Article from The Skeptical Intelligencer

SOME STORIES ABOUT HYPNOSIS

Dr. Michael Heap
This paper is based on a talk given by the author at the tri-annual congress of the European Society for Hypnosis in August 1998, The Netherlands.

I swear that I shall tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

I am going to tell you some stories about a number of events, or as I would prefer to call them, dramas, in which I was allocated a fairly minor role. They are all true stories, inasmuch as it is possible for any story to be true. The first stories are about stage hypnosis.

In recent years I have been involved in a number of cases of alleged harm brought against stage hypnotists. Let me first give you some of the background. In Britain organisers of stage hypnosis shows in places of public entertainment must apply for a licence from the local council. This is enshrined in the 1952 Hypnotism Act. The Act arose from some concern about the safety of stage hypnosis. Here is the part of the Act that defines hypnosis.

"Hypnotism" includes hypnotism, mesmerism and any similar act or process which produces or is intended to produce in any person any form of induced sleep or trance in which the susceptibility of the mind of that person to suggestion or direction is increased or intended to be increased but does not include hypnotism, mesmerism or any such similar act or process which is self-induced.

Remember that legal definitions are not the same as scientific definitions.

In the late 1980s unsuccessful attempts were made to restrict the use of hypnosis to certain professional groups. However, the British Home Office drew up guidelines for the conduct of stage hypnosis to be attached to licences with a view to protecting the participants.


In 1993 a young woman died during the night after taking part in a stage hypnosis show. The verdict of the inquest was death by natural causes. However, the mother of the deceased understandably felt that her having participated in stage hypnosis was a necessary element in the story of her daughter’s death. She and others mounted a campaign to have stage hypnosis prohibited. Eventually she was allowed leave to appeal against the coroner’s verdict. Her lawyer constructed a story in the form of a mass of documents that they presented to the Royal Courts. However, the judge did not consider that the original story should be changed.

As a result of all the publicity stimulated by the campaign against stage hypnosis other people came forward with stories about how they too had been harmed by participating in stage hypnosis shows. Some attracted the attention of the media and were rather bizarre, such as the story of a man who completed and submitted a lost property form after being told that his brain had gone missing.

Also at that time, but independent of these proceedings, a lady successfully sued a theatre in Glasgow after breaking her leg when she fell off the stage during a stage hypnosis show. Meanwhile, a student sued a stage hypnotist when he fell over while running away from an imaginary army of giant mice. In his story he claimed to have a phobia of mice. His case was unsuccessful.

I first started to be interested in hypnosis in the late 1970s. I soon became aware of the fact that mainstream social and cognitive psychologists were offering more parsimonious stories than the more traditional ones usually told by medics and lay practitioners, which revolved around the concept of the trance state. Notwithstanding this, the expediencies of clinical practice means that such disagreements are usually not particularly crucial and we can all work amicably together. However, when I listened to my colleagues talking about the dangers of stage hypnosis and the case for outlawing it, I was struck by the following thought. Supposing that one day a case was brought to court; then the two stories would be represented on opposing sides. This is so because, whilst social and cognitive theories do not contradict the claim that stage hypnosis can be harmful, a more compelling case emerges when we portray the stage hypnotist as someone who puts the participants in a state of trance. Therefore the story of the trance would be favoured by the claimant’s lawyers, and the other story by the defence (that is the stage hypnotist’s side). This has a certain irony. Stage hypnosis attracts the audience’s fascination owing the ideas that the participants are in some special mental state of mind and not just acting the part.

I did not make a record of my prediction, but let’s see what has happened since.

As a result of the campaign against stage hypnosis, at least four cases were brought against stage hypnotists by alleged victims. One of these never reached trial, owing to the claimant’s failure to co-operate with the defence. One came to trial but the trial collapsed and I shall talk about this in a moment. A third also reached the Court and the defendant won. Again I shall mention this in a moment. A fourth one has yet to be resolved. In all cases the Statements of Claim by the claimant’s side alleged that the stage hypnotist places his participants in a state of trance. For example, in the first of the aforementioned cases it was averred that hypnosis "involves the interference with the conscious will of the subject(s)"; also "they are induced to perform acts that would be embarrassing and/or distasteful to them if fully conscious".

The case in which I was most involved I shall call Norman versus Byrnes. Mr. Norman’s story is that on Wednesday June 30th 1993, he took part in Mr. Byrnes’s stage hypnosis show at a hotel At some point in the show Mr. Byrnes offered to help him give up smoking. Amongst other things, he gave him a post-hypnotic suggestion that from now on cigarettes would taste foul. Towards the end of the performance Mr. Byrnes suggested to his volunteers that as they were sitting in their chairs they would feel more and more sexy. He then hit his microphone repeatedly calling out "10 times more sexy", "20 times more sexy".....and so on. Mr. Norman seemed to become carried away; he stood up and made thrusting movements at the chair. Mr. Byrnes then suggested to the participants that when they went to bed that night they would feel even 50 times more sexy than they did then.

Mr. and Mrs. Norman both confirmed that when they went to bed that night, as soon as Mr. Norman laid down on the mattress he started shaking violently and bouncing up and down. Mr. Norman claimed that he was having sexual intercourse with the mattress and that indeed he did find the mattress sexually attractive. Thus he continued simulating intercourse with the mattress and the other contents of his bed, with the exception of his wife.

At some point Mrs. Norman decided to have a cigarette. When she lit it her husband immediately felt sick and ran to the bathroom, coughing violently. After some time he returned and resumed his sexual activity. Throughout the night Mrs. Norman could only subdue him by blowing cigarette smoke at him, whereupon he would rush to the bathroom and be sick. They both agreed that all this went on unceasingly from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. after which he slept until 10.00 a.m. and was fine that day.

For the next three days Mr. Norman was relatively well during the day and spent the evenings drinking at the same hotel. However, during the nights his behaviour continued to be disturbed and he had the same uncontrollable urge to have sexual intercourse with his furniture and domestic appliances. Specific articles that were allegedly the objects of his copulatory interest included, as well as the contents of his bed, the bedroom ceiling, an armchair, his bath, a tumble dryer (at least while it was tumbling), and, if thought if not in deed, various ornaments, and the ambulance that came to take him away.

On Monday, five days after her husband’s stage hypnosis experience, Mrs. Norman went to see a lawyer; on Wednesday Mr. Norman went to see his doctor. He was prescribed antidepressants and several days later his doctor "performed hypnotherapy on him to remove the post-hypnotic suggestion" and this appeared to be successful. However, about three weeks later he was referred to a psychiatrist, Dr. Thomas, with "depression and delusions" and violent behaviour.

Dr. Thomas saw Mr. Norman on October 18th. Several days earlier Mr. Norman had been the subject of an exorcism in a local church. This was actually conducted by his doctor. In his report Dr. Thomas states that Mr Norman's exorcism was successful and, at the time of his seeing him he had returned to normal. In his story, Dr. Thomas ascribed Mr. Norman’s problems to Mr. Byrnes’s failure to take him "out of the hypnotic trance". He considered that the exorcism had been successful because (I quote) "the counter-suggestibility of the proceedings in Church sufficed to take him out of the hypnotic state into which he had been put on the 30th of June 1993".

Things appeared to go quiet, and Mr. Norman did not receive any medication or treatment for these problems until four months later. Here I would like mention, without further comment, the fact that around that time considerable media attention was being given to a number of stories concerning the adverse effects of stage hypnosis. From then on, for the next 3½ years Mr. Norman continued to present with a bewildering array of mental symptoms variously diagnosed as a dissociative state, hypomania, hysteria, Ganser's syndrome, major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoid psychosis and schizo-affective disorder.

Mr. Norman’s solicitors obtained further expert witness testimony from Dr. James, a consultant psychiatrist and former official of the British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis. Dr. James did not see Mr. Norman, or his wife, but relied on medical reports and on witness statements by Mr. and Mrs. Norman. Dr. James made several allegations of negligence against Mr. Byrnes, two of which I shall describe here.

In response to an Answerphone message from Mrs. Norman soon after the stage hypnosis show, Mr. Byrnes telephoned Mr. Norman and reassured him in some general way that he was no longer hypnotised and he would feel better. Then, on July 3rd, at the suggestion of Mr Norman's family and staff of the Casualty Department, Mr. Byrnes visited Mr Norman at his home. He attempted to reassure him and to remove the alleged ill-effects of his stage hypnosis experience by further hypnotic suggestion.

Dr. James’s charge against Mr. Byrnes was this: He did not take enough trouble to establish what the exact counter-suggestion should have been to dispel the post-hypnotic suggestion under which Mr. Norman was presumed to be behaving when having sex with his furniture and domestic appliances. He considered that Mr. Byrnes used too "non-specific" a kind of suggestion.

Dr. James also implies that because Mr. Norman did not trust Mr. Byrnes himself, Mr. Byrnes was negligent in not summoning a person trusted by Mr. Norman, such as his doctor, to attend the ‘wiping out of the suggestion ceremony’. The assumption here is that the presence of somebody like Mr. Norman’s doctor would in some way assuage his suspicion and render the counter-suggestion more potent. Thus Mr. Norman would have been spared a four years of mental illness.

When I consider these serious allegations against Mr. Byrnes, I cannot help hearing in my mind the music ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’. Dr. James casts Mr. Byrnes is in the role of an inept would-be wizard whose task, under the stern eye of a properly qualified master wizard, is to discover the best counter-spell or incantation that would lift the evil curse with which he had previously inadvertently bewitched Mr. Norman.

This case came to trial in September 1997. I sat in court every day, but on the fifth day, long before the defence had opened its case, the trial collapsed. Mr. Norman’s financial backer withdrew, his legal aid having already been withdrawn. The reason for this is as follows: had Mr. Norman won his case, the compensation that he would have received would have been claimed back by the state to offset the considerable welfare and sickness benefits he had received while indisposed. Thus he would have been financially no better off and legal aid is not granted when such is the case.

The most high profile case, which I was not directly involved in, has been Gates versus McKenna. The defendant, Paul McKenna is a very well known stage hypnotist who used to have a show on television. He was sued by Christopher Gates who claimed that after participating in one of his shows in 1994, he developed a schizophrenic illness. In accordance with my prediction, in constructing their story, the claimant’s side felt it necessary to go some length to try to convince the judge that Mr. Gates had been put into a state of trance by Mr. McKenna. The mantle of the expert witness for the defence naturally fell on Dr Graham Wagstaff, the leading non-state theorist of hypnosis in Britain. Mr. McKenna won the case. At least some media reports of his performance in the witness box were very favourable. In his summing-up, the judge, Mr. Justice Toulson, stated this: "By taking part in the show the plaintiff consented to participating in what were no more than a series of silly sketches, harmless in themselves".

Thus Mr. McKenna emerged the unlikely public champion of socio-cognitive theory in Britain. But I should mention that a few stage hypnotists have re-discovered the original findings of Professor TX Barber, replicated by social and cognitive psychologists since, on the true role of the hypnotic induction. So if the local authority refuses to grant licences for stage hypnosis then they can still do their show but without using hypnosis.

Before either of these cases reached court, the British Home Office had already set up a Panel of Experts to study evidence for the alleged dangers of stage hypnosis. The members of this group were two psychologists and two psychiatrists who had no particular expertise in hypnosis and therefore no prejudices either way. Evidence was invited from anyone with an interest in the debate. The report and recommendations of this panel were announced in October 1995. It concluded that stage hypnosis does not pose a significant mental health risk that would warrant its prohibition. I did not say to my colleagues at that time "I told you so". But I could have done. After consulting a wide range of people the Panel brought out a revised set of Model Conditions for the conduct of stage hypnosis.

The cases that I have so far talked about have been civil actions. I have been involved in a number of criminal cases concerning stories of assaults during hypnosis. This is one such case. The complainant was a woman who invited a lay hypnotist, a man with no qualifications at all, into her bedroom. She lay on the bed and, with just a candle for illumination, he hypnotised her to stop smoking. The allegation was that during these proceedings he indecently assaulted her.

What story do we tell that helps us explain the following anomalies: she knew what was going on and was repulsed by what the hypnotist was doing; she felt paralysed and could not stop him, either physically or verbally yet she was able to check the more advanced probing of his hands by squeezing her thighs tightly together; she was not responding to his suggestions to relax or to forget what was happening, she responded to his instruction that once it was all over she would give him a kiss on his cheek; she was unable to re-join her husband downstairs afterwards, but could only give vent to her distress once she had fled to her neighbour’s house.

One story requires us to consider the subtle interplay of a range of influences that are part of the study of human psychology. But such a story may leave some people feeling dissatisfied and needing something a bit more special. Thus we can engage in the tautological exercise of inventing something called a hypnotic trance and conveniently endowing it with all the properties necessary to explain whatever we find incongruous or puzzling.

The story that this woman was hypnotised would, I dare say, be the one she and her husband preferred as they struggled to make sense of it all; and it was certainly the explanation preferred by the newspapers. I did not attend the trial but I read the newspaper account in which the judge, while sentencing the culprit, was quoted as saying that he was "dangerously good at hypnosis".

Criminal cases are different from civil cases as far as the submission of expert evidence is concerned. In Britain, as in some other countries, criminal cases are argued in court on extreme adversarial lines. That is, experts are summoned by both sides and, unless the testimony happens to be favourable to his or her client, the role of the opposing barrister is to discredit the evidence of the other side by foul means or fair. Such has been the case for civil actions until some very recent reforms in which the sides are urged to have one agreed expert. (Goodness knows what will happen next time there is one involving hypnosis.) In the case of civil actions the expert witness is able to prepare a lengthy report that the judge will study in order to arrive at a decision. With criminal cases the jury do not see the expert witness’s report, but they listen to his or her evidence from the witness box. Hence it is in the interests of the side the expert witness is representing that the evidence is kept fairly simple - at least not unnecessarily complicated.

In a recent case a gynaecologist of some eminence had over a dozen charges of indecent assault and one of rape brought against him by some of his female patients. He was using hypnosis with them, sometimes during internal examinations, without the presence of a third person. I was instructed by the defence to provide two reports. In my first report I was asked to answer a long series of questions such as "What is the nature of hypnosis?", "What are commonly used induction procedures?" "How does hypnosis differ from relaxation?", "Do subjects of hypnosis lose their will power?" and "How is memory affected by hypnosis?, In the second report I was asked to consider each complainant’s charge in turn and discuss what might have happened if the charge were false. Naturally my two reports were of considerable length and complexity.

After submitting them I was invited to a conference of the defence lawyers and their client. This was in an historic part of London known as Temple where lawyers have plied their trade for centuries. We all sat round a table on which I could see my two reports - monuments of learned knowledge and meticulous scholarship.

"We shan’t be using these", the barrister said. Summoning all my assertive skills I looked him in the eye and said "OK, fine." However I agreed to look at a summary of my first report and, after having made some minor corrections, it was disclosed to the prosecution. I was also asked to attend some of the trial to give advice to the defence and possibly to appear in the witness box.

During the three days that I attended the trial I was virtually ignored and at the end of the third day, the prosecution case having been completed, I was told by the defence barrister that I was surplus to requirements. What he actually said was "Well, unless something goes horribly wrong we won’t be calling you". In fact the only witness he did call was the defendant himself. What seemed to be happening was this. In his cross-examination of the complainants, the defence lawyer put great emphasis on the fact that the assaults in question happened many years ago and their memory was now likely to be very unreliable. Indeed their memories did at times prove to be inconsistent with such recorded facts as their hospital attendances and treatment. The expert witness brought by the prosecution was a lay hypnotherapist who was coaxed by the defending barrister into saying that people’s memory for things that happen during hypnosis is poor and people can have false memories for what happens during hypnosis. This is all the defence needed and the jury were spared any further instruction on the factual details of hypnosis.

But it was all to no avail; the defendant was found guilty on eight counts of indecent assault, though on the charge of rape he was pronounced not guilty. He received a sentence: six years imprisonment, a severe punishment.

When giving evidence in court we swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Now in real life people obviously tell lies and in some of my stories some people have certainly lied. But can the truth, the whole truth, ever be told. Instead, do we not tell stories that are, to a greater or lesser extent, only based on real events? Stories about stories, and stories about stories about stories, and so on. Let us not forget also the stories that we tell ourselves in order to make acceptable sense of our lives and our world. Our capacity to tell the truth is inevitably constrained, not just by our knowledge, memory and language, but by the scripts or templates that are available to us and that suit our purpose. And this is also the case with the listeners who, even as we speak, are constructing their own story of our story.

I am telling you my stories with certain themes in mind that suit my own self-centred purposes: the tale of the prophet, unheeded in his own country; the humble scholar, clinging to the rock of unassuming truth.

Now for someone else’s story, one that I find very interesting. It is told by Dr. Kleinhauz and Dr. Beran in the International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis in 1981. It concerns a teenager who was admitted to hospital after participating in a stage hypnosis show. She had fallen into a deep stupor and could not be roused. Neurological and other medical investigations were negative whereupon a number of psychiatric diagnoses were made without reference to her stage hypnosis experience. She was like this for six days and the staff were begin to grow weary of her. She was then seen by the main author, a psychiatrist and expert in hypnosis, who recognised that she was in a pathological post-hypnotic state. He then began the gradual process of establishing rapport and dehypnotising her. After four hours the patient had recovered. She then underwent several months of psychotherapy. Follow-up over the years disclosed that she was reintegrated into the community and was preparing for marriage. This case was instrumental in assisting the banning of stage hypnosis in Israel.

No disrespect, no criticism of any kind, and no trivialising of these events are intended now, but may I be permitted to be just a little provocative? We can all recognise this as a traditional story about good triumphing over evil. There is the villain who, incompetently and uncaringly humiliates the young girl, the victim, causing her to fall into a deep stupor. When everything and everyone else has given up on her, comes the hero who restores her with his great wisdom, skill and kindness. She lives happily ever after. There is a moral to this story and the wicked villain and his kind are banished from the land.

Now, as in many good stories, towards the end of the tale, when everything seems to be going well, and the young lady has not seen her therapist for some months there is a crisis. She is suddenly back in hospital once more in a deep stupor. Has she fallen foul of a stage hypnotist again? No. There is no obvious villain this time. How then is the story to be resolved? Is the theme of good triumphing over evil to be rescued? Yes. This girl is engaging in manipulation. This time her state of entrancement is self-induced in order to control and punish her therapist for what she sees is his rejection of her, and an attempt to regain his special attention. All turns out well again but clearly this is not the story of Snow White. And clearly, while the moral of the tale requires villains, victims and heroes, heroines are dispensable.

Now another of my own stories. Mr. Jones is a teacher at a residential school. In 1997 he was visited by the police and advised that they were investigating allegations of sexual abuse. These had been made by two young men who had been pupils at the school some years previously. It appears that at least one of the complainants had a grudge against Mr. Jones. It was alleged that Mr. Jones was known to have practised witchcraft in the past and on a number of occasions he had, unbeknownst to them, bewitched the complainants when they were young boys and cast magic spells upon them. One magic spell had made them believe that they were homosexual and that homosexual activity was normal behaviour. Another magic spell was that they believed that they had been rendered invisible. In this way Mr. Jones was able to persuade them to take off their clothes while he photographed them in the nude.

The last time I spoke to Mr. Jones he had yet to be charged with anything, but he was still suspended from his job as a teacher. He was by then out-of-pocket by £10,000 because of lost income and fees for legal proceedings. I contributed to his rebuttal evidence in support of his efforts to forestall charges.

How is it that, as we approach the 21st century, our law enforcement agencies could accept such a story? I have changed some key words. For ‘witchcraft’ read ‘hypnotism’; for ‘bewitched’ read ‘put into a trance’; and for magic spell’, read ‘hypnotic suggestion’. In fact, wisely for them the police withheld those allegations pertaining to hypnosis and Mr. Jones was sent to prison.

What lessons might we draw from all of this? I suppose it depends on the way the stories are told. My way of telling them suggests this. We may not be able to tell the truth, but some stories may be more truthful accounts than others. That is, the ideas we have, the language that we use, and the stories that we tell can be governed by and be accountable to agreed rules of logic that are applied to shared observations. This is the way of science, but it is also the way we regularly think and communicate effectively in everyday life. And science has the capacity to correct and improve the stories that it tells.

Now, there are certain ideas that are so overvalued and endowed with such authority, that, particularly when they are undisciplined and ungoverned by such rules, may be put to whatever purpose the user wishes. Such concepts include hypnosis and the hypnotic trance, the unconscious mind and, more recently, ego states and the right brain. In this way, the stories that they are allowed to tell quickly run to absurdity, occasionally in exponential fashion. Thus we have the false memory disaster, the ritual Satanic abuse conspiracy, mass abductions by extra-terrestrial beings, and the epidemic of multiple personality disorder, something to which, mercifully, British people have shown a commendable immunity, popular preference running heavily in favour of possessing just one personality at the very most. But all that is another story.