March 18th, 2015
This latest concern with stage hypnotism (see previous three posts) reminded me that our modern ideas of hypnotism, and our use of it in hypnotherapy, actually emerged from something rather similar.
Modern interest in hypnosis can be traced back to the illustrious Franz Mesmer and his famous theories of “animal magnetism”. Mesmer (from whose name we derive the word “mesmerism”) had some medical training but became more interested in what we today might call “alternative” methods of treatment. He became convinced that within the bodies of mammals, both human and animal, there was some sort of special magnetic force which could be harnessed to produce strange and wonderful phenomena. In the early stages of his experimental research Mesmer got his subjects to ingest magnetized iron and attributed his results directly to internal magnetism. He soon came to realize that actually swallowing magnets was not necessary in order to get the required reactions.
Mesmer intended to use his findings for healing. He became popular, even getting a mention in Mozart’s great opera Cosi fan Tutte. His treatments involved laying on of hands and the external use of rods, magnets etc. Demand for his services meant that he started to treat patients in groups. Given the rather histrionic nature of these “treatments” it would be fair, I think, to call these sessions the first examples of stage hypnosis.
Mesmer’s work was taken up by other proponents of animal magnetism, some of whom preferred to attribute their results not to magnetism but to some other physical force such as electricity. Some gave public demonstrations. One such was the Swiss mesmerist, Charles Lafontaine.
Lafontaine gave a public demonstration in Manchester in 1841. Among those in the audience was a successful and established Scottish surgeon by the name of James Braid. Initially sceptical, Braid became convinced of the genuine nature of the phenomena which Lafontaine was able to produce in his subjects. But although Braid was convinced that the phenomena were genuine he was less happy about the attributed cause. Magnetism?
Braid’s interest in animal magnetism led him down an entirely new route. He began to experiment, not on others but on himself. He found that he could induce what we would call hypnosis in himself. This discovery of self-hypnosis neatly ruled out the external application of magnetism as a cause for these states of consciousness. It also ruled out the idea of control by one person over another as the essence of “hypnotism”. Braid was the first to use the terms hypnotism, hypnotize and hypnotist. These terms are the English equivalent of French terms employed by Hénin de Cuvillers. Curiously enough, Braid does not appear to have used the word “hypnosis”.
James Braid can therefore be seen as the father of modern hypnotherapy if not the actual inventor of hypnosis. Braid’s use of fixed-gaze induction for self-hypnosis is particularly interesting.
Fixed gaze techniques are often used in hypnotic induction today. The methods we were taught at the National College of Hypnosis and Psychotherapy incorporated gaze fixing at the beginning of the induction. Ask a subject to sit comfortably with their eyes open and stare at a spot directly ahead of them. Then, raise their gaze a little without moving the head. Keep the head still and look upwards. If anyone does this then they actually put their eyes and eye muscles under a gentle strain because the eyes are not designed to keep still. The eyes become tired. If, during this time, someone is saying to them “your eyes are becoming heavy, your eyes are becoming tired, your eyes want to close” etc then it will seen to the subject as if the heaviness and tiredness in the eyes is being caused by the person hypnotising them. Their eyes close, and the hypnotic session is underway.
Braid’s method is both more interesting and more powerful. If you fix your gaze upon something specific, an object or a clearly marked spot, and if you keep your gaze fixed without moving your eyes then, after a few minutes, your vision will become cloudy. Your eyes will want to close, or to move around. If you prevent them from doing so then your eyes may start to water. If you keep your eyes completely immobile then eventually your vision will disappear entirely. This is accompanied by a very distinct shift in the quality of consciousness to which is seems perfectly feasible to apply the term “hypnosis”. Precisely this method has been used in meditation techniques for centuries.
But, from a therapeutic point of view, there are problems. The eyes are designed to move around. If you start doing this technique, start to lose your vision and then move your eyes, then your normal field of vision is suddenly restored and you’re “awake” again. How easy is it to self-administer suggestion when in this state?
Braid in fact moved on from this technique to develop a theory of “monoideism”. He came to realize that the real cause of the hypnotic state had less to do with the physiology of the eyes and more to do with an internal concentration on one idea, an absorption into one state.
For more information on this fascinating figure, see The Discovery of Hypnosis: The Complete Writings of James Braid, the Father of Hypnotherapy, by Donald Robertson, The National Council of Hypnotherapy (NCH) Ltd, 2009.