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The Bizarre Beginnings of Hypnosis

By Clifford Mee, Creator of
The Power of Conversational Hypnosis

Dr Franz Anton Mesmer was an Austrian physician living from 1734-1815. He is believed to be the founding father of hypnosis due to how he used magnets to heal people.

Sounds weird I know, but stay with me.

This development was the pivotal moment in the evolution of modern hypnosis because people realised - for the first time - that the operator (i.e. the hypnotist) had the responsibility to acquire a skill (i.e. learn hypnosis) in order to be able to help his patients heal.

It also laid the foundation for the idea that special trance states could be used for healing - which to this day is one of the core definitions of the hypnotic state.

Whilst many of the ideas that Dr Mesmer came up with have little bearing on our modern day understanding of hypnosis, the practices he developed were genuinely hypnotic - albeit
a little bizarre! Because of this, the terms "Mesmerism" and "Animal Magnetism" are to this day still synonymous in many minds with the the practice of hypnosis.

Mesmer's early work was influenced by the work of the English physician Richard Mead, which meant that he would frequently open a patient's vein in order to let him bleed for a while. Mesmer would then use a magnet to stop the bleeding. He found that simply passing a magnet over the wound would cause the bleeding to stop.

There is a story that one day Mesmer was working with a patient, when he realised that he had forgotten to bring his magnets.

When the time came to close the wound, Mesmer scrabbled around in his pockets until he found a wooden stick.

Without a better plan in mind, he waved the stick over the wound, and was shocked to discover that the bleeding stopped just as quickly as with a genuine magnet.

Another possible influence for moving from external magnets to the idea of animal magnetism in early hypnosis was the work of Johann Joseph Gassner.

Father Gassner was an Austrian priest (and unknowingly a great hypnotist) at the time of Mesmer. He greatly influenced Mesmer because his practices mirrored the way hypnotists give hypnotic suggestions during a hypnosis session most closely.

Mesmer was convinced that Father Gassner had independently discovered Animal Magnetism, and that the exorcisms he performed were no more than the influence of Father Gassner's own Animal Magnetism over his charges.

Mesmer went as far as visiting Father Gassner in 1776 (two years after he officially
started developing Mesmerism as a form of hypnosis) and stayed nine weeks to watch him work!

It is very likely that watching Father Gassner work successfully without magnets,
just through the laying on of hands, prompted Mesmer to drop the use of magnets and develop the ideas of Animal Magnetism further.

This is the point where he could have discovered genuine hypnosis. Instead of realising that people healed as a result of a hypnotic suggestion (e.g. the waving of the stick was an implied hypnotic suggestion for healing), he was still stuck in the mindset that some form of magnetism was responsible.

Now this is not a silly as it may sound at first. You must realise that Mesmer lived in an age where hypnosis as a concept did not exist.

There were no official hypnotists, no hypnosis training schools, you could not formally learn hypnosis and nobody knew about the power of hypnotic suggestions!

What did exist at the time was a great popular interest in magnetism. Sir Isaac Newton's new ideas on physics had had been published almost a hundred years earlier and his explanation of gravity used the analogy of magnetism as a
metaphor for explaining how the heavenly bodies affected each other.

Magnetism was a buzzword of the time, and everyone tried to explain away mysterious phenomena, including hypnotic phenomena, as some form of magnetism in action. Including Mesmer.

Mesmerism and Animal Magnetism

He began to think of the type of hypnosis he had been practicing less in terms of mineral magnetism, and developed the idea of animal magnetism. It's worth taking a look at why he chose the term animal magnetism:

1. He chose the term to distinguish hypnosis and hypnotic phenomena from the known effects of mineral magnetism (the action of a loadstone on ferrous metal) and the supposed effects of planetary magnetism (the magnet like attraction between planetary bodies caused by gravity).

2. He believed that there was a magnet like force active in the bodies of humans and animals.

So Mesmer chose the word "animal" because he believed that this power resided in humans and animals!

Mesmer and Mesmerism (a popular name for the "Animal Magnetism" that was Mesmer's form of hypnosis) was never really accepted by the medical society of Vienna. So he moved to Paris in 1778 where he and his brand of hypnosis were accepted with open arms by high society.

Unfortunately the local medical community was not happy about Mesmer's success or his ideas. So in 1784 they petitioned the King of France to put together a medical board of inquiry into this curious form of hypnosis.

This board was filled with famous historical names: the French chemist Lavoisier, the American inventor/politician/diplomat Benjamin Franklin and even the French scientist Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotine (who did not actually invent the dreaded guillotine of the French revolution - he merely suggested that a mechanical device to carry out the death penalty would be more humane (and efficient)!)

This board worked with Mesmer's disciple Dr D'Eslon to investigate Mesmerism. Franklin devised an ingenious experiment in which he showed that a patient responded as much to a non-"magnetised" tree as to a "magnetised" one.

The commission therefore declared that (Animal) Magnetism was not the power behind Mesmerism, but that it was the force of the imagination (i.e. a hypnotic suggestion) that healed Mesmer's patients!

Unfortunately the damage was done: people's faith in Mesmer and his brand of hypnosis was shattered.

Mesmer had an opportunity to revise his ideas, as he had done once before. If he had taken the defeat as a spur to learn more about hypnosis, he might have discovered hypnosis and hypnotic suggestion some sixty years before James Braid coined the term hypnosis.

Instead, Mesmer retired to Switzerland were he died, in relative obscurity, in 1815.

Animal Magnetism went underground, kept alive by a few luminaries (like Abbe Faria and the Marquis de Puysegur) until a renewed surge of interest gave birth to hypnosis some 30 years after Dr. Mesmer's death.

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