After Mesmer (Part 2 of 2)

Continued from Part 1

As a "common-sense" alternative to "Mesmerism", James Braid coined his own term:  "hypnotism".   Also known as "nervous sleep", Braid defined the state of suggestibility that he induced in his patients as: 

a peculiar condition of the nervous system, into which it may be thrown by artificial contrivance, and which differs, in several respects, from common sleep or the waking condition. I do not allege that this condition is induced through the transmission of a magnetic or occult influence from my body into that of my patients; nor do I profess, by my processes, to produce the higher [i.e., supernatural] phenomena of the Mesmerists. My pretensions are of a much more humble character, and are all consistent with generally admitted principles in physiological and psychological science.

Braid also discovered that the classic Mesmerist approach to inducing a hypnotic state was actually not necessary.   Through work with his own patients, he learned that he could induce hypnosis simply 453px-James_Braid%2C_portrait[1]using voice instructions and having subjects focus on a shiny object that he moved in front of their eyes (Braid used a scalpel case).     He also developed several different techniques for hypnotic induction (which are still largely used today by hypnotists) and even discovered that he could implant suggestions in patients while they were under hypnosis  (Braid downplayed this considering the sinister reputation that Mesmerists already had).   An Attempt to read his 1842 paper, "Practical Essay on the Curative Agency of Neuro-Hypnotism" to a British science group was rejected at the last minute and Braid faced an uphill battle to separate his own work from what the Mesmerists were claiming.   As he pointed out in a letter to the Lancet in 1845,

"I adopted the term "hypnotism" to prevent my being confounded with those who entertain those extreme notions [that a mesmeriser's will has an "irresistible power… over his subjects" and that clairvoyance and other "higher phenomena" are routinely manifested by those in the mesmeric state], as well as to get rid of the erroneous theory about a magnetic fluid, or exoteric influence of any description being the cause of the sleep. I distinctly avowed that hypnotism laid no claim to produce any phenomena which were not "quite reconcilable with well-established physiological and psychological principles"; pointed out the various sources of fallacy which might have misled the mesmerists; [and] was the first to give a public explanation of the trick [by which a fraudulent subject had been able to deceive his mesmerizer]

Although Braid was never fond of the term "hypnosis" (which he felt made it seem too much like a form of sleep), he could never find a term that worked better.   His own suggestion of "monoideism" never caught on and critics simply called his new technique "Braidism".   By the time of his death in 1860,  James Braid had managed to inspire a new generation of medical doctors and researchers to continue his work.  

In France, the movement that Braid started actually split into two main schools:  the Nancy school (a.k.a. the "Suggestion school") founded by Ambroise-August Liebeault and the Paris school founded by Jean-Martin Charcot.   Liebeault started his own work with hypnosis in the same year that Braid died.  He was a close friend of Braid's chief French disciple, Etienne Eugene Azam, and learned about Braid's ideas on hypnosis and suggestion.   Being a general practitioner with a practice in the country, Liebeault had to promise patients free medical care so long as they agree to let him use hypnosis in their treatment.   He soon found himself with more patients than he could handle but his use of hypnosis upset his medical colleagues (who equated hypnosis with Mesmerism).    Although Liebeault managed to publish his book, "Le sommeil et les états analogues, considérés surtout du point de vue de l'action du moral sur le physique" (Sleep and its analogous states considered from the perspective of the action of the mind upon the body) in 1866, there was not a lot of interest (according to legend, it sold only a single copy in ten years).   While he became more famous later in life,  Liebeault's only real source of income was his medical practice (and that income was limited considering that most of his patients could not afford to pay him).  

Jean-Martin Charcot had an easier time of it overall.   Not only was he a giant in the field of neurology but he also worked and taught at the famous Salpetrerie Hospital in Paris.   While best known for his work in hypnosis and hysteria, Charcot also has a lengthy list of diseases named after him.  Along with his prize pupil, George Gilles de la Tourette, Charcot treated patients from all over the world and managed to given hypnosis the respect that it badly neede.   It was Charcot who formed many of the modern ideas about hypnosis, including the link between hypnosis and suggestability (although he mistakenly assumed that it was an element of hysteria and that hysterics were the only ones who could be hypnotized).   He and Tourette conducted numerous public demonstrations of hypnosis at Salpretrerie Hospital and repeatedly hypnotized patients to show that hypnosis was harmless and effective.   At least, that was what he intended.   Gilles de la Tourette was later shot and nearly killed in 1893 by a patient who believed that he and Charcot had "ruined her life" by causing her mental illness using hypnosis.  If Charcot and Tourette managed to give hypnosis a new respectability, the sinister Svengali-like reputation never really went away either.

While the new fame that hypnosis enjoyed was enough to attract serious attention from rising stars in neurology such as Sigmund Freud, the failure of hypnosis to live up to its early promise seemed obvious as well.   Despite studying with Charcot and Liebeault, Freud eventually abandoned hypnotherapy completely in favour of his own "talking cure" which he felt was more effective.   Well into the 20th century, scientific reformers including  Emile Coue, Clark Hull,  Dave Elman and Milton Erickson attempted to make hypnotherapy more acceptable as a mainstream tool.   Despite the popularization of hypnosis by entertainers and therapists, hypnosis still suffers from a serious identity problem as scientists and skeptics still wrestle with the problem of exactly what hypnosis is.  Not only has it failed to live up to the reputation laid down by the vast array of hypnosis-themed books, movies, and other entertainment avenues making hypnosis a cultural icon, but its value as a tool for medical and mental health professionals has been limited as well.   That includes forensic applications with hypnotic recall being found to be no better than simple relaxation for retrieving information from memory (and being much worse given the vulnerability of suggestible subjects to false memories implanted by improperly used hypnotic techniques).

The fundamental question of whether or not a hypnotic "state" actually exists has never been answered to anyone's satisfaction.   Although James Braid initially argued that hypnosis was a special state, even he backed away from that position later in life.   Pierre Janet and Ernest Hilgard both argued that hypnosis was a form of dissociation in which subjects voluntarily divided their consciousness.  Whatever the explanation given, the physiological evidence for the existence of a hypnotic state or trance remains minimal.  Neurological imaging studies have shown some brain changes in highly suggestible subjects during hypnosis but the changes are hardly unique and have also been observed in conscious subjects as well.  While some studies have suggested that neurological changes can occur under limited circumstances, these results remain controversial.

Nearly two enturies after Franz Mesmer's death, the question of what he had actually discovered seems as relevant as ever.   If hypnosis remains an international phenomenon with hypnotherapists practicing in nearly every country in the world,  skepticism about the very nature of hypnosis still remains strong.   Famous stage magician-hypnotists such as the Amazing Kreskin and Peter Reveen have openly denied that hypnosis is real.  Kreskin has even gone so far as to offer a $100,000 reward to any hypnotist or psychologist who can prove the existence of a hypnotic trance under controlled scientific conditions.   No one has ever collected on that challenge.

So, the next time anyone suggests that you try hypnosis to lose weight, recall past lives, or eliminate pain, spare a thought for Franz Mesmer and the controversy that remains his greatest legacy.  

Just a suggestion...



Related Stories

  • After Mesmer (Part 1 of 2)
  • Investigating Mesmer (Part 2 of 2)
  • Investigating Mesmer (Part 1 of 2)


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