All words have a history. But some are particularly interesting to explore when it comes to psychology — because they’re directly born from it.
How many times have you been mesmerized by something, so captured by it that it was like you were in a trance?
The word “mesmerize” dates back to an 18th century Austrian physician named Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). He established a theory of illness that involved internal magnetic forces, which he called animal magnetism. (It would later be known as mesmerism.)
Mesmer believed that good physical and psychological health came from properly aligned magnetic forces; bad health, then, resulted from forces essentially being out of whack. He noticed a treatment that seemed to work particularly well in correcting these misaligned forces.
It involved giving his patients medications with high doses of iron and then moving magnets over their bodies (Goodwin, 1999). During these treatments, Mesmer’s patients would go into a trance-like state and emerge feeling better. He saw this as substantiating the success of his therapy. (What Mesmer hadn’t realized is that he was showcasing the power of suggestion, not magnetism, as Goodwin writes.)
Later, he tossed the magnets from his treatment repertoire. Why? He started seeing that he could enact improvements in his patients without them, leading him to believe that he possessed magnetic powers. As such, he began passing his empty hands over his patient’s bodies and sometimes massaging distressed parts.
While he was popular with his patients, the medical community was less impressed. In fact, he got kicked off the faculty at the esteemed University of Vienna, where he received his medical degree, and was forbidden from practicing medicine in Vienna altogether.
So Mesmer left for greener pastures: Paris. There, Mesmer became a hit, so much so that he started doing group sessions to fit everyone in. During these group sessions, which were held at his fancy clinic in an expensive Parisian neighborhood, patients would hold hands, as Mesmer passed by them, usually wearing a flowing robe.
It was all very ceremonious and dramatic. As Mesmer prompted his patients into a trance, many would swoon and make noise, which of course influenced others in the group.
Again, another medical community became skeptical and viewed Mesmer as nothing more than a quack promoting fraudulent treatments.
So the king appointed a commission to look into Mesmer and his treatment. (Benjamin Franklin served as president, and curiously, Joseph Guillotin was a member.) They not only denounced Mesmer’s therapy as ineffective, they condemned the idea of magnetic forces. They also said that patients’ improvements came not from Mesmer’s magnetism but from their desire to get better.
After the findings, Mesmer left Paris but continued practicing until his death in 1815.
However, mesmerism didn’t die with its founder. Fifteen years later, it came to the U.S. and became really popular. French physician Charles Poyen was one of its champions. He gave presentations in many states and after immigrating to America, even started the mesmerist publication The Psychodinamist. (Benjamin & Baker, 2004).
American mesmerists also used the power of suggestion to help patients with everything from health to family problems. Again, clients reported feeling better after their sessions, as though they’d “been set free by their treatments” and felt “spiritually invigorated” (Benjamin & Baker, 2004).
The Fowler Brothers, who’d made money off of phrenology, also got in the business of mesmerism (Benjamin & Baker, 2004).
“Toward the end of the 19th century they began to promote lectures and courses in ‘personal magnetism’ that promised a pleasing personality; the cultivation of success; how to succeed in love, courtship and marriage; how to prevent disease; how to build character; and how to become a great power in the world.”
Mesmerism wasn’t just a blip in psychology’s history. It actually paved the way for hypnosis and something even bigger.
Psychologist Philip Cushman writes (as cited in Benjamin & Baker, 2004):
“In certain ways, mesmerism was the first secular psychotherapy in America, a way of ministering psychologically to the great America unchurched. It was an ambitious attempt to combine religion with psychotherapy, and it spawned ideologies such as mind cure philosophy, the New Thought movement, Christian Science and American spiritualism.”
Benjamin, L.T., & Baker, D.B. (2004). The beginnings of psychological practice: Psychology’s other occult doubles. From Séance to Science: A History of the Profession of Psychology in America (pp.21-24). California: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
Goodwin, C.J. (1999). Psychoanalysis and clinical psychology: Mesmerism and hypnosis. A History of Modern Psychology (pp. 363-365). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.