History of hypnosis

Charcot demonstrating hypnosis on a “hysterical” Salpetriere patient, “Blanche” (Blanche Wittmann), who is supported by Dr. Joseph Babinski (rear)


The choice of a point at which to begin a history of hypnosis 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 penetrates all material bodies, but some conduct it or permit its passage more readily than others. In the animal organism it flows most readily along the nerves, and it underpins the phenomena of animal life in the same way as the ether underpins the phenomena of light. It has natural ebb and flow and a natural circulation through the body and nervous system. 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 obstructions 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. He took paying pupils, who formed themselves into a ‘Society of Harmony’ modelled on a Masonic Lodge.
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 and in 1784, after various experiments and observations, the commissioners reported unfavourably. The phenomena supposed to demonstrate the existence of ‘the fluid’ were ascribed to the imagination of the patients. Soon afterwards the Society of Harmony was badly split by internal divisions, and Mesmer increasingly retired from the limelight.

Puysegur and Victor Race

The animal magnetic movement came more and more under the influence of the discoveries and ideas of one of his pupils, Chastenet de Puysegur 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.

By | 2017-01-20T10:19:26+00:00 August 23rd, 2016|General, history of hypnosis, hypnosis, hypnotherapy|