It is a popular belief, handed down through the ages, that a somnambulic subject will always tell the truth, and that all the secrets of a sleep-walker can be obtained from him for the asking. This belief has also been held regarding the hypnotic subject; and it is upon this assumption that the hypothetical value of his testimony in criminal jurisprudence depends. It is true that, on ordinary questions, the truth is always uppermost in the subjective mind. A hypnotic subject will often say, during the hypnotic sleep, that which he would not say in his waking moments. Nevertheless, he never betrays a vital secret. The reason is obvious to those who have followed the line of argument in the preceding pages of this chapter. The instinct of self-preservation, always alert to avert any danger which threatens the individual, steps in to his defence. Instinctive auto-suggestion here plays its subtle role, and no suggestion from another can prevail against it. If the defence involves falsehood, a falsehood will be told, without the slightest hesitation; and it will be told with preternatural acumen, and with such plausible circumstantiality of detail as to deceive the very elect.
Neither will there be any variance or shadow of turning after repeated experiments, for the memory of the subjective mind is perfect.
This rule holds good, not only with regard to secrets which involve the personal safety of the individual, but in all matters pertaining to his material interests, his reputation, or the interests of his friends, whose secrets are confided to his care. That this is true is presumptively proved by the fact that in all the years during which the science of hypnotism has been practised, no one has ever been known to betray the secrets of any society or order. The attempt has often been made, but it has never succeeded. The truth of this assertion can be demonstrated at any time by experiment.
Such an experiment has a greater evidential value in establishing the rule than almost any other laboratory experiment. A subject might plunge a paper dagger into an imaginary man, or he might draw a check, sign a note, a contract, or a deed, in obedience to experimental suggestions, when he would not commit a real crime, or sign away his birthright, in obedience to criminal suggestion. But when a subject is asked to betray the secrets of a society to which he belongs, it is quite a different matter. In the one case a compliance with the suggestion proves nothing, simply because it is a laboratory experiment. In the other case his refusal to comply with the suggestion proves everything, because his betrayal of such a secret in the laboratory is just as vital as to betray it elsewhere.
It is obvious, therefore, that the testimony of a hypnotized subject in a court of justice can possess no evidential value whatever. Not one of the conditions would be present which give weight to human testimony. The subject could not be punished for perjury if he swore falsely. In matters of indifference to him he would be in constant danger of being swayed by the artful or accidental suggestion of another. A false premise suggested to him at the start would color and pervert his whole testimony. A cross-examination would utterly confuse him, and almost inevitably restore him to normal consciousness. On questions of vital interest to himself, auto-suggestion would cause him to resort to falsehood if the truth would militate against him.
It is thought that enough has been said to show that the dangers attending the practice of hypnotism have been grossly exaggerated, and that the sources of danger, which the people are so persistently warned against, have no existence in fact. The premises laid down will not be gainsaid by any who understand the law of suggestion. The conclusions are inevitable. The law of auto-suggestion has been recognized by Continental writers, as has been shown by extracts from their books; but they have failed to carry it to its legitimate conclusion when treating the subject of the legal aspects of hypnotism. It is perhaps not strange that they should fail in this respect, in view of the vital interest which physicians have in hypnotism as a therapeutic agent. But they should remember that the subject is also of vital interest to students of psychology, and that it is only by a study of its psychological aspects that hypnotism can be intelligently applied to the cure of disease. That the phenomena displayed through its agency possess a significance which far transcends that which attaches to it as a substitute for pills, is a proposition which will not be disputed, even by those who seek to monopolize its forces.
It is hoped, therefore, that the psychological student will be graciously permitted to pursue his studies at least until it is shown that physicians enjoy such a monopoly of the cardinal virtues that it is unsafe to intrust the forces of nature in the hands of others.
In the mean time the world at large will continue to believe that the laws of hypnotism are no exception to the rule that the forces of nature, when once understood, are designed for the highest good of mankind; and they will continue to demand that those forces shall not be monopolized by any man, or set of men, body politic, or corporation.
From what has been said, the supreme folly of legislation to prohibit experiments in hypnotism is manifest. No one will deny that when a hypnotist permits himself to exercise his art in private he is in possession of opportunities which, under other conditions, might give him an undue advantage over a subject of the opposite sex; but, from the very nature of things, that advantage is infinitely less than that enjoyed by physicians in their habitual intercourse with their patients. Until it is shown that physicians never take advantage of their confidential relations with their patients; until it is shown that physicians are exempt from human passions and frailties; or, at least, until it is shown that physicians are more platonic in their emotions than the ordinary run of human beings, - the world will continue to regard their demand that the study of experimental psychology shall be restricted by legislation to the medical profession, as an exhibition of monumental impudence. It cannot be forgotten that it was the medical profession that drove Mesmer into a dishonored exile and a premature grave for the sole reason that he healed the sick without the use of pills.
The faculty ridiculed, proscribed, and ostracized every medical man who dared to conduct an honest investigation of mesmeric phenomena. And now that the scientists of Europe are compelled to admit the therapeutic value of the science, they are instant in demand that no one but physicians shall be permitted to make experiments. It is perhaps natural and right that the treatment of disease by means of drugs should be restricted to those who are educated in the proper use of drugs; but the employment of psychic powers and remedies rests upon an entirely different footing. Their demand that hypnotism be reserved for their exclusive use rests not upon their knowledge of its laws, but is founded upon their wilful ignorance of the fundamental principles which underlie the science.