By Karen Whitaker, our newest Client Coordinator
Happy May everyone! The sun is shining, patios are opening up, and we present our latest newsletter. When it came time to pick this month’s topic, as Morpheus’ newest employee I wondered what unique perspective I could offer on hypnosis. Everyone at Morpheus is familiar with our no-nonsense, naturalistic approach, so instead of providing a commentary on modern hypnosis as it is practised today, I decided to write about a small slice of history with which I am familiar.
Before I started to work at Morpheus Hypnosis, my knowledge of hypnotism was limited to what I had picked up from conversations, the news, YouTube, and my university studies: for my thesis I researched the invention of mesmerism and the fascinating history of this controversial practice. You will be relieved, as I was, to discover that modern hypnosis bears little resemblance to the mesmerism of over two hundred years ago.
Franz Anton Mesmer
Franz Anton Mesmer invented mesmerism in the 1770s, which was based on his theory of animal magnetism. It was the belief that magnetic forces flowed through living bodies as a “mesmeric fluid.” Mesmer’s theory was that illnesses were caused by a blockage in mesmeric fluid, and he could heal the patient by exerting a magnetic force on their body to remove the blockage. In fact, this is the basis for a lot of the “energy healing” that is still around today. Mesmer originally used magnets while treating people, and then started to attribute his patients’ recoveries to his own natural magnetic force.
After a scandal in Vienna forced him to flee, Mesmer opened an office in Paris and soon gained a large following among the fashionable and wealthy. Parisians were divided upon this newfangled practice; they thought mesmerism was either the newest health craze or an elaborate scam.
Mesmer’s treatments were quite the spectacle. Groups of patients—usually women—would sit around a large wooden tub, ready to be mesmerized. Iron rods sticking out of the tub were pointed at the affected parts of the patients’ bodies. Mesmer would walk about the room, gesturing with his hands to conduct mesmeric fluid along these rods and into the bodies of his patients. What happened next sounds a bit like faith healing: The women would often go into hysterical fits and convulsions, complete with screaming and fainting and occasionally vomiting, and afterwards they would revive and claim that they had been cured. Sometimes Mesmer followed up this treatment with some glass armonica music. If you have ever rubbed your wet finger over the rim of a glass, then you have played the glass armonica. Also, throughout this entire process, Mesmer was dressed in purple wizard’s robes.
This is a frankly embarrassing origin story for hypnotism, but the practice underwent many changes and revisions before becoming what it is today.
First of all, no self-respecting hypnotist would claim to manipulate channels of mesmeric fluid within their clients’ bodies. Hypnosis is a purely psychological phenomenon, a state of mind in which critical thought is wilfully suspended in order to accept a hypnotist’s suggestions. A person is never under a hypnotist’s control, and voluntarily accepts the suggestions to change thought or behaviour patterns.
Because in this day and age we recognize that hypnosis is psychological, we do not claim to be able to heal injuries or cure illnesses. We can help our clients identify the source of various problems in their lives, and provide them with the motivation and tools to reach their personal goals. Also, people can use hypnotism in conjunction with medical treatment, such as women who develop self-hypnosis skills for painless childbirth. Mesmerism was actually a popular anesthetic in the 1800s before it was replaced by chemical anesthesia, and with a doctor’s referral, it can still be used for pain control.
Unfortunately, the skepticism with which many people regarded mesmerism back in the 1700s exists in some form today. Most people are familiar with stage hypnosis, and preconceptions about how hypnosis works can reflect negatively upon clinical hypnosis, which is very different. Most people know that hypnosis is backed by scientific evidence, but many of them do not believe that hypnosis is for them.
The most dramatic change in hypnosis can be seen in the sessions themselves. Hypnotherapy sessions at Morpheus Hypnosis bear little resemblance to Mesmer’s practices in eighteenth-century France—thank goodness! Mesmer treated groups of people, similar to today’s stage hypnotists; clinical hypnotists provide each client with one-on-one, individualized treatment. During hypnosis the client is encouraged to relax, and remains awake the entire time—there are certainly no convulsions, fits, or fainting spells during a session. And, thankfully, our hypnotists arrive for work in business wear rather than a set of wizard’s robes.