Hypnotism is as old as time and probably originated when man first crawled out of the primeval mud. It has been employed for centuries in one form or another in all parts of the world. Primitive societies still use the “beat-beat-beat of the tom-tom” and ritualistic dances and tribal rites to induce a trancelike state similar to hypnosis. There are even several hundred references to the apparent use of hypnoticlike methods in the Bible. For instance, the laying on of hands to obtain cures was well known during the time of Christ.
The king’s “royal touch” or divine healing during the Middle Ages is another form of hypnosis. Receptive and suggestible individuals eagerly sought to have the godlike figure touch them and the hypnotic state was induced in a matter of seconds. In the Orient, yoga is still another form of hypnosis. Yoga uses breathing and postural exercises to effect physiologic responses in the body. The Greek and Egyptian priests used hypnosis over two thousand years ago in the treatment of various ailments.
The modern history of hypnosis began with Franz Mesmer in 1773. Mesmer worked with the Jesuit priest, Maximilian Hell, who was the royal astronomer in Vienna. They used magnets in the treatment of several cases of hysteria. Hell thought that the magnet cured because of its physical properties, while Mesmer believed that the cures were produced by a redistribution of some sort of fluid, which he called animal magnetism to distinguish it from mineral magnetism. Later he abandoned the use of magnets, since his doctrine was continually misunderstood. Many people thought that he attributed his cures to mineral magnetism.
Mesmer later observed Father Gassner obtain cures by the laying on of hands and by making passes over the subject’s body. In 1775, Mesmer expressed the opinion that Gassner was using animal magnetism without knowing it. Gassner’s bishop soon forbade any further manipulation of this kind.
Mesmer then elaborated on Gassner’s technique. He postulated that a fluid circulating in the body was influenced by the magnetic forces originating from astral bodies. The theory sounded scientific at the time. It coincided with the discovery of electricity and advances in astronomy. Mesmer later contended that he, himself, had this force and that patients could be cured when the magnetic rays flowed from his fingers.
Public pressure forced him to leave Vienna, and he moved to Paris in about 1778. There, he developed a bathlike structure, or “bacquet,” lined with iron filings and magnets. When a patient entered the bath, he “recovered” from his ailment. Neurotics, neglected by their well-meaning physicians, flocked to Mesmer’s salon from all over Europe. He developed a large following with a very high percentage of cures. He also established a tremendous reputation that incurred the animosity of his colleagues. In 1784, the French Academy appointed a committee consisting of Benjamin Franklin, Lavoisier the chemist, Dr. Guillotin, the inventor of the guillotine, and others to investigate Mesmer.
The commission found that certain persons, supposedly very sensitive to animal magnetism and capable of experiencing convulsive reactions when they touched trees that had been magnetized by stroking, could not tell which trees in an orchard had been magnetized unless they saw the magnetizing performed. If they were told that a tree had been magnetized, they could have convulsions when they touched it. The commission declared that the effects attributed to animal magnetism were the results of imagination and denounced Mesmer as a fraud. He subsequently fell into disrepute. These scientists failed to recognize, however, that suggestion resulting in strong rapport was actually responsible for the so-called cures. Though Mesmer was discredited, he actually laid the foundation for modern dynamic psychiatry. His investigations led to a better understanding of the relationship of suggestion to psychotherapy.
Interest in Mesmerism was revived by Dr. Elliotson, Professor of Medicine at University College, London, the physician who, in 1838, introduced the stethoscope to England. Dr. Elliotson was asked to resign from his college and hospital appointments because of his profound interest in Mesmeric phenomena. After his resignation, he and others carried on their research on Mesmerism. They published their findings in a journal entitled Zoist.
In 1841, another English physician, James Braid, who had originally opposed Mesmerism, became interested in the subject. He stated that animal magnetism was not involved in the cures; that they were due to suggestion. He developed the eye-fixation technique of inducing relaxation and called it “hypnosis.” Since he initially thought that hypnosis was identical with sleep, he used the term hypnos from the Greek word for “sleep.” Later, after he recognized his error, he tried to change the name to monoeidism, meaning concentration on one idea. The term “hypnosis” has persisted despite the fact that it is technically a misnomer.
In 1845 James Esdaile, a surgeon, working in the back woods of India, performed hundreds of major and minor surgical procedures on natives under Mesmeric anesthesia. Esdaile’s book, Mesmerism in India,1 published in 1850, describes over two hundred and fifty surgical operations, many of them extremely formidable ones, such as amputations of the leg, removal of huge scrotal tumors weighing from eighty to a hundred and twenty pounds, amputation of the penis, and other comparable surgery. He accurately described many of the phenomena of hypnosis as we know them. Even today this volume is a valuable scientific document. Like present-day investigators, he noted the diminution of surgical shock in his hypnotic patients. He or his native assistants mesmerized the subjects early in the morning and left them in a cataleptic state. Esdaile then went about his business, later returning and swiftly operating. His cases were all documented and observed by local dignitaries and physicians. When Esdaile returned to England and related his experiences, however, he was ridiculed and ostracized by his colleagues. He went to Scotland and eventually reported many more surgical successes. It is interesting to note that he remarked in his beautifully written book that it was difficult both to convince people of the validity of his work and to fight public opinion. These words are equally true today.