Can we be hypnotized remotely, or against our will, as in the classic Frank Sinatra film, “The Manchurian Candidate”?
Recently I put the question to my friend, Los Angeles psychiatrist and artist Dr. Robert Newport. “I have no experience to suggest that individuals can be hypnotized against their will, much less remotely,” he told me. “Did I buy an iMac computer because I was hypnotized over wifi? I don’t think so, but”—he chuckles—“there’s a lot I do that makes little sense.”
Despite Dr. Bob’s skepticism, blaring headlines late last year reminded me that some controversies never die, especially when they come attached to the name Kennedy.
“Sirhan Sirhan Launches New Campaign for Freedom—42 Years Later.”
The news articles recalled the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and with it that same decades-old question I’d asked my friend. The news also revived memories of interviews I conducted for my novel, The Romanov Stone.
In researching my book, I spoke with Dr. Herbert Spiegel, a noted psychiatrist in Manhattan and a pioneer in the medical uses of hypnotherapy. A kind, quiet-spoken man who rubbed elbows with stars like Woody Allen at New York’s celebrity hangout Elaine’s, Dr. Spiegel helped popularize hypnotism’s profound benefits. But to some his research also suggested that, under certain circumstances, hypnotism could have a malevolent side.
Dr. Spiegel served as an expert witness at Sirhan Sirhan’s trial. His testimony helped buttress defense claims that Sirhan was “hypno-programmed.” He described the convicted killer as an “hypnotic virtuoso,” a term Dr. Spiegel reserved for the very small portion of the population—five percent or less—he classified as “highly hypnotizable.” Dr. Spiegel died two years ago at 95, but his theories remain fascinating, controversial and, unsurprisingly, once drew keen interest from the intelligence community.
In his articles and classes for doctors at Columbia University, Dr. Spiegel contended that each adult—he excluded the severely mentally ill—possesses a “natural trance capacity.” It is this capacity the hypnotist taps. “In this sense,” Dr. Spiegel told me, “all hypnosis is self-hypnosis; the subject only picks up cues from the therapist.”
Rating hypnotizability by grade, Dr. Spiegel designated Grade 5 as the most highly hypnotizable person or “hypnotic virtuoso.” He theorized that an “Eye-Roll Sign” served as a genetic biomarker for each subject’s hypnotic capacity. The higher the roll, or the greater the amount of visible sclera (“whites” of the eyes), the greater the subject’s capacity for trance. In the virtuoso, practically nothing but sclera can be seen.
“True Grade 5’s have to be trained not to go into trance,” Dr. Spiegel said in our interview. “Such a person could be coerced into a trance state.”
In the RFK case, Dr. Spiegel concluded that Sirhan was probably acting out hypnotic commands when he fired a gun that fateful day. During pre-trial psychiatric examinations, Sirhan climbed the bars of his cell without knowing he was executing post-hypnotic commands. The repeated notebook passages “RFK Must Die” appeared to have been written in a trance, Dr. Spiegel testified, and Sirhan’s amnesia about the crime was consistent with “virtuoso” behaviors.
Over the long course of his career Dr. Spiegel exploded many myths about hypnosis. Here are a few:
• Hypnosis is therapy. Not so, wrote Dr. Spiegel. Hypnosis creates a receptive state for therapy, but without an appropriate medical strategy it offers no therapeutic value.
• Hypnosis is sleep. Dr. Spiegel believed hypnosis is actually the opposite of sleep—“a form of intense receptive integrated concentration.” In fact, the capacity of normal humans to achieve self-induced trance gives each of us great power to develop to our full potential.
• Only mentally weak or sick people are hypnotizable. Again, the facts suggest otherwise, claimed Dr. Spiegel. Usually, it is mentally healthy people who are hypnotizable.
• Women are more hypnotizable than men. About 70 percent of men and women are hypnotizable and no significant differences in trance capacity exist between women and men, he said.
However—if ever—our questions about hypnosis are ultimately resolved, one thing is certain: they will not go away soon.
*See Dr. Spiegel demonstrate mind control: