The study of hypnosis can throw much light on our understanding of interpersonal relations. The concept of hypnosis has undergone a significant evolution in recent decades. (Cf. Leon Chertok, M.D., 22 Rue Legendre, Paris (17E), France, author of an article "Relation and Influence," appearing in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, Volume 29, Nubmer 1, July 1986, pp. 13-22)
Franz Anton Mesmer (1736-1815)
First of his writings in our possession was his doctoral thesis presented at the Viennese Facultgy of Medicine in 1766, entitled "De planetarum influxu" (Of the influence of the planets). Mesmer argued that living bodies, humans in particular, are subject to the influence of the stars.
He married a young wealthy widow in 1766 and lived a life of luxury for six years, after which he ran out of money and returned to the practice of medicine. What little medicine he did at the time was conventional.
In 1772, he was obliged to work and turned to magnetic medicine. This phenonomenon was being studied by Father Maximilian Hell, Director of the Vienna Observatory and Astronomer Royal. He had begun to use it in the treatment of nervous disorders.
In 1774, Mesmer was treating Mademoiselle Oesterline, a young woman suffering from symptoms of hysteria. Using conventional medical methods, Mesmer was unable to help the woman. He decided to try treatment by magnetism. He noted that the application of the magnets produced a crisis in his patient, after which the symptoms disappeared. The cure was connected with the crisis. But what precisely had happened? The woman's pains which had previously been localized in one part of the body suddenly pervaded the entire body. Mesmer concluded from this experiment that the physical existence of beings is governed by a kind of force, a magnetic matter. Sickness is related to the way this force is distributed in the body, a lack of harmony, or an uneven distribution.
Mesmer attempted to extend the laws of ordinary magnetism to the body, which he conceived of as a filed of magnetic forces identical in nature to those at work in the inanimate world.
Mesmer later reconized that the therapeutic power did not lie in the magnet itself. In his words: "I have observed that magnetic matter is almost the same thing as electrical fluid, and that it sperads in the same manner, through intermediate bodies. Steel is not the only substance capable of this: I have also magnetized paper, bread, wool, silk, leather, stones, glass, water, different metals, wood, men, dogs, in a word, everything I laid hands on, so that these substances produced in sick people the same effects as the magnet" (F.A. Mesmer, 1971, Le magnetisme animal. works published by Robert Amadou with commentaries and notes by Frank A. Pattie and Jean Vinchon, Paris: Payot).
From this observation, Mesmer evolved the concept of animal magnetism. The therapeutic action is still caused by a physical process, but it is the magnetizer's personality which influences the patient. What matters now, is not the magnetic substance itself, but the passes and touching of the physician.
This was a revolutionary concept at the time, acknowledging the existence of a specifically human force of attraction. Now the therapist himself was involved in the curative process. Mesmer mentioned the importance of the therapist's "will to heal".
What exactly did Mesmer do? He established a "rapport" with his patient first by pressing his knees against his patient's knees or by rubbing his thumbs against theirs. Then he made a series of passes. He progressed then to collective seances around a baquet, a large basic filled with water, broken glass, pebbles and iron filings; iron bars protruded from the basin and were grasped by the patients, who were joined together by a string along which the fluid was supposed to circulate. Mesmer held a magnetic wand in his hand, going from patient to patient, here and there provoking a crisis, and the patienst thus affected were taken off to padded individual cabins in order to allow their crises to develop. In one corner of the room, a small orchestra created a propitious atmosphere for the onset of crises. Mesmer, apparently, loved music and held that sound was an outstanding conductor of the fluid.
Mesmer's practice was soon condemned by the medial profession of his day. A Royal Commission was set up to investigate Mesmer and the Commission finally denounced him. His techniques were said to be "dangerous to morals". But the Commission was astute in concluding that his "cures" could not be attributed to a material force he called the fluid, but to a psychic factor. They also recognized that the psychic dimension necessarily entails broaching the sexual dimension of the relation between doctor and patient, a relationship later observed by Freud.
One of Mesmer's pupils, the Marquis de Puysegur (1751-1825), made an important discovery, the hynotic state of somnambulism. He called it magnetic somnambulism. He magentized a shephard named Victor, in his village, who fell into a sort of sleep during which he remained conscious, capable of seeing, walking and speaking, but only at the magnetizers direction. When awakened, Victor could remember nothing of what had happened during his sleep. Mesmer had run into the same phenomenon, and described it as "critical sleep", but he attached no importance to it, considering it an unnecessary complication.
The ability to carry on a conversation with the person in this state created a new dimension for therapy. The patient was now not just a body to be manipulated. Puysegar now began to question the patient in somnabulism about the seat of his ailment, the date of his possible cure, and how to proceed with the treatment. He discovered that in somnambulism the patient becomes particularly luck about his illness.
This happened a century before Freud. Puysegar had a pupil, Deleuze (1753-1835) who evolved what amounted to a theory to explain what was happening in these so-called magnetic cures, resembling what we would call the process of psychoanalysis. He suggested that the cure depended upon the "rapport" or bond between the therapist and patient. He noticed that when the patient was cured, the bond ceased to exist and the patient became immune to magntic influence. Author writers of the time (Virey in 1818 and de Vilers in 1787) went even further than Deleuze arguing that feeling was the prime mover in the treatment.
An important break from the Mesmer tradition occurred in the 19th century with the work of Braid, a Manchester surgeon, who coined the word hypnotism in 1843. The theory shifted from the concept of a magnetic fluid to the a neuro-physiological concept of hypnosis.
Faria in 1814 and Bertrand in 1823 denied the existence of a fluid, claiming that everything happened in the patient's mind. To prove the point, Faria put a subject to sleep without the aid of magnetic passes. Brain went further inducing hypnotic sleed by getting the subject to fix on a shiny object. He concluded that muscle fatigue in the eye brought on partial sleep. Hypnosis, he suggested, was simply a mechanical process occurring in the brain.