BOOK REVIEW: Hidden Depths by Robin Waterfield

Hidden Depths: The Story of HypnosisHidden Depths: The Story of Hypnosis by Robin Waterfield
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Hidden Depths” is a history of hypnotism in the Western world from speculative discussion of its use in the ancient world through its employment for self-improvement in the modern era. It’s a bold undertaking. For one thing, hypnotism as we know it today given the insight of modern science is a relatively new phenomenon. Historically, what we call hypnotism has existed variously in the domains of religion, spirituality, pseudo-science, entertainment, and outright fraud. For another thing, the hypnotic trance is a subjective experience and an individual’s susceptibility varies greatly, leaving some scholars to doubt to this day that a hypnotically-induced trance is a real thing. Added to all that, another aspect of confusion is that there are few activities that are so firmly wrapped in misconceptions in the popular mind as hypnosis. The hypnosis of fiction and film is different from the practice as it exists in the real world.

Waterfield takes on the aforementioned difficulties throughout the book. He tends to error on not calling any practice hypnosis unless the descriptions of it in historical documentation are quite explicit on a range of criteria we currently associate with hypnosis. I was ambivalent about this skew. On the one hand, I sometimes wished that Waterfield had more expertise in hypnosis (as a practitioner rather than as a historian) as it might have given him greater insight into hypnotic activities before that word (or its predecessor “mesmerism”) evolved. It seems dubious that all mentions of hypnotic activities are going to be described in a way that makes the state of consciousness readily identifiable to a lay reader, and some reading between the lines might be of benefit. On the other hand, I’ve read books by hypnotists who are what Waterfield (quite properly) calls “hypnotic imperialists” – i.e. individuals for whom any activity that involves suggestion or persuasion is hypnosis. So, it is easy to go to far, and to start calling everything hypnosis. While at times I thought Waterfield suffered from that chronic malady of historians (i.e. thinking that a thing never existed before the first mention of it in the earliest texts they can find), ultimately, I think his approach was sound in that he presented the thoughts of other authors about what activities constituted hypnosis and then offered his reasons for discounting (or not discounting) them. That seems to be a sound line to take.

The first couple chapters discuss this complex question of what hypnosis is and how we can tell it from other states of consciousness (if we can) and they also refer to the earliest mentions of activities that may (or may not) have involved hypnotically-induced trance. It is only when we get to chapter three that we get onto terra firma on the history of hypnosis. That’s when Franz Anton Mesmer enters the picture. Some credit Mesmer with inventing hypnosis. [Note: It wouldn’t come to be called “hypnosis” until a surgeon by the name of James Braid later coined that term. It did become known as “mesmerism,” reflecting Mesmer’s role in development of the technique and / or his fame. Personally, I always cringe when I hear someone in the modern world credited with “inventing” mental and physical techniques that require only a body and conscientiousness, rather than a particular state of technological advancement. It stinks of what a beloved professor of mine used to call the “outhouse fallacy” – the idea that because earlier people had no indoor plumbing that they were complete blithering idiots.] Mesmer was a study in contrasts. He thought himself a man of science and railed against the accusations of false science, but he also wore a cape and engaged in bizarre showmanship that one wouldn’t want to see if one went to one’s doctor’s office for a check-up. While it turned out that the hows and whys of Mesmer’s method are generally considered pseudo-scientific quackery (Waterfield is more diplomatic), it seems clear that the man had a gift and /or a skill for inducing trances.

There are chapters on the early use of hypnosis in both the United States and the United Kingdom, including by both doctors and religious men. There is also a discussion of the early debate about whether hypnosis presented a public safety danger. While the consensus view today is that a hypnotist can get most people to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do, he or she can’t make them do something they don’t want to do, at the time there was a concern that nefarious hypnotists might use hypnosis to prey on women or even to make an assassin of an unwitting stooge. There is a lot of interesting legal history to be discussed involving individuals who pled non-guilty by way of mind control. The discussion of hypnotism for nefarious purposes is revisited in chapter 12, which deals not only with persuasion by advertisers but also [unsuccessful] government attempts to make Manchurian Candidates (programmed assassins who would kill on command, but have no recollection of it in a state of ordinary waking consciousness.) The idea that a hypnotist could make a subject do anything they wished is a notion that has died hard, but remains alive and well in fiction. I should point out that Waterfield addresses many of the more prominent fictitious applications of hypnosis, and – as an avid reader – I found this to be of literary interest, while as a person interested in human behavior I was intrigued by the influence of fiction on people’s decisions and behavior.

The middle of the book also has a chapter that discusses a widespread notion that hypnosis was key to unlocking super-normal skills of extra-sensory perception (ESP.) While that part of the chapter might not be of much interest to the skeptically minded reader, chapter 8 also addresses the fascinating and well documented phenomena of false memories. The book devotes a chapter (ch. 9) to Freud, another individual who went from being at the top of his field to being widely disregarded by modern psychology.

Chapter 10 elucidates the debate over whether the hypnotically-induced trance is actually an altered state of consciousness, distinct from other states. As I said, there are many psychologists today who believe that it’s just suggestible people in a state of waking consciousness. This chapter lays out the arguments on both sides. While the author argues for the considering hypnotic trance a unique state, to his credit he gives fair hearing to the opposition.

Chapters 11 through 13 consider hypnosis in the modern era as a tool used in medicine, mind-control, and self-improvement. The first and last of these applications are alive and well. Attempts to use hypnosis for mind-control seem to have been written off with the debacle of MK-Ultra. However, that chapter (ch. 12) also deals with hypnosis related to sales and persuasion. However, use of hypnosis as drug-free analgesic as well as for other medical purposes, as well as to quit smoking or stick to diets is alive and well. The final chapter is a short plea to keep interest in genuine hypnosis alive. The book has illustrations, annotations, and a bibliography.

I found this book to be interesting and thought-provoking and would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about hypnosis — particularly its history in the Western World.

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