Applied History of Psychology/Pseudoscientific Schools of Thought

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Franz Anton Mesmer[edit]

In reading the history of Franz Anton Mesmer’s life, it is unclear as to whether to conclude that he was truly one of the foreparents of clinical psychology or no more than a quack. However, at least three things are certain: he delighted, offended, and mesmerized. Psychology was influenced by various theories throughout history that have no scientific foundation, including the beliefs of this Viennese physician of the 18th century. This section will outline some of the history of Mesmer and discuss how various personal factors in his life may have contributed to his beliefs and practices. There will also be some contemplation as to how his work has contributed to psychology.

Franz Anton Mesmer was born in May of 1734 or 1735 in Europe, on the German-Swiss border in Lake Constance. He was raised in a Swiss-German family in a small town called Iznang, and was the third of a family of nine children. Not much seems to be known about his parents, except that his father was a gamekeeper and forest warden. It has therefore been said that his parents were able to afford a decent and modest lifestyle for the family. Both of his parents were very strong Catholics and tried to encourage the young Mesmer into the priesthood. After studying at the Jesuit universities of Dilligen and Ingolstadt, Mesmer took up the study of medicine at the University of Vienna in 1759. His doctoral dissertation was entitled, “On the Influence of the Planets on the Human Body”, which relied largely on Newton’s theories of the tides. It has been suggested that Mesmer plagiarized his dissertation from a work by Richard Mead (1673-1754), an English physician who was friends with Newton (Pattie, 1994).

Mesmer argued that certain tides in the human body might be accounted for by the movements of the sun and moon (Bloch, 1980). He later added support to this argument in 1774, citing a successful treatment for one of his first clients when he produced an “artificial tide” in her body by having her swallow a solution containing iron and then passing strong magnets over areas of so-called “blockages”. Mesmer believed that illness was caused by an imbalance or blockage of magnetic fluids in the body (Darnton, 1968). Mesmer claimed that his patients would fall into a trance and awaken from it feeling better. Today, Mesmer’s technique, known as mesmerism, is regarded as an early forerunner of modern hypnosis.

Some believe that hypnosis has been around for well over 6,000 years, dating back to prehistoric times. Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Persians, Chinese, and Samarians, among many other ancient cultures, are documented as having used hypnosis as a therapeutic tool. Prior to the 18th century, the phenomenon of hypnosis hadn’t ever been brought into the general population. Although it wasn’t known as “hypnosis” at the time, Mesmer had remarkable success healing patients, relying on his own instincts in effecting his cures (Gould, 1991). Interestingly, while he did manage to “cure” many patients, mainly all pretty young ladies, it is said that his elderly wife remained ill.

It wasn’t until approximately 1776 that Mesmer observed a priest who effected cures without the use of magnets, but by manipulation alone. This led him to discard the magnets and suppose that some kind of life force resided in himself that he could use to influence others. He believed that this force permeated the universe and more especially affected the nervous system of men. He was quite flamboyant in his healings and people crowded to him, with patients coming from far and wide to get treatment or a cure for their ailments. However, the medical community treated Mesmer as an eccentric outsider due to his unorthodox beliefs and methods. By 1779, he had built a reputation for himself as an occultist and in 1784, after an investigation initiated by the French government, a prestigious committee of scientists concluded that the effects of Mesmer’s therapy were attributable to the power of suggestion, not the power of “animal magnetism” (McNally, 1999). He was therefore labeled as a fraud because there was no proof that he had discovered a new physical fluid. There didn’t appear to be any contention over the fact that Mesmer’s treatments often worked. It was concluded by a French Royal Commission set up by Louis XVI that the effects of Mesmer’s treatments were derived from either the imaginations of his patients or through charlatanry (Léger, 1846). Not much is known about what Mesmer did in the last 20 years of his life, however it has been suggested that he traveled about Europe, settling in his native Germany, and that he continued to practice animal magnetism for friends and neighbors until he died in 1815.

The most important of Mesmer’s many disciples was Armand de Puységur (1751-1825), who arrived at the recognition that magnetic effects depended on the magnetizer’s personal belief in the efficacy of cure, desire to cure, and rapport with the patient. These ideas formed the basis of his work, “Mémoires pour servir a l’histoire et a l’éstablissement due magnétisme animal”, a work considered the point of origin of modern psychotherapy. It is important to note that right from the inception of psychotherapeutic procedure, it was recognized that belief in the efficacy of cure, desire to cure, and the nature of the therapeutic relationship between therapist and client were fundamental factors in psychotherapeutic success.

There were various factors that impacted Mesmer’s beliefs and practices. First of all, he was trained as a physician and therefore was interested in wellness and healing people from illness. Second, his parents were very strong Catholics and they encouraged him into the priesthood. In addition, he studied at Jesuit universities before taking up the study of medicine. Mesmer’s beliefs around a “life force” within him that he could impart to others by way of his hands to effect healing is a very Christian concept. Innumerable passages could be quoted from the sacred books of Christianity in support of the practice of healing “by the laying on of hands”. This was said to be common among the Jews and was practiced by the founder of Christianity and his immediate followers with reportedly marvelous results. For example, the Bible states, “Lay hands upon the sick and they shall recover” (Mark xvi. 18), “The Lord granted signs and wonders to be done by their hands” (Acts xiv. 3), and “Joshua was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands upon him (Numbers xxvii, 18, 23). In Christianity, spiritual powers, gifts of healing, prophecy, and leadership were also conveyed by the laying on of hands. Given Mesmer’s background growing up in a very strong Catholic family, it is no wonder that he abandoned his technique of using magnets to heal and turned to the use of his hands, especially when in 1776 he observed a priest who effected cures with his hands. Furthermore, I would argue that his Christian upbringing likely also contributed to his misogynistic view that this “life force” to effect healing resided only in men.

Despite his shortcomings, Mesmer contributed to psychology in various ways. First, he understood that illness is not natural. The source of illness is not always in the physical body and some kind of blockage, whether it be tangible or not, will inevitably yield stagnation and sickness. Today we know that depression, anxiety and other psychological symptoms can contribute to physical sensations and a sense of being physically unwell. Today we also have an understanding of psychosomatic illness. Another important contribution was Mesmer’s recognition of the unconscious, although he did not speak of it as such. He experienced the power of the unconscious in that he contributed to the discovery of the hypnotic state, which can be a powerful therapeutic tool in therapy. Although he was labeled a fraud on the basis that there was no proof that he had discovered a new physical fluid, it is an important finding just the same that his clients were cured on the basis of suggestion. This is important in terms of how the psychological relates to the physical. Another contribution to psychology is that Mesmer sought to be both a scientist and a practitioner, and that this model of the dual role of a therapist is important for therapists working in psychology today. Finally, Mesmer mentored an important figure in the history of psychology who recognized that the belief in the efficacy of cure, desire to cure and the therapeutic relationship were fundamental factors in successfully working with clients in therapy. These beliefs are central to the practice of clinical psychology in our world today.

In conclusion, it is still unclear as to whether Mesmer was truly one of the foreparents of clinical psychology or just a quack. Despite the fact that his theories had no scientific foundation, such is often the reality in the field of psychology in that phenomenon experienced by our clients isn’t always easily testable. There is no doubt that Mesmer is a curious figure in the history of psychology. He contributed to our awareness of the unconscious, hypnosis and the relationship between psychology and health. At the very least, he has contributed his inquisitiveness and modeled his stance as a scientist and practitioner in undertaking to improve the qualities of the lives of others. Such qualities have thankfully become the hallmark of prominent practitioners of psychology today.

Franz Joseph Gall[edit]

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, Franz Joseph Gall developed phrenology, a theory that psychological traits and abilities reside in certain parts of the brain and can be identified and measured by the bumps and indentations of the skull. Although some of his ideas did not have empirical support, research later confirmed the more general point that certain mental activities can be traced to specific parts of the brain.