I get asked about Mesmer a great deal. For many people, Mesmerism is hypnosis. Mesmer must have at the very least been moderately influential, he did after all have a noun and adjective named after him!
There are a large number of works that suggest that the origins of hypnosis as we know it today began a couple of hundred years ago in Switzerland. Yes Switzerland. In Klosters, quite near to the the Austrian border, lived a Roman Catholic priest (so much to answer for those guys!) by the name of Father Gassner, who discovered in the late 1700s that he apparently had powers that enabled him to heal people and so he began practicing faith cures. That must have been a great day for him when he discovered that, eh?
he would be visited by many people who according to the prevailing belief system of witchcraft during the time, were quite clearly possessed by devils. Father Gassner liked to dress in black robes, which all sounds wonderfully dramatic, and then he’d address these groups of bedevilled people and touch each in turn with a crucifix. All wonderfully fire and brimstone.
Among one of these groups of people in the 1770s was a young German physician who was incredibly curious about the entire process. This was our man Franz Anton Mesmer…
The city of Vienna , in those times was regarded as epicentre of the medical world and mesmer was a medical student there himself. Records do show that he gained a proper medical degree, but it seems that he was not interested enough in traditional medicine to practice it.
By all accounts, his family lived in virtual poverty in a village close to Lake Constance. All the texts and evidence that has been or could be gathered do tend to depict Mesmer as a real showman who enjoyed the limelight, the drama and his work was mainly with groups of people at a time. There are very few recorded instances of him working with a single person at a time.
So anyway, Mesmer was intrigued by the stories of Father Gassner and went along to witness the healings first hand. This resulted in Mesmer being incredibly impressed. Maybe it was due to the state of scientific thinking, research and evidence base of the time… But Mesmer subsequently concluded that some unknown force was at work here and his own immediate research and exploration to arrive at a theory that explained these cures seems to be more like the early foundations of science fiction that actual medical research…
This is what he came up with anyhow… He surmised that the human body has two poles, just like a magnet has two poles, and just like a magnet, the human body must therefore be emitting an invisible magnetic fluid of some kind. Hmmm… This led Mesmer to believe that any disease was then caused by some kind interruption or problem in the flow of this so-called fluid. So in order to cure people, the flow needed to be corrected. There you have Mesmer’s theory.
Additionally, Mesmer also believed and concluded that only a very few people had the gift of that enabled them to control the flow of this fluid with magnetic properties. As a result, these specialist practitioners had the power to make the fluid flow from themselves into the patient. Taking it to another level altogether, these practitioners could also accomplish this indirectly; the could ‘magnetise’ virtually any object, such as a tree or a jug of water. The magnetised objects would then pass on the magnetic fluid and healing to anyone who came into contact with them.
One slightly more enduring theory that was born out of Mesmer’s work though was the notion that it is important that a close interest in and sympathy for each other should exist between the physician and the patient. This he described as rapport; the French word for harmony or connection. This term is still in use in modern therapeutic fields and has been discussed in depth elsewhere on this blog and throughout my own trainings. In Mesmer’s time, this notion was unheard of, the Doctor was always an authority figure and held no real interest in connecting with his patient… Though some may believe that is still the case with many Doctors today, I think therapists of today have, in general, grasped this notion well.
Due to his numerous early successes in practising his theories and carrying out several demonstrations of healing, Mesmer became quite a celebrity among the aristocracy and this is illustrated in many pictures of the events taking place in grand rooms and elaborate venues belonging to those of high social strata.
However, as Mesmer grew more popular, his work came under closer scrutiny and the vast majority of the medical fraternity could find no logical basis or scientific evidence for his cures. As a result, his peers and colleagues had the Viennese Medical Council expose him as a fraud. This may well have fuelled his notoriety and made him even more famous, but heck, that is me speculating…
In 1778 Mesmer headed for the broader minds people were thought to have in Paris, leaving Vienna. He soon established himself just as well as he had in Vienna and his fame spread throughout the city and country. The wealthy folk and nobles of Paris paid Mesmer huge wads of cash, though it is also recorded in a variety of texts that he treated hundreds of impoverished peasants free of charge.
Mesmer’s sidekick and main piece of apparatus was something he referred to as a bacquet. The bacquet was a large wooden tub that was filled with iron filings and broken glass…. I see where Derren Brown gets his material from now… Sticking out from the wooden top of the bacquet were lots of bottles with the necks pointing in the direction of the patients. Placed inside the bottles were many iron rods whose purpose, according to Mesmer’s theories, was to fire the healing magnetic rays on the subject as these bottles had been filled with magnetic water that he had created.
it was incredibly theatrical and dramatic, some might say it was such an environment that creates a hypnotic feel to proceedings… The gathered patients then gathered round the baquet, all holding hands with each other. There would often be ethereal soft music playing in the background and the lighting was low. They really were events similar to seances. As you’d imagine, some patients experienced dramatic looking spasms or a physical crisis after which they would emerge from the experience feeling improved in health… Hmmm, almost an evangelical sound to that idea, eh?
Despite widespread scepticism of Mesmer’s methods in his day, he was certainly among the first people to draw the attention to the mind body connection. He would talk of his mental treatment (it was pretty mental wasn’t it?) having a direct bearing on illness of the body.
As you’d expect, Mesmer attracted a circle of advocates and students who believed in his work and explored his theories under his tutelage.
It was one of his disciples students who performed a Mesmeric public demonstration that was investigated and watched by James Braid, an English physician, in 1841. Braid examined a patient who had been mesmerised by the showman. As a result he recognised the psychological nature of the patient’s condition and coined the word “hypnosis.” It was Braid who started the first scientific studies of hypnosis as a psychological condition of great scientific importance. of course, we could go on about Braid’s work, but this is not a blog entry about him, just the relationship between Mesmerism and hypnosis – here is one such connection played out historically as Braid encountered the foundation of his work by having seen a mesmerist.
Many of the typical misconceptions about hypnosis through the years are seen by many as arising from mesmerism. Therefore, as far as modern day hypnotherapy is concerned, us hypnotherapists spend plenty of time educating clients and prospective clients accordingly.
Mesmerism gave the impression that the power lies with the practitioner and that some power is being exerted over the client. Many pictures show Mesmerists seemingly wielding their powers over their clientele and that notion often lives on, in particular because many people’s main education in hypnosis is derived from having seen stage hypnotists performing hypnosis for entertainment.
Mesmerism is of course the most overt form of state theory that there is. As discussed in another article on this blog, state theorists believed that hypnosis is a special, unusual state that is done to the client by the hypnotist. This has been a central debate in the field of hypnotherapy since the field began and though modern times has seen the pendulum seem to swing in the direction of nonstate theorists, the debate does rage on.
Thus, Mesmerism has itself firmly entrenched in the history of hypnosis and is linked with hypnosis and still colours many opinions and thoughts about the subject.
Mesmerism performances have huge similarity to the variety of entertaining feats which became central to stage hypnosis in latter years, in fact many would say that little has changed at all except it is now called hypnosis and employs a formalised hypnotic induction. As can be read in the Wikipedia entry on this subject, the novelist Mark Twain similarly recounts a Mesmeric performance which clearly resembles 20th century stage hypnosis, in his autobiography.
Braid coined the term hypnotism in opposition to theories of Mesmerism, to stress the fact that the results were due to ordinary psychological and physiological processes, such as suggestion and focused attention, rather than telepathy or animal magnetism.
So Mesmerism is not hypnosis, and although old and antiquated notions of both tend to draw parallels, they are not accurate. Nonetheless, Mesmer and his work is related and has influenced the world of hypnosis, just not as many would have you believe.
I have an electronic copy of a book entitled The Life and Teachings Of Franz Anton Mesmer, a book originally written in 1920 by R.B. Ince which is now in the public domain and that I have converted to PDF format and revised… If you fancy it, email me, ask politely, and I’ll send you a copy for free… Have a great day 🙂