Hypnotism — Historical

It is a contraction of the term neuro hypnotism (nerve sleep), coined by Dr. James Braid, of Manchester, Eng., 1843, to cover certain psychic phenomena, which under varied forms and names are as old as civilization. The well-known power of the snake to ” charm ” the bird while he approaches his prey, would suggest that it even antedates the evolution of man.

The early history of all religions is to such an extent a record of trances, ecstasies, and visions of their votaries that we must believe that these now comparatively unusual manifestations were, in the childhood of the race, of rather common occurrence. The priests of all ancient peoples have exercised these arts, and no doubt owed their unlimited power over the common herd to their knowledge of this mysterious force. This was not limited to any one nation, as it was practised by the Chaldeans, Babylonians, Persians, and Egyptians.

Aristides, a Grecian who lived about 120 A. D., has left a description of a disordered mental state, which possessed him for thirteen years, which was probably a form of auto-hypnosis. The lives of Christian saints furnish many instances.

Even today the power to ” throw a fit ” is in some communities regarded as a manifestation of divine approval. Besides the religious element there was in all this a therapeutic power; wonderful cures were effected in and by the person thus talented.

The first important effort at therapeutics without theology was the appearance of Mesmer. He was a German physician, and in 1766 published a book entitled ” De Planetarium Influxa,” giving an account of his discoveries in animal magnetism. This, to use his own words, is ” a fluid universally diffused, the medium of mutual influence between the heavenly bodies. There are observed, particularly in the human body, properties similar to those of a magnet. . . . The action and virtues of animal magnetism may be communicated from one body to another. Animal magnetism is capable of healing diseases of the nerves immediately and others immediately. It perfects the action of medicines. In animal magnetism nature presents a universal method of healing and preserving mankind.”

Mesmer was at this time thirty-three years old and had studied medicine under the best men at Vienna. His belief in astrology was not then inconsistent with a man of parts. He treated the sick by stroking them with magnets, evidently supposing that in this way he transferred some of the ” magnetism ” of the heavenly body to the human body.

By this means the patient became cataleptic or hysterical, or fainted, probably depending on his idiosyncrasy. Whichever state was manifested, curative results followed. In 1776 he met in Switzer-land a priest named Gassner, who effected cures by manipulations (laying on of hands) without the use of magnets. So like a true scientist, Mesmer discarded the magnets.

Two years later he opened an establishment in Paris for treating patients, and achieved such great success as to arouse the envy of the medical fraternity. They regarded him as a charlatan, and his method of conducting his séances would seem to us to-day to justify the charge.

” Appreciating the effects of mysterious surrounding on the imagination of his patient, he had his consulting-rooms dimly lighted and hung with mirrors ; strains of soft music occasionally broke the profound silence; odors were wafted through the room; and the patients sat around a kind of vat in which various chemical ingredients were concocted or simmered over a fire. Holding each other’s hands or joined by cords, the patients sat in expectancy, and then Mesmer, clothed as a magician, glided amongst them, affecting this one by a touch, another by a look, and making passes with his hands toward a third. The effects were various, but all were held to be salutary.”

Notwithstanding all this ” machinery,” we may, I think, believe in his honesty of purpose, for, at his own request, the Academy of Sciences appointed a committee to investigate his claims. Benjamin Franklin was a member of this committee, which reported that the cures were genuine, but that the effects were due to the imagination of the patient, and that the subject was not worthy of further scientific investigation.

We are amused to-day at the dictum of these men that a system of therapeutics which they admitted made genuine cures was not worthy of further scientific investigation.

Let us take heed that we fall not into a similar blunder concerning some of ” irregular ” mental cures of our own times. The physician has no right to neglect any ism or pathy that he admits is curative.

Whether from this adverse report or from increasing extravagance of mysticism, mesmerism, as it was then called, fell into disrepute, and Mesmer went to Switzerland, where he died 1815. One of his disciples who remained in Paris attempted to divest it of the marvelous, but met with little practical success, and it was not until ten years after Mesmer’s death that it came again into prominence, and another investigation followed by the Academy of Sciences.

After six years’ labor, the committee reported confirming the therapeutic value, but a majority of the Academicians wanted an adverse report, and another committee was appointed properly ” instructed.” Two subjects were examined and no results obtained.

This negative result satisfied the majority of the scientific men that the positive results of the earlier committee were untrue, and it became more unpopular than ever to be known as interested in this subject. The very name mesmerism was an offence to medicine.

But the influence of Mesmer was far-reaching. In 1837 in England appeared a doughty champion in the person of Dr. John Eliotson, professor of practise of medicine, University College, London. His demonstrations in the hospital wards became very popular with the students, but the dean advised him to desist. This he refused to do, and a year later the council of the university passed a resolution forbidding the ” practise of mesmerism or animal magnet-ism.” This naturally caused his resignation. But Eliotson’s influence was made greater than ever by the publication of a journal ” for the collection and diffusion of information connected with cerebral physiology and mesmerism.” This appeared as a quarterly for twelve years. The contributions were from Eliotson and others, and reports of their work were thus put on record.

Anesthesia was the one phase now emphasized, and thus surgery, even capital operations, was rendered painless. This was before the discovery of chloroform and ether, and when we remember the description of surgical operations without anesthetics, it would seem as if the demonstrated possibilities of mesmerism would have been hailed with delight by the profession. Bitter editorials appeared in the Lancet, claiming that the subjects who said they felt no pain were impostors or persons naturally in-sensible to pain. Eliotson was a man of advanced ideas in many other directions, especially in the use of the stethoscope and posology.

Dr. James Esdaile, an English surgeon in the Indian service, having read Eliotson’s journal, in 1845 mesmerized a patient before operating for hydrocele, and as the operation was entirely painless he adopted it as a routine measure, doing over one hundred pain-less operations during the year.

A committee of investigation, appointed by the governor, made such a favorable report that Esdaile was put in charge of a small hospital in Calcutta for further experiment and demonstration. Here his work was equally successful, but the medical profession of India denounced him as ” an honest fool deluded by his patients,” and the medical journals refused to publish any account of his wonderful record.

About this same time, 1843, in England, James Braid, of Manchester, published ” Neurypnology,” in which he announced the subjective nature of the phenomena, introducing the term hypnotism. Probably nothing but the new name gained him a hearing. The scientific method was coming into vogue, and Braid applied it here. He discovered that the state could be induced by fixed gaze, and contended that animal magnetism had nothing to do with it.

He believed it the result of physical causes. His belief in phrenology led him to think that pressure on certain portions of the skull would produce special phenomena. His advocacy of the physical cause re-instated the subject as ” worthy of further scientific investigation.”

The ultramaterialists of the day felt that since it had a material cause, there was nothing degrading to their intellects in giving it some consideration.

It must be borne in mind that, at the time, the tremendous power of suggestion had not been recognized. Later in life Braid modified this idea of a physical cause, announcing very clearly his belief in mental concentration or monoideism as the all-important factor, altho he still held that the monoideism ” depended on a definite physical change in the subject.”

But it must not be supposed that Braid escaped professional persecution and ostracism. He said : ” Like the originators of all new views, however, hypnotism has subjected me to much contention; for the skeptics, from not perceiving the difference between my method and that of the mesmerists, and the limited extent of my own pretensions, were equally hostile to hypnotism as they had been to mesmerism; and the mesmerists, thinking their craft was in danger, — that their mystic idol was threatened to be shorn of some of its glory by the advent of a new rival, — buckled on their armor, and soon proved that the odium mesmericum was as inveterate as the odium theologicum.”

Braid wrote extensively and practised special surgery. Some idea of the extent of his work may be gained from the statement that two years before his ” Neurypnology ” appeared he had operated on 262 cases of clubfoot, and seven hundred cases of strabismus.

After Braid’s death little attention was paid to the subject for twenty years, but this period saw the rise of the Nancy school, which has been the inspiration of most of the later interest in the subject.

” Good Father Liébeault,” as he was fondly called by his patients, settled in Nancy in 1864, and soon built up a large free clinic, giving up all remunerative practise. He had been interested in mesmerism for three or four years. Without knowing of Braid’s work he independently discovered the subjective nature of hypnotism. He discarded all medicines and worked along quietly, dealing out therapeutic suggestion with a liberal hand.

In 1882 he cured a case of sciatica which Bernheim had treated in vain with drugs for six months. This converted Bernheim, who became a zealous pupil, and a few years later published ” Suggestive Therapeutics.”

Altho the Nancy hypnotists disclaim the term school,” as their individual opinions are quite at variance, yet there is among them a consensus of opinion which is opposed to the claims of the Salpêtrière school, which was so called from certain dogmatic statements of Charcot, which will be considered later when dealing with ” Theories.”

Altho Braid was translated into German in 1881 by Preyer, yet in England little was heard of the subject till the formation in 1882 of the Society for Psychic Research. This society numbers among its members many of the most eminent scientific men, both in this country and in Europe. The reports of hypnotic investigations have appeared from time to time in its ” Proceedings.” Among these none has been as clear-cut and convincing as the contributions of Bramwell, who has given us the results of his labors in his recent treatise, to which I am indebted for many of the facts of this brief history.

Besides the public exhibitions, little has been done in this country in the legitimate practise of hypnotism. Doctor Quackenboss, of New York, has written, lectured, and practised.

His practise has been largely in the line of moral reform, and he is accomplishing a noble work. He will be referred to again under ” Methods of Induction.”

In our own city (Boston) some of the names one frequently hears mentioned as interested in this subject are Dr. Morton Prince, professor of dis-eases of the nervous system, Tufts College Medical School; Dr. Boris Sidis, formerly director of the New York Pathological Institute; Dr. Henrik G. Petersen, the translator of Wetterstrand; Prof. Hugo Munsterberg, of Harvard University, and Dr. James J. Putnam, of Harvard Medical School.

Doctor Prince has written quite extensively for the Psychic Research Society and medical journals. His “Dissociation of a Personality” is a most exhaustive study of what he believes are several different personalities occupying one body.

Doctor Sidis’ most important contributions to the subject are the following books: ” Psychology of Suggestion,” ” Psycho-pathology,” Multiple Personality.”


The methods of inducing hypnosis have been as varied as the theories concerning it.

It has gradually developed that magnets, relics, and paraphernalia are superfluous. Even fixed gaze is not essential, as Braid discovered by success-fully hypnotizing a blind patient. Physical methods are entirely unnecessary, and possess no virtue in themselves, but are a powerful means of making indirect suggestions. The patient comes to the hypnotizer with an unknown quantity of preconceived ideas, among which are sure to be the efficacy of passes and fixed gaze, so that all operators have found it expedient to use physical methods in con-junction with verbal suggestions. It is always advisable to begin with some explanation of what is expected. The patient should be assured that the sensation will be agreeable and that success will be in proportion to his ability to cooperate.

The eyes may be closed and the idea of sleep suggested. This idea is more readily accepted if the patient be put in a comfortable position with the head resting. The patient should be told to think only of sleep, and this idea should be repeated sufficiently often to secure his attention. He should be told to breathe regularly and deeply, and that his lids are getting heavy and that he is drowsy. Gradually the strength of the suggestion should be increased till the lids cannot be opened.

The patient is still conscious of all that is transpiring, but his lids are firmly closed. Catalepsy in the most awkward positions is now easily secured, by stroking the part and suggesting increasing stiffness. Anesthesia is also easily produced. In fact, all that follows is as the operator directs, provided that the subject be sufficiently suggestible.

The superficial stages are easily obtained with the majority of people, but trance and somnambulism are obtainable only with a few.

Before hypnotizing it is well to suggest that it will be a pleasant experience, and as soon as one gets control of the eyes, to say with decision : ” No one shall ever be able to hypnotize you against your wishes, or except for your good, or no one but your physician,” and before waking, suggest that an agreeable feeling will be experienced like waking from a refreshing sleep.

Fixed gaze on some bright object like a coin held above the eyes is also a very common method. This serves to fatigue the muscles that raise the eyes and hastens the result. The subject should not be awakened suddenly, but told that he will awake after you have counted ten. This is more like the normal waking from sleep. The operator should conduct himself in a perfectly natural, matter-of-fact manner. While an ignorant subject may be sometimes over-awed by Svengali attitudes, your intelligent patient will be disgusted, and you will forfeit his respect and confidence. Public hypnotists often assume these airs of his Satanic majesty. Perhaps this is not so much to impress the patient as a play to the gallery.

One should not feel nor exhibit any discouragement if the first attempt be unsuccessful. Infinite patience may be required, as success may crown one’s efforts after fifty failures. In obstinate cases it may be necessary to resort to mild anesthesia. Some operators administer a hypnotic drug to induce drowsiness. Doctor Quackenboss informs me that he invariably commences with a dose of paraldehyde. There is no way of determining susceptibility except the initial effort.


The late Doctor Charcot claimed that hypnosis is a morbid condition, which can be induced only in the hysterical. The insufficiency of the data upon which this statement rests must be apparent from the admission that ” only a dozen cases of true hypnosis have occurred in Salpetrière in ten years, and that a very large proportion of the experiments were con-ducted on one subject, who had long been an inmate of that hospital.”

The fact is just the reverse : hysterical subjects are very difficult to hypnotize. Hypnosis is a physiological function. ” Some years ago Bernheim had already attempted to hypnotize ten thousand hospital patients with over ninety per cent. of successes, while Wetterstrand recently reported 6,500 cases with 105 failures. International statistics published in 1892 gave 8,50o cases, from fifteen observers in different countries, with six per cent. of failures.

” Mr. Wingfield, demonstrator of physiology at Cambridge, Eng., attempted to hypnotize 170 individuals, all but eighteen being undergraduates. In eighty per cent. hypnosis was induced at the first attempt, but as no second trial was made with the unsuccessful cases, these results undoubtedly understate the susceptibility. Liebeault found soldiers and sailors particularly easy to influence.

” Grossman, of Berlin, recently asserted that the hard-headed North Germans were almost universally susceptible. Bramwell, of England, observed that healthy Yorkshire farm laborers made remarkably good subjects.

” Professor Forel hypnotized nearly all his asylum warders. He states that he himself selected these men for this important position, and that he did not choose them from the ranks of the hysterical. Forel claims that every mentally healthy man is naturally hypnotizable.”

Moll says : ” If we take a pathological condition of the organism as necessary to hypnosis, we shall be obliged to conclude that nearly everybody is not quite right in his head. The mentally unsound, particularly idiots, are much more difficult to hypnotize than the healthy. Intelligent people and those with strong wills are more easily hypnotizable than the dull, the stupid, or the weak-willed.”