Hypnosis’ first scientific setback

Franz Mesmer was a hypnotist so early to the field, they hadn’t even named it yet.

He was an 18th Century doctor and astronomer – two unrelated disciplines, which he saw as connected.

His view of the universe was that everything – living and non-living – contained an energy field. By manipulating these fields, you could cure the incurable and resolve the unresolvable.

Many cultures say the same.

I mean, isn’t that just chi – or even The Force from Star Wars?

Mesmer gave this energy a name – something that has changed meaning over the centuries:

Animal magnetism.

Already, some of you bristle with how unscientific this is. I disagree. Whether or not he was right, he followed the evidence, developed hypotheses and tested them. That’s science. Automatically rejecting a theory because it sounds wrong isn’t.

Consider the evidence Mesmer worked with.

He cured hysteria by administering iron particles dissolved in a solution, then running magnets over the patient’s body – hence the name.

Then he found he didn’t need the magnets or the iron. He could run his hands over a patient – not touching, but close enough for them to feel something – while staring into their eyes to create the same results.

Again, some of you rebel against this.

Almost touching?


Is that it?

Yes and no.

I could argue and explain and reason why what he did worked. Rather than be swayed by my words, why not give it a go yourself?

Hold your hand over a part of your body, like your chest or torso. Get as close as you can without touching the skin, hair or clothes there.

Mindfully wait and observe what happens.

Or another exercise. Find a mirror and stare at your right eye’s reflection. Do your best to keep your eyes open for as long as you can – not even blinking.

If you feel the urge to giggle or look away, let it pass.

With either exercise, you’ll probably enter a deep trance state quickly. If you’re used to meditating, it might feel strange, not like your usual trances.

Not good, not bad – simply different.

This is a simple exercise anyone can do by themselves.

Now imagine someone trained in this art doing it to you. Imagine that trance you felt, only hundreds of times more powerful.

So, no, Mesmer wasn’t ‘just’ almost touching and staring at people.

He was mesmerising them.

(No points for figuring out where that name came from…)

He hypnotised them without words and without contact – simply gazing at them and passing his hand over them.

He got results no one else could.

But, alas, he wasn’t without controversy. A few things stopped mesmerism supplementing medicine all across Europe – one of them being how hard it is to teach it.

Another big obstacle was how… unfashionable it was.

The scientists of the era didn’t like this mystical-sounding theory. So they poked around, eager to disprove it. They couldn’t find this ‘animal magnetism’ force in nature, therefore Mesmer’s explanation for how it worked was wrong, therefore mesmerism is junk science.

A child could spot the logical errors in that reasoning, but it was enough to set back the theory.

Science may be the perfect pursuit of truth, but scientists are only human.

Still, it’s hard to keep a good idea down. Mesmerists still practice and refine the arts, plus Mesmer’s work laid the seeds for the next generations of hypnotists.

There’s no such thing as the one true trance state. Ericksonian trances feel different to meditative ones, which are different to mesmeric ones…

Sometimes you need one or another.

That’s why it pays to learn many, deeply.

Your introduction to the wonderful world of trances is right here:


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