(Investigator 107, 2006 March
of "mesmerism" was Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), a graduate of
medicine in Vienna and a believer in astrology.
the idea that the planets affected human beings through a form of
magnetism and he began treating his patients with magnets. He later
abandoned this method of treatment having decided that the true
curative influence emanated from the hand and nervous system of the
operator. He called this influence "animal magnetism."
influential of Mesmer's pupils was the Marquis de Puysegur (1751-1825),
who discovered that patients could be put into a sleep-like state in
which not only could cures be effected, but that patients would become
perfectly amenable and responsive to the commands and suggestions of
Puysegur's explanation of the phenomenon was similar to Mesmer's in
that he believed that "magnetised" objects could send subjects into a
"magnetic sleep", and that magnetism was collectable and storable, he
was convinced too that the magnetic fluid or therapeutic energy could
also be directed by the will of the operator upon the body and nervous
system of the subject.
believed that a healthy person was in contact with an inexhaustible
supply of the universal fluid and a sick person's supply had somehow
become restricted. He reasoned therefore, that a person in a
somnambulistic trance would be responsive to a magnetist's will and
that the operator would be able to direct the magnetic fluid into the
patient and remove the obstruction.
magnetic treatment, patients reported sensations of warmth or pricking,
and that their limbs would be attracted or repelled by the mesmerist.
In 1813, J.P.F.
Deleuze wrote of magnetism, that the important question was not
"whether there is a fluid spread throughout the whole of nature, but
whether there exists a modification of that fluid of which man can make
himself master for the purpose of directing it in accordance with his
alleged facts surrounding Deleuze's idea was that if the supposed jet
of "magnetic fluid" was directed by a magnetist at the region of his
subject's head, linked with a certain psychological quality, the
subject would respond appropriately and could see the auras surrounding
objects and people.
phenomenon was qualified by Baron K. von Reichenbach, a noted Austrian
chemist whose experiments showed that certain sensitive persons could
perceive lights emanating from a variety of objects and could feel
sensations of heat and cold in connection with those objects. By 1850,
the "mesmeric" movement had grown enormously on the Continent and in
the United States and Britain. Although most practitioners adhered to
Mesmer's basic theories, there were some variations.
One who was not convinced however, was Frank Podmore, a former spiritualist turned ardent sceptic and a member of the British Society for Psychical Research, who wrote
whole machinery on which the early writers relied as demonstrating the
existence of a fluid — celestial, magnetic or electric, were due
to the imagination of the subject, preternormally alive to the
suggestion by word, look, gesture, or even unexpressed thought by the
of magnetism as a therapeutic medium led to the entrepreneurial
introduction of some remarkable and often bizarre inventions, among
them, Dr Perkins Patent Tractors, consisting of two dissimilar metal
rods used to prod and caress magnetic impulses into the vitals of the
stricken — the doctor died of yellow fever unable to save himself with
his own gadgets.
Electropathic Belt, designed to give vitality to the internal organs,
relax morbid contractions and renew nerve force. Dr Scott's Electric
Hairbrush, which not only cured dandruff but also "soothed the weary
Electric Eye Battery, and ordinary eye bath in which was immersed a
small battery which it was claimed, would cure specks before the eyes
and eye weakness caused by advanced years or early excesses.
And in his Temple of Health,
"Dr" James Graham's Electromagnetico Celestial Bed was very popular
with those who could afford it. Consisting of 700 kg of magnets
supported on twenty eight glass pillars and adjustable to all angles
and inclination, the bed was guaranteed to ensure consumate pleasure
and pregnancy for the couples who queued to pay fifty Pounds a time for
magnetically assisted copulation. For those males inflicted with the
curse of impotency, a live nude goddess would attend with the promise
of a cure. The latter I would suggest would probably be more
efficacious than the magnets!
foregoing inventions and the claims made on their behalf may raise a
wry smile on today's faces, similar extraordinary claims are still made
today in respect of magnetic beads, belts and bracelets and a host of
other magnetic based therapeutic remedies recommended by ''New Age"
pseudoscientific or paranormal phenomena can be dismissed out of hand
simply because they seem far fetched, although many of the concomitant
claims need be examined closely rather than accepting them uncritically
— hypnosis is one.
In the twentieth
century, hypnosis is used by serious medical practitioners and New Age
hypnotherapists alike. It is the latter with which I am primarily
That hypnosis allows accurate and reliable memory retrieval is a common and fallacious belief.
widely used by practitioners seeking confirmation of extraordinary
claims such as reincarnation, past lives and UFO abductions, yet in
reality studies have shown that memories retrieved under hypnosis are
even more unreliable than normal memories.
questions, auto-suggestion and fabrications by both the hypnotist and
the subject can contribute to creating false memories and both the
subject (and especially a parapsychologist with a proclivity to
believe), are convinced that the memories so retrieved are true
recollections. When specific questions are put to a person under
hypnosis about details of a past life or about a past event, they are
under pressure to provide information of which no memory exists, in
which case the gaps will be filled in with memories and fantasies from
other places and times.
An internationally recognized authority on hypnosis, Martin T. Orne, (October 1979), had this to say in a paper published in The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis:
courts have recognized that hypnotic testimony is not reliable as a
means of ascertaining the truth... that it is possible for a person to
feign hypnosis and deceive even highly experienced hypnotists ... and
further, that it is possible for even deeply hypnotized subjects to
Ernest R. Hilgard, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford
University, sees the use of hypnotic recall as an abuse of hypnosis,
first because of the role that fantasy plays for hypnotically
responsive subjects and second, because abundant evidence exists that
fabrication can take place under hypnosis.
In defining the common perception of hypnosis, Spanos and Chaves point out in Hypnosis: The Cognitive-Behavioural Perspective,
that most lay people believe that it involves a trance or at least an
altered state of consciousness, brought about by a repetitive verbal
ritual after which the person hypnotized becomes amenable to the wishes
and directions of the hypnotist.
Like so many
other groundless beliefs, hypnosis fails to measure up to many of the
claims made on its behalf. In the 1950's and 1960's, control groups
were used in experiments designed to lay the ghost to rest once and for
consisted of three groups, the first was given the usual hypnotic
induction procedure, the second group was asked to imagine whatever was
suggested to them and a third was simply urged to do their best to
respond to suggestions. While all three groups responded to suggestions
for age regression, hallucination, amnesia and pain reduction, the
subjects who showed up best in tests of hypnotic suggestibility were
those who had been asked to pretend to be hypnotized, furthermore,
their performance could be improved with some training.
In other words,
what had been thought of as a genetically endowed susceptibility was in
fact a skill which could be learned. The fact is, that the hypnotic
subjects knew how they were supposed to behave and endeavoured to
behave in the manner defined by the hypnotist and understood by them.
suggestion, that is when a subject is told that he will perform a
certain action on cue after waking up, has also been shown wanting.
Thirteen subjects told to scratch their ear when they heard the word
"psychology", they all did so. The hypnotist gave impression that the
experiment was over and had an informal conversation with a colleague,
in which the cue word was used. Nine of the subjects failed to respond.
When told that the experiment was still in progress, seven of those
nine began responding again. Later, when a confederate posing as a lost
student asked for the psychology department, none of the subjects
responded to the cue word.
Peter J Reeven, a professional hypnotist, in his book The Superconscious World,
relates how David Marks, a New Zealand psychologist, selected three
secretaries from a TV station and invited them to lunch. As their car
drew up at the restaurant door an armed robbery took place outside a
garage across the road. Later, the three secretaries were questioned
under hypnosis about the colour of the get-away car, a detailed
description of the robbery, and the number of people involved. All
three gave different answers, even to the sex of the criminals. The
whole event had been staged in order to prove that hypnosis does not
work in enhancing total recall.
While there have
been many claims of hypnosis being used to reduce the effects of pain,
medical workers worldwide have been unable to replicate successes
claimed by physicians employing hypnotic analgesia.
investigations have been carried out hypnotic analgesia has suffered
the same flaws that have ruined the claims for acupuncture analgesia;
the treatment has almost always been accompanied by chemical
anesthetics, sedation or local anesthesia.
There appears to
be little consensus in law for the validity of hypnosis. In Los Angeles
it was ruled that testimony from hypnotized witnesses was not
admissible; in Canada, hypnotic suggestion is allowed as a defence
along with such influences as drugs and alcohol; and the American Law
Institute's Model Penal Code claims that anyone following hypnotic
suggestion is not acting voluntarily and therefore cannot be considered
Of concern to
skeptics is the rash of accusations of sexual abuse leveled at members
of the community in recent years, by people who have sought the
services of psychologists using hypnotherapy. Patients seeking
treatment for depression who have been hypnotised to "recover"
childhood memories are coming out of therapy claiming to be sexual
abuse victims. Opponents label it the "false memory syndrome" and claim
that therapists trigger the memories by asking leading questions and
suggesting that the abuse did happen. The results of these false
accusations have had devastating results.
Campbell, S. 1983. "The Andreasson Affair." S.I. 7(4):12.
Dihopolsky, J.G. 1984. "Hypnosis Memories Found Error-Prone and Pliable." Skeptical Inquirer, 8:208-209.
Dywan, J. and Bowers, K. 1983. The Use of Hypnosis to Enhance Recall. Science, 222, 184-185.
Egard, E. 1977. "Hypnosis Gives Rise to Fantasy and Is Not a Truth Serum." Skeptical Inquirer. 5(3):25.
Hobson, J. and McCarley, R. 1922. "Brain as a Dream State Generator." American Journal of Psychiatry. 134, 1335-1348.
Klass, P.J. 1978. "Hypnosis and UFO Abductions." S.I. (3):16-24. Reveen.
Peter J. 1987. Fantasizing Under Hypnosis. Some Experimental Evidence. Skeptical Inquirer, 12(2):181-182.
Smith, M. 1983. "Hypnotic Memory Enhancement of Witnesses: Does It Work?" Psychological Bulletin, 94, 387-407.
Spanos. Nicholas P. 1987. Past-life Hypnotic Regression: A Critical Review. Skeptical Inquirer, 12(2):174-180.
Venn, Johnathon, 1988. Hypnosis and Reincarnation: A Critique and Case Study. Skeptical Inquirer, 12(4):386-391.
Williams, Barry 1994. Abuse by Whom? the Skeptic, 14(3):27-29.
From: Edwards, H. A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age, NSW, 2106.