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Theodore X. Barber (1927–2005)

By: John F. Chaves
State University of New York at Stony Brook

Theodore Xenophon Barber, one of the most prolific and influential researchers in the field of hypnosis, died unexpectedly on September 10, 2005, of a ruptured aortic aneurysm. He was 78 years old. At the time of his death he was an active scholar in his private research enterprise, the Interdisciplinary Science Research Institute.

Born in 1927 to Greek immigrant parents in Martins Ferry, Ohio, Barber graduated at age 15 from the local high school and then studied at St. John's College in Maryland. He earned his doctorate in psychology at American University (1956) in Washington, DC, and then moved to Boston to complete a postdoctoral research fellowship in the Department of Social Relations at Harvard with Clyde Kluckhohn and William A. Caudill.

Following a brief tenure as a research associate at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, he joined the staff of the Medfield Foundation in 1961. The Foundation was located on the grounds of Medfield State Hospital and supported a number of researchers in psychiatry and psychology. Barber was director of research for the Foundation and for a time also served as chief psychologist for the hospital. His research was continuously supported through this period by grants from the National Institutes of Health. He remained at Medfield until 1978, when he became chief psychologist at the Cushing Hospital in Framingham, Massachusetts, where he remained until his retirement in 1986.

At Medfield, Barber established one of the most vital and productive centers for hypnosis research in the world. He held adjunct appointments at Harvard and Boston University and attracted a number of research assistants and associates, postdoctoral fellows, and visiting scholars to Medfield. With these colleagues he published more than 200 scholarly papers and 8 books. Hypnosis: A Scientific Approach (1969) became a classic and remains the best summary of his early experimental work for the scientific community. A later volume, coauthored with Nicholas P. Spanos and John F. Chaves, Hypnosis, Imagination, and Human Potentialities (1974), brought much of this material to a wider audience.

Barber began his career as an iconoclast, critical of the ways in which the concept of hypnosis had been used both as a label for diverse and baffling phenomena and as an explanation for those same phenomena. Those who embraced traditional views of hypnosis as an altered state of consciousness were displeased by Barber's habit of placing quotation marks around the term hypnosis to reflect his concerns. Some interpreted this as an expression of a cavalier and dismissive attitude about the entire field. That interpretation became increasingly untenable as Barber examined hypnotic behavior with unprecedented care and demonstrated that these behaviors were not what they appeared to be and that many widely held assumptions about the phenomena were either incorrect or incomplete.

Barber's research placed hypnosis within the mainstream of social psychology. His social-cognitive theory eschewed the notion of hypnosis as a special state of consciousness. Basic social psychological processes such as task motivation, expectation, and belief played a central explanatory role. Yet Barber acknowledged that dramatic outcomes, reflecting a wide range of human potentialities, were possible when these processes were properly engaged. Later in his career, Barber proposed a three-dimensional reformulation of hypnosis that attempted to find common ground with those advancing competing theoretical perspectives based on dissociation. He theorized that there are three distinct subtypes of good hypnotic subjects: the fantasy prone, the amnesia prone, and the highly motivated positively set subjects who had been the main focus of Barber's earlier research.

Although hypnosis was the main focus of Barber's research, his interests and research encompassed other topics, including the phenomenon of investigator bias, psychical phenomena, and even comparative psychology, as reflected in his book The Human Nature of Birds (1993). He maintained a long-standing interest in the mind-body problem and had prepared many thoughtful unpublished chapters on this topic. He recognized that many of his ideas would be viewed as controversial. Accordingly, colleagues were invited to critique these chapters and debate the issues with Ted. He was a formidable scholar who constantly immersed himself in original resources. It was a rare triumph when one of us could bring to these discussions relevant data of which he was unaware. The results of this final project, to be published posthumously, argue scientifically that consciousness, intelligence, and purposefulness can be found throughout the universe, from cells to planets.

Barber served as president of Division 30 (Psychological Hypnosis) of the American Psychological Association and of the Massachusetts Psychological Association and was a fellow of both organizations. He served on the editorial boards of many journals and received the Presidential Award for Lifetime Contributions to the Field of Hypnosis from the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, as well as the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Scientific Hypnosis from Division 30.

Ted Barber's work has had a profound influence on the field and on the next generation of researchers and practitioners. Whether they had the privilege of working directly with him or not, Ted was very accessible and extraordinarily generous with his time. He encouraged those newly entering the field and did much to nurture their careers. He will be remembered for this generosity as well as for the intense curiosity, energy, and passion that characterized all of his endeavors.

Ted Barber is survived by his children, X. Theodore Barber and Rania Richardson of New York and Elaine Barber of Silver Spring, MD. He is also survived by two sisters, Angela Fardy and Mary Brillis, and a brother, John Barber.

Copyright 2006 American Psychological Association


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