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Ernest R. Hilgard

Begins work on hypnosis, Wins praise for writings

American psychologist who conducted pioneering work in hypnotism.

Ernest Hilgard distinguished himself through his studies of the role of hypnosis in human behavior and response. Hypnotism, often regarded as nothing more than a stage trick by pseudo-psychics, is in fact an important psychological tool; it can be used to alter behavior (smoking cessation, for example), and to relieve pain. Much of Hilgard's research and writing on the topic was done with his wife, Josephine R. Hilgard (1906-1989).

Born in Belleville, Illinois, on July 25, 1904, Ernest Ropiequit Hilgard was the son of a physician, and he showed an early interest in science. Interestingly, it was engineering, not psychology, that originally attracted Hilgard; he received a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois in 1924. He decided that he wanted to study psychology, and he went to Yale, where he was awarded his Ph.D. in 1930. His initial area of interest was conditioned responses. He did extensive research with the human eye lid; as part of this research he developed a photographic technique for examining the responses. His work demonstrated the relation between voluntary and involuntary responses, and won him the Warren Medal in Experimental Psychology in 1940.

Begins work on hypnosis

Later, Hilgard became intrigued by the mechanism behind hypnosis. In part, this was not an unusual move: his work on voluntary and involuntary responses focused on the control factor, as does hypnosis. The popular stereotype of hypnosis, in which a person falls into a trance-like state after staring at a moving watch and then involuntarily being made to bark like a dog, is hardly all there is to the process. Nor is hypnotism some mystical power that channels evil forces. It is true that, under certain hypnotic conditions, patients can be given suggestions that they will follow—moving a limb, for example, or holding it rigid. But to treat hypnotism as nothing more than showmanship misses the point. Hypnosis is a tool that, used under the right circumstances, can be useful and even beneficial.

Hilgard, working with his wife and other colleagues, began experimenting and collecting data on hypnosis as a means of, among other things, treating pain. One of the interesting aspects of Hilgard's research into hypnosis is the concept of what he calls the "hidden observer." Ostensibly, a person undergoing hypnosis to manage pain, for example, feels no conscious pain. That does not mean the pain is not there, however; nor does it mean that the patient's subconscious is not registering the pain. In one experiment conducted by the Hilgards, subjects were hypnotized and told they would feel no pain or discomfort when an arm was placed in ice water, or when a tourniquet was tied at the elbow to restrict blood flow to the arm. The subjects reported no pain or discomfort during these procedures. When their "hidden observers" were tapped into, however (usually by a prearranged sign or suggestion from the experimenter), there were reports of pain and discomfort (although not necessarily as severe as would be expected). In subjects particularly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion—those who could be rendered hypnotically deaf or blind, for example—the "hidden observer" could recall "heard" or "seen" objects.

Wins praise for writings

In addition to his important work as a researcher, Hilgard was also a noted author. He wrote a number of books and papers on the specific areas he studied, and his authorship was distinguished by an ability to make complex issues understandable. This was evident not only in his first book (written with Donald G. Marquis in 1940), Conditioning and Learning, but throughout his distinguished career, perhaps most notably in his textbooks for introductory psychology courses such as Introduction to Psychology (first edition 1953) with Rita and Richard Atkinson.

After teaching at Yale for three years, Hilgard accepted a position at Stanford in 1933 . He headed the psychology department at Stanford from 1942 to 1951 and served as dean of the graduate division from 1951 to 1955. He became a professor emeritus in 1969 but continued on as head of the laboratory of Hypnosis Research. Among Hilgard's awards over the years are the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (1969) and the American Psychological Foundation's Gold Career Award (1978). His memberships include the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Education.

George A. Milite

Further Reading

Bower, Gordon H. and Ernest R. Hilgard. Theories of Learning, 5th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall, 1981.

Hilgard, Ernest R. and Josephine R. Hilgard. Hypnosis in the Relief of Pain. Los Altos, CA: W. Kaufmann, 1983.

McGraw-Hill Modern Scientists and Engineers. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists