Hypnosis in History: Franz Anton Mesmer
I'm sure you have heard of Mesmerism, or feeling mesmerised, but you may not know that this comes from Franz Anton Mesmer (1754-1815). He was interested in magnetism, having watched a demonstration of ‘magnetic cures’ and exorcisms by a priest called Father Maximillian Hell in 1774.
In 1766, Mesmer wrote his university dissertation ‘On the Influence of the Heavenly Bodies on the Human Body’. Many of his ideas were ‘borrowed’ from others and he tapped into some of the most exciting new discoveries of the day; he combined physics and Newton’s ideas about gravity and tides, along with a theory from Richard Mead, the London physician who attended Queen Anne and Isaac Newton. Mead believed that the pull of the planets affected a ‘nervous fluid’ in the body, and Mesmer developed this to suggest that the movement of the planets created tides in the body, in much the same way as they created tides in the sea.
Mesmer believed that all living things had these magnetic fields running through them, which he called 'animal magnetism', carried by an invisible magnetic fluid. Essentially if the magnetic fluid was balanced within our bodies we were well. If the equilibrium was disturbed we became unwell but could be helped by using magnets to correct the imbalance. Later he found that items such as paper and wood could be ‘magnetised’ using his methods, and worked just as well as metal bars; also that the laying on of hands could be sufficient. Later still he found that simply speaking to the patient could help. He told patients that they should 'reach further into their minds' to be cured by focussing on the heavenly powers in their bodies. Many of his patients went into a convulsion known as a 'grand crisis', which may simply have been an emotional outburst, but which some writers feel was linked to undiagnosed epilepsy. Either way, Mesmer felt it was part of the cure.
Mesmer adapted his theories as he continued his work, eventually becoming convinced that some people's animal magnetism (including his own) was especially powerful and that he was therefore personally responsible for the cures he achieved. Although he did get results, this theory was derided by the medical profession.
Mesmer worked in Vienna at first but a three-year investigation of his work was commissioned. It was very critical in its findings so he moved to Paris, then Belgium, then back to Paris, never really gaining the credibility he wanted from the medical or scientific communities.
Mesmer worked in a highly ritualised way, surrounded by exotic décor and wearing a cloak bearing occult symbols, with ethereal music playing in the background. He developed ways of treating more than one patient at a time, such as magnetising trees, to which iron bars could be attached with ropes. He also developed the bacquet, which allowed around 20 people at a time to sit around a kind of large wooden bath containing (of course) items influenced by Mesmer's own special animal magnetism.
Another investigation, this time by a commission appointed by Louis XVI and headed by Benjamin Franklin, showed that whether the trees or water had actually been magnetised did not have as much influence over his results as whether Mesmer’s patients believed they had.
They concluded that Mesmer's theories were wrong, but never asked the obvious questions about the role of belief, or what other theories might explain why so many of his patients got better.
This undermining of Mesmer’s theories destroyed his patients’ confidence and his career. He retired to a quiet life in Switzerland, where he eventually died.
I would not consider myself a Mesmerist. I don't wear a Harry Potter type outfit and, although I do often play some quiet music in the background, I don't make mysterious 'passes' with my hands or assume that it's my 'special influence' on you that solves your problems. In fact, as a modern hypnotherapist, I believe it's your own special qualities that get you back in control of your life - my role is to identify them and show you how to use them to best advantage.
However, despite these differences, I still think that Mesmer's work was important to the development of hypnotherapy as it is today. He was one of the first people to connect the mind with physical well-being, and the Franklin investigation (though dramatically unhelpful to Mesmer himself) highlighted the importance of belief in using psychological approaches to wellness.
Debbie Waller is a professional hypnotherapist, specialising in stress, anxiety and related issues. She also offers EMDR which is used for trauma, PTSD, phobias and OCD and publishes hypnotherapy-for-ibs.co.uk for those interested in using hypnotherapy to relieve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
Debbie owns a multi-accredited hypnotherapy school, Yorkshire Hypnotherapy Training and offers further training for qualified therapists via CPD Expert. She is the author of Their Worlds, Your Words, editor and contributor to the online magazine Hypnotherapy Training & Practitioner, and co-author of The Hypnotherapy Handbook.
For more information on any of these services, phone 01977 678593.
Researcher & drafter on these blogs: Rachel Waller.