To alleviate people from their pains, Franz Anton Mesmer (sometimes referred to as Friedrich), would place magnets on them. He later discovered that magnets were irrelevant and that he could obtain the same results simply by using his hands. When his method became popular, he would have groups of people in tubs filled with water and iron fillings, and he would walk around them, stoking them with a magnetic wand.
Anyone studying behavioral sciences, particularly when discussing hypnosis, may have heard this story before and know exactly why Mesmer’s “mystic-looking” treatment worked. For those of you not familiar with the story, here it is:
Viennese physician Franz Mesmer discovered what he called animal magnetism. According to him, there is a magnetic fluid that exists in the entire universe. Whenever there is a disturbance or imbalance in this fluid, a person (or animate object—this is where the name comes from) becomes ill. So, in order to restore balance to the magnetic fluid, he placed magnets over the ill person’s body. Later he stopped using the magnets. His hands were all he needed to restore balance to the magnetic fluid.
Unfortunately for him, his method did not always work, and he was forced to leave Vienna and go to Paris in 1778. It was in Paris where he gained fame and attracted people who wanted to study his healing methods, or who were in need of healing. It was in Paris where he developed his tub sessions to heal groups of people at a time. And it was in Paris where he crossed paths with our beloved (at least in the United States) Benjamin Franklin.
In 1784, the French monarch, King Louis XIV, requested Franklin (who was serving as the U.S. ambassador to Fance) and a handful of scientists to investigate Mesmer’s animal magnetism. Franklin and his colleagues performed a series of experiments to determine if this phenomena was real or make believe. The American Psychology Association’s Monitor on Psychology describes one of the experiences here:
The commissioners conducted several tests to determine whether animal magnetism was real or imagined. In one experiment, they tricked a young woman into believing that Mesmer disciple Charles d’Elson was in an adjacent room, directing animal magnetism toward her through a closed door. The woman responded by falling into convulsions and biting her hand so hard she left a mark. Another young woman drank water she believed to have been magnetized, but wasn’t. She fainted, and was given a bowl of water to drink to revive her — water that, unbeknownst to her, had been “magnetized.” That bowl of water had no effect.
The investigation lasted seven years. Franklin and his colleagues determined that magnetism was not responsible for healing people. Rather, people’s imaginations and suggestibility deteriorated their symptoms, not necessarily healing their conditions. Improvement and refinement of the effect Mesmer caused on individuals, coined mesmerism, is what we know call hypnosis.
There seems to be a certain mysticism attributed to mesmerism and hypnosis. This exists, I think, because the general population isn’t too well informed of what actually happens during these processes. While searching for a video on the topic, I found several comments of people who actually thought Mesmer tapped into some strange cosmic knowledge that gave him the power to heal people, and that scientists were just trying to quiet him. Pure nonsense. Something similar occurs with hypnosis. I have discussed popular misconceptions of hypnosis on a previous post. Mesmer’s story reminds us that what may at first appear mystic can be explained with careful analysis, as to avoid fooling ourselves with magical thinking.
Abnormal Psychology: Clinical Perspectives on Psychological Disorders (College Text Book, pp. 16-17).