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  The idea of mesmerism was the invention of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 - 1815). In his medical doctoral dissertation on the effects of the planets on human behaviour, he put forward the idea of animal gravitation: the force, he claimed, which was responsible for planetary influence on human actions. While Mesmer was working with a patient who had many extreme symptoms (diagnosed a hysteric because her condition did not have an obvious organic cause), a Jesuit astronomer suggested that he use a magnetic treatment by applying magnets to the soles of her feet. This Mesmer did, with immediate effect: after a painful crisis state, seemingly brought on by the magnets, the patient recovered. Mesmer immediately began to publicize ‘his’ new technique, using the Jesuit\'s name for it, Animal Magnetism. It also became known as Mesmerism. After other successes Mesmer\'s theory was published, together with details of the alignment, ebb and flow of magnetic forces within the body. Commissions in Paris were set up to test the theory, but described it as worthless. Nevertheless many people believed in Mesmer and he had enthusiastic supporters, including the French Marquis de Puysegur. Puysegur learned how to induce the crisis state that led to recovery, but he was upset by the discomfort it caused. He tried to induce a calmer state while mesmerizing his subjects, and one day one of his patients, a boy, went into a dream-like state instead of crisis. In this state he did whatever was suggested to him, and when he came out of it he recalled nothing about this. Thus, Puysegur discovered that the changes had to do not with magnetism but with this somnambulist condition. This trance became the basis of all subsequent investigations and treatments.

Patients in a state of mesmeric trance felt no pain. A young English surgeon, James Esdaile, impressed by the mesmeric anaesthesia he witnessed, used it to anaesthetize his patients, reducing their pain and increasing their chances of survival. Another English doctor, James Braid, conducted a scientific investigation and called mesmerism ‘Neuro-hypnotism’ (nervous sleep). Shortened to Hypnotism, this term has remained with us ever since. MJ

Further reading J.E. Gordon (ed.), Handbook of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis.



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