‘Healing energy’ versus Experimentation

Mesmer (1778) suggested that a force or healing energy ‘animal-magnetism’ or ‘magnetic-fluid’ was in the human body. He proposed that this could channel into another human being. In doing so, it could be channelled from a distance or even without the subject’s awareness. The basis is that one individual holds inherent power and influence over another (the subject). This view, completely disputes the role of the participant and suggestion. This contrasts starkly, with evidence based hypnotism, often referred to as ‘non-state’ theory of hypnosis, which acknowledges the participant’s role and the influence of verbal and non-verbal suggestion. Originating with James Braid evidenced based hypnosis, acknowledges the involvement of conscious factors in ones responding to suggestion. Braid’s experimental research dismantled Mesmerism, undoubtedly producing findings which influences are apparent in modern ‘nonstate’ evidenced based therapy.

In 1841, Braid attended a public presentation by Lafontaine a popular French Mesmerist. Initially Braid attended due to cynicism, assuming that mesmerism was based on trickery and conspiracy. On observing the mesmerist, Braid noted a number of phenomena, including anaesthesia and the subject’s inability to open her eyelids (eyelid catalepsy). Accepting the phenomena yet critical of ‘animal-magnetism’ standpoint, the observations reaffirmed his scepticism and served to spark Braid’s determination to challenge Mesmerism. Braid then attended performances with the objective of examining and uncovering the rational principles behind what were actually occurring. In other words, Braid searched for reliable and valid evidence. Braid through his persistence in investigating hypnosis by means of empirical research, is regarded as the founder of the modern ‘nonstate’ theory of hypnotherapy. The frequent confusion of hypnosis with mesmerism is common in everyday language, largely due to the assumption that Mesmer was the founder of hypnotism. On this note, stage hypnotists frequently add to these misconceptions in order to present their magic act and trickery under the guise of hypnosis and psychology.

Braid (1841) conducted experiments initially aiming to uncover the physiological causes of the phenomena he witnessed. He conceived the term ‘neuro-hypnotism’, abbreviated to ‘hypnotism’ referring to the ‘sleep’ taking place in the nervous system. Later (1855) Braid documented the psychological influences of suggestion. Braid proposed the term ‘monoideism’. This view suggests that through direction from the hypnotist, the individual focuses attention on a single dominant stimulus. Receiving empirical support, this is the perspective, developed in modern Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy (CBH). Through verbal and non – verbal direction from the therapist, the participant focuses sustained attention on a dominant feeling, thought, behaviour or image. The therapist invites, encourages and prompts the client to enhance absorption, motivation, expectancy and imagination.

Notably, the principle of mesmerism is that one is somehow controlled by the mesmerist’s power therefore, self-mesmerism does not exist. Braid introduced the term self-hypnosis. Through teaching effective use of self-hypnosis in CBH, the client is capable of self-hypnosis, which the client is capable of conducting between sessions eventually becoming a life skill. The capacity of one to induce self-hypnosis is contrary to the basic principles proposed in mesmerism. This is a significant aspect of modern empirically support CBH protocols, crucial to effective treatment interventions and reducing relapse.

     Benjamin Franklin (1784) investigated the claims of Mesmerism, concluding that ‘animal-magnetism’ was unsubstantiated; instead suggesting that the ‘trance’ observed was as a result of subjects ‘imagination’ ‘belief’ and ‘expectation’. Liebault (1866), purportedly influenced by Braid, proposed a perspective on hypnotism utilising direct suggestion. Bernheim (1884) an advocate of Liebault, also recognised Braid’s work on the phenomena of suggestion. Apposing mesmerism, in addition to physiological theories, Bernheim concluded that psychology and suggestion were integral to hypnotism. The British Medical Association (1895) dismissed mesmerism and supported hypnotherapy, its associated phenomena and therapeutic applications, regarding hypnotherapy as a conventional medical intervention. These events were hugely influential in research and development of hypnotherapy. Cognitive, behavioural and social processes including the role of the participant, focused attention, attitude, expectation, motivation, and their interconnection with suggestibility, highlighted by Braid and subsequent followers. The benefits of empiricism and subsequent findings are apparent in modern CBH.

In conclusion, evidence based theories are derived from Braid’s critique of mesmerism and subsequent attempts to replace it. Braid, through his persistence in investigating hypnosis through empirical research is largely regarded as the founder of modern ‘non-state’ theory of hypnotherapy. ‘State’ theories are derived from mesmerism. Through the attempts to analyse and demystify mesmerism, Braid was the first to propose a physiological and psychological theory, on the ‘trance’ presented in mesmerism. His investigation in the area and his theories of hypnosis stimulated a large amount of research, which is fundamental to evidence based practice, contributing to a superior understanding of hypnotherapy, effective treatment outcomes and relapse prevention.

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