Review of the book From Mesmer to Freud

From Mesmer to Freud: Magnetic Sleep and the Roots of Psychological Healing
By: Adam Crabtree

Abstract and Book Review
Prepared for: Barb Dewar
By: Felicia Pavlovic
Date: Friday September 14th, 2007.

One line:

An historical overview of the alternate consciousness paradigm, tracing Mesmer’s discovery of animal magnetism in 1784 and its overwhelming influence on psychological healing over the 18th and 19th centuries, to its disappearance with the birth of Freud’s psychoanalytic model.


Beginning with the late eighteenth-century Viennese physician Franz Anton Mesmer and concluding with the early work of Pierre Janet and Sigmund Freud, Adam Crabtree traces the origins of psychological healing. Mesmer and his pupil Puysegur’s pioneering discovery of magnetic sleep, an artificially induced trance-like state, uncovered the influence of unconscious mental activity as the source of unaccountable thoughts or impulses. It revealed a realm beyond the conscious mind that would alter our concept of the human psyche to the present day. The book offers an historical account of the development of this new alternate consciousness paradigm, including its relationship to paranormal phenomena and hypnotic consciousness, which lasted over a century in both America and Europe. Adam Crabtree explains that the birth of psychoanalysis through Freud brought with it the philosophy of human consciousness as a unitary field, and so the paradigm was lost. Recent exploration of multiple personality theory, however, has seen a resurgence of interest in this paradigm and a development of its uses.

As an historical guide, Adam Crabtree’s From Mesmer to Freud: Magnetic Sleep and the Roots of Psychological Healing traces Mesmer’s pioneering discovery of magnetic sleep, an artificially induced trance-like state, to the subsequent development that grew out of it, the alternate consciousness paradigm. This revealed a realm beyond the conscious mind that would alter our concept of the human psyche to the present day. The book builds a case of how we have come to understand mental aberrations and the human psyche in modern psychology through the pioneers of this paradigm by documenting the development of this rich tradition. The impact of the alternate consciousness paradigm on healing lasted over a century and was used by practitioners in every country, yet it was disregarded upon the advent of Freudian psychoanalysis. Freud’s belief that consciousness is unitary and that a person’s dissociated systems are just unconscious groups within the one psyche resulted in fewer cases of multiple personality and related disorders, rarely diagnosed since that time. In stating the purpose of his book, Adam Crabtree suggests that, “whatever may be the lacuna in the knowledge of our psychological roots, it is time to remedy the situation.” (viii)

Until the discovery of magnetic sleep in 1784, there were only two other models of understanding for mental disturbances: the organic paradigm, which attributed mental symptoms to physiological problems; and the intrusion paradigm, which meant that one was possessed or taken over by a spirit or demon. It was Franz Anton Mesmer, a physician in Germany, whose philosophical influence was the metaphysical work of the Illuminati at the time, who began working with a new therapeutic model for healing. Mesmer’s focus of scientific investigation was the study of how the stars influenced the human organism through a kind of magnetic resonance. He made it clear that his research remained in the realm of the physical, as he did not want to align himself with the occult model of his time. In his clinical work within the organic (physiological) paradigm, Mesmer discovered how the force of magnets and music on the human body created a resonance that could bring whatever ailment the patient was suffering into harmony. He termed these currents of force animal magnetism. In order for the patient’s body to come into a harmonious state, the body would try to fight the resonance through a convulsive, and at times, violent climax, and then it would slowly calm down until it aligned itself with this magnetic force. Soon Mesmer discovered that the physician’s own magnetized body could be the cure for restoring harmony that was lost through illness in the patient. Since water was a conductor of magnetic force, he used baths of magnetized water to bring about healing. The turning point for Mesmer was when he worked with Maria Therese Paradis, an eighteen-year-old blind woman since the age of three, who was subject to hysterical symptoms. Mesmer’s work with her through touch, magnetized rods, and music led to the regaining of her sight and the diminishing of her hysteria. He was now beginning to refer to a magnetized fluid that was present in his work, which he believed to be the very universal foundation of life itself, the principle by which organic bodies carry out their vital functions. He stated that the inhibition of this force was the cause of malfunction, nervous disorders, and disease.*

Mesmer soon attracted a following, which eventually practiced under the support of the Societe de l'Harmonie, a group of physicians dedicated to the practice of animal magnetism, or mesmerism. It was his own student, the Marquis de Puysegur, an amateur scientist, who experimented with a more gentle therapeutic procedure that did not necessitate a dramatic, convulsive climax. Puysegur's work with his patient, Victor Race (a young man with a respiratory disease), planted the seed of the alternate consciousness paradigm. Because this magnetized state was so different from the waking state (sometimes exhibiting different personalities and a different state of health), Puysegur called the states two different existences. He noticed that the states were very difficult to merge and that while magnetized, the patient had a kind of clairvoyance or clear seeing about his own illness, at times displaying a different way of speaking and behaving.

After seven or eight minutes, the patient fell into a kind of sleep, during which he was able to hold a perfectly sensible conversation, answer questions, sing songs, and dance to imagined music; however, there was no memory of this state once conscious, much as one might be if one were sleep walking. Puysegur called his new discovery 'magnetic sleep' and then eventually settled on the term 'artificial somnambulism'. Puysegur leaned towards a psychological explanation, and he concluded that artificial somnambulism had nothing to do with animal magnetism (a supposed physical force), but rather the imposition of the magnetizer's will on that of his subject: “The rapport of magnetizer and patient is the direct connection between their nervous system.” (40) Rapport was considered an essential feature of magnetic sleep. Puysegur believed that the presence of its principle characteristics (hearing and obeying only the magnetizer) was the surest indication that a person was in the somnambulistic state.

Two factions emerged in mesmeric circles now: traditionalists, who followed Mesmer's doctrine to the letter; and revisionists, who were more enthusiastic about Puysegur's new technique and explanatory framework. It was clear that Mesmer was an innovator in the field of psychology, through establishing a kind of empathic relationship with his patients, but he did not develop an identifiable psychological theory. The first psychological investigation of magnetic psychotherapy must be attributed to the Marquis de Puysegur and his followers. Puysegur believed that an intimate rapport between patient and magnetizer was most delicate, and he perceived both benefit and danger in such a relationship.

In Puysegur's realm, artificial somnambulism was understood to be therapeutic in several ways. First, the trance state itself was thought to be beneficial because it possessed the same properties as any restorative or satisfying sleep. Secondly, when entranced, individuals were suggestible to the extent that certain symptoms could be removed by way of a simple command. Finally, because artificial somnambulism was a kind of sleep, a dialogue could be established with pathogenic parts of the mind that were normally inaccessible. Thus, treatment sometimes took the form of a discussion between doctor and patient, with the patient replying to questions in his or her sleep.

Tardy de Montravel, a follower of the Puysegur method, added a further dimension to the work of magnetic sleep by theorizing that a sixth sense was at work within the somnambulist and that this sixth sense originated in the stomach (solar-plexus). In 1785, he worked with his first patient, Mlle N. She was twenty-one and had a variety of symptoms including a low fever, violent coughing, hemorrhaging through the nose, and extreme emaciation. Although her physician had given up on her, Montravel began magnetizing her, and within the first session she fell into a somnambulistic state. He posed questions in four areas while she was asleep: the cause of her illness; her interior state; the remedies she suggested; and the course the illness would take. Her answer, delivered in the state of magnetic somnambulism, was that her problem was due to the suppression of her menstrual period, which produced an interior state of agitation with all the symptoms of menstruation but no flow. As well, she could see directly inside her own body and witnessed the presence of worms in her stomach. “Her cure, she suggested would come on May 15th at 8:30 pm in the evening when her period would resume its regularity. All she needed to do was drink magnetized water and to be magnetized regularly. Everything occurred exactly as predicted.” (57)**

Even some sixty years after Mesmer's heyday, there was still talk of emanations and magnetic fluids (particularly among stage performers who sought to sensationalize their acts). In England, there was an attempt to develop a completely psychological understanding of mesmeric phenomena, set in motion by James Braid’s introduction of the notion of hypnotism. He concluded that the trance state was induced by neuromuscular exhaustion, brought about through protracted staring, which allowed the mind to fall out of gear. To test his theory, Braid invited a dinner-party guest to stare, without blinking, at the top of a wine bottle. Within minutes, the man was asleep. Braid acknowledged the importance of a psychological factor: “It (hypnotism) is a state of concentration of attention in which the powers of the mind are engrossed if not entirely absorbed, with a single idea or train of thought.” (160). ** Braid used hypnosis to treat a wide range of problems from spinal curvature to epilepsy. As a direct result of Braid's publications, hypnosis was rescued from the world of town halls and amateurs to be delivered safely into the hands of neurologists and physiologists; but just as the scientists were becoming used to the idea of hypnosis, it was taken to new levels by the phenomenon of Spiritualism in America.

In the late 1840’s, this new religio-philosophical movement arose in the United States, which would soon spread to England and Europe. Among Spiritualists, communication with the dead was usually accomplished after entering a trance state, but such trance states could also be conceptualized as 'self-hypnosis'. Moreover, many hypnotic subjects began spontaneously to report receiving messages from the spirit world. As the movement grew, Spiritualist meetings became increasingly theatrical – séances and table turning, rapping, and automatic writing performed without volition. Five explanations of the phenomena predominated: they were departed spirits; they were the work of the devil; they arose from delusion; they were produced by a fluid such as electricity; or they were simply due to fraud. It was, however, the fad of table turning that gave rise to the earliest speculations on the possibility of unconscious mental activity. It was thought that perhaps participants were in fact making things happen through their own trance/hypnotic states and that there were no departed spirits at work.

The Foundation for Psychical Research [is this the proper name?] was set up in 1882 to investigate the paranormal systematically. Animal magnetism played a central role in this research because of its influence on psychological healing, including Spiritualism in America and Europe. The development of a separation of consciousness began to take shape and due to this, many Spiritualists resigned from the foundation. This separation came to be known as double consciousness. Braid called this a “second memory” and suggested that “in double consciousness there is a state of sleep when a patient may be taught anything and be able to repeat it with verbal accuracy and have no ideas of it when awake.” (284) Magnetizers sometimes noted a separation of the person into two distinct personalities. As opposed to seeing it as a spirit entity, it was now referred to as an “inner voice” (285). In 1875, Charles Richet, a physiologist in Paris, concluded that “what makes the ‘I’ is the collection of memories we have. And memories are reserved for a special physical state.” (286) Thus, he concluded, memory makes personality possible.

The first cases of multiple personality disorder appeared less than ten years after the discovery of magnetic sleep. There appeared to be a connection between the rise of multiple personality disorder and the discovery of a second or alternate consciousness in magnetic sleep. It was Pierre Janet in 1859 who defined automatism (or an unconscious act) as “an action having all the characteristics of a psychological act, save one: that it is always unknown by the person himself who executes it at the moment of its execution.” (317) During this time, the field of consciousness was focused on a small range of impressions. The difference was that, in somnambulism, this state was artificially produced. Janet believed that in order to access the subconscious personalities and get to the origin of the activity, he needed to uncover memories of events that the patient simply could not synthesize into his/her normal personality. In fact, all magnetizers came to the conclusion that the healthy couldn’t be put into a state of magnetic sleep.

A different approach was simultaneously being developed in England (where there were less hysterics – ha!), by Frederic Myers, a well-respected psychologist who worked with intelligent and sometimes successful members of British society. Myers was the first worker to employ the alternative consciousness paradigm as a whole psychological system. Myers disagreed that ordinary consciousness was superior and healthier than the lower streams of consciousness. Through his experiments in automatic writing and hypnotism, he believed that dissociative phenomena were an aspect of normal human functioning. He referred to a secondary self or an inner self that was not a state of pathology, but an experience of automatism that occurs naturally in everyone. He began referring to the subliminal self as the framework for the data of the multiple layers of human consciousness, and he called the self of common experience the supraliminal self. Myers reasoned that most people were so consumed by the supraliminal in their everyday lives that they identified with it, but he questioned placing importance on the supraliminal self. Although he believed that information flowed down from the supra to the subliminal self, things did not flow in the other direction the same way. Hypnotism was, for him, one way of allowing the subliminal self to emerge. The disintegration of these synthesized parts happened when they were cut off from one another, essentially impermeable to one another, creating a lack of wholeness. But as the alternate consciousness paradigm of Myers was maturing, the foundations of psychoanalysis were now being laid down.

Psychoanalysis was itself the beneficiary of the alternate consciousness tradition, yet that it “quickly overshadowed this tradition is one of the intriguing ironies of the history of psychology.” (351) The Viennese physician Breuer had come from the tradition of animal magnetism, but his work with Freud made him the transitional figure to psychoanalysis. In his case study of Anna O. in 1880 (whose unsuccessful treatment became the prototype and model for cathartic cures), Breuer tried to deal with her hysteria by having her recall the occasion on which the symptoms first happened. This would then release the affect that had been trapped with the traumatic memory. “This process called abreaction by Freud and Breuer led to a catharsis and freedom from the symptoms. Breuer concluded that Anna O. had ideas inadmissible to consciousness that were avoided through symptom formation.” (354) When the traumatic event was recalled, Anna would fall into a hypnoid fright/state that would diminish and remain under the surface of consciousness as the memory dissolved. Although Freud disagreed with Breuer’s theory of a hypnoid state, they both worked with the cathartic method. However, it was the controversy between Janet and Freud that also gave way to this split in ideas. Freud thought that consciousness was not split into parts and that a person’s dissociated systems are just unconscious groups within the one psyche. “Human consciousness is unitary, and like a searchlight, shines now on one group of elements, now and then on another.”(359)

It is at this point important to note that by separating himself from the whole tradition of multiple streams of consciousness within the psyche, Freud made hypnotic and magnetic literature quite obscure. The psychoanalytic model that had developed paid little attention to this paradigm. Since the 1950’s, a few cases of multiple personality disorder had developed and the paradigm found its way back into the mainstream. It was included and accepted in 1980 as a part of the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorder in the third edition as a legitimate disorder. The work continues as multiple personality disorders are now being linked to childhood sexual and physical abuse.

Works Cited

Crabtree, Adam, From Mesmer to Freud: Magnetic Sleep and the Roots of Psychological Healing Yale University, 1993.
Personal Endnotes

*1(In yoga this fluid is called prana, or universal life force energy. In Japanese Reiki, it is called ki and in Chinese medicine, it is called Chi.)

**2(In yoga philosophy, an individual in a state of meditation reveals to himself his own true nature and through clear seeing can know his own cause and solution for his suffering.)

***3(T.K.V Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga, Inner Traditions International 1995.

A transliteration of Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali Sutra 1.2 “a state of yoga is defined as the ability to direct the mind and focus exclusively on one object and sustain that focus without distraction.”)