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Mesmer was the first to propose a rational basis for the effects of hypnosis.
Although we now know that his notion of “animal magnetism”, transferred from healer to patient through a mysterious etheric fluid, is hopelessly wrong, it was firmly based on scientific ideas current at the time, in particular Isaac Newton’s theories of gravitation.
At the same time, the style of hypnosis changed, from a direct instruction issued by an authoritarian figure (a legacy of the charismatic mesmerist) to a more indirect and permissive style of trance induction, based on subtly persuasive language patterns.
This was largely due to the work of therapists such as Milton H. More importantly, perhaps, hypnosis became increasingly practical, and regarded as a useful tool for easing psychological distress and bringing about profound change in a variety of situations. Advances in neurological science and brain imaging, together with the work of British psychologists Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell who linked hypnosis to the Rapid Eye Movement (REM), have also helped to resolve the “state/non-state” debate, bringing hypnosis and hypnotic trance firmly into the realm of everyday experience.
These practices tend to be for magical or religious purposes, such as divination or communicating with gods and spirits.
Hypnosis itself hasn’t changed for millennia, but our understanding of it and our ability to control it has changed quite profoundly.
This conundrum – does hypnosis have a real, physical basis, or not? Important shifts were happening elsewhere, however. First of all, the centre of hypnotic gravity moved from Europe to America, where all the most significant breakthroughs of the 20th century took place.
Secondly, hypnosis became a popular phenomenon, something that was increasingly available to the layman, outside of the laboratory or clinic.
The popular image of the hypnotist as a charismatic and mystical figure can be firmly dated to this time.
Inevitably, these magical trappings led to Mesmer’s downfall, and for a long time, hypnotism was a dangerous interest to have for anybody looking for a mainstream career.
Nevertheless, the stubborn fact remained that hypnosis worked, and the 19th Century is characterised by individuals seeking to understand and apply its effects.