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The Wizard from Vienna - Franz Anton Mesmer and the Origins of Hypnotism

I first read Buranelli's 'The Wizard from Vienna' years ago, when I started becoming interested in hypnosis. It's an entertaining account and convincingly locates Mesmer at the root of all modern western psychotherapy. Way before Freud attempted to use hypnosis, Mesmer was curing people of 'hysterical blindness' and other psychosomatic illnesses using the power of trance.

Few people get to have their name become a new word in the lexicon, but Anton Mesmer is one of them, leaving us 'mesmerism' as a lasting bequest to the language.

He started out as a physician but abandoned both career and family to pursue his own path as a healer using what he called 'animal magnetism'. He became famous particularly in 18th century revolutionary Paris, where animal magnetism acquired cult status. He treated royalty and the many prominent members of society. At one time it seemed that anybody who was anybody was practising animal magnetism. Charles Dickens in the following century was fascinated with mesmerism, and so too was Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.

It's clear that Mesmer was using hypnosis to treat his clients, but he dressed it up in elaborate ritual and philosophical theory (perhaps somewhat influenced by Eastern ideas).

He insisted that 'universal fluid' - an invisible force that permeates the Universe - could be collected by iron rods and concentrated as a cure for individual patients. And he was often successful in his treatments, mainly for psychological ailments.

The elaborate rituals that surrounded his practice would have inspired great focus and expectation in his patients. These mental states are now recognised as significant mobilisers of the powerful placebo response. But instead of studying the psychological operation of these phenomena, Mesmer insisted that a 'mystical force' was at work. The Enlightenment was in full swing and rationalism and scientific argument were gaining ground, and 'mystical' explanations for observable phenomena were (unsurprisingly) gradually becoming less and less credible. Sadly, Mesmer's fame and personal efforts to promote 'animal magnetism' and 'universal fluid' put a brake on the serious study of hypnosis for over a hundred years, as scientific thinkers tended to consign it to the dustbin along with the obviously nonsensical magnetism and non-existent fluid.

Interestingly, a similar confusion seems to have occurred over the modern day practice of EFT (emotional freedom technique - or 'tapping'). Although it can be shown that this technique activates the 'orientation response', and that this can quite well account for its effectiveness, promoters of EFT tend to prefer 'mystical' explanations to do with the clearing of 'blockages' in 'energy meridians' - supposed channels of energy in the body.

Partly because of Mesmer's insistence on mystical explanations, hypnosis still sometimes has 'mumbo-jumbo' connotations for the public - as if an echo of the scientific rejection of Mesmer's mystical explanations still sound down the centuries, informing people's opinions of hypnosis even if they've never heard of Mesmer.

'The Wizard of Vienna' is a great book and works both as a gripping biography and a colourful contemporary account of the French revolution. It also briefly describes the later development of hypnosis and how certain pioneers abandoned Mesmer's rituals, finding that hypnosis worked just as well without all the philosophical brouhaha so beloved of Anton Mesmer.

Review by Mark Tyrrell

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Mark Tyrrell
Creative Director