For a few years I've had a book sitting on my shelf called If This Be Magic: The Forgotten Power of Hypnotism, by Guy Lyon Playfair. Originally published in 1985, it was reissued by White Crow Books in 2011, and I probably bought it around that time. But somehow I never quite got around to reading it, possibly because I was a little put off by the prospect of plowing through a fairly long, rather dense book on hypnotism.
Recently, however, I did pick up the book at last, and I found it to be one of the more intriguing items in my parapsychological library. The subtitle notwithstanding, it's not really all about hypnotism. Perhaps a more accurate subtitle would be "The Forgotten Power of the Unconscious Mind." The book concerns itself with the still-unknown extent of psi abilities and their mediation by the right hemisphere of the brain — or, more accurately, the mental states loosely associated with the right cerebral hemisphere.
If This Be Magic does begin with a discussion of hypnotism and the related practice of mesmerism, tracing work in this area from its beginnings to modern times. Along the way, we learn that the (logical) left hemisphere of the brain seems to inhibit hypnotism, while the (intuitive) right hemisphere readily accepts it. Dr. David Pederson, president of the British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis, puts it succinctly: “When we hypnotize a patient, what we are doing is altering their mode of consciousness to the right hemisphere by inhibition of the left.”
Many examples of remarkable experiments and even medical cures are provided, including remission of supposedly untreatable cancers and significant improvement in a case of ichthyosis, a disfiguring skin disease that had resisted all conventional treatment. And there were other experiments, such as one carried out in 1975 by Dr. Léon Chertok, a French psychiatrist. Playfair writes*:
Chertok showed that wounds can not only be healed by suggestion, but also caused by it. He managed to produce a handsome blister on the arm of patient by placing a coin on it and suggesting that it was very hot, which it was not. An intriguing detail was that the patient reported feeling no sensation of heat at all, and yet her skin reacted as if something extremely hot had indeed come into contact with it – on the exact spot where the coin had been placed.… Chertok saw this as “irrefutable proof of the influence of the mind on physiological processes,” and wondered why this was still not fully acknowledged “in spite of the accumulation of data.” [p. 18]
One reason, among others, why the establishment has resisted this conclusion is that the results obtained by experimenters have been inconsistent and unpredictable. The technique may work brilliantly on one occasion and fail utterly on another occasion, for no obvious reason. How can this be? Here we get to the core of the book – the nature of the mental attitude necessary for positive results. The attitude is essentially one of faith, though this word is not quite adequate and has some misleading connotations:
If we believe something, the effect on us is the same whether it is really true or not. As Paracelsus put it in the 16th century: “It is all one whether you believe in something real or something false. They will have the same effect on you. It is always the faith that works the miracle, and whether the faith is aroused by something real or something false, its miraculous power is the same.”
Faith has been cynically defined as a belief in something you know to be untrue. This is only a slight exaggeration; William Sargant defines it as “a profound and non-rational conviction of the truth of propositions to which the unaided intellect can at best accord only a temperate allegiance.” We need another word for this feeling, but until we have one Sargant’s “profound and non-rational conviction” will serve as a description of it; and it is a very good description of what seems to be one of the crucial factors of successful hypnosis.
In all the cases I have mentioned so far, the one common feature is a total and uncritical acceptance by the subject of the hypnotist’s suggestion. This in turn was given with conviction, and whether the conviction was rational or non-rational did not matter. [pp. 43–44]
What appears to happen in the successful cases is that the sheer conviction felt by the hypnotist, and sometimes also by his subject, is enough to bring about extraordinary results. But if the hypnotist's conviction falters for any reason, or if there is some other mitigating factor creating an atmosphere of doubt or disbelief, then positive results are much less likely.
As you might expect, this situation creates a serious problem in the scientific investigation of hypnotism.
The hypnotist, [Ronald] Shor says, faces a … dilemma. A good scientist, in the generally accepted sense, will be careful, well disciplined, methodical and objective, or what I would call highly left-minded. Unfortunately these are not the qualities that make a successful hypnotist, who needs to be adventurous, risk-taking, and above all subjective. Shor defines the [twin pitfalls] of hypnotism as “insufficient caution” and “insufficient conviction.” “The more the scientist-hypnotist tries to avoid one of the two dangers,” he says, “the more likely it becomes that he will succumb to the other.” [pp. 54—55]
The line dividing hypnosis from psi phenomena is pretty thin. Consider experiments performed in the Soviet Union in which a test subject was hypnotically put to sleep by hypnotic suggestions telepathically communicated over a distance of more than 1,000 miles.
Ivanova [the subject, in a laboratory in Leningrad] was kept under observation by a man who did not know what kind of experiment was being carried out. [Ivanova also did not know the purpose of the experiment.] Alone on the promenade at Sebastopol, Tomashevsky began transmitting at 10:10 PM. Ivanova was seen to enter a hypnotic trance one minute later. At 10:40, Tomashevksy sent the “wake” signal, and at precisely that time according to the observer whose watch, like Tomashevky’s, had been synchronized with Radio Moscow she woke up. [p. 145]
Having made the case that hypnosis overlaps psi, and that mental attitude is critical to each, Playfair sums up:
It must be clear by now that what made the Russians so successful in this kind of experiment (and, in my opinion, still does) was their intuitive understanding of the experimenter effect, whereby experimenters [become] part of the experiment, the outcome of which largely depends on how they play their part in it. This applies to all experiments in which a human mind is involved, from sending people to sleep and transmitting images to curing diseases like ichthyosis by suggestion. An experimenter who is not totally committed to success will probably not succeed. This is hard for scientists trained in objective step-by-step procedures to accept, but as I see it, spontaneous phenomena of any kind should be studied with a view to finding out under what circumstances they happen naturally. Expecting them to happen to order under conditions imposed by the “objective” experimenter is a complete waste of time. [p. 143]
For me, the most the richest part of the book is an interview conducted by Playfair with longtime PK investigator Kenneth Batcheldor. Batchelder's observations are so important, they are worth quoting at length. I can't quote everything, though, and I encourage you to buy the book and get the whole story.
“There is an awkward antagonism between the scientific, skeptical state of mind, and the state required for the production of PK,” [Batcheldor] told me. “To achieve a PK effect, you have got to believe one hundred per cent that it’s going to happen, whereas the characteristic attitude of the scientist is to doubt, and to say 'Let’s test this thing and see if it really is what it claims to be.' But for PK, you must not think 'Is it?' You have to think 'It is.' You’ve got to suspend your scientific attitude if you want it to occur. You can be as critical as you like after you’ve got it, but not while you’re doing it.”
This was not easy for scientists to accept, he admitted, but it was the approach he had found to work, and to make sense. “If the phenomena are shaped by thought,” he said, “then doubtful thoughts will obviously create only doubtful phenomena, or maybe none at all.” [p. 181]
But how to produce the necessary attitude of faith? It's not something that can just be willed into existence. There is, however, a backdoor approach that works remarkably well – something that has long been known to shamans and has been re-learned by modern investigators.
“It is almost impossible to acquire sufficient faith by deliberate mental effort,” [Batcheldor said]. “For instance, it would be useless to place your hands on the table and say to yourself 'I believe this table is going to levitate.' However hard you tried, you wouldn’t succeed because you’d be bound to experience an element of doubt. An adept might succeed, but most people aren’t adepts.
“Fortunately,” he went on, “there’s something about table-tipping that enables a group of ordinary people to succeed in generating PK without even trying, provided they are reasonably open-minded. It is this: in most cases, the table will start to move due to UMA [unconscious muscular action]. This can give an amazing illusion that the table is moving of its own accord as if animated by some mysterious force. You get the impression you are already succeeding in generating paranormal movements.
“This has precisely the same impact on you as real success would have. It sweeps your doubts aside and produces total faith or at least moments of total faith. This happens automatically, involuntarily and without any mental effort on your part. So you get moments of total faith in which you are able to generate real PK. For a while, these are superimposed on the UMA movements, but later they can occur without them. The table movements gradually become stronger and more varied, and in time may lead to movement without contact and levitation.” [p. 182]
In other words, it may be necessary to help the process along with some initial trickery – whether intentional or unconscious – in order to wear down the left brain's resistance to the very idea of PK. Batcheldor calls this technique "induction by artifact."
“All you need [Batchelder said] is for some set of normal events artifacts to be mistaken for paranormal events. This creates sufficiently intense faith to enable you to generate the real thing. Such artifacts can be either accidental or deliberate. In table-tipping, for instance, movements due to UMA arise quite accidentally. But if somebody gives the table a deliberate push, and keeps quiet about it, this will probably have the same effect.
“You mean that cheating can lead to real PK?” I asked. I felt he was adding yet another booby-trap to an already overcrowded minefield.
“Well,” he replied, “deliberate artifact-induction is equivalent to cheating, yes. But the development of PK in a group can and should take place entirely on the basis of artifacts of the accidental kind. Cheating would only lead to confusion even if theoretically it should work. And of course shamans have known for centuries that it does work.” [pp. 182–183]
This isn't just armchair theorizing. The hypothesis has been tested.
[Colin] Brookes-Smith designed and built a number of special tables … wired up in such a way that any normal mechanical force exerted by sitters’ hands could be recorded and printed out on chart paper. He then had his sitters draw lots before session to see who would be “joker”. The joker was allowed to cheat now and then, and the study of the recording would later reveal exactly when he had….
“The interesting thing [wrote Allan Barham, a participant in the experiments] was that this method of deliberately stimulating an upward force did help to induce a genuine paranormal effect.” The chart recording, he said, showed when the joker had done his joking, and it also showed the table continued to levitate after he had stopped it. “Our unjustified belief that something paranormal might be taking place released the PK force, which always tended to be repressed by our conscious or unconscious doubts.”…
Batcheldor reckons that almost anybody can produce PK who really believes and decides that it is possible. Anybody can also inhibited by believing consciously or subconsciously that it is not possible. [p. 185]
The role of the unconscious mind may also account, at least in part, for phenomena associated with what I've called the dark side of the paranormal. The Ouija board, for instance, is often noted for seemingly malicious and destructive communications.
“As soon as it spells something a bit strange, you get frightened, and then you’re in trouble,” Batcheldor explained. “The main danger of dabbling with psychic forces is that if you get frightened of them, you shape them into some frightening event – you create what you’re frightened of. If you know this, and exercise some control over not getting unduly frightened, by constantly reminding yourself that you’re creating this stuff by PK, and it’s going to do what you believe, you can keep things under control. I don’t allow my sitters to talk about apparitions of the devil or anything like that. We don’t know what we might create if we start thinking along those lines.”
As for poltergeist cases, he believes that in some cases the incidents that start them off can be seen as artifacts that arise accidentally. “I don’t go along with the idea that poltergeist outbreaks are the expression of repressed tension and aggression. Mental hospitals are full of people who have tremendous repressed aggression, but they don’t explode into poltergeist phenomena. It’s a bit naïve to think that aggression gets so strong when it’s repressed that it bursts out by throwing cups by PK. I prefer to think that if you have a tense family that interprets an accidental event like a cup falling off the shelf by accident as ghostly, then they can use it for the expression of some of their psychological needs. If you believe there’s going to be hostility, then you probably create it.” [p. 183]
What about the well-known difficulty of getting macro-PK effects recorded on video? Even passive infrared systems that operate in darkness rarely obtain results. Playfair notes that "audio tape, however, has no inhibiting effect at all."
This has reinforced Batcheldor’s belief that it is not light that inhibits PK, but sight, or the full awareness of the observer.…
“In darkness,” he told me, “the mind can be calm, because you are not witnessing paranormality in a clear-cut form. Also, certain kinds of spontaneous artifacts needed to stimulate belief tend to be prevented in light.” He believes that at some deep level we need a “loophole” in the evidence, to reassure ourselves that PK might not be taking place after all. An audio tape provides such a loophole, because it only contains part of the record – the sound. A videotape contains a more complete record, and while seeing may be believing, hearing without seeing is not.
“PK seems to cover its tracks whenever it can,” he added, “even to the extent of sabotaging cameras or video recorders to destroy the evidence, or of making sure that there is a scapegoat on hand to whom apparently paranormal activity can be attributed.” [p. 186]
In short, Batcheldor has come up with a sophisticated, meticulously thought-out explanatory system that covers much of the phenomena associated with PK and, by extension, hypnosis, mesmerism, and ESP.
And what of life after death? Playfair recounts a case of apparent spirit communication in response to spoken questions, and writes:
It is very tempting on such occasions to assume that you are in the presence of the spirits … The impression of an independent intelligence at work is very strong … And it has led me to feel justified in regarding PK-agents as independent entities. Some would call these spirits, and assume that they are driven by the intelligence of somebody who has died.
However, there is excellent evidence against the traditional spirit hypothesis. The Philip group in Toronto certainly conjured up a spirit, but it was one they had invented themselves, complete with portrait and detailed curriculum vitae. Philip had a life of his own, but it was a wholly imaginary one. The fact that this made it no less real in some respects has led some to speculate that reality as we perceive it may to some extent be the result of our imaginations. [pp. 200–201]
The Philip experiments are among the most interesting ever carried out in parapsychology, and they certainly show that it is possible for a group of sitters to "conjure up" a ghost with a distinctive personality and an apparently independent existence, who is nevertheless completely fictitious. How far we should carry the implications of these experiments is an open question, one that I've considered elsewhere.
Then there's the experience of the Rev. C. Hare Townsend, who performed many experiments in mesmerism. As quoted in If This Be Magic, Townsend wrote:
When I first began to mesmerize, I used to consult my sleepwalkers on dark and dubious points, with something of the blind faith of a novice in a new and wondrous science. Their answers to such inquiries were calculated to bewilder me by the pure influence of astonishment; for the simple had become theorists; the uneducated were turned into philosophers. At length I was awakened from my dream of somnambulic knowledge by finding that my patients’ ideas shifted so visibly with my own, and were so plainly the echo of my own thoughts, that not to have perceived the source whence they originated, would had been pertinacious blindness indeed. I was but taking back my own, and receiving coin issued from my own treasury. [p. 211]
There are possible implications here for the work of hypnotherapists who engage in so-called past-life regressions and between-lives regressions. Even if the hypnotist is not intentionally or overtly leading his entranced patient, it is conceivable that hypnosis itself allows the patient to read the hypnotist's mind and tell him what he expects to hear.
Incidentally, very young children are known to be more susceptible to suggestion than adults, and probably find it easier to exercise psi, a fact that perhaps should be taken into consideration when evaluating accounts of spontaneous and veridical past-life memories in children.
Playfair concludes his book by zeroing in on the fundamental attitude that underlies successful production of a variety of hypnotic, mesmeric, and paranormal phenomena:
The only hypothesis that seems to fit all the facts is that somebody must have faith in something. It can be the patient, the healer or hypnotist, or even a third party. The faith can be in God, Jesus, the Great Spirit – almost anything imaginable. It can even be simply in the doctor and his pills and nothing else. Miracles, it seems, can be worked by nothing more than a firm belief in their imminent occurrence. When such a belief is implanted in the right mind of a patient, by whatever method, even by deception, outright lying, or as in Dr. Mason’s classic case [of curing ichthyosis], by mistake, the suggested miracle fulfills itself automatically.
It begins to seem, in fact, that the mere act of acknowledging the existence of some power greater than ourselves, or even just assuming this, is enough to activate it. [p. 255]
*All quotations from If This Be Magic have had their spelling and punctuation altered from British to American standards. The reason is simple: I used a voice-recognition program to dictate this material to my computer, and the program recognized it as American English.