Hypnosis and Throwing Acid

After plunging his hand into a cup of nitric acid to retrieve a dissolving half-penny, the subject grabbed the cup of acid and threw it in the scientist’s face.

The “subject”, who we’ll call James (for convenience), was hypnotized. The hypnotist had earlier asked James to pick up a variety of objects placed in front of him: first a coin and a piece of chalk, then a harmless reptile, and finally–a 14-inch long venomous snake. Even though this was clearly a potentially dangerous request, James complied and reached forward.

His hand hit a pane of glass, invisible to him just moments before. Thankfully, it seemed, the hypnotist was kind, and not the sort of person to put James in harm’s way.

But the hypnotist had new idea on his mind. Collecting a beaker, a half-penny coin, and a bottle of nitric acid, he was ready for his next task. He put the half-penny in the beaker, and proceeded to pour nitric acid atop the coin. James watched intently for a minute as the coin began to dissolve.

This was the hypnotist’s chance to confirm that he had complete control over his subject. He asked James to pick up the penny with his bare hands. Without questioning, James complied.

This time, there was no glass or other obstruction. But, immediately after grabbing the coin, he was permitted to plunge his hands into a bowl of soapy water nearby. Despite the fact that he could have been easily been harmed had he left the acid on his hands too long, James was surprisingly nonchalant about the incident. That was, at least, until the hypnotist suggested that he should be angry–angry at the man responsible for these tasks, a scientist observing nearby.

James should also–the hypnotist continued–express his anger by taking the beaker full of acid and throwing it in the scientist’s face.

Once more, James complied.

The Researcher’s Power

James was a participant in a study by a pair of researchers, Orne and Evans. The scientist was thankfully unharmed, as the researchers switched out the beaker of acid for a beaker of water while the participant washed his hands.

Still, the year was 1962, well before psychologists had developed standards of ethics for their human experiments. Orne and Evans were replicating studies on hypnosis conducted by Loyd Rowland and Paul Young in 1939 and 1952. Specifically, they wanted to determine if hypnosis could be used to make subjects do things against their will–things they would never even consider doing in a regular waking state.

Indeed, they found that participants under hypnosis would almost always perform the tasks they were given. But the study uncovered something even more remarkable: they could get the same effect from someone pretending to be hypnotized.

As it turned out, the key to getting these people to pick up venomous snakes and dip their fingers in acid was not the hypnosis, but something else entirely–the laboratory setting. By realizing they were merely participants in a controlled experiment, they had faith that the researchers would not do anything to harm them.

From this, it is hard to make any conclusion about the extent of control that hypnosis can exert. Instead, we see the influence that a trusted authoritative figure can have on those under him, an influence seemingly similar to hypnosis. This makes us wonder, then, what exactly hypnosis does–is it indeed a real phenomenon that invokes an altered state of consciousness?

Is Hypnosis Fake?

Hypnosis is generally understood as a state of heightened suggestibility. As such, scientists tend to agree that the power of hypnosis lies not in the hypnotist, but in their subject’s openness to suggestion. There are two major theories that attempt to account for the way this suggestibility affects our susceptibility to hypnosis: social influence theory and dissociation theory.

Social influence theory proposes that hypnotized subjects, while not consciously faking their actions, will begin to act in ways they think are appropriate for their role as a hypnotized person. As they place more trust in the hypnotist, they become more open to suggestion, in much the same way as participants who trust a researcher enough to perform questionable tasks. If the hypnotist somehow breaks this trust or the motivation for hypnotized subjects to continue, the hypnosis becomes ineffective and subjects become unresponsive.

But hypnosis is likely more than simply getting someone to act in a certain way. We see this idea in a couple of experiments: Perugini and colleagues found that some hypnotized subjects would still follow suggestions even if no one was watching; Kosslyn and colleagues told their subjects under hypnosis to imagine a color, and found a pattern of brain activation that was the same as if they were actually seeing the color. There appear to be real changes in behaviour and perception when hypnotized.

Dissociation theory attempts to account for these changes by providing a more direct cognitive explanation of the effect of hypnosis. In an early experiment, Ernest Hilgard’s hypnotized subjects could leave their arm in ice cold water without feeling much pain, whereas his unhypnotized subjects given the same task would report feeling intense pain within 25 seconds. This led him to believe that hypnosis can trigger a dual-processing state, or dissociation, in the brain.

In this state, the area of the brain responsible for conscious experience would not necessarily activate; a stimulus like pain would still be processed, although it might pass through an unconscious channel in the brain. This can be seen, for example, in injured athletes who are able to ignore their pain until their game ends–the pain, while there, is not perceived consciously. It is, in effect, the two-track mind at work.

Rainville and colleagues confirmed this idea of dissociation through PET scans. Normal brain activity was found in the sensory cortex where the raw sensory input of pain is sent, but activity was reduced in the region that processes painful stimuli.

Much of the evidence thus far suggests that hypnosis is not simply fake acting by those who allow it; it genuinely influences both our behaviour and perception.

Hypnosis is a controversial subject, and a great deal is still unknown about its functions and power. But perhaps it should not be studied as a discrete phenomenon, or seen as a state only achievable through trained hypnotists. As we saw, the effects of hypnosis on our behaviour and perception appear to overlap with some less thrilling experiences–like trusting a researcher enough to do anything he asks, or being able to ignore pain in the face of danger or competition.

It is plausible that in these situations, we are in a hypnotic state. Then, perhaps the practice of hypnosis is merely an evolved technique to efficiently reach the same state.


Hilgard, Ernest R. “Divided Consciousness and Dissociation.” Consciousness and Cognition 1, no. 1 (March 1992): 16–31. doi:10.1016/1053-8100(92)90041-8.

Kosslyn, Stephen M., William L. Thompson, Maria F. Costantini-Ferrando, Nathaniel M. Alpert, and David Spiegel. “Hypnotic Visual Illusion Alters Color Processing in the Brain.” American Journal of Psychiatry 157, no. 8 (August 1, 2000): 1279–1284. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.157.8.1279.

“Orne & Evans 1965 JPSP.” Accessed March 27, 2013. http://www.psych.upenn.edu/history/orne/orneetal1965jpsp189200.html.

Perugini, Eve Marie, Irving Kirsch, Sarah T. Allen, Eleanor Coldwell, Janelle M. Meredith, Guy H. Montgomery, and Julia Sheehan. “Surreptitious Observation of Responses to Hypnotically Suggested Hallucinations: A Test of the Compliance Hypothesis.” International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis 46, no. 2 (1998): 191–203. doi:10.1080/00207149808409999.

Rainville, Pierre, Gary H. Duncan, Donald D. Price, Benoı̂t Carrier, and M. Catherine Bushnell. “Pain Affect Encoded in Human Anterior Cingulate But Not Somatosensory Cortex.” Science 277, no. 5328 (August 15, 1997): 968–971. doi:10.1126/science.277.5328.968.

Spanos, Nicholas P. “A Social Psychological Approach to Hypnotic Behavior.” Integrations of Clinical and Social Psychology (1982): 231–271.

March 2013