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The history of hypnosis

The choice of a point at which to begin a history of hypnotism is always more or less arbitrary. As good a point as any is the arrival at Paris in the year 1778 of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), an Austrian physician. Mesmer had formed the opinion, partly as a result of a study of the supposed influence of the moon and planets on the course of diseases, that the 'universe is filled with an extremely fine, quasi-magnetic fluid.

This fluid penetrated all material bodies, but some conduct it or permit its passage more readily than others. In the animals it flows most readily along the nerves. Disease is due to blockage of this circulation and treatment should be aimed at overcoming the blockage by increasing the availability of fluid and setting it in more vigorous motion.

At first Mesmer used magnets for these purposes, but soon came to believe that the human hand and eye exuded the fluid ('animal magnetism'). Hence he began to treat patients simply with hand contact and 'passes' made over the body from the head downwards, or over the affected part, or by pointing an iron rod towards them. He also came to believe that the fluid could be accumulated in certain substances or objects, e.g. water and trees, and would discharge when a suitable conductor - e.g. a metal rod or the body of a patient was brought near. Hence drinking 'magnetized' water could be very beneficial to certain patients.

The immediate effects upon patients of this re-vitalized circulation of the fluid, and of the breakdown of obstructi6ns thereto, varied a good deal. Patients might feel pains, cough, fall asleep or suffer from unpleasant quasi-, epileptic convulsions. But all of these were signs that progress was being made. It should be noted that Mesmer was prepared to treat most kinds of ailments and not (as is often implied) just ones that would nowadays be referred to a psychotherapist. The same was true of his followers and successors in the 'animal magnetic' movement.

Although Mesmer's activities had been frowned on by the Austrian authorities, in Paris he was extremely successful. Crowds of patients thronged his salon, and he devised methods of treating groups of patients together, such as the baguette, a tub of magnetized substances from which iron rods protruded, and, for the poor, a magnetized tree.

This society, and various daughter societies, began to attract unfavourable attention from the Government, which suspected them of political radicalism. , Two Royal Commissions were appointed to investigate the claims of animal magnetism. Mesmer refused to cooperate with them (although a former colleague of his, C. Deslon, physician to the Comte d'Artois did so) and in 1784, after various experiments and observations, the commissioners reported unfavourably and Mesmer increasingly retired from the limelight.

The animal magnetic movement came more and more under the influence of the discoveries and ideas of one of his pupils, A.M.J. de Chastenet, Marquis de Puysegur (1751-1825). Puysegur was not especially impressed by the course of instruction which he had received from Mesmer in the spring of 1784, but when he returned to his estate near Soissons he tried Mesmer's methods of treatment on several of his employees and dependents. In particular he tried them on a young peasant named Victor Race, who was feverish with an inflammation of the lungs.

Victor fell asleep, but after a while, to Puysgur's surprise, began to talk spontaneously about his domestic worries. Puysegur endeavoured to distract him from these by taking him on what would now be termed a guided fantasy. Restored to his normal state, Victor could remember nothing of these events, but felt much better.

During his convalescence he was again several times put by 'magnetic' influence into this 'somnambulistic' state and while in it proved to have other remarkable gifts. He appeared to enjoy a peculiar 'rapport' with Puysegur who got the impression that he could make him perform various actions by silent willing. Victor also seemed to have a strange insight into his own illness, diagnosing and prescribing for it himself.

Indeed on being brought into contact with other patients he seemed able to sense their ailments (Puysegur speaks of his 'clairvoyance') and was able to advise about treatment and outcome. Furthermore, during the somnambulistic state his speech and general intelligence seemed curiously improved. Word of Puysegur's therapeutic successes spread rapidly round the estate and the neighbourhood, and he was soon assailed by throngs of would-be patients. He magnetized a large elm tree for their benefit and discovered further 'clairvoyant' somnambulism who could diagnose and prescribe as Victor had done. (It was part of mesmeric teaching that the magnetic field lost its influence upon patients as soon as they were cured).
He told other magnetizers of his results, and published a pamphlet and a book in which they were detailed (Chastenet de Puysegur 1784a; 1784b). Magnetic somnambulism rather rapidly caught on and numerous somnambules appeared round the country. The literature of animal magnetism grew enormously, and the dominant influence was now Puysegur rather than Mesmer.

The cures produced by Puysegur's methods seemed just as numerous as those produced by Mesmer's, and the unpleasant convulsions and so on which had been a spectacle in Mesmer's salons were absent.Though Puysegur continued to believe that the magnetizer exerts a direct physical influence upon his patients, he was not specific about the nature of this influence, and did not follow Mesmer in regarding 'animal magnetism' as a kind of 'ether', spread throughout the universe. He also held that this physical influence, whatever its nature, can be directed by the will, as well as by the manipulations of the operator. Thus there is, as it were, a psychological element in the process of magnetization. But Puysgur never went so far as to say that the supposed 'magnetic influence' was at root purely psychological.

The 'somnambulistic state' has in retrospect usually been identified with the 'hypnotic trance' (whatever that may entail), and certainly between 1784 and the beginnings of the French Revolution in1789 (which damped down the magnetic movement in France for some twenty years) 'magnetic' somnambulism exhibited many of the phenomena subsequently thought characteristic of the hypnotic trance - rapport with the magnetizer, enhanced dramatic and role-playing abilities, amnesia when awake for the events of the somnambulistic state, recollection of those events in subsequent somnambulistic states, responsiveness to what would now be called post-hypnotic suggestions, hallucinations due to implicit suggestions made by the magnetizer or implied by the circumstances, and so on.

These hallucinations were commonly of luminous magnetic field streaming from the hands and eyes of the magnetizer, or of a peculiar taste acquired by magnetized water. The magnetizers found in them abundant confirmation of the existence of the magnetic fluid.
By about 1787 the animal magnetic, or 'mesmeric', movement had begun to catch on in Germany, and gradually attracted serious attention there among members of the medical profession (which in France had been for the most part hostile). The most notable early students were perhaps E. Gmelin (1751-1809) of Heil-bronn, and A. Wienholt (1749-1804) of Bremen. This period of German animal magnetism is summarized in detail by Kluge (1811).
From about 1815 the leading figure in German mesmerism was K.C. Wolfart (1778-1832), who had sought out and visited Mesmer in his retirement. Wolfart ran a state-subsidized magnetic clinic in Berlin. This clinic became a kind of show-piece for visitors from Germany and abroad and stimulated some interest in animal magnetism in Russia and the Scandinavian countries. In the 1820s and 1830s, however, magnetism in the German-speaking countries took an increasingly mystical turn, and somnambulistic clairvoyants turned more and more to visions of the next world and contacts with its occupants, a development which ultimately led to the genesis of modern Spiritualism.

Meanwhile from about 1809 animal magnetism gradually began to revive in France, the most prominent figures being Puysegur and J.P.F. Deleuze (1753-1835). The Paris hospitals were at this time the medical centre of the world, and for a brief period in the 1820s there were signs that a few prominent medical men were prepared to investigate the claims of the animal magnetists seriously. But this phase passed, and, though interest continued to grow, the subject passed mainly into the hands of provincial medical men, and semi-professional magnetic writers and demonstrators like J.D. Dupotet (1796-1881). Some of these public demonstrators travelled abroad quite extensively, and stirred up interest in the subject in Britain and Italy. Another Frenchman, Charles Poyen, was largely responsible for introducing the animal magnetic movement into the United States in the late 1830s.

In Britain interest grew slowly but steadily, despite the violent hostility of much of the medical profession. The acknowledged leader of the movement was John Elliotson (1791-1868), a distinguished physician whose demonstrations of animal magnetism had cost him his chair at University College, London. Elliotson was a pugnacious person, who gave in controversy as good as he got, and for thirteen years edited The Zoist (1843-1856), a periodical which provided the mesmerists with a vigorous forum. He was about as far removed as could be from the German mystical magnetists A materialist and a supporter of phrenology; he published in The Zoist many accounts of 'phrenomesmeric' phenomena, i.e. phenomena produced by exciting with the magnetic fluid particular phrenological regions of the skulls of somnambulistic subjects.

Of greater long-term interest are the numerous accounts in The Zoist of surgery carried out under mesmeric analgesia. Those somnambulistic subjects might show an apparently spontaneous analgesia sufficiently deep to permit the performance upon them of severe surgical operations had been claimed for some time, but only in the mid-1840s were large numbers of instances at last reported. Particularly influential here were the numerous cases of apparently painless operations upon patients in 'the mesmeric sleep' reported by James Esdaile (18081859), a surgeon in the employ of the East India Company (Esdaile, 1846). Some of the operations reported by Esdaile and others are very remarkable indeed, and captured a good deal of public, and some medical, attention. But before 1850 chemical anaesthetics were coming into general use, and mesmeric analgesia was soon almost forgotten.

The year 1850 or thereabouts marked the high point of the animal magnetic movement. It did not, however, disappear or decline suddenly; rather it fragmented, lost impetus, became more and more the property of fringe healers, and was absorbed into Spiritualism and other occult movements. No one killed it, and certainly not, as is sometimes implied, James Braid (1795-1860), the Manchester surgeon who gave currency to the terms 'hypnotism' and 'hypnosis' (Braid, 1843).

Braid used eye-fixation on a bright object to send his subjects into a 'trance', and was able by this means to reproduce some proportion of the mesmeric phenomena and cures. But the magnetists had no difficulty in assimilating his findings into their own scheme of things. Animal magnetism declined as much as anything because advances in the understanding of electricity and magnetism and of-the physiology of the nervous system had reached a point at which it was no longer even conceivable that the theoretical scheme of the magnetists could be brought into line with the general body of scientific knowledge. Scientifically or medically educated persons largely lost interest in it, while persons of more occultist tendencies found in the second half of the nineteenth century many rival matters of interest.

It is not easy to chart the transition from the animal magnetic movement to the hypnotic one. Occasionally during the course of the magnetic movement there had appeared persons who accepted the magnetic phenomena, but denied the magnetists' explanation of them, preferring an explanation in psychological terms. Among them were, in England, James Braid, in France, J.C. de Faria (1756-1819) and Alexandre Bertrand (1795-1831), and in the United States, LaRoy Sunderland (1804-1885).

But the person who above all others helped to put hypnotism on the map and give it scientific respectability was J.M. Charcot (1825-1893), head of the neurological clinic at the Salpetriere in Paris, and one of the most celebrated savants of his time. Charcot's interest in hypnotism arose out of his studies of hysteria, and he regarded both as aspects of the same underlying neuropathological condition. He thought that he could distinguish in his subjects (who were all female hysterics) three states or stages of hypnotic phenomena:
"Lethargy (produced by forcibly closing the subject's eyes) in which the patient is apparently deeply asleep and inaccessible to most kind of stimulation."
"Catalepsy (brought on by sudden forcible opening of the eyes, or by a sudden bright light or loud sound) in which the eyes are staring and the limbs and body plastic to attitudes imposed upon them."
"Somnambulism (produced in patients in either of the preceding two states by rubbing the top of the head) in which the subject is aware of external stimuli and can walk, talk and respond to suggestions." These three states together made up 'major hypnotism'. Charcot did not get so far as to investigate 'minor hypnotism', roughly speaking the state reached by the good hypnotic subjects who manifest the sorts of phenomena demonstrated in stage exhibitions of hypnotism.

As a neurologist Charcot was particularly impressed by the fact that patients in the various stages of major hypnotism exhibited certain specific neuromuscular reflexes in response to specific kinds of stimulation. He thought that these reflexes could not be counterfeited by medically uneducated persons. In February 1882 he read a paper on the subject before the Academy of Sciences. So great was Charcot's fame that hypnotism became scientifically respectable almost overnight, and in the next few years a large number of papers on the subject were published. Unfortunately there was a fly in the ointment, or to be precise several flies, namely Charcot's pupils and assistants. Charcot did not do his own hypnotizing. He performed his demonstrations with subjects who had already been frequently hypnotized by juniors anxious to please the professor; indeed some of his subjects had apparently been magnetized by a keen animal magnetist who was accustomed to visit his clinic. These subjects knew exactly what the professor expected, and soon the great man found himself under attack from persons who, though less distinguished than he, had a better awareness of the psychology of the hysteric.

Charcot's principal opponent was H. Bernheim (1837-1919), professor of medicine at the University of Nancy. In the early 1880s Bernheim fell under the influence of a local medical practitioner, A.A. Liebault (1823-1904). Liebault had been interested for many years in the phenomena of animal magnetism and, in part through reading Bertrand, had formed the opinion that magnetic somnambulism was a form of natural sleep produced by suggestion. He began to treat patients by inducing this sleep through verbal suggestions designed to focus their minds on the idea of sleep and then telling them that their ailments would improve.

Bernheim visited Liebault's clinic and was greatly impressed by his therapeutic successes. On his return to Nancy, Bernheim tried out Liebault's methods for himself. He found that many hysterical and psychosomatic ailments would yield to them, and that they were also beneficial in various kinds of physical disease where the procuring of rest and the alleviation of pain were of paramount importance.

He set out his results in a number of publications (See especially Bernheim, 1886), and he attacked Charcot and his followers on the grounds that the three states of major hypnotism could only be discovered in patients who had been antecedent led to expect them. Bernheim's views gained ground, and a sharp war ensued between the 'School' of Nancy and that of the Salpetriere. It was won hands down by the former.

Nancy now became a centre for visitors, as the Salpetriere had been, and its influence spread across France and Europe, so that for a brief period - say from about 1886 to about 1899 - all kinds of psychological, psychosomatic and nervous disorders were treated by hypnotism. The main interests were in the practical applications of hypnotism in psychotherapy, pedagogy and criminology (there was much concern over the possibilities of 'hypnotic crime', and some quite hair-raising experiments were carried out in that connection).

But it also came to be demonstrated that most of the more exciting phenomena favoured by the itinerant magnetic demonstrators - for instance positive and negative hallucinations, analgesia, the apparent abolition of sensations from other modalities, control over the voluntary muscles, play-acting, delusions, selective post-hypnotic amnesias and responsiveness to post-hypnotic suggestions could be readily produced in subjects hypnotized by their methods.

It is appropriate to use inverted commas when talking of the Nancy 'School', because the 'members' differed amongst themselves on various issues, and did not agree on all theoretical matters. Suggestion' was their key term, but it was not agreed whether it was a special state, induced by suggestion, in which responsiveness to suggestion was itself enhanced.
Another view, associated especially with the name of Pierre Janet (1859-1947), who had worked at the Salpietriere, sought to explain hypnotic phenomena in terms of the functioning of 'dissociated' streams of consciousness. To this way of thinking hypnotic phenomena were closely related to such psychopathological states as hysterical fugue and multiple personality.
Nineteenth century hypnotic literature was overwhelmingly a clinical literature; much of it consisted of case reports, and what were called 'experiments' were often simply the detailed testing of a single individual. The first few decades of the twentieth century saw the gradual emergence of a true experimental psychology of hypnotism, with attention to the need for control conditions and the careful design of experiments. Particularly influential here was a work by C.L. Hull (1884-1952) namely his Hypnosis and Suggestibility (1933). These two traditions, the clinical and the experimental, occasionally came into conflict with each other.
Other influences which fed into hypnotism at this time came from behaviourism and psychoanalysis. Attempts to apply behaviourist ideas in the explanation of hypnotic phenomena were not, on the whole, very successful. The inflow from psychoanalysis was perhaps more productive, and hypnotism began to be used as an adjunct to broadly psychoanalytic therapies for instance to overcome resistances and to disinter buried memories of traumatic events. Milton H. Erickson (1901-1980), perhaps the most accomplished hypnotic practitioner of modern times, began to develop his own individual approach to psychotherapy through hypnosis.
On balance, however, twentieth century hypnotism remained until the late 1950s much under the influence of nineteenth century ideas and observations. At this point there began a period, not yet over, of renewed questioning of older assumptions and observations.
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