer Harris Morfit is a professional journalist and author who lives in Westford, Massachusetts. Over the past ten years she has written and spoken extensively on the "false" or "recovered" memory phenomenon. This includes appearances on talk radio shows nationally. Her writings include Challenge to Psychotherapy, which was the first article published by a non-professional in the Journal of Sex Education and Therapy (Winter, 1994). As a result of her work she was appointed to the Scientific and Advisory Board of the False Memory Syndrome in 1995, a board mostly comprised of therapeutic professionals.

Ms. Morfit acknowledges that at this point she has a clear position on many of these issues. "Some would call this a ‘bias,’" she says, "but I have done ten years of homework on these issues and if it is a bias it is a considered one." She says that although the views she expresses here are personal opinion, she is not an accused nor an accuser, not a therapist nor a plaintiff in a malpractice case, and she hopes the questions she raises may further some of the debate about these issues.

The opinions below are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position or opinion of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation.

The issue of hypnosis is assuming some importance in the Houston trial. What do we know about hypnosis?

In the light of the present controversies, research is showing that suggestion is far more commonplace than most of us like to acknowledge -- in or out of therapy. Susceptibility to suggestion often increases in groups; It increases where one is isolated from contradictory ideas; It increases with repetition; It increases in situations where one person is a perceived authority figure and another bows to that authority; It increases in situations where one is relaxed. i.e. one’s guard is down. Furthermore, [research shows] that even demonstrably false ideas that arise in hypnotic states can take on an exaggerated credibility for the subject. It also shows that people can be hypnotized without a formal induction and that such techniques as age regression, guided imagery and relaxation exercises tap into the same processes.

I can think, for example, of several mundane situations in which suggestion and/or hypnosis is a factor. I remember that my mother, on long drives across the Country, and especially in the flatlands of the Midwest, used to complain that the broken dividing lines on the highway "hypnotized" her and she had to stop to break the trance [repetition]. I have learned over time that my lover can be absolutely relied upon to care about me and our relationship [relaxation and repetition] so that now the mere sound of his voice has a calming effect on me. In my own Unitarian-Universalist church services we speak about "deepening into worship" with certain comforting and repeated hymns--and they do have that "deepening" effect. I think most of us can think of a situation or two when we were influenced by a group [group influence] or some authority in ways we later reconsidered.

We know that one can be hypnotized by someone else. We also know that one can learn self-hypnosis. And we know that if we continue hypnosis we can become progressively more skilled or efficient at putting ourselves into hypnotic states. Some of these "hypnotic" techniques have proved useful for the treatment of phobias, for stress reduction, for handling addictions like smoking, or overeating, for instance. So hypnosis can be put to good use.

So what’s the problem with hypnosis? Well it does have its dark side too. This might be seen mostly easily by talking about the definition and techniques of hypnosis. My Webster’s (this is the 1970 Second College Edition) defines hypnosis as: "a sleeplike condition, physically induced, usually by another person, in which the subject is in a state of altered consciousness and responds, with certain limitations, to the suggestions of the hypnotist." The techniques for inducing this state usually include some relaxation techniques (deep breathing, closing one’s eyes, for instance) and seem to "deflect the conscious mind," as it is often expressed -- usually by focusing the conscious mind on something so drearily repetitious it can even create drowsiness.

The flip side of this, of course, is that while one is increasing one’s receptivity to suggested ideas, one is REDUCING ONE’S NORMAL CRITICAL CAPACITIES. That is, one is increasing one’s receptivity to ideas one might otherwise reject if fully conscious. And that is where I think the danger of hypnosis lies: Hypnosis increases one’s vulnerability to manipulation, whether well intended or malicious. I, personally, would have to trust someone very very much before I submitted to hypnosis from an outside source. And I certainly frown upon those who knowingly employ the technique on others without gaining their conscious cooperation. If willing and informed co-operation is not obtained, and if the hypnosis is induced by an outside source, well, this starts to move over into brainwashing for me.

This is all, of course, my world famous humble country opinion.....

Spencer Harris Morfit

For those interested in further reading on this subject, the False Memory Syndrome Foundation makes available a number of publications on hypnosis.

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