Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

Lewis Carroll[1]

 [Finally! Here’s part 5 (of 5) of our blog on Erich Fromm. To kick this off, I need to correct something I said last week. Today’s subject is automaton thinking. Originally I thought Fromm considered it pathological, just like paranoia, projection and fanaticism. That’s not true.  Automaton thinking is something lots of people do, not just the mentally ill. But it is highly dangerous, in that like paranoia, etc. it also blocks the way to a “proper grasp of political reality.”[2]

And what is automaton thinking? Why, it’s what you and I do when we simply accept things people say, without doing any independent thinking of our own. As Fromm says, the mistake is simple: “I believe something to be true, not because I have arrived at the thought by my own thinking, based on my own observations and experience, but because it has been ‘suggested’ to me.[3]

So, with that understood, let’s see what Phil has to say.]

Thanks, Fred. But to get into today’s topic I need to spend time on hypnosis or hypnoid states. Today hypnosis is defined as a practice, aimed at inducing a “state of consciousness,” in which a person responds ‘readily’ to suggestions or commands.[4]  Another, earlier term for hypnosis was Mesmerism, named after Anton Mesmer, a European physician who lived and practiced in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. [5]

Initially Mesmer was known for using magnets to treat certain illnesses. It’s worth noting, by the way, that magnetic devices to alleviate pain, etc. are very much in vogue even today. You can find them on line,[6] at specialty retailers[7]and probably in your neighborhood shopping mall.

Anyway, Mesmer got the idea (and the magnets) from a Jesuit scientist, Maximilian Hell. Father Hell was not a physician, but passed a report to Mesmer that magnets could be effective in treating some illnesses, and suggested he follow up.[8] Mesmer did that, developed a big practice in Paris, and eventually moved on from iron magnets to transmitting something he called animal magnetism. He thought magnetism was a fluid, by the way.

Mesmer would infuse water with animal magnetism, bottle it (the water), put the bottles in a wood tub, run iron rods from the bottles to areas outside the tub, and cover the whole assembly with more water. The iron connections, outside the tub, then could be used to treat patients.[9] At least that’s what he said.

Apparently Mesmer had set up in Paris without license or approval from any professional or government organization. So in 1778 – 1779 he spent a good deal of time attempting to rectify that, but without success.[10] Eventually, however, he did attract the Government’s attention. In 1784 two Royal Commissions were empaneled to investigate his activities.[11]

The first included four commissioners from the Faculty of Medicine in Paris, plus additional distinguished scientists. Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, generally thought to be the founder of modern chemistry, and our own Benjamin Franklin served on it.[12] The second panel was composed of commissioners from the Royal Society of Medicine.

The first panel concluded there was no proof that animal magnetism exists. It couldn’t be perceived and had no effect on patients.  While a magnetizer (i.e., a physician) might influence a patient from time to time, the effects should be attributed to the patient’s imagination. There was no evidence that a fluid, magnetic or not, was involved. The second group agreed with the first, but with one limited dissent.

[Well, with the King of France, the French Medical Establishment and Benjamin Franklin lined up against him, Mesmer should have been toast. Why discuss him now?]

We’re talking about the history of science here, not politics. Mesmer had his defenders even after that, but most of them seem to have moved on from the idea that magnetism, animal or otherwise, was a fluid of some sort.[13] Admittedly, however, in the 19th Century he was widely considered a charlatan.

Nevertheless research continued in the general area – now called hypnosis – to such an extent that it became respectable. In 1890 William James, the famous Harvard psychologist, described some of it in his great treatise on psychology.[14]

According to James there were three theories of hypnosis prevalent at the time. The original, animal magnetism, was still advanced by some to explain hypnosis, but presupposed that there was a direct transfer of force between the hypnotist and the subject. This basically remained unproved. Others thought hypnosis was a neurotic state, akin to epilepsy. That was possible in some cases, James said, but really explained only a subset of the hypnotic phenomena being reported.[15]

The third approach, the theory of suggestion, was a different matter. It held that all symptoms, described then or to be described in the future, were the product of the human animal’s general susceptibility to suggestion. And what about the hypnotic trance? “The trance itself is only one of the suggestions, and many subjects in fact can be made to exhibit the other hypnotic phenomena without the preliminary induction of this one.”[16]

[Wait a minute! This sounds a lot like what the investigators back in Paris said about Mesmer. You know, that any effect he had on patients was due to their imaginations,]

I agree. And James concluded “[t]he theory of suggestion may be said to be quite triumphant in the present day ….”[17] But nevertheless, he thought the trance state, induced by hypnosis, might exist as a “peculiar physiological condition” and could be the subject of further experimentation.

[And why did we just go through all of this?]

Mostly to explain what came later. There was a veritable explosion of research on hypnotism in the 20th Century; everybody was looking at suggestion and how it worked. I won’t describe it all, but there’s a good summary account of the research activity in Wikipedia.[18] Scientists and practicing doctors studied, experimented and wrote textbooks.[19] At the extreme, some researchers said they hypnotized and programed spies during World War II to penetrate and possibly sabotage enemy forces.[20] By the 1960’s there also were dark theories that our own government was exploring the use of drugs and other techniques to induce hypnotic states.[21]

[So, after our journey of two centuries, how does any of this relate to Erich Fromm?]

Fromm (and remember, he was speaking in 1961[22]) was very concerned that hypnosis – the power of suggestion – could be used to plant thoughts and alter or direct public opinion. He wasn’t talking about hypnotists waving their arms to induce trances, or slipping drugs to subjects, or anything of that sort. For the most part, he focused on the modern media, you know, those radio and television programs that we listen to or stare at for long periods every day.  “All modern thought manipulation,” he said, “whether it is in commercial advertising or in political propaganda, makes use of the suggestive-hypnoid techniques which produce thoughts and feelings in people without making them aware that ‘their’ thoughts are not their own.[23]” It’s easy to spot such manipulation when it affects others, but not so easy when it’s aimed at us.[24]

[Fine, but is any of this relevant to the here and now? Does anybody believe in hypnosis anymore?]

Yes indeed. We still have major media, only more so. Lots of channels and lots of propaganda. How many people blank out at one time or another while watching TV? Probably most of us. When our critical faculties go, or we fall asleep, our minds are wide open to exploitation. At least that’s what I think.

And so far as I know, nobody important has rejected hypnosis as a theory or a tool. It’s very much alive in the medical community; it’s used for pain management,[25] skin conditions,[26]removing phobias,[27] reducing conflict in the brain,[28] and lots of other things. Do advertisers and sponsors use the power of suggestion to push product on an unresisting public? You’d have to ask them or, in the alternative, watch your favorite programs with a critical eye.

[OK, let me ask a final question. How do I know if I’m being manipulated, that somebody is planting suggestions in my mind?]

Well, that’s a hard question. When you think about it, these days there’s very little that we know by personal experience. What we have is a library of things our friends, family, teachers, employers, etc.  have taught us. We reevaluate only when experience tells us to; otherwise we just roll along, secure in the knowledge that, so far, the things we’ve been taught more or less have not gotten us into trouble.

Of course, we do have to be careful about sources. I remember the guy on AM Talk Radio who used to say, for example, “All we ask is three hours a day of your time.[29]” If you listen for three hours a day to anything, are you being informed or conditioned?

The one dead giveaway, according to Fromm, is if you find you’re holding two contradictory beliefs in your brain at the same time and you believe both. He calls this doublethink,[30] and he got the idea from George Orwell.[31] Orwell said that would be an essential skill for surviving in a totalitarian environment.

[Give some examples.]

OK, how about these? Torture is bad if other nations use it on us, but good if we use it on them, because in our case it’s legitimate self-defense. The other side’s allies are evil, because some of them are dictators, etc., but ours are good, even the ones who haven’t held an election in a lifetime. Or, to use one from Fromm, “[a] hierarchical class society [as in the old Soviet Union] built along rigid lines of economic, social and political inequality is called … ‘classless’ ….[32]”

[And what if I find myself believing six impossible things before breakfast?]

Then definitely you should go to your shrink for a tune-up.


[1] See Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (Oxford, 6th Edition, 2004) (hereafter, ODQ at __) at Lewis Carroll, p. 195, n. 12. It’s from Through the Looking Glass (1872), Ch. 5.

[2] See Fromm, May Man Prevail? (Doubleday Anchor, 1961) (cited hereafter as MMP? at __). See MMP? at 26.

[3] Id.

[4] See Compact Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford, 3rd. Edition, 2005) at hypnosis, p. 498.

[5] For a very clear and generally excellent book on Franz Anton Mesmer, see Pattie, Mesmer and Animal Magnetism (Edmonston, 1994) (hereafter, cited as Mesmer at __).

[6] Don’t believe me? Check out Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Ahealth%20magnets

[7] See ProMagnet.com, at  http://www.promagnet.com/

[8] See Mesmer at Encounter with Maximilian Hell, p. 33 – 41

[9] See Mesmer at Mass Methods of Treatment, p. 70 – 71.

[10] See Mesmer at p. 76 – 93.

[11] See Mesmer at The Royal Commissions and Their Reports, p. 142 – 158.

[12] See Mesmer at p. 142 – 143.

[13] See, e.g., the discussion in Mesmer at p. 220 – 224.

[14] See James, The Principles of Psychology (1890, Dover 1950 (unabridged)) (Two Volumes) (hereafter, Principles at __). See Principles at Vo. 2, Ch. 27, Hypnotism, p. 593 – 616.

[15] This is my interpretation of what he said. If you want the original, go to Principles at Vol. 2, p. 596 – 597.

[16] See Principles at Vol. 2, p. 599.

[17] See Principles at Vol. 2, p. 599.

[18] Go to the Wikipedia web site and search “Hypnosis,” or simply click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypnosis  Admittedly the article is incomplete, but it’s a good starting point for the serious student.

[19] See, e.g., Clark Hull’s 1933 book, Hypnosis & Suggestibility, An Experimental Approach, discussed in Wikipedia athttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clark_L._Hull ; Milton Erickson’s 1981 book with Ernest L. Rossi, discussed in Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milton_H._Erickson We have both of these in the Zoo stacks, but we don’t know where.

[20] Generally we wouldn’t cite an internet source for a book so clearly on the edge, but we have a copy of this one someplace in the Zoo stacks, and the internet version looks to be a fair copy of an early edition. So, see Estabrooks, Hypnotism (Byrd, circa 1943), at http://www.lermanet.com/exit/hubbard-the-hypnotist7.htm

[21] Some of them, it turns out, were true. The program was MKUltra; you can find a good article on it in Wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mkultra

[22] See MMP? at title page.

[23] See MMP? at 26.

[24] See MMP? at 26: “It is quite remarkable how readily groups recognize the unauthentic character of thought in opponents, but not in themselves.”

[25] SeeWebMD.com at  http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/hypnosis-meditation-and-relaxation-for-pain-treatment

[26] See Medscape.com at http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/466140

[27] See Paediatr Anaesth et al, Brief hypnosis for severe needle phobia using switch-wire imagery in a 5-year old (Aug. 2007), available at PubMed.gov, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17596226

[28] See Raz, Fan & Posner, Hypnotic suggestion reduces conflict in the human brain (June 30, 2005),available at  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1174993/

[29] That’s a paraphrase; but most of these AM Talk Radio programs have 3 hour schedules, relieved only by frequent commercials.

[30] See MMP? at 27.

[31] See ODQ at George Orwell, p. 577, n. 20: “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.” See p. 577, n. 14 for examples: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

[32] See MMP? at 27.