Franz Mesmer: Biography of this pioneer of hypnosis

Although still a practice questioned by many experts, hypnosis has become a useful method to potentiate the effects of psychotherapy in cases of insomnia, smoking and even post-traumatic stress. However, in its early days, hypnosis was an unscientific procedure whose mechanism was not known to those who used it.

For a long time hypnosis It was known like “mesmerismo” in honor to Franz Mesmer, The doctor who popularized this technique. In this article, we will explain what mesmerism was and what were the special assumptions on which its creator was based. We will also do a brief review of the development of hypnosis after Mesmer.

    Who was Franz Mesmer?

    Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer was born in Iznang, a town in southwestern Germany, in 1734. Although he previously studied theology and law, he received his MD from the University of Vienna with a thesis titled ” On the influence of the planets on the human body “; it is believed that the work of physician Richard Mead was partially plagiarized.

    In his thesis, Mesmer argued that gravitational forces from stars have played a role in health and disease, Intuitive expansion of Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity. Later, he will develop these ideas until arriving at the most famous concept of his work: animal magnetism, to which we will devote the next section.

    At the age of 33, he established himself as a doctor in Vienna, but was not satisfied with the procedures of the time, which he considered aggressive and ineffective. The case of Francisca Österlin, a patient with hysteria, Marked a turning point in his career: According to Mesmer, he transferred the “animal magnetism” of his body to that of Ms. Österlin using magnets, suppressing symptoms for a few hours.

    From this case, Mesmer gained some fame in Vienna, but moved to Paris in 1777 as his abilities were called into question by a earthy case of psychogenic blindness. In France, he trained several disciples and tried to ensure that their methods were considered legitimate; he won both recognition and criticism, and ended up in exile in Switzerland.

    Mesmerism continued after the death of its creator, In 1815, through his followers, some of whom were respected physicians. From animal magnetism and the attempts of Mesmer’s critics to refute his hypotheses would develop the field of hypnosis, forever marred by the reputation of its “father”.

      Animal magnetism hypothesis

      Mesmer asserted that the living things we have an invisible fluid, animal magnetism, Allowing nervous functioning and imbalance can cause many diseases; therefore, the method of curing them had to be the manipulation of magnetism.

      Therefore, Mesmer started using magnets with the aim of changing the concentration of animal magnetism in the affected parts of the body. More precisely, he believed he could transfer this energy from his body, where it was abundant, to that of his patients. He later stopped using magnets and developed more extravagant therapeutic procedures.

      According to the theses of mesmerism, animal fluid circulates spontaneously in the body of living beings, but there are sometimes blockages in their circulation. Mesmer postulated that illnesses could be cured by inducing a “seizure” by people with high levels of animal magnetism, like himself and his followers.

      Mesmer’s hypothesis must be framed in the context in which he lived. In the 18th century, it was not uncommon to hear of magnetism or a “universal fluid”, as the alchemists who held such a belief still existed. Newton’s theses on the existence of the ether were also popular, A substance with similar characteristics.

        Mesmer techniques

        Mesmer sat down across from his patients, touching both of their knees and looked them in the eye. He then rubbed the patient’s arms with his hands and squeezed his stomach with his fingers for a long time; sometimes that caused therapeutic “crises”, for example seizures. Finally, he played a glass harmonica.

        Later, after becoming famous, Mesmer began to apply his treatments to large groups of people – often aristocrats who sought entertainment rather than medicine. In these cases, he used a container with iron rods that had to touch the affected part of each person’s body.

        Despite his rocambolescos methods, Mesmer was able to cure many alterations of psychological origin, mainly in cases of hysteria: although their assumptions were wrong, their procedures they were effective thanks to auto-suggestion, A mechanism that has been confirmed by scientific research.

        From mesmerism to hypnosis

        After Mesmer’s death, the effect of mesmerism would be attributed to controlling patient behavior. However, physicians such as John Elliotson and James Eisdale used Mesmer’s methods to treat psychogenic disorders or to numb their patients; the latter use became unnecessary with the advent of chemical anesthetics.

        The passage from magnetism to hypnosis is attributed to James Braid, A Scottish surgeon who coined the term “hypnotism”. Braid asserted that the state of hypnosis depended on the physical and mental conditions of the patient, and not on an abstract magnetic fluid; nevertheless, the effectiveness of mesmerism in certain alterations seemed to him undeniable.

        On the other hand, there were also those who followed the tradition of magnetism, mainly to cure physical ailments. Between the 18th and 19th centuries, there was the profession of “magnetizer”, People who used magnets or gestures similar to Mesmer’s on the basis of his pseudoscientific proposals.

        Due to the weakness of Mesmer’s hypotheses, the hypnotists who succeeded him were discredited by the scientific community. To a large extent, this position is maintained to this day, despite hypnosis it has been validated by science as a therapeutic supportive instrument.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Leahey, TH (2004). History of psychology, 6th edition. Madrid: Pearson Prentice Room.

        • Pattie, F. (1994). Fascinating and animal magnetism. Hamilton: Edmonston Pub.

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