It has been in the news a great deal over the past weeks and I have not commented upon it until a colleague and friend of mine got me thinking (thank you Jon Chase!)… Firstly, let’s be relieved that the sleep disorder suffered by Brian Thomas who unwittingly killed his wife in his sleep is extremely rare.
The details of the case can be read over at the BBC here, although there are many, many sources that report on an unusual murder case here in England. It has had lots of attention and raised more than a few intrigued eyebrows, especially in the field of hypnosis.
Mr Thomas, who pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, was accused of killing his wife of nearly 40 years. He’d strangled her during a nightmare about fighting off an intruder. Prosecutors withdrew the case after experts explained that he wasn’t insane at all. Rather, he suffered from a rare, long-term sleep disorder that put him in a state of “automatism,” in which his mind had no control over his body. So he strangled her without knowing it.
Mr. Thomas has not been sent to a psychiatric hospital. Goodness only knows how he explained himself to his two daughters, who lost their mother as a result of this.
Thankfully, not only is this kind of sleep disorder very rare, but it doesn’t usually stand on its own. In other words, people who suffer from brief periods of unconscious behaviors during which they are unaware of their actions typically have an underlying condition. Automatic behavior (the type of behaviour apparently exhibited by Mr. Thomas) often occurs in certain types of epilepsy, seizure disorders, Narcolepsy, or REM Behavior Disorder or as a side effect of certain medications.
Now the main reason for me mentioning this is because of the legal thought process in relation to the field of hypnosis.
To set things up, here is what the official legal definition of “hypnotism” provided by the Hypnotism Act 1952 here in the UK. I have pointed out before what utter nonsense and garbage I think this is, what’s more I think it is incredibly misleading in that it implies hypnosis is a state of ‘sleep.’ (You’ll probably start to realise where I am going with this now…)
This definition, as stated in the Hypnotism Act, still stands in British law:
‘Hypnotism’ includes hypnotism, mesmerism and any similar act or process which produces or is intended to produce in any person any form of induced sleep or trance in which the susceptibility of the mind of that person to suggestion or direction is increased or intended to be increased but does not include hypnotism, mesmerism or any similar act or process which is self-induced. [The Hypnotism Act, 1952]
So, if hypnosis is defined legally as a form of induced sleep, what would be the official stance if someone were to claim that they were in a state of hypnosis when commiting a similar act to that of Mr Thomas… Could this then be used in that persons defence?
Obviously, it needs some more thought, but just got my mind ticking somewhat…
You’re welcome Adam.
Nice to know someone takes notice.
The thing is until the law thinks it’s ridiculous that hypnosis is a form of sleep, or indeed trance which in my dictionary says a sleep like state, then it is what it is.
Automatism is described in psychology as
a. the performance of an act or actions without the performer’s awareness or conscious volition.
b. such an act, as sleepwalking.
Which is probably as accurate a description of the results of Hypnosis as I have seen.
Thanks a lot Jon,
I always take notice of what you say… On this occasion you really got me thinking, thanks for that. Some very interesting points made there.
Best wishes, A.