Franz Anton Mesmer graduated in medicine at the age of 32 in Vienna. His influences were Father Maximillian Hell who thought that the human body had some form of magnetism and the Swiss physician Paracelsus who two hundred years earlier had stated that the treatment of the mind should be done by doctors and not the clergy. Paracelsus also used magnets to try and treat illness.
In 1766 Mesmer wrote a dissertation on the influence of the moon and the planets on the human body through gravity. He was interested in Newton’s idea of a universal gravity and proposed a biological force he called ‘animal gravity’ and later changed the name to ‘animal magnetism’. When attempting healing Mesmer would pass his hands over his patient’s body in an effort to restore the flow of the animal magnetism from what was a disturbed state to an optimum one. After Mesmer moved to Paris he set up salons where ‘baquets’ (large containers filled with water and iron filings which were ‘magnetised’ by Mesmer) that had rods projecting from them were attended by clients. The clients would touch their afflicted body parts with the rods and sometimes go into some kind of a fit. These ‘crises’ were thought to indicate the animal magnetism had been restored to its proper state. In 1784 King Louis XVI commissioned the Franklin enquiry and after studying animal magnetism with the help of one of Mesmer’s students they concluded that the critical factors were the patient’s belief and imagination. They stated that the claimed force of animal magnetism need not be used to account for the observed phenomena. It may also be noted the commission used the terms ‘imagination’ and ‘belief’ in a derisory fashion.
The Marquis de Chastenet de Puysegur who was a student of the now discredited Mesmer would not try and provoke a ‘crises’ as Mesmer did but would invoke a calm, quiet state. When working with clients de Puysegur would discuss their worries in life and not just the issue they were visiting him for. After the clients had finished their session with de Puysegur they would have little memory of what had occurred and de Puysegur called this ‘artificial somnambulism’. De Puysegur was one of the first practitioners to see that psychological factors were important in the healing process.
The Portuguese priest Abbe de Faria gave demonstrations of Mesmerism after seeing one himself. In 1819 he proposed a condition he called ‘Lucid Sleep’. He would ask his clients to be quietly seated and concentrate on the notion of sleep. Of the 5000 people he mesmerised he found 20% of them to be particularly susceptible which is similar to the figure that is quoted in modern hypnosis. He stated that the subject contained the important factors and not the mesmerist. He did not use any props such as baquets or magnets but just used spoken suggestions.
In Britain John Elliotson was prominent in advocating mesmerism and lost his position as Professor of the Practise of Medicine at the University of London because of it. In 1843 he started a journal called The Zoist that was subtitled ‘A Journal of Cerebral Physiology and Mesmerism and their Application to Human Welfare’. James Esdaile was also a major British figure. He experimented using mesmerism with prisoners in India as an anaesthetic while performing surgery. He operated on over 200 patients and with the operations being well documented it was reported that the patients showed little signs of pain. The process of preparing the patients through mesmerism took several days and Esdaile had assistants performing the work.
James Braid, a Scottish doctor in Manchester, arguably was the first to suggest a special state for hypnosis. In 1855 he proposed that hypnosis was a state of mind induced through suggestion and put forward the idea of ‘monoideism’. In this it is said that hypnosis is a state of heightened concentration on a single idea. This leads to imagination, belief and a susceptibility to suggestion being increased. Braid’s theory leads to the idea that suggestion is very important in hypnotism. But Braid didn’t start out with this proposition, originally he believed that hypnosis was a physiological state that was characterised by stiff limbs and slow breathing with amnesia after the hypnosis. He described it as ‘a derangement to the state of cerebral spinal centres by fixed stare, absolute repose of the body, immobility of the body, fixed attention on the words of the hypnotist and suppressed respiration’.
Braid also introduced the fixed gaze induction method.
Jean Martin Charcot was a neurologist and surgeon in France. In his work with hysterical patients he noticed similar symptoms to hypnotised individuals. These were amnesia, anaesthesia, catalepsy and hallucinations. He believed he had proved a link between hypnosis and mental illness. At the same time Hippolyte Bernheim, Professor of Medicine at Nancy, saw hypnosis something that was induced through suggestion and not confined only to the mentally ill. In 1888 he published a book entitled ‘Hypnosis and Suggestion in Psychotherapy’. An argument between the two men and their colleagues lasted 20 years. Bernheim showed through the response of his subjects that hypnosis is a form of intensified suggestibility and not a special state. Charcot insisted that hypnosis was an abnormal state and found in the mentally ill.
A French psychologist, Pierre Janet, suggested that hypnosis was linked to dissociation. He looked into abnormal states of the mind such as multiple personality disorder and automatism. Janet would look at automatic writing where a hypnotised person would write something without consciously knowing it under the direction of the hypnotist.
The decline of hypnosis occurred later in the second half of the 19th century. This happened partly because it was associated with spiritualism and phrenology but also because of the advent of psychoanalysis. Freud did use hypnosis but discarded it as it was not a good way of accessing the unconscious. The rise of behaviourism also added to the decline of hypnosis. What happens inside a person’s mind is not observable but their behaviour is. As science focuses on what is observable, psychologists and psychiatrists moved towards the more scientific approach to therapy. In 1933 Clark Hull, a behavioural psychologist, published a book called Hypnosis and Suggestibility saying he wanted ‘to divest hypnosis of its air of mystery, which surrounds it’. In 1955 the British Medical Association had an enquiry into hypnosis and was positive in its conclusions. It recommended that hypnosis be taught in medical schools but these ideas were never taken up.
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