Even though most of us are well aware of what hypnosis constitutes, mesmerism is a slightly more obscure therapeutic treatment. Not only because it is in fact an unrefined form of hypnosis but also because the technique has absolutely no grounds in scientific research which eventually led to a decline in its popularity by the mid nineteenth century.
By this time most of you will be wondering what mesmerism actually is. Fear not, in this article we’ll take a brief look at one of psychology’s historical and controversial therapeutic technique and the reception it received by the community!
What is mesmerism?
Simply put, mesmerism ‘…is a technique used to put a person into a trance-like state by manipulating the body’s animal magnetism.’ While it may appear similar to hypnotherapy, it’s important to note that in mesmerism, magnets are used to influence and manipulate what Mesmer, the doctor behind this treatment, called animal magnetism. For Mesmer, disease was simply an obstruction of the invisible fluid that coursed through the body of every living organism. This invisible fluid could be influenced by the gravitational attraction between planets and since it was magnetic in nature, magnets could be used to direct it’s flow and subsequently cure disease.
How did mesmerism emerge?
When Franz Mesmer, a Viennese physician, submitted his dissertation at the University of Vienna about the discovery of animal magnetism, he assumed that there was some sort of energy, invisible to the human eye, that was responsible for the body’s well-being. Mesmer claimed that he could manipulate this energy or fluid and cure common ailments whether rooted in the mind or the body. Since he was an astronomer, Mesmer believed that the movements of the planets has a substantial effect on the human body and tried to incorporate this within his thesis.
He started practicing what he called mesmerism at his clinic in Vienna and was soon able to amass quite a following for his practice. However, the medical community had long been skeptical of the claims and when they failed to prove Mesmer’s claims true, they not only kicked him off the faculty at the University of Vienna but also forbid him from practicing medicine in Vienna.
Eventually, Mesmer moved to France and established a clinic in a rich neighborhood where he would meet with his clients; soon the number of his patients grew so large that he had to start group therapy sessions in order to accommodate everyone. One story has it that he would make his patients drink a liquid that contained metals such as iron, zinc and magnesium in it and then would move a magnet over their bodies.
Another story claims that Mesmer would cuff people with an iron rod to a machine he called the baquet. He would then move around in a circle, ceremoniously holding a magnet in his hand. Often times, this would elicit a seizure or a hysterical reaction from one patient and soon others would follow. Unfortunately, the Parisian medical community also remained unimpressed and a committee led by Benjamin Franklin, then ambassador to France, ordered by Louis XVI debarred Mesmer from practicing in France altogether.
While his work was continued even after his death and refined later on in to hypnosis by leading psychologists, it’s significance in the history or psychology and the controversy surrounding it remain unparalleled.