1. Ancient World to Giambattista Vico (1710). Anima, Animal spirits, and Animal Magnetism.

[anima, Latin. Variously ‘air’, ‘breath’, ‘life’, later ‘mind’ or ‘soul’, SOED; animal, Latin. ‘Having vital breath’. magnetism, Latin. ‘magneta’, from Greek. ‘Magnes’ ‘magnetos’, magnet; magnes stone, lodestone, Greek. ‘lithos’]

Whilst relevant roots may be found in Plato and Aristotle - and even in Ancient Egypt’s priests and enchanters - the later Greek physician ERASISTRATUS of Ceos, who flourished c. 300-250 BC, provides a more consolidated and satisfactory place to begin. His concept of the pneuma as a subtle vapour or air sustaining life and especially via respiration, gave birth to the Alexandrian Medical School’s teaching on pneumatism. His two kinds of pneuma were ‘vital spirit’, less active and formed in the heart from blood; and ‘animal spirit’, more active and formed in the brain and the nerves from the prior substance. Also from the Ancient World came the magnetic and puzzling lodestone, named after the region of Magnesia in Lydia (Anatolia), where the black iron ore magnetite, a complex oxide of iron (Lat. ferrum, Fe) was found in igneous rocks. These various strands of spiritual hypothesising and empirical fact would continue as subtly entwined parallels for the next two millennia, especially via Latin authors such as Galen, Lucretius, and later Vico (1668-1744).1

2. Stahl to Mesmer. Alchemy to Animism

The German chemist and physician Georg Ernst Stahl (1660-1734)2 was well-versed in the alchemical traditions: of the great Arab alembic-distiller, Jebir, b. 722 AD; Avicenna, c. 1019, and Roger Bacon, b. 1220; Georg Agricola; the great Paracelsus, 1493-1541, who established a role for Chemistry in Medicine; of van Helmont, and the more rational new chemistry of Brand, Becher, [Robert Boyle in England], and Mayow with his Tractatus (1674) on the nature of combustion.

Stahl was also influenced by Pietism, and by his father, a church minister. In medical training at Jena, new influences came from the Chemiatric School of Wedel, which attempted to explain all living processes by reduction to chemistry. An opposing School, of Iatromechanics, viewed living organisms as machines run by the Laws of Classical Mechanics [see Mesmer, below, after Newton]. In 1694 Stahl was invited to an academic post at the Medical School of the new university of Halle, where he at first enjoyed a friendship, followed by rivalry and antagonism, with the iatromechanist Hoffmann. By 1716 Stahl, in the ascendancy, was invited to Berlin, called there by the King of Prussia.

In addition to both chemiatric and iatromechanist views, Stahl also insisted upon a role for the anima, from which he developed a new concept of Animism [later Vitalism, Antimaterialism]. His most famous, albeit misguided, venture, was the theory of Phlogiston, a supposedly ‘vital’ substance which burned away whenever there was chemical combustion. The name had been derived from van Helmont, whilst the concept was still ‘spirit-based’, in the lengthy traditions from Aristotle and alchemy.

Stahl’s widespread influence and teaching were only to be overturned when a greater chemist, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, 1743-1794, by careful measurement of the weights of gases oxygen and nitrogen, demonstrated that no new substance was added to air on combustion, whilst in fact something [oxygen] was taken from the air, to reside in the new chemical compounds formed [oxides, oxidation].

3. Franz Anton Mesmer. Animism to Mesmerism

Mesmer, 1734-1815, coincidentally, was born in the very year which saw the death of the chemical-vitalist Stahl.3 The younger German scholar studied and practiced Medicine in Vienna, presenting in 1766 his doctoral thesis Dissertation on the Discovery of Animal Magnetism, during a period when Stahl’s animism-vitalism was still influential. By 1774 Mesmer made his pioneering therapeutic application, with his new animal magnetism, the ‘flow’ of which was conceptualised as operating along the lines of Isaac Newton’s ‘tidal theory’ of planetary gravitational movement. Mesmer had for some time been disenchanted with the then current orthodox medical practices, based largely upon use of harsh purgatives, bleeding with leeches, and opiate drugs, and doubtless saw his new approach as a great advance and boon to patients, and as likely to provide him with fame and fortune.

By 1778, in Paris, Mesmer caused an immediate sensation with his therapeutic group séances, induced psychological trances, and not least his exotic accoutrements of purple silk robes, symbolic [magnetic] iron rod in hand, and frequent use of mysterious ‘passes’ of the free hand across the patient. Charisma as catalyst was clearly in play, though the cures, in the grandest style of ancient ‘animal spirits’, he himself named from his newly-conceived ‘fluid’, animal magnetism, a concoction of previously know spiritual-philosophical-empirical leanings. The orthodox medical establishment of the day understandably soon reacted forcibly against the new treatment, whilst remaining powerless to curtail the popular spread of enthusiasm for the new miracle/cure, which soon became known as mesmerism. At the very least, Mesmer’s new practice would seem to have complied with the ancient Hippocratic edict, of “First, do no harm.”

By 1785 Mesmer had been declared a fraud and charlatan, and a Royal Commission was in place tasked with his investigation. Critics had failed to see - or perhaps merely failed to acknowledge - his sound therapeutic gains, based on genuine sleep-like trances and [psychological] empathy, though the Commission’s authors did attain an insight and acceptance of the important role of suggestion in the new method.

Mesmer, however, retired to Switzerland, leaving his new proto-science to fall into the hands of popular theatre and stage entertainments.

4. James Braid. From Mesmerism to Scientific Hypnosis

Braid, 1795-1860, is often graced with the title of ‘father of hypnotism’.4 He was a Scots surgeon, trained at prestigious Edinburgh, and possessed of a roving intellect. In 1841, while practising in Manchester, he attended a popular demonstration by the intinerant mesmerist Charles Lafontaine, whose specialty stage-act, with suitably selected [sic] and readily suggestible subjects, was to make them impervious to pain, by means of trance and suggestion. Lafontaine would then perform electric-shock and burning-candle experiments upon their exposed flesh. Braid’s interest, quickly aroused, led him to his own researches, and by 1843 he had coined the term neurypnology, which indicated his belief in the basis of the phenomenon in “nervous sleep”. This soon became neuro-hypnotism, and then simply hypnotism [Gk. hypnos, sleep].

General usage, literary and linguistic, of these and related terms by c. 1850s-1880s, is readily seen in the well-known Roget’s Thesaurus, 1852; 2nd edn., 1879, 992N.5 There, ‘animal magnetism’ and ‘mesmerism’ are linked with: sorcery, magic, occult, black art, Shamanism, witch-craft, thaumaturgy, demonology, conjuration, mysticism, electro-biology [sic], clairvoyance, and others more obscure. The term electro-biology was by then securely founded upon the empirical researches of Italian professors Luigi Galvani, 1737-1798 and Alessandro Volta, 1745-1827, together with the magisterial English scientist Michael Faraday, 1791-1867. An amusing episode based upon these materials was woven by Lewis Carroll into his late-life fairy story, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893),6 Chap. XXI, ‘The Professor’s Lecture’, full annotation and notes for which can be found in the recent 2015 Annotated Scholar’s Edition, Vol. 2, Chap. 14n8, plus Index and links.

The popular Victorian magazine Girl’s Own Paper, with strong links to the Church and Bible Society, gave the following widely-held opinions and advice to their correspondent, Curious Meg, of September 7, 1889:

The word “Hypnotism”, of which we have recently heard so much, is derived from the Greek name Hypnos, that of the god of sleep. But the description of sleep artificially produced by mesmerists is an unnatural cataleptic condition, which tends to weaken the brain and the will powers, and reduces the subject to a state of slavish submission to the will of the operator. G. O. P., 10, No. 506 (1889): 783.

5. Hansen to Freud. Theatre-stage To Consulting-room.

As a young medical-student in Vienna, c.1875, Sigmund Freud, 1856-1939, also attended a popular performance of hypnotism, by the travelling Danish act “Hansen the Magnetist”. Carl Hansen, 1833-1897, was noted for his august ritual of quasi-scientific demonstration, and suggestively [sic] appeared on stage as ‘The Professor’, bearded and wearing tailcoat and spectacles. His stage tours were early detailed by Zollner (1879), and since that time his [slight] association with Freud has led to further studies by The Freud Museum, London and Vienna, amongst other scholarly bodies.7

Later, as a qualified neurologist-therapist in the 1880s-90s, Freud continued to maintain his interest in this field, and in 1889 attended the First International Congress for Experimental and Therapeutic Hypnosis, in Paris. Previously, in 1885-86, he had visited the great French psychopathologist J. M. Charcot, 1825-93, notable for his use of hynotism amongst other therapeutic techniques. Freud’s introduction to the Paris master had come via Benedikt, the Vienna medical-hypnotist; and earlier that summer Freud’s own first tentative effrorts at hypnosis may have taken place, at his colleague Obersteiner’s private sanatorium. Not until December 1887, however, did Freud actually introduce hypnosis into his own clinical practice (Jones, Bk. I, Chap. 11). By 1889 Freud was also visiting Professor Hippolyte Bernheim, 1837-1919, at Nancy, and specifically with “the idea of perfecting my hypnotic technique” (Jones, op. cit.). As early as 1888 Freud had translated and provided a Preface for Bernheim’s book on Suggestion [as also a review Forel], and the basis of the hypnotic ‘state’ was now widely viewed as being the eponymous psychological dynamic. By aligning the new view of hypnosis with sleep and other psychological manifestations “the principal points of the symptomatology of hysteria are safe from the suspicion of having originated by suggestion from the physician…the problem of hypnosis is carried over completely into the sphere of psychology…” S. Freud, 1888X, S. E., 1: 73-78

That Freud soon after renounced medical hypnosis as a viable or principal therapeutic tool, calls for some explanation. Even before the Paris trip, and around 1886, the older Viennese friend and physician Josef Breuer, 1842-1925, had related to Freud the details of a most interesting hysteric, Anna O., treated during 1880-82, and who would subsequently provide the opening case-history of Studies In Hysteria, 1895, jointly by Breuer and Freud. Fraulein Anna O. [Bertha Pappenheim, then a friend of Martha Bernays, which latter would later marry Freud] was described by Breuer as having “a powerful intellect…great poetic and imaginative gifts…under the control of a sharp and critical common sense. Owing to this latter…she was completely unsuggestible [and] only influenced by arguments, never by mere assertions…” J. Breuer, 1895D, S. E. 2: 21-47

With Anna O. suffering from hallucinatory absences, including loss of her native German, replaced inexplicably by English, French and Italian, the patient clearly was in need of technical help, whereas the usual suggestion-based hypnosis was there now absolutely useless and contra-indicated. The way forward was, in this classic case, exceptionally indicated by the patient herself, who “talked” her way through her many symptoms one after the other, thereby achieving their disappearance, in a process she called “chimney sweeping”, or the ‘talking cure’. Breuer termed the method catharsis.

Freud detected much more in Breuer’s case, though always acknowledging the older colleague’s foremost historical precedent to the emergence of Psychoanalysis. Freud further discerned transference/counter-transference between Breuer and his talented hysteric, and major keystones to the future psychoanalytic method were by then in place, (Jones, ibid).

6. Post-Freud. A Neuroscience of Hypnosis

For much of the twentieth-century hypnosis continued to provide largely intractable problems for Academic and especially Experimental Psychology - the question of any distinct ‘hypnotic state’; the lack of rigorous controls and standardization in so-called empirical studies, and the profusion of popular theatre and stage hypnotists, from the few skilled and intuitive experts [Lafontaine for Braid, Hansen for Freud], to faith healers, sensationalists, and the many who employed outrights tricks and deceptions, such as compliant co-workers planted in the audience. Freud and Braid had both noticed that their witnessed subjects had been carefully examined/tested before being selected and taken up to the stage; and had then exhibited sudden facial pallor and other symptoms of involuntary physiological changes, which led to the observer’s confidence in the validity of the ‘hypnotic state’, at least in those few examples.

The way forward was undoubtedly best facilitated first by electro-physiology/EEG, whereby involvement of known regions of the cerebral cortex began to provide ‘hard’ and reproducible empirical findings, parallel to verbal suggestion or other manipulation of subjects; and more recently by MRI-brainimageing studies, such that the postulate of a ‘hypnotic state’, with its relation to conscious, unconscious, sleep state and so on, is now a reputable sub-speciality of Neuropsychology. Mesmer’s crucial, though nebulous and ambiguous discovery, has finally attained to the status of Science, with the further more distant prospect of new, viable and better-controlled, more efficacious therapy and ‘cure’ - though the latter itself often remains a contentious assertion.

Notes: numerous MRI-studies from c.1990s-2015 are cited, categorised and briefly assessed at www.hypnosis.tools/neuroscience Neuroscience, psychology, psychoanalysis and Freud, together with other contemporary psychologists and notables, are treated passim in many of the annotated notes and essays included as ‘scholarly apparatus’ to the above-cited new edition in 3 vols. of Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno, 2015, separately indexed; sub-sections; links.

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Last modified 11 August 2016