HYPNOSIS  Mesmerism

(Investigator 107, 2006 March

The originator of "mesmerism" was Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), a graduate of medicine in Vienna and a believer in astrology.

Mesmer conceived 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."

The most 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 the mesmerist.

Although 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.

Puysegur also 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.

Following 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 wish."

Among the 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.

The latter 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

"the 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 operator."

The popularity 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.

The 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 brain".

The Patent 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!

While the 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" protagonists.

Not all 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 concerned.

That hypnosis allows accurate and reliable memory retrieval is a common and fallacious belief.

Hypnosis is 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.

Leading 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:

"The 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 willfully lie."

Confirming this, 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 all.

One experiment 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.

Post hypnotic 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.

Where thorough 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 criminally liable.

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.


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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.

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Peter J. 1987. Fantasizing Under Hypnosis. Some Experimental Evidence. Skeptical Inquirer, 12(2):181-182.

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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.