Home Page      Boris Menu

Review of 

"Are There Hypnotic Hallucinations?

Dr. Morton Prince

Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1906, 1, 143-146.

See also Sidis's reply.

Are There Hypnotic Hallucinations? By Dr. Boris Sidis, Psychological Review, July, 1906.

        This is a timely experimental study and one that ought to stimulate the study of these hypnotic phenomena afresh. Dr. Sidis starts out by asking the question whether, when it is suggested to a subject that he shall have an hallucination, or that he should have it later as a post-hypnotic phenomenon after awakening,―that he shall see a watch, or a dog, or a snake,―whether it is a real hallucination which the subject experiences, and not a delusional belief or even kindly assent to please the experimenter. The author judiciously points out that "we rarely find in the whole literature of the subject that any of the writers should even as much as refer to the question of the validity of the hypnotic hallucinations. The hypnotic subject accepts the experimenterís suggestion, and the experimenter takes the subjectís honest word. The trust is mutual."

         Dr. Sidis, after further insisting that we must be constantly on our guard and carefully sift the evidence, states that after many years' experience a doubt began to arise in his mind in regard to the validity of the hypnotic hallucination, and that finally he came to "the conclusion that the hallucinations hypnotically suggested are not genuine," indeed that "there is no hypnotic hallucination in the strict sense of the word." This conclusion, sweeping as it is, is based both on the authorís theory of the mechanism of an hallucination and on certain experimental observations which he carried out to test the point. The author states he has made a large number of observations and gives, with more or less detail, those made on five subjects. To the first subject (F.) it was suggested that an hallucinatory watch would be seen on waking from hypnosis. Though the subject claimed to see the watch correctly, it was found that it was not seen in any one fixed position, but wherever he turned his eyes, a result which, in the author's view, shows the fictitious character of the hallucination.

       With the second subject (H. R.), a series of experiments in color hallucinations was made. It was concluded that (as after-images) the proper contrast color, and, in mixing hallucinatory colors the proper mixture were seen only if the subject knew what color was wanted.

        The third subject (N.), to whom it had been hypnotically suggested that after waking he should see a series of scenes from his former life, when asked if he really saw the scene in the bowl of water, replied, "No, I see it in my mind; I have it all in my mind."

       The fourth subject (R. D.) described his hallucinations (hypnotic? or post-hypnotic?) as "mental pictures," as "auditory memories which lack exteriority, are not located in space," and as "fixed ideas."

        The observations with the fifth subject are recorded with most detail: To the subject (M.) in hypnosis an hal1ucinatory watch after waking was suggested. As a result he claimed to see the watch (though he did not look where the watch was supposed to be) and "subconsciously" through automatic writing his hand wrote, "Yes, I see the watch," and in another experiment, "I see a flower." But when Dr. Sidis said emphatically to the subject in hypnosis "Look here; I want you to write what you really see, not what you do not see," after waking the hand wrote automatically, "I do not see anything," though the subject claimed that he saw the watch. Likewise when the subject claimed to see three real watches (there being only one real watch present) the hand wrote "one silver watch, real, the other golden, not real; nothing there." Likewise in regard to suggested hallucinations of his wife and child the hand contradicted his assertions by writing, "I mean that I see my child in my mind only, but 'in honest' I don't see anything." The same assertion was made subconsciously about a snake. When the subject learned of his automatic writing, and "became fully aware that he was being entrapped, he once more began to claim in automatic writing the actuality of the suggested hallucination."

       With subjects genera1ly the author states that in experiments with contrast-colors (after-images) and in mixing hallucinatory colors the correct after-image or mixture is given only when the subject is sufficiently informed to know what the correct color should be. It is thought to be significant that if the subject is asked which watch he prefers, the real or hallucinatory one, he will select the latter.

     Dr. Sidis concludes that "the alleged hypnotic or post-hypnotic hallucination is not at all of the nature of an hallucination, it is a delusion." "The subject believes that he perceives," and being under this "delusion, tries to convince us of the reality of his belief."

        Dr. Sidis argues, on the basis of his own theory, that it is impossible for an hallucination to be excited centrally by an idea. According to his theory hallucinations always have a peripheral origin. Being sensory percepts they can only be excited through the sensory channels. An idea, a belief, can no more originate a percept than can the sensation of red be transformed into the sensation of blue. For an exposition of the author's theory of hallucinations the reader is referred to the original article. The conclusion of the author that the hallucinations in his observations were not true hallucinations, but rather delusions, if not fake phenomena, is undoubtedly correct, and his studies are important as calling attention to the danger of accepting credulously the statements of subjects regarding their mental state in such experiments. Nine out of ten observers would probably have accepted such statements on their face value. Few authors have taken the precautions to analyze the evidence for the validity of hallucinatory phenomena produced by suggestion. Yet a rigid critic might take exception to some of the conditions of Dr. Sidis's experiments and to the sweeping character of his generalization. It could be well argued that Sidis's cases were ordinary failures, and the fact that his subjects obligingly assented to describe their phenomena as real visualized objects, does not negative the reality of the visions in others. Then, again, the subconscious recognition, expressed by automatic writing, of the falsity of the hallucination does not prove that the "personal (waking) consciousness" does not have an hallucination. On the contrary, observations are on record showing that subconsciously a person may recognize correctly the environment, though the "personal" consciousness is hallucinated or delirious. The fact that subconsciously by automatic writing, the subject first claimed to see a watch, etc., and, later, after being warned not to write what he did not see, said he did not see anything, is open to another explanation. Experience shows that the subconscious self uses the pronoun I indifferently for the subconscious mental complex and for personal consciousness. Now it might be claimed that the automatic writing may first have referred to the personal consciousness and after the reprimand to the subconscious personality." I have known this different usage of the pronoun to occur and thereby cause considerable confusion. Or it might be argued that the reprimand acted as a counter suggestion and directed the hand what to write. All these subtleties have to be taken into consideration in dealing with such a delicate mechanism as that of thought.

        In generalizing from the results of his own observations, and denying the possibility of an idea or belief exciting hallucination, Sidis takes his stand on his theory of hallucinations. Yet facts must count more than theories, and what is required is that his observations should he repeated on a larger scale. Sidis truly says "a suggestion, even in an hypnotic state, however deep, can do no more than a very vivid persistent idea can do in the waking state." But there is already accumulated much evidence showing that suggested ideas can give rise to true hallucinations. For instance, crystal visions and hypnogogic hallucinations are true hallucinations and they do, or may, arise from, conform to, and represent the content of ideas (memories), whether conscious or subconscious. Religious hallucinations, too, arc plainly excited by the subject's belief. Dr. Sidis thinks that the reason why writers have not challenged the validity of suggested hallucinations is "because of the dubious assumption of the central origin of hallucinations, an assumption still current among psychologists, and especially among psychiatrists." But it may be questioned whether it is not the influence of his own theory that has forced Dr. Sidis to take the extreme, opposite view. At any rate, as I have said, his observations are timely and important, and, in showing the falsity of supposed hallucinations in his own cases, he will compel, in the future, all alleged phenomena of this kind to be put to a rigid analysis.

Morton Prince

Home Page     Boris Menu