Throughout history of the field of hypnosis, some major theories have been offered up, along with supporting evidence and some without. One major theory that exists within the field of hypnosis is that of the ‘hidden observer’ and because it is referred to a great deal, I thought I’d do my best to explain it here on the blog today.
Do you ever watch the brilliant US sci-fi series Fringe? Well in it, they have a character who is a kind of over-seer. That is, he observes in order to keep balance in the universe and make sure things play out for the greater good. Here he is:
Been a while since I managed to sneak in a sci-fi reference to my blog, eh? The ‘hidden observer’ referred to in the field of hypnosis is not too dissimilar.
The notion of the ‘hidden observer’ is that when an individual is hypnotised, they can have numerous levels of awareness, which operate separately.
According to this theory, one of the levels of awareness is objective and continues to understand the reality of the situation and what is really going on. Even though the individual may be hypnotised and at some level believe in the hypnotic reality that is being suggested by the hypnotist.
This level of awareness that knows the actual reality of what is happening is referred to as the hidden obsevrer as first coined by Hilgard in 1977 in his work entitled Divided consciousness: Multiple controls in human thought and action.
The “hidden observer” is therefore dissociated from what is being suggested by the hypnotist and can continue to have an amount of objectivity about the hypnotic experience that they are involved in, and even when they are very absorbed and engaged in the hypnosis, this objectivity and reality check still observes from the background.
In Hilgard’s 1992 work Dissociation and theories of hypnosis in the book Contemporary hypnosis research by Fromm and Nash, he described the hidden observer like this:
“The ‘hidden observer’ was intended merely as a convenient label for the information source capable of a high level of cognitive functioning, not consciously experienced by the hypnotized person” (1992, p. 77).
In 1997, Sarbin stated in Hypnosis as a conversation: Believed-in imaginings cited in Contemporary Hypnosis that by having a dissociated element in hypnosis, the hypnotised individual can react and respond to hypnotic suggestions with a “believed-in imagination” while at the same time observing him- or herself go through the experience more objectively.
In a nutshell, the notion of people having a ‘hidden observer’ is that even when someone experiences deep hypnosis, the individual still knows what he/she is doing and what is going on. So for example, it supports the idea that if someone is hypnotised and asked to do something they would not usually do, or was against their usual set of morals or ethics, they are able to respond accordingly in the way they usually would.
As seen in the 1990s in the field of psychistry with false memory litgation cases and then in the field of hypnosis debating repressed memories, there can be extreme conditions that apply in which an individual can fail to spot the difference between fantasy and reality and come to think of imagined ideas of experiences as having actually happened, when they did not.
It has been learned following these debates and cases and investigated in depth that for the vast majority of cases, when hypnosis and therapy sessions are structured properly and responsibly by the hypnotist and/or hypnotherapist, the individual does maintain a strong enough reality orientation to discard offensive or even merely irrelevant suggestions. This is supported by the 1991 work of Lynn & Rhue, Theories of hypnosis: Current models and perspectives, and in 1982 by Sheehan & McConkey in Hypnosis and experience: The exploration of phenomena and process. Which I have referred to often on this blog.
So there you have it, the notion of the ‘hidden observer’ in hypnosis explained. Some disagree with the notion and for many, it is a central component of their hypnosis work and underpinning belief system.