George Albert Coe.

The spiritual life : studies in the science of religion online

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frequently advise "a change of scene." Now, change
of scene is often nothing more or less than a method
of mental healing. Again, one can sometimes post-
pone or even stop a tendency to cough by resolutely
thinking about something else, whereas thinking
about it is one of the surest means of prolonging it.
Similarly, when laughter becomes self-conscious it
goes on of itself and may eventually become uncon-
trollable. I once made an impromptu experiment
upon inhibition by suggestion. To a person who
was on the point of sneezing I suddenly exclaimed,



"You cannot sneeze!" To the amazement of the
person experimented upon, the incipient sneeze was
instantly inhibited so that it never executed itself.

A child stubs its toe and falls. Immediately it
looks up to its mother with surprise and doubt plainly
engraved upon its features. It has every appearance
of looking for its cue. If the mother shows alarm,
and offers to sympathize with the supposed pain of
the child, the latter bursts out into agonized weeping.
But if the mother smiles, ancl assumes that the fall
has done no harm, the child takes that cue with al-
most equal readiness. A boy of perhaps eight or
nine years was troubled with a slight asthma. When-
ever he returned from a visit to his grandmother he
was audibly worse. The mother said that it came
about in this way: The grandmother would say,
"Come here, child, and let me hear you breathe!"
Then followed exclamations and fussing and cod-
dling until the child believed that he was in a bad
way, and actually returned home with his asthma
perceptibly aggravated.

Apparently, suggestion might carry very suscep-
tible persons into their grave. There may be truth
in the story it has respectable authority for itself
that a French prisoner actually died from the be-
lief that he was being bled to death. Experimenters
pretended to open an artery in one of his arms, con-
cealing the arm meanwhile from his view. To simu-
late the flowing of blood, they caused a stream of

1 60


warm water to trickle upon the supposed wound.
The prisoner, believing that he was bleeding to death,
is said to have gone through all the appropriate
symptoms, and finally to have died as the result of
the experiment.

Let us now formulate the law that is indicated in
these examples. It is that the thought of a function (
tends to bring on that function, and the thought of
its contrary tends to inhibit it. More briefly ex-
pressed, the bodily life tends to conform itself to our J
ideas of it. The suggestion may be direct or indirect ;
that is, a function may be brought on by thinking!
of the organ itself in a certain way, or by thinkingj
of some circumstance in which the organ might be
placed. The salivary glands might be set at work
by merely thinking how watering of the mouth feels,
or by looking at peaches or other food with no dis-
tinct thought of the mouth. In both cases the law of
suggestion finds exemplification.

From these simple illustrations of suggestion in
everyday life we pass on to experiment proper.
A simple experiment, first performed by Braid, con-
sists in having a person fix his eyes and his attention
for several minutes upon any point in the palm of
his hand. This is generally enough to produce a
distinct sensation at the point of regard. The ex-
periment may be varied, however, and rendered
somewhat more certain of results, by telling what sen-
sations may be looked for, such as cooling, burning",



tickling, tingling, pricking, numbness, aching. I
have performed the experiment many times, and
with unvarying success. On one occasion I re-
marked to a medical gentleman who was the subject
of the experiment that sometimes the effects did not
disappear for as much as two hours. Upon meeting
him a few days later he informed me that some two
hours after the experiment he found himself actually
rubbing the palm of the hand that had been experi-
mented upon.

In respect to this and all the other experiments
about to be referred to we approach ground that may
become dangerous to some persons. It is already
evident that suggestion is an instrument of great
and subtle power, and not one to be handled unwa-
rily. In a subsequent section these dangers and the
needful precautions will receive specific discussion.

The fact brought out in the experiment just de-
scribed was known more than a century ago by a cel-
ebrated lecturer on surgery by the name of Hunter.
"I am confident," he said, "that I can fix my atten-

Ition to any part until I have a sensation in that
part." 1 Johannes Muller, a great physiologist of the
second quarter of this century, said nearly the same
thing in another way. "It may be stated as a general
fact," he observes, "that any state of the body which
is conceived to be approaching, and which is ex-
pected with certain confidence and certainty of its

1 Quoted by Tuke, 356


occurrence, will be very prone to ensue, as the mere
result of the idea, if it do not lie beyond the bounds
of possibility." 1 Strange that these really startling
propositions from high medical authority did not
force the medical profession to see that a new cura-
tive law lay ready for discovery.

It is easy enough to verify to some extent what
Hunter and Miiller claimed. Almost anyone with a
trained mind who will persevere in the experiment
will be able to do all that Hunter described. I have
practiced upon myself, as far as was consistent with
the avoidance of all danger of harmful interference
with the natural functions, with unqualified success.
In the parts of the body that have received the most
training in this direction a suggestion of warmth, of
tingling, or of pain receives most ready response.
In the hands, arms, and lower extremities I can pro-
duce a distinct sensation almost instantly.

We shall presently see that the production of pain
by suggestion is probably more easy than the re-
moval of it. But that various aches and pains can be
thus banished is also easy of experimental demonstra-
tion. Tuke relates an amusing instance of his own
experimentation. He was about to have a tooth ex-
tracted under the influence of laughing gas when,
through an accident to the apparatus, it became im-
possible to administer the gas. "The extraction was
therefore performed without it," says Tuke, "but the

Tuke 3 6f.


operation was rendered almost painless by the writer
vividly imagining pleasant ideas, and mentally re-
peating to himself, 'How delightful! how delight-
ful !' "- 1 I have myself repeated this experiment, or
what amounts to substantially the same thing, dur-
ing the filling of sensitive teeth, and with the same
results. A pupil of mine has succeeded in going
through a similar operation entirely without pain.

Relation of Mental Healing to Hypnotism.

The point at which our discussion has arrived
gives us an outlook upon a number of intensely inter-
esting and highly important problems. As yet, it
will be noticed, only the most rudimentary applica-
tions of the law of suggestion have been touched
upon. We must ultimately go on to inquire into the
modes and extent of its application as a therapeutic
agent, and into its bearing upon divine healing and
similar phenomena. At present let us consider brief-
ly its relation to hypnotism. Thus far the discus-
sion has purposely avoided mentioning this topic,
because what needs to be made plain at the outset is
the essential identity in principle between mental
healing and many of our most commonplace experi-
ences. There is, in fact, nothing occult or even rare
in the fundamental law involved. Even if we knew
nothing about hypnotism we should still have enough
accessible facts to warrant a safe induction as to how

P. 58.


mental healing and similar processes succeed. Never-
theless, it is undeniable that the study of hypnotism
has been the chief source of our scientific knowledge
on this point.

It is essential that we make clear to ourselves that,
while suggestion and hypnosis are not the same, the^
law of suggestion is, as far as science can now see,
the fundamental psychological law employed in all/
hypnotic processes. The actions of a hypnotized per-
son, then, are to be understood psychologically by
reference to the very same law which we found ex-
emplified in the watering of the mouth when one
thinks of food. There is enough of mystery about
even this latter event, but the mystery is not different
from that which surrounds the whole subject of the
hypnotic trance. The superstitious fear with which
many persons look upon this state is no more rea-
sonable than would be a similar dread of electric
lights and electric cars. One is no more uncanny
than the other, for both follow definite laws which,
in spite of some remaining mystery, have been made
out with sufficient fullness to give us control of the
facts. It is, to be sure, dangerous to trifle with either
hypnotism or electricity. Neither should be handled I
except by persons specially trained and instructed/
therefor. Nevertheless, in the case of both hypno-
tism and electricity, we carry the explanation back
to the most commonplace events of our everyday life.

Since the state of hypnosis involves merely one


specific application of the law of suggestion, it would
be an error to say that all mental healing is by means
of hypnotism. When Christian Scientists and faith
healers deny that their cures are wrought by hypno-
tism they do not deny that such cures are wrought
by suggestion. Suggestion is, indeed, an omnipres-
ent and all-pervasive agency, most subtle in its ways
of working, and productive of effects of many dif-
ferent grades. Its ill effects range from the mere
uneasiness occasioned by a thought of possible harm
to, perhaps, death itself. Its good effects, on the other
hand, reach all the way from the physical benefit
of a momentary hope to restoration to health from
some most distressing complaints.

For our present purpose the essential fact about
the hypnotic state is that it involves what we may
call a focusing of suggestion. The operator secures
control of his subject largely by an artificial reduc-
tion in the number and insistence of competing ideas.
This principle may be illustrated without resorting
to hypnosis at all. Thus, every rider of a bicycle
knows how hard it is, when one is learning to ride,
to steer clear of obstacles, even under the most favor-
able circumstances. This remains true, also, for
some time after one has learned to balance and guide
one's machine. Something apart from one's self
seems to take possession of the muscles or of the
wheel. The explanation is that the thought of run-
ning into the post or the stone that one sees ahead



is so vividly present to the mind as to control the
muscles even against the will. The experienced rider
avoids such obstacles not by thinking about them
more intensely, but just the reverse by scarcely
thinking about them at all. Now, I have discovered
in myself, and confirmed the discovery by question-
ing scores of riders, that it is easier to ride through
some difficult places in the dark than it is by day-
light. One rider, traversing a certain road for the
first time by night, rode through a long, very nar-
row, and dangerous path unconscious of peril a
path which he says he could not use again after day-
light revealed its true nature. Again, sandy patches
of road which compel a rider to dismount during
daylight have been passed over without serious em-
barrassment in the dark. In this case the difficulty
was known, but, being less obvious to the senses, it
had less paralyzing effect upon the muscles ; in other
words, the competition of ideas was reduced, and so
the idea of going ahead was able to have more than
usual effect. Thus we see how much more there is
in even our everyday actions than deliberate volition.
This is the principle of which the hypnotist takes
advantage. He narrows the attention of the sub- 1
ject to one or a few ideas, and thus secures a maxi-l
mum effect from them. It is, furthermore, a law of
the mind that any image that secures exclusive pos-
session of the mind is regarded as a reality. This

is one reason why our dreams are so real to us whil<



they last; they have few competitors or none. Just
so, a hypnotic subject may be made to feel cold or
hot by being told that he does feel so ; he may seem
to himself actually to hear, see, touch, what he is told
is thus present to his senses. Let the operator tell
him that he has a headache, and a real ache sets in ;
and when the operator declares that the ache is gone,
behold ! so it is.

If, now, as we have abundantly illustrated, the
thought of any bodily function tends to produce that
function, what may we not expect when the atten-
tion, as in the hypnotic state (at least the deeper
states), becomes wholly concentrated upon a single
function or group of allied functions? Many ap-
parently magical or miraculous results have thus
been attained. Needles have been run into the flesh
without hurting; surgical operations have been per-
formed without the knowledge of the patient;
wounds have been healed with almost incredible
rapidity, and childbirth has been rendered practi-
cally painless. These extreme cases are, of course,
rare, for suggestibility has many degrees in different
persons. But the occurrence of these and many other
marvels is thoroughly authenticated.

Results of the same general nature, though less
in degree and narrower in range, can be wrought
upon anyone who can be hypnotized, and generally
in proportion to the depth of the hypnosis in other

respects. Probably ninety per cent of the population,



exclusive of infants, imbeciles, and the insane, can,
under favorable conditions, be hypnotized. Further-
more, many of the effects of hypnotic medical treat-l
ment can also be produced entirely without hypno-7
tization. A striking example of this will be citeja
farther on. Bernheim, indeed, has succeeded in pro-
ducing practically all the simple characteristic effects
of hypnosis, one by one, without hypnotizing at all. 1
One may practice hypnotic suggestion upon one's
self. Tuckey says: "Liebeault [from whom Bern-
heim derived his method of hypnotizing] tells me
that he is able to cure himself of slight maladies
such as facial neuralgia by auto-hypnotism and
auto-suggestion. He sends himself to sleep by fix-
ing his gaze upon some prominent object, such as a
door handle, and his mind on the disappearance of
the malady, and he drops off into a doze, out of
which he awakes cured." 2 This is a perfectly simple
and easy process for persons who have trained their
minds to this kind of concentration. Perhaps at this
place it ought to be remarked that the experience of'
myself and my pupil in the dentist's chair, which'
was referred to a little way back, included a definite
process of self -hypnotizing.

A Word of Warning.

It is now high time to remind ourselves that what
is harmless or even beneficial when properly handled

1 Suggestive Therapeutics. 2 Psycho- Therapeutics ^ 17.



may become deleterious in the absence of knowledge
and skill. Since suggestion is all-pervasive in our
lives it is proper that the public should understand
its principles and how to take advantage of them.
But this is not the same as advising indiscriminate
experimentation. Indeed, the very fact that idea
and function are so intimately and complexly inter-
woven should teach us that, except within the sphere
of the commonplace, the practical handling of sug- |
gestion should be left to experts.

This general consideration is supplemented by
several specific facts. The first is that, while the
organism is easily thrown out of order by suggestion, i
it is not so easily restored to its normal condition.
The reason is that a sensation produced by sugges-
tion, particularly if it is a painful one, acts as an
added and independent suggestion, and so tends to
counteract those of a contrary sort. *Pain tends to
keep itself going, that is, by merely calling our at-
tention to itself. In addition, the remnant of super-
stition almost always lurking in the mind makes
amateur experimenters peculiarly easy victims of
fear whenever anything goes wrong. It would be
easy, for example, to get into trouble over so simple
an experiment as that of gazing at the palm of the
hand in order to produce a sensation; for various
pains or numbness might result which would be suf-
ficiently obstinate to give genuine discomfort and to

defeat for an indefinite time all efforts to remove



them. The positive danger of performing any. simi-
lar amateur experiments upon the vital organs is
obvious enough.

Again, it must never be forgotten that an indis-
pensable part of every safe method of treating dis- J
ease is competent diagnosis. No one is competent,
in general, to practice any healing art who is not
prepared to understand the nature of the complaints
for which he prescribes. This is so nearly self-evi-
dent with respect to the more serious complaints
which are usually committed to the care of physi-
cians as to need no discussion. But even what seem
to be insignificant complaints may, in reality, be
symptoms of some serious disorder. A physician
points out that so slight a symptom as a headache
may be a warning of something that calls for the
highest medical skill, so that to attempt to stop it by
suggestion, or even to succeed in doing so, may give
the larger opportunity for the progress of the dis-
ease. 1

Furthermore, as will appear more fully later on,
the medical profession, and particularly the special-
ists in nervous diseases, are fast adopting and put-'T
ting into skillful practice the principle of suggestion.
Their long study, their slowly acquired skill, are at
the service of any patient who needs that kind of
treatment. And who except a scientifically trained

1 A. H. Burr, "Why Suggestive Therapeutics Should Not Be Taught to the
Laity," in Suggestive Therapeutics (Mag.), November, 1898.



physician should be trusted to decide what kind of
treatment each difficulty calls for? In a word, sug-
gestive therapeutics is on the same plane as any other
medical discovery. Properly employed, it is of in-
estimable service, but in the hands of ignorance it
may produce the most harmful consequences.

What, then, is left to the discretion of those un-
trained in medical science? For it is plain that we
cannot avoid employing suggestion to our weal or
to our woe every day that we live. A few applica-
tions of its principles are perfectly feasible. For ex-
ample, we can deliberately cultivate cheerful states
of feeling, and we can assist others to be happy. If all
the world should adopt such a course of living, the
occupation of the doctors would be cut in two inside
of ten years. Again, just as any intelligent layman
is competent to make a proper use of some of the
commoner drugs, as, for instance, in the case of
minor cuts, burns, and bruises, so, it may be con-
tended, specific suggestion for specific ailments may
be allowed when the nature of the ailment is under-
stood. To take the simplest case, what possible ob-
jection could there be to one's overcoming an attack
of sleeplessness by suggestion? Again, if one has
certain knowledge that a given headache has been
induced by temporary and trivial causes, no harm
could easily result from treating it after the manner
of Liebeault. In general, too, the pains we have to

bear, even under the care of the highest medical



skill, can often be lessened by a proper direction of
the attention. Here belong the chronic difficulties
that have been already diagnosed and treated by the
family physician. In short, just as wise dieting,
proper clothing, and much more has to be attended
to by ourselves, so there is a general and very neces-
sary household use of suggestion as an adjunct of
ordinary medical practice.

Misleading Sensations.

Let us now return to the main highway of our
discussion. We have endeavored to disentangle and
bring to clear view the great law of mental sugges-
tion, exhibiting it both as an omnipresent fact in all
our waking hours, and as a specialized fact in hypno-
tism. We have seen that it is sufficient to account
for a great deal in the way of bodily healing. It is
now necessary to remark that what seems to be heal-
ing is often no such thing at all, and that, further-
more, the visions and other apparently objective
experiences that sometimes accompany divine heal-
ing have their explanation also in the law of sug-

We have seen how suggestion produces hallucinar-
tions in hypnotized persons, but we do not need tp
resort to hypnotism in order to witness these phe-
nomena. For, just as the idea of a motion tends to
bring that motion to pass, so the idea of a sensation
tends to produce the sensation itself. For example,


something makes us guess that the room is too warm
or not warm enough, and presently we are perspiring
with the heat or shivering with the cold, while all
the time the temperature is normal. We are liable
to taste in our food what we expect to taste; and
sometimes an unpleasant taste that is too weak to be
noticed of itself becomes unbearably strong as soon
as our attention is called to it. When anyone points
his fingers at your ribs, do you not have the very
sensation of being tickled? How easy is it, when
one is alone in a building at night, to hear whatever
one's fears may suggest! Thus the thought of a
sensation either intensifies one already present or
even evokes one for which there is no discoverable
external stimulus.

The following story came directly to me from one
who remembered the time when stoves first came
into general use. When it was proposed to warm
churches by this means considerable opposition was
made on the ground that stoves would render the air
too close to be fit for breathing. One sister declared
that she knew she should faint away the first Sunday
her church was heated in that manner. The stove
went in, however, and, sure enough, on the first
Sunday thereafter, the good sister was carried out
of meeting in a faint. But, on that day, the stove
and its connections not having been completed, the
church was as fireless as it ever had been.

How far, indeed, sensation can be controlled by


suggestion would hardly be guessed by anyone not
already familiar with the experimental production
of illusions and hallucinations. In the psychological
laboratories it is found necessary to guard with the
utmost diligence against the influence of suggestion
upon observations and measurements of sensation.
Experiments have also been devised to show how
even our commonest estimates of size, weight, direc-
tion, etc., are fairly infested with inaccuracies aris-r
ing from this source. Furthermore, it is possible
not merely to over or under estimate or misinterpret,
but also to manufacture a whole new sensation. By
persisting in the right sort of training, one can bring
one's self to the point of seeing what is not there at
all. There is no trick about it, either; all that is
necessary is to fix and concentrate the attention upon
the idea of the desired sensation. For several years
it has been my custom to illustrate this law of hallu-
cination before my class in psychology by actually
producing hallucinations in its members. Without
my attempting any deception or concealment what-
ever, as high as twenty-five per cent of a large
class has been made to see objects not present in
the room at the time. Hypnosis was not at all re-
sorted to, nor was there any failure to discrimi-
nate between a mere memory image and an actual

Under this principle it comes about again and
again that the patient of Christian Science or of



faith-healing practice, or of allied modes of treat-
ment, imagines himself to be cured when nothing of
the sort has happened. I have seen a faith healer
work up great enthusiasm in cripples and persons
partly blind by insistently suggesting that they were
better. Glasses, ankle braces, and crutches aban-
doned this proves nothing definite. We need to
know how often and it is not seldom these helps
have to be resumed. Furthermore, we must take

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Online LibraryGeorge Albert CoeThe spiritual life : studies in the science of religion → online text (page 10 of 16)