Communication Between Sane and Insane: Hypnosis*

[Note: As I mentioned yesterday, I couldn’t resist saving this article from one the unread books in my collection.]

What an intriguing prospect. My attraction to this topic stems from my deep desire since I was a child in the 1950s, to communicate with my low functioning, nonverbal, autistic older brother, Michael. Granted, the title of this article does not exactly fit my needs. Mike is not insane, but he is unreachable. I was hoping that this talk, given at the 8th Conference on Cybernetics (1952) by Dr. Lawrence Kubie, of the Department of Psychiatry, Yale University School of Medicine would shed some light on the matter. I realize that the vintage of this article is also from the early 1950s and therefore its value probably lies more in its composition, based on the knowledge and attitudes of that time (see Attitudes About Mental Illness in the 1950s).

Dr. Kubie’s original task was to present a talk about communication with individuals under hypnosis. In subsequent communications prior to the conference, the subject broadened to include communication with individuals in states of psychosis. He finally settled on exploring communication in different states of consciousness.

Kubie drew from his clinical experience to illustrate different modes of ‘communication’ of some of his patients. His first example detailed what he termed a ‘sideshow’ of one of the conferees, none other than Norbert Wiener. It so happened that Wiener was prone to falling asleep during lectures. He frequently would break off in the middle of a snore to jump into the middle of an ongoing discussion that he had apparently been sleeping through.

In subsequent case studies Kubie described conditions in which stimuli presented to conscious individuals seemed to be ignored only to manifest themselves later on in dream states. He noted that the difference between sleeping and waking states is relative: “…parts of us are asleep when we are awake and parts awake when we are asleep.” (pg 94) He concluded that “a process of communication can occur in sleep, in states of deeply absorbed attention, and in the hypnotic state, a process of communication which depends on all the techniques of communication that we use in ordinary speech.”(pg 94)

Kubie noted that psychotics (more specifically, schizophrenics) have great insight into their inner state. “Indeed, they can often translate their own symptoms, their own behavior and their own symbols. They can say, ‘I know that when I wear a knitted tie, it means that I feel X about my body, whereas if I wear a silk tie, it means Y,’ and so forth.” (pg 99)

In a similar vein, Kubie noted that, different than any other state, the mind exhibits special qualities under conditions of hypnosis, such as ‘hypermnesia’ – the ability to remember far more than would be possible during states of ordinary consciousness.

He then speculated that there is more to communication than reliance on conscious speech. He called upon the mathematicians attending the conference to weigh in and enumerate all the factors impinging on the sensorium, conscious and unconscious (i.e., the bandwidth of information presented to the mind) as one step toward a comprehensive model of human communication.


This article is disappointing. First, it does not address two-way communication in any major way.  The author is primarily concerned with states of mind and the one-way communication through normal, conscious speech from within such states. He touched on symbolic speech and the idea that certain symbols may be universal, citing examples of the accuracy of graphologists in determining specific characteristics of an individual whose handwriting she analyzed. He described an experiment wherein painful experiences were described to subjects under hypnosis who where then told to dream about their implanted ‘experience’. Kubie expressed wonder at the ‘textbook’ symbolism that was present in the subsequent dreams.

The most interesting aspect of the body of Kubie’s talk was the invitation to the mathematicians to estimate the total amount of information bombarding the sensorium.

Discussion section of paper:

I have not read the discussion portion of this paper yet, but the audience included such figures as Margaret Mead (Anthropologist); Heinrich Klüver (Neurologist); Warren S. McCulloch (Psychiatrist); George Evelyn Hutchinson, (Zoologist); Julian H. Bigelow (Electronic Computer Project, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J.).

Perhaps the discussion session following Dr. Kubie’s talk will clarify and refine his ideas.

* This article is from Cybernetics: Circular Causal and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems (Transactions of the Eighth Conference, March 15-16, 1951, New York, NY) Sponsored by the Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation. All quotations refer to this work.

3 thoughts on “Communication Between Sane and Insane: Hypnosis*

  1. I am at a loss, really, in how to even begin to analyze this “vintage” material. The attitudes, assumptions … they’re so antithetical to everything taught by the time I did my degree in psychology (1998-2002). The language is wraught with such ambiguity and symbolism; it’s prosaic and even “entrancing” to read … but it would never get anywhere near publication today. Kubie’s empirical methodology would be deemed laughable in modern times I think … but, as you say, it would serve to give hope to certain individuals. It’s almost as if somebody like John Edwards (the t.v. hack who cold reads people) was actually running the psychiatry department …


    • Yes, there were a lot of changes in methodology from the 50s to the 90s. Freud’s writings were also devoid of much scientific methodology as we know it today (it was heavy on narrative and empirical observation) yet his influence held sway well into the 1970s.
      I’m still trying to make my way through the discussion section. It is very interesting seeing the comments of the likes of Margaret Mead, Heinrich Klüver, Gerhardt von Bonin and others who were considered tops in their field. However there are some inane remarks such as Kubie’s: “Certainly the amount of data taken in and recorded is infinitely greater [sic] than the scanty sample which we can reproduce consciously.” No wonder he felt he needed the help of the rigor of mathematics.
      On my list of reading is a book by Steve Heim (circa 1991) in which his aim is to “describe a moment when a new set of ideas impinged on the human sciences and began to transform some traditional fields of inquiry.” He refers specifically to this Cybernetics Group. Should be interesting.
      Thank you, Michael for your interest and your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

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