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Early Investigations of Hypnosis

A Viennese physician, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), is often credited with discovering hypnosis. For many years mesmerization was a synonym for hypnosis. But Mesmer's procedures were a far cry from those of modern-day hypnosis. Mesmer had patients sit in a wooden tub that contained metal bottles of water. Beneath the patients was a layer of iron filings and ground glass. Mesmer covered the tub and inserted metal rods through openings to touch a patient's body. Although he did not know it, Mesmer had created a crude battery. The resulting electric charges sometimes knocked his patients unconscious or gave them seizures. Some of the patients reported miraculous cures of their aches and pains from this treatment.

What did Mesmer do? How did the Marquis de Puysegur induce hypnosis?

Mesmer believed his cures were due to manipulating animal magnetism, a mysterious energy field surrounding living creatures. Other scientists of Mesmer's day investigated animal magnetism and concluded it did not exist. Some (such as the Marquis de Puysegur) found they could induce a trance state similar to what some of Mesmer's patients experienced, simply by suggesting to a person that they would go to sleep, then giving simple instructions to fuel the imagination.

What was Braid's theory?

The famous English surgeon James Braid (1795-1860) also rejected Mesmer's concept of animal magnetism. Braid theorized that a hypnotic trance was triggered by fatigue of eye muscles. This was wrong, but it was an understandable mistake. Braid noticed that subjects staring at an object often drooped their eyelids as they entered a trance-like state. Braid labeled the phenomenon neur-hypnotism. Later the prefix neur- ("related to nerves") was dropped. By the 1830s the term hypnotism replaced mesmerization.

How was the Marquis de Puysegur closest to modern conceptions of hypnosis? What are typical things a person can do under hypnosis?

Of the early explorers of hypnosis, the Marquis de Puysegur was closest to modern conceptions of hypnosis. He suggested that Mesmer's miracle cures were due not to animal magnetism but to suggestion. Modern researchers sometimes describe hypnosis as a state of hypersuggestibility, because a hypnotized person is unusually open to suggestions.

The hypnotized person accepts the instructions of a hypnotist much the way a dreaming person accepts strange events in a dream. This allows the hypnotist to suggest behaviors and perceptions which otherwise would not occur. Classic examples are taking a bite of an onion but interpreting it as an apple, hallucinating two images of a single person, feeling that an arm is paralyzed, or screening out severe feelings of pain.

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