Monday, August 15, 2011

On Hypnosis (Part 16/20)

Research: The “Hidden Observer” Discovery

Erickson often pointed out the naturalistic basis of hypnotic pain control. In everyday life, pain can be temporarily abolished simply by the intervention of more compelling concerns. The young mother suffering a severe burn pain will instantly become oblivious to it when her baby falls out of the crib and screams in pain. Football players can finish a ballgame with broken limbs while barely noticing the pain. Watching a suspenseful movie can make us temporarily forget that we have the flu, a sprained back, or an ulcer. Whatever the particular circumstances, consciousness is diverted from registering pain.

Research indicates that while one's apperception of pain may be altered by hypnosis, its physical reality in the body is not. This is no different from neurosis where one feels wonderful but has migraines and high blood pressure and considers them aberrations from this wonderful mental state.

A number of experiments have shown that hypnosis does not block the actual sensory messages of pain on their way into the brain along the peripheral nervous system. This finding suggests that hypnotic pain control takes place at the cortical or cognitive level of the central nervous system – that is, at the third level of consciousness. Other research in the field indicates that although felt pain may be reduced, involuntary physiologic indicators of it continue to register: blood pressure, pulse rate, and temperature are all up. This suggests that oblivion to pain is only "in the head" (literally, in the cortical area of the brain) while the body continues to be affected. More interestingly, it turns out that this cortical oblivion is even incomplete. That is, conscious awareness of pain is not totally eradicated in hypnosis, contrary to what was traditionally assumed. The discovery of this came as quite a surprise to researcher Ernest Hilgard while he was conducting a classroom demonstration, in response to a serendipitous question on hypnotic deafness. He recounts the incident as follows:

The subject of the demonstration was a blind student, experienced in hypnosis, who had volunteered to serve; his blindness was not related to the demonstration, except that any visual cues were eliminated. After induction of hypnosis, he was given the suggestion that, at the count of three, he would become completely deaf to all sounds. His hearing would be restored to normal when the instructor's hand was placed on his right shoulder. To be both blind and deaf would have been a frightening experience for the subject, had he not known that his deafness was quite temporary. 
Loud sounds were then made close to the subject's head by banging together some large wooden blocks. There was no sign of reaction whatsoever; none was expected, because the subject had, in a previous demonstration, shown lack of responsiveness to the shots of a starter's pistol. He was completely indifferent to any questions asked of him while hypnotically deaf.
One student in the class questioned whether "some part" of the subject might be aware of what was going on. After all, there was nothing wrong with his ears. The instructor agreed to test this by a method rebated to interrogation practices used by clinical hypnotists. He addressed the hypnotically deaf subject in a quiet voice.
"As you know, there are parts of our nervous system that carry on activities that occur out of awareness, of which control of the circulation of the blood, or the digestive processes, are the most familiar. However, there may be intellectual processes also of which we are unaware, such as those that find expression in night dreams. Although you are hypnotically deaf, perhaps there is some part of you that is hearing my voice and processing the information. If there is, I should like the index finger of your right hand to rise as a sign that this is the case."
To the surprise of the instructor, as well as the class, the finger rose! The subject immediately said, "Please restore my hearing so you can tell me what you did. I felt my finger rise in a way that was not a spontaneous twitch, so you must have done something to make it rise, and I want to know what you did."[1]

Hilgard then began experiments to see if the "hidden observer" phenomenon also occurred in hypnotic pain control. He used "automatic writing" (also "automatic talking") as a tool to "split" the subject's awareness. The subject was told that one arm would be put in ice water while the other would be put "out of awareness." She was then asked to report verbally on how much pain she was feeling in the icy hand, while simultaneously writing a response with the hand that was "out of awareness." It turned out that as she verbally reported no pain in the icy hand, the out-of-awareness hand reported increasing degrees of pain. Another subject, who had his hypnotically-dissociated arm pricked several times with a hypodermic needle, reportedly wrote "Ouch, damn it, you're hurting me." Meanwhile, this subject himself remained oblivious to what was happening, asking when the experiment would begin a few minutes after it had already ended. In other words, the "hidden observer" in each subject reported feeling normal pain while the hypnotized part felt little or not pain. According to Hilgard, such experiments indicate that:

A hypnotized subject who is out of contact with a source of stimulation...may nevertheless register information regarding what is occurring. Further, he may be understanding it so that, under appropriate circumstances, what was unknown to the hypnotized part of him can be uncovered and talked about...It should be noted that the "hidden observer" is a metaphor for something occurring at an intellectual level but not available to the consciousness of the hypnotized person. It does not mean that there is some sort of secondary personality with a life of its own – a kind of homunculus lurking in the shadows of the conscious person.[2] [Italics added]

Following are statements by some of Hilgard's subjects describing their experience of the hidden observer experiments:

It's as though two things were happening simultaneously. I have two separate memories as if two things could have happened to two different people.
Both parts (of me) were concentrating on what you said – not to feel pain. The water bothered the hidden part a little because it felt a little but the hypnotized part was not thinking of my arm at all.
The hidden part knew that my hand was in the water and it hurt just as much as it did the other day (in the waking control session). The hypnotized part would vaguely be aware of feeling pain – that's why I would have to concentrate really hard.
The hidden part knows the pain is there but I'm not sure it feels it. The hypnotized part doesn't feel it but I ' m not sure that the hypnotized part may have known it was there but didn't say it. The hypnotized part really makes an effort.[3] [Original Italics]

Here we see the split clearly described in the subjects' own words. We see the knowing about pain dissociated from the feeling of it. Hilgard points out that even though there was a high level of sensory pain in these hypnotic subjects, there was no distress or suffering accompanying it. When the hypnotic state was lifted, the subjects could remember feeling pain but they did not feel the suffering. In other words, they remembered the feeling but they did not feel it.

Let's take an example of how the countless ways this split occurs outside of experimental situations. A scientist who is a rigid procedurist, never wavering from correct methods, believes in the Moonies and is a devotee (a case I know of). Here the intellect is split in a seamless unity where one part of the intellect sees reality in her science, and the other part is attending to the Pain below by developing belief systems. The Pain seeps into a part of the intellect and forces it to deal with it while keeping the person unconscious of her motivation. Another part has all of its critical faculties intact. It is easy to split the intellect. That is why one can be a crazy paranoid with weird ideas and still work and talk intelligently and rationally. So long as one doesn't touch the Pain, one can deal with the person.

How to explain hypnotic pain control? How to explain the overt and covert levels of reporting in the hidden observer phenomenon? Hilgard proposes a concept of "divided cognitive control systems" which we can shift in and out of via hypnosis. According to Yapko, dissociation from pain "involves the capacity to divide one's attentional and behavioral abilities" and "causes the subjective experience of feeling separated from all or part of one's body, and thus the pain."[4]
In the normal waking state, we have an open communication channel between cognition and response mechanisms so that the sensation of pain is communicated voluntarily through face and body expressions, and involuntarily through vital sign indicators.

[1]Hilgard, Hypnosis in the Relief of Pain, pp. 166-167.
[2]Hilgard, Hypnosis in the Relief of Pain, pp. 168-69.
[3]Ibid., p. 173.
[4]Yapko, Trancework, p. 279.


  1. Hi,

    I have to say that all this is very informative to me because of my interest in groups and facilitation. It explains some strange things that can happen when loyalties are divided in a group situation.

    For a simple example: A needs to meet B on the basis of Bs' telephone conversation with C. A knows C. Unfortunately C has not informed A of the purpose, relying on B to be the messenger.

    A split in consciousness is beginning.

    A meets B only to find that he is now 3rd in line in the pecking order, A is wondering why C did not tell A directly himself. . . gradually a dissociation is forming in As' mind because there have not been clear indications about the transaction; A is disinclined to ask B (who is just the messenger) and disinclined to ask C until the transaction is complete/ ie: resolved.

    The dissociation is the grey area where a third party has loyalties with two (or more) disparate parties.

    One or more of the parties can become dissociated precisely because of the grey area in the transaction. This happens in what is called "Authoritarian" style management where the "boss" has only private 'one to one' relations with each individual on a 'need to know basis'. Gradually this kind of superficiality makes people dissociated because (by default) they have to go to sleep in the grey areas, filled with the unexamined detail, the unexamined loyalties.

    So much unnecessary grief is caused for even relatively un-neurotic people through the failure to consider how the loyalties are to be addressed when command is given. Even more grief for neurotics like me who are obsessed by the loyalties in groups. I digress, my point is that this 'hypnotic dissociation' is obviously a predictable result of groups that are too big where conflicting loyalties are widespread and resolution never going to happen.

    It has been said that we need to live in groups of about 60 or so, so that we can always remember the names of all the people and (over time) comprehend the intricacies within. This would result in children growing into adults who would naturally challenge unexamined assumptions rather than dissociate when faced with them.

    Paul G.

  2. I have always thought that we as humans are given an ability to observe ourselves and ponder ourselves. But the pain being recorded while we are not aware is fascinating. Art has written about it many times. I wonder about some events in my life. Some big pain for sure.


    Your discussion on groups was interesting though slightly confusing for a while. A lot of head games go on in business. Politics, too. Spy agencies even more. It all revolves around only feeding info to others on a need to know basis and everything else taken on faith without understanding.

    But as regards the 60, I have heard between 60 and 120. Hutterites in Canada and northern USA like in the Dakotas, found 60-120 a good range to stay within. Jehovah’s witnesses have found similar. I say much of our instability results from too much change and not enough continuity. In former times, we grew up in the same area and had time to get to know everyone and know what to expect, for the most part. So much is unknown today and stays that way. We can not get used to anything. Constant change and faster than ever before. Technology used to last a while. Not any more.

    Nothing about our society is healthy. It is that way by design. A world that does not care about people and pain, but only control and manipulation. And the pain just continues to accumulate and grow. It can’t be a good thing, for sure.

  3. Hi,

    I had a really good friend who became obsessed with 'not owning a motor car' because the car has come to symbolise everything fragmented in society. With the car comes the delusion that everything is greener on the other side of the country (via motorway).

    The same could be said of the Internet because of the vastly expanded market, now forcing everyone in the human world to compete on the superhighway for their business; this has f****d many local markets.

    Nevertheless the car is very likely here to stay (in one form or another). My former friend refuses to this day to drive one and this makes him feel better. Unfortunately this made me feel worse because (even though he can drive and has a drivers' licence) as friends I was always driving him and he was always the passenger.

    This began to produce in me a sort of hypnotic dissociation in which I felt powerless in the relationship with him; my emotional loyalty was in effect divided by his belief system. When I asked him to clarify the situation he fumbled with a pocket full of unexamined assumptions including the fear of crashing and killing someone, pollutiung the planet and finally that he was too disabled. . . . This is a man that used to ride motorcycles, still cycles in traffic, plays badminton, flies Easyjet often etc.

    The funny thing about belief systems is that it is impossible to comprehend how the one you subscribe to becomes the hall of mirrors in which you yourself become trapped in the reflection of your own invisible self.

    Mostly other people can see, but you can't.

    This is the true terror of the human condition and it is all 'inside us' not 'outside us'. We can only really address our own individual situation in life and no matter how strident and passionate we feel about "other people" and what they should and shouldn't be doing I for one benefit from reminding myself that only I can change me. To do that I need a little help from some professionals in California.

    I've also noticed the more I feel strongly about that idea (California etc) the more I throw up future obstacles (in my mind).

    It's a hall of mirrors.

    Paul G.

  4. Paul, for most it is a hall of mirrors. None of us is without some confusion or bewilderment. But, part of "our" (humanity) problem is that by default, we based our perception on our pain and protection of the ego, a.k.a. self-justification.

    But if one dare find fault with themselves and carefully examine their behavior and thoughts and feelings, they can avoid many pitfalls and errors on perception. Maybe not perfect but reasonably effective. that is, unless the gates are not working well or are leaky.

    I have seen people go through horrible abuse and still make some sense of life and turn it around and find some relief and serenity. yes, it is a release of oxytocin, no doubt, but it works. We all die sooner or later anyway. I doubt PT patients live all that much longer and if we were born by accident and without purpose, then death is no loss since we had no meaning to begin with. Just live and accept death when it comes, right? so whether internal pain killers or real relief, in the end it does not matter. Am I right?

  5. Apollo: Sorry PT patients do live longer and we will research on telomeres to show it. art


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Bailey Endowed Chair of Animal Well Being Science
Washington State University

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