The notion that some evil eminence might use mass hypnosis over television is older than 1984, but nobody outside fiction has ever proved it possible. Last week a reputable Manhattan psychiatrist who has nothing of the Svengali about him told the A.M.A. that it is indeed possible. He knows, because he has done it.
Psychiatrist Herbert Spiegel, an assistant professor in Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Dr. James H. Ryan, a Columbia instructor, asked themselves the question: Is the physical presence of the hypnotist necessary to evoke the trance state? Theoretically, the answer should be no, they thought, because the capacity to go into a trance lies within the subject. To make sure, they ran tests on two subjects. Both were known to be hypnotizable, but only one of them had ever been hypnotized by either Spiegel or Ryan.
Using a closed-circuit system, Spiegel sat in front of a TV camera in Columbia's Psychiatric Institute. A 20-year-old girl, whom he had hypnotized several times before, watched a receiver four floors above. After some chitchat, Spiegel told the girl, "I'm going to count one, two, three, and your eyes will close and you'll go into a relaxed state," and she promptly went into a trance. Spiegel told her that her left forearm would become paralyzed and numb, arid that this condition would persist, even after she "came to," until he touched her elbow. When he ended the trance, the girl remained rooted before the receiver, her left arm numb and inert. After the usual wait for a hospital elevator, Spiegel walked into the laboratory and touched her elbow. Only then did she regain sensation in the arm and the power to move it independently.
Since this girl was a subject known to be susceptible to Spiegel's hypnotic techniques, the next question was whether a stranger could be similarly influenced. Such a subject was a 30-year-old man who went through the same TV routine. This time he was told that he would not be able to unclasp his hands until the psychiatrist touched his head. Sure enough, he kept his hands gripped together after the trance and released them only on the prearranged signal.
Spiegel and Ryan suggest that TV hypnosis might be useful "in mass education, group treatment and research." It might be valuable, they add hopefully, for pilots in long space flights, to help them cope with feelings of isolation and lonelinessa radio message from Earth, for example, could activate a previously implanted suggestion of encouragement and companionship. But they also warn that unscrupulous operators might "confuse, exploit and deceive hypnotizable subjects." This experiment, they concluded, "emphasizes the compelling need to maintain responsible, stringent safeguards and control over the personnel having access to public broadcasting systems."