“As I Count Backwards,”
There’s still some debate about whether Franz Mesmer was a charlatan or a visionary, or some combination of both. Austria and Germany were hotbeds of discovery in the examination of the human mind and behavior during the late 18th Century. A priest by the name of Johann Gassner became famous in the 1760s for his prayer cures and exorcisms. Mesmer, who was both a physician and astrologer, believed there was an unseen magnetic fluid within people that could be called upon to aid in curing illness. Mesmer felt that this fluid/force could be transferred from the practitioner to an ill patient to help restore them. He disagreed with Gassner that it had anything to do with evil spirits, and called the force “animal magnetism”. This disagreement was the beginning of dynamic psychiatry, the examination of the study of emotional processes, their origins, and the mental mechanisms underlying them. The study of observable symptoms and behavioral phenomena rather than underlying psychodynamic processes is called descriptive psychiatry. Modern psychiatrists combine the two complementary approaches into a biopsychosocial model.
Mesmer’s method of making hand passes and staring into a patient’s eyes appeared to lull them into a trance-like state (from outward appearances). It was different from anything that had been attempted outside of a religious context for healing purposes. He was trying to harness the forces he believed were already inside people to cure themselves. He had notable successes, because many illnesses are psychological and mental in origin, and also spectacular failures such as the attempt to cure blindness in 1777 that caused him to flee Vienna for Paris.
In Paris he trained other doctors in his methods and gained wealth and fame treating private patients of means, but the scientific establishment shunned him. In 1784 Louis XVI appointed a commission of notable scientists including Lavoisier, Guillotin and Benjamin Franklin to examine the existence of Mesmer’s fluid/force. Their conclusion was that cures were connected to Mesmer’s methods, but that it was solely the result of the power of each patient’s own imagination, put his reputation into disrepute. He left Paris in 1785 and continued practicing privately as a shadowy figure of controversy in undisclosed locations for the last 20 years of his life. What happened to those who examined him was more dramatic. Many of them were beheaded in the French Revolution using the machine named (incorrectly) after Dr. Guillotin.
A brilliant Scottish surgeon named James Braid observed a demonstration of the methods in 1841. Braid altered them, began using the term hypnosis and gave new, pragmatic, scientific explanations for the effects. In 1842 he published “Neurohypnology or The Rationale of Nervous Sleep Considered In Relation With Animal Magnetism.” He initially concluded that the phenomenon was a form of sleep. Braid named the phenomena after Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep and master of dreams, but by 1847 he discovered that all the major phenomena of hypnotism such as catalepsy, anaesthesia and amnesia, could be induced without sleep. Realizing his choice of the term hypnosis had been a mistake, he tried to rename it monoideism. It was too late. By then hypnosis and hypnotism had already been widely adopted into all the major European languages.
Later adherents used and misused the practice of hypnosis. Rasputin. the Russian mystic, hedonist and megalomaniac helped control the bleeding of the hemophiliac Tsarevich Alexei, but also held undue influence over the weak-willed Romanovs. This reinforced the image of hypnotists as being a modern version of purveyors of black magic.
This misnomer is reflected in modern misunderstandings of what a hypnotic state is. It’s not unconsciousness. It is a state of mental hyper-focus which you can use to re-program your own behavior, recall “lost” or repressed memories and/or face difficult issues you’ve had a hard time looking at directly. We all do it. Every time you become fascinated with something and lose track of time, that’s a hypnotic state. Do you pay attention? Of course you do. You’ve been HYPNOTIZED.
150 years after James Braid’s work, I bought a pamphlet advertised in the back of a comic book. It was Melvin Powers’ “A Practical Guide to Self-Hypnosis”. You can read the complete text here:
Melvin Powers is a kind of direct-marketing genius, but he also had interests in woo-woo stuff, and published titles like “Think and Grow Rich”, and “Psycho-Cybernetics”. His little book was enough to get me started. I tried hypnotizing all my high-school pals, and members of their families, and their friends. By the time I went to University I had hypnotized over 200 people. My main tool was my voice. Anything you can muster that allows a person to focus their attention to an unusual degree will act as a hypnotic focus. For me, it was the voice. I had refined using it during years as a telephone counselor. I had read Frank Herbert’s Dune books. Those books featured a power group called the Bene Gesserit (a literary variant of the Jesuits in Catholicism) who had mastered the use of the human voice to instantly hypnotize and influence people. Between singing practice, philosophic studies and my interests in literary “woo-woo” it all somehow fit together.
At the invitation of one of the dorms’ entertainment committees, I presented a lecture on hypnosis technique. I brought a friend with me who was a good subject, and also chose volunteers. The lounge had a capacity for 50. A full crowd showed up, and I had to schedule another date. On the second program, I demonstrated the ability to establish anesthesia mentally by sticking a sterilized needle straight into the palm of a volunteer. She felt no pain. Another volunteer was regressed to an earlier age to explore his world-view. I asked the audience to offer questions for the gentleman, who was answering as his eight-year-old self. Unexpectedly, someone asked how he liked his mustache (the man had one). He immediately rubbed his sleeve across his lip, saying “It happens every time I drink milk!” I was asked to teach a class in hypnosis techniques and paranormal phenomena, under partial sponsorship of the dorm with partial payment by students. For the next three semesters I explored all sorts of paranormal phenomena with a select group of 20 students. Some of them are still close friends 35 years later.
The toughest thing I had to face in this process of exploration was to realize that the real world of here and now holds as much mystery, magic and challenge as any realm of woo-woo. I had to admit to these students who had become my close friends that I now felt the ordinary and observable world offered as many answers as the hidden world did. I had to apologize to them for needing their company so badly to give my life deeper meaning. That’s how I ended the classes. It was bittersweet, but it was the right thing to do.