This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 03 table of contents.

The Hidden Observer

Hilgard discovered a spectacular example of dissociation under hypnosis: the hidden observer . It first emerged during a classroom demonstration of hypnosis.

How did Hilgard discover the hidden observer?

My subject was a blind student, experienced in hypnosis... Once hypnotized, he received the suggestion that, at the count of three, he would become completely deaf. His hearing would be restored when I placed my hand on his right shoulder.

An associate and I then banged some large wooden blocks together, close to the subject's head, but he did not react to the sound. He was completely indifferent to our questions.

One student asked whether some part of the subject might be aware of what was going on. After all, there was nothing wrong with his ears. I agreed to test this and said to the subject, "Although you are hypnotically deaf, perhaps some part of you 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."

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."

Intrigued, Hilgard said he would explain later. He told the student, who was still hypnotized, that there was a hidden part of his mind which knew everything which had happened. Hilgard gave the suggestion that, when the student's arm was touched, the hidden part would become conscious.

Sure enough, when I placed my hand on his arm, he could report exactly how many loud sounds had been made, what questions the class had asked, and what I had said that caused his finger to rise. (Hilgard, 1978, p.47)

What is the nature of hypnotic pain-reduction?

Further investigations showed that the hidden observer phenomenon could be produced reliably in good hypnotic subjects. Research on the hidden observer clarified the nature of hypnotic pain-relief by revealing that the hidden observer does feel pain even if the subject denies feeling any before and after hypnosis. Evidently hypnotic analgesia (pain reduction) is a matter of response blocking, not sensation blocking. The pain is processed on some level but the response to it is blocked out of consciousness.

What is hypnotic age-regression?

If hypnosis is "merely" a form of imagination, it is still an interesting phenomenon that can produce some very unusual mental events. Hypnotic age regression is one spectacular form of dissociation explored by Hilgard. During age regression, a person imagines returning to an earlier age, while another part of the hypnotized subject's mind remains in the present. Hilgard (1978) wrote:

I regressed a young woman to childhood; she found herself lost in a department store where she had gone to shop with her mother and grandmother. She became frightened, but accepted me as a sympathetic stranger when I comforted her. She saw her mother come to meet her and became happy... After she was roused from hypnosis, she said, "I felt so sorry for that little girl, because I knew all the time that her mother was going to find her, but she didn't know it." (p.47)

How does writing during age-regression compare to samples of actual childhood writing by the same person?

These subjects vividly experience the perspective of a younger self much as an unhypnotized person might dream such an event. Just as dreams can be very realistic, the experience of age-regression can feel accurate. But that does not mean the images and actions during age-regression are accurate reproductions of childhood images and actions. Tests show that people regressed to early childhood write in a child-like scrawl, but it is not the same as their actual handwriting in samples preserved from childhood. Age-regression, like other hypnotic phenomena, is an act of vivid imagination.

Not everybody is easy to hypnotize. About 5-10% of people do not respond to hypnosis at all; another 10-20% can achieve a deep hypnotic state, and the majority of people fall between these two extremes.

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