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The History of Healing Trauma With Hypnosis

Freud and Ben Franklin were among the pioneers of bilateral therapy.

Photo Credit: James Steidl / Shutterstock

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from the book Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being by Thom Hartmann (Park Street Press, 2006), available for purchase from Inner Traditions • Bear & Company, Amazon and IndieBound. Reprinted with permission.

In the book, Hartmann explains how walking allows people to heal from emotional trauma. When we walk, we engage both sides of the body, simultaneously activating both the left and right sides of the brain. Hartmann explains that both hemispheres of the brain join forces to break up the brain patterning of a traumatic experience that has become "stuck" in the brain through the bilateral therapy of walking. Below, he covers the history of earlier bilateral therapies (such as hypnosis) and why they were shunned following an uproar in the 1890s.

"It still strikes me as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories and that, as one might say, they lack the serious stamp of science." —Sigmund Freud, 1895

The first person to develop a system that involved bilateral cross-hemispheric stimulation was a man named Franz Anton Mesmer. In the late 1700s, Mesmer, an Austrian physician who lived in France, healed people of trauma by a variety of techniques that he believed stimulated people’s “animal magnetism,” which he defined as the animating life force within the human body. To accomplish this healing he sometimes used lodestones (magnets) or water that he had “magnetized.” He even claimed to use the direct force of his own “magnetism,” including a technique of holding two fingers in front of a patient’s face and gently waving the fingers from side to side for a few minutes at a time while the patient held her or his head steady and followed the physician’s fingers with the eyes. As Mesmer’s biographer James Wyckoff wrote, “Mesmer now considered passes with his hand as the essential part of his cure.”

This pioneering physician termed his system mesmerism, and for the latter part of the eighteenth century he was one of the most famous and notorious physicians in Europe. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a friend of Mesmer, and his opera Bastien et Bastienne was performed in 1768 in the garden of Mesmer’s home. Mozart later wrote Mesmer into his opera Così fan tutte:

This magnetic stone
Should give the traveler pause.
Once it was used by Mesmer,
Who was born
In Germany’s green fields,
And who won great fame
In France.

Mesmer’s system was often highly effective and was widely practiced to treat all manner of physical and psychological ailments, although he was careful not to take patients suffering from clearly “organic” problems such as cancers, sexually transmitted diseases, and other types of obvious infections. Trained as a classical physician, by making this distinction Mesmer was separating out those to whom he either would prescribe medications or would refer to other physicians for surgery or other medical techniques.

Mesmer’s special interest was in those conditions caused by a lack of vitality, or magnetism—what Freud referred to as hysteria and what today would be considered psychosomatic or psychiatric conditions—those caused by or rooted in emotional trauma. At the height of his career, Mesmer trained hundreds of physicians across Europe in his techniques and had a following that included royalty and people from the highest echelons of society, as well as the most destitute, whom he treated for free.

As happens with many new and unconventional therapies, the medical establishment of his day decided that Mesmer was a threat to them. A “commission of inquiry” was convened, which included a number of France’s most well-known physicians, along with the American scientist Benjamin Franklin. The investigators taught themselves what they thought were Mesmer’s techniques by having one of his students, d’Eslon, perform mesmerism cures on them. None of them was sick, however, so none was cured.

Recognizing this obvious flaw in their study, the investigators retired to Ben Franklin’s home, where, for three days, they tried to repeat what they had seen d’Eslon do, only this time they practiced his techniques on people of “the lower classes.” One of the commission members, de Jussieu, got good results and dissented from the majority report, concluding that mesmerism worked. The rest thought it a failure and wrote their opinion in a report dated August 11, 1784. The report, which debunked mesmerism, was a huge blow to Mesmer’s reputation and career in France, and caused him to retire to a home in the countryside, where he lived until his death in 1815. He continued to see patients and train doctors, but never again did “grand tours” of the major cities of Europe. Nonetheless, mesmerism and magnetism lived on as healing systems, and were widely practiced all across Europe and the United States well into the nineteenth century.

In November 1841 a French magnetizer by the name of Dr. Charles Lafontaine traveled to England to teach the technique; in the audience was a Manchester physician of Scottish ancestry named James Braid. Braid was fascinated by the techniques Lafontaine presented, and he began to experiment with them extensively. Braid concluded that Mesmer’s claims for the powers of magnets were overstated; the power of trance induction through mesmerism, however, intrigued Braid. He called the phenomenon neurohypnosis, later shortening the name of the trance-induction phenomenon to hypnosis.

Braid carefully chronicled the aspects of trance states that could be brought about by Mesmer’s technique of waving fingers in front of the eyes, so that his patients’ eyes moved from side to side while they considered their malady. Braid wrote:

My first experiments were conceived in view of proving the falseness of the magnetic theory, which states that the provoked phenomena of sleep is the effect of the transmission of the operator on the subject, of some special influence emanating from the first while he makes some touches on the second with the thumb. He looks at him with a fixed stare, while he directs the points of the fingers toward his eyes, and executes some passes in front of him.

It seemed to me that I had clearly established this point, after having taught the subjects to make themselves fall asleep just by fixing an attentive and sustained look on any inanimate object.

To determine whether the technique worked, as Mesmer had believed, because of a magnetic energy moving from the practitioner’s fingers to the patient’s eyes or whether it instead worked by virtue of the eye motion itself, Braid substituted a swinging pocket watch as the object in motion. The technique still worked, causing Braid to conclude that the trance states Mesmer induced—and the healing that came from them—were produced more by “fatigue of the eye muscles” or the power of suggestion than by any sort of animal magnetism or etheric field transmitted from practitioner to patient.

Braid and other doctors worked to strip mesmerism of its esoteric content and to arrive at a scientific understanding of the physiological and psychological processes involved in producing trance states by fixed attention and bilateral stimulation through moving the eyes from side to side. At the same time, Andrew Jackson Davis, Madame H. P. Blavatsky, and Phineas Quimby took the esoteric aspects of Mesmer’s work and transformed parts of those into the systems that would become Christian Science, Theosophy, and the New Thought movements.

Freud Discovers Hypnosis

The world that Sigmund Freud was born into in 1856 was embracing Braid’s refinement of hypnosis with fervor. The practice had spread to hospitals around the world as a means for providing presurgical anesthesia and was being used by many physicians to treat hysteria, a broad category of physical illnesses believed to have a psychological basis. (Those physical illnesses included paralysis, blindness, insomnia, fits, and a wide variety of other conditions.)

When Freud was twenty-four years old and just out of medical school, his mentor, Josef Breuer, began treating a twenty-one-year-old Orthodox Jewish woman named Bertha Pappenheim, whom Freud referred to in writing as Anna O. The young woman had spent several years of her life nursing her ailing father; when he died she developed a number of illnesses, including periodic muteness, paralysis, hallucinations, and spasms. Though she lived in Germany, she refused to speak German; she would converse only in English. She had tried on several occasions to kill herself.

At the time, therapeutic hypnotic methods varied to some degree, although most involved the classic technique of having a patient fix her or his attention on one point. In a paper published in 1881, Freud wrote of several hypnosis techniques he and Breuer preferred. One was clearly handed down from Mesmer: Freud wrote that “we sit down opposite the patient and request him to fixate on two fingers on the physician’s right hand and at the same time to observe closely the sensations which develop.”

The other technique seemed a more recent invention of Breuer’s and Freud’s and involved, as Freud wrote, “stroking the patient’s face and body with both hands continuously for from five to ten minutes,” a technique quite useful for calming “hysterical” female patients. Freud noted that “this has a strikingly soothing and lulling effect.” The “stroking” that Freud and Breuer practiced involved alternately stroking the left, then the right side of the body, a technique Mesmer had first developed.

Breuer treated Bertha with these and other hypnotic techniques to some success, although Freud observed that in the process the woman fell in love with Breuer, a married man old enough to be her father. Bertha claimed Breuer had impregnated her and that she would have his baby; Breuer claimed she had a “hysterical pregnancy.” She was moved to a private sanitarium, where she lived for the next few years out of the public eye. To this day it is not known whether the pregnancy was terminated by abortion or miscarriage, whether she gave birth, or whether, as Breuer claimed, her pregnancy symptoms were all the result of her “hysterical” desire to have his child and had no basis in physical reality.

What is known is that, after her release from the sanitarium, Bertha Pappenheim never again discussed Breuer or Freud, but instead became Germany’s first and most outspoken social worker and feminist. She rose to Susan B. Anthony–like fame in Germany, writing books and producing plays advocating women’s rights, and translating into German and publishing Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 groundbreaking treatise on women’s rights, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. In 1904 she founded a Jewish women’s movement, the Jüdischer Frauenbund, which was so influential in Germany that it came to the attention of the Nazis; she died after being interrogated by Hitler’s thugs in 1936. She had never married or, as far as can be ascertained, ever had a relationship with a man after her claim of impregnation by Breuer.

In the first year of her treatment by Breuer, Bertha had found that it was very useful for her to spend long hours talking with the attentive Breuer about her feelings: she called this her “talk therapy” and “chimney sweeping.” He would come to her home both evenings and mornings to hear her “talk therapy.” Even though Freud and Breuer never claimed this talk therapy to be a “cure,” her case became the cornerstone of Freud’s theories and of modern talk-based psychotherapies.

But in the 1880s and early 1890s, talk therapy wasn’t Freud’s favorite or even most common form of treatment for his patients. At the time, Freud’s treatment methodology of choice was a bilateral eye-motion technique known as hypnosis.

In his 1893 Some Points for a Comparative Study of Organic and Hysterical Motor Paralyses and his 1895 Studies on Hysteria (the “founding document” on Freudian psychoanalysis, which was coauthored with Josef Breuer), Freud based nearly all of his conclusions on results he obtained using Mesmer’s and Braid’s eye-motion and other hypnotic techniques. In Studies on Hysteria, for example, Freud wrote: “Quite frequently it is some event in childhood that sets up a more or less severe symptom which persists during the years that follow. Not until they have been questioned under hypnosis [my italics] do these memories emerge with the undiminished vividness of a recent event.”

In 1893 Freud published On the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena: Preliminary Communication, coauthored with Josef Breuer. In it he addressed the subject of hypnosis frequently and explicitly. “As a rule, it is necessary to hypnotize the patient and to arouse memories under hypnosis,” he wrote in the opening paragraph of the paper. “When this [hypnosis] is done, it becomes possible to demonstrate the connection in the clearest and most convincing fashion.” As always, his technique involved using his hand or a watch to move the patient’s eyes from side to side, and occasionally stroking the patient on alternate sides of her body.

In the paper, Freud and Breuer refer to their learning hypnotic techniques in 1881, and refer to their work before 1881 as “the ‘pre-suggestion’ era.” Repeatedly, Freud and Breuer referred to the power of hypnosis for both diagnostic and therapeutic work. They suggested that the root causes of hysteria are found in old memories or emotional traumas, and that “Not until [the patients] have been questioned under hypnosis do these memories emerge.”

And the cure for these painful old memories that are driving neurotic behavior? Freud and Breuer wrote: “It will now be understood how it is that the psychotherapeutic procedure which we have described in these pages has a curative effect. It brings to an end the operative force of the idea which was not abreacted in the first instance, by allowing its strangulated affect to find a way out through speech; and it subjects it to associative correction by introducing it into normal consciousness under light hypnosis or by removing it through the physician’s suggestion, as is done in somnambulism [hypnosis] accompanied by amnesia.”

Freud’s main technique for inducing what he called somnambulism was to wave his hand or his fingers from side to side in front of his patient’s face while suggesting that the person relax and then consider her or his problem or issue. Freud also used techniques borrowed from stage hypnotists, including “tapping,” a technique wherein Freud alternately tapped two fingertips on the person’s forehead, cheeks, or collarbone, continually from left to right, until a trance was induced, and another technique in which he put his hand on the client’s forehead and applied increasing pressure.

Hypnotic-induction techniques such as these were used to treat people across Europe and America; Freud was using quick-induction trance states to give him access to the inner workings of his patients’ minds, helping him to flesh out his theory of the unconscious.

But hypnosis was not uncontroversial. Ever since the father of one of Mesmer’s young female patients forced his way into Mesmer’s treatment room to “rescue” his daughter, the misuse of hypnosis was a hot topic. Stage demonstrations of hypnosis were among the most popular forms of entertainment throughout the mid- and late 1800s, and usually involved a beautiful female assistant who was put into a trance and then commanded to give blind obedience to the hypnotist.

In 1885, the novelist Jules Clarette published in Paris a work of fiction titled Jean Mornas, about a hypnotist who caused people to steal for him and left them with no memory of the events. In July 1886, as the novel was being translated into German and English, the French Revue De l’Hypnotisme magazine published the results of a series of experiments that sensationalized Clarette’s novel: in those experiments, physicians hypnotized their patients and then successfully commanded them to steal. The revelations of these experiments were very troubling to the French public. When Jean Mornas appeared in German in 1889, its publication caused quite a sensation.

By 1891, Freud was still writing enthusiastically about hypnosis, claiming that he had “become convinced that quite a number of symptoms of organic diseases are accessible to hypnosis,” but, backpedaling because of the bad press surrounding Clarette’s novel, Freud added that “in view of the dislike of hypnotic treatment prevailing at present, it seldom comes about that we can employ hypnosis except after all other kinds of treatment have been tried without success.”

Nonetheless, Freud continued to use hypnosis—particularly bilateral eye-motion induction techniques—and continued to get good results from the technique. And he wasn’t alone in this: by 1890 most psychiatrists were using the finger-waving-before-the-eyes “hypnotism” system to produce rapid psychotherapeutic results. Braid’s refinement of Mesmer’s technique was used almost universally across the psychiatry community, and all indications are that it was producing positive results for many patients.

In 1894, however, George Du Maurier changed all that.

Freud's Change of Course

Most people alive today won’t remember Du Maurier’s name, or even the title of his notorious work of fiction; most people do, however, recognize the name of the villain Du Maurier created. Du Maurier’s novel Trilby, published in 1894, became a worldwide best seller in its day and still stands as one of the most famous books of the nineteenth century.

Trilby played on both the growing public fear of hypnosis and the new wave of anti-Semitism that was building in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. Du Maurier described his villain in explicit and stereotypical terms:

First, a tall bony individual of any age between thirty and forty-five, of Jewish aspect, well-featured but sinister. He was very shabby and dirty, and wore a red béret and a large velveteen cloak, with a big metal clasp at the collar. His thick, heavy, languid, lusterless black hair fell down behind his ears on to his shoulders, in that musician-like way that is so offensive to the normal Englishman. He had bold, brilliant black eyes, with long heavy lids, a thin, sallow face, and a beard of burnt-up black which grew almost from his under eyelids; and over it his mustache, a shade lighter, fell in two long spiral twists. He went by the name of Svengali, and spoke fluent French with a German accent, and humorous German twists and idioms, and his voice was very thick and mean and harsh, and often broke into a disagreeable falsetto.

Du Maurier’s villain, Svengali, was an unemployed musician who used hypnosis to put a beautiful young woman named Trilby under his spell. Svengali brought Trilby into a trance using the same methods Freud was using with his clients and that many stage hypnotists were then using as well: bilateral eye movement and tapping her forehead, cheeks, and upper chest left–right, left–right.

Du Maurier wrote:

Svengali told her to sit down on the divan, and sat opposite to her, and bade her look him well in the white of the eyes. “Recartez-moi pien tans le blanc tes yeaux” [Look into the whites of my eyes]. Then he made little passes and counterpasses on her forehead and temples and down her cheek and neck. Soon her eyes closed and her face grew placid.

Once Trilby was under Svengali’s power, he mercilessly exploited her sexually and financially until, at the end of the story, she dies tragically of exhaustion while staring at Svengali’s picture.

The publication of Trilby was accompanied by several incidents that made headlines in Europe and America during 1894 and 1895. Stage hypnotist Ceslav Lubicz-Czynski allegedly used hypnosis to seduce the baroness Hedwig von Zedlitz, which caused her family to report him to the police. According to the (increasingly hysterical) press, another stage hypnotist, Franz Neukomm, suggested to his subject that she “leave her body” for astral travel to heal another person on the stage. Newspaper stories said the woman died because of that suggestion, leading to headlines that fairly screamed “Hypnosis Voodoo Death!”

Even Alexander Dumas, the author of The Three Musketeers, wrote several novels during this era that employed hypnosis and its power to seduce and control others—particularly women—as a major plot device.

The lurid stories spread worldwide, bringing hypnosis and the bilateral-induction techniques associated with it into disrepute. No matter how effective the technique of having patients concentrate while either moving their eyes from side to side or being tapped on either side of the face, it was not to be done any more.

No physician—and particularly no Jewish physician—would in his right mind be willing to take the risk of being accused of using what the newspapers had decided was Svengali’s “evil power” of hypnosis, even if hypnosis did have the power to heal. And Breuer and Freud were both Jewish physicians.

Freud’s frustration with having to abandon his eye-motion and hypnotic therapies must have been extreme, but public reaction to the 1894 publication of Trilby and the lurid hypnosis stories that accompanied it were so intense that I postulate he had no other choice. With the simple technique of generating healing through moving his fingers in front of patients’ eyes denied him by public opinion, Freud abandoned hypnosis in 1895 and turned to drugs as a way of treating neuroses.

From 1895 to 1897, Freud gave cocaine to virtually all of his patients, himself also regularly ingesting small doses of the drug. As he wrote in On Cocaine:

A few minutes after taking cocaine, one experiences a certain exhilaration and feeling of lightness. One feels a certain furriness on the lips and palate, followed by a feeling of warmth in the same areas; if one now drinks cold water, it feels warm on the lips and cold in the throat. . . . During this first trial I experienced a short period of toxic effects, which did not recur in subsequent experiments. Breathing became slower and deeper and I felt tired and sleepy; I yawned frequently and felt somewhat dull. After a few minutes the actual cocaine euphoria began, introduced by repeated cooling eructation. Immediately after taking the cocaine I noticed a slight slackening of the pulse and later a moderate increase. . . . On the whole the toxic effects of coca are of short duration, and much less intense than those produced by effective doses of quinine or salicylate of soda; they seem to become even weaker after repeated use of cocaine.

Interestingly, to this day most students of Freud have not connected the international furor over hypnosis that was ignited in 1895 by Trilby with the timeline of Freud’s life and explorations. For instance, in an article titled “Sigmund Freud und Cocaine” published in the German-language Wien Klin Wochenschr, author G. Lebzeltern muses: “The basic tenet proposed by J. V. Scheidt states that the narcotic drug cocaine played a role in the development of psychoanalysis, which has been underestimated up to the present day. It is a fact that Freud himself took cocaine (in small doses) for about two years, and that he began his dream interpretation approximately ten years later. . . . The question to be answered now is: Why did this happen [begin] precisely in 1895?”

The article then goes on to suggest personal psychological reasons for why Freud started using cocaine as therapy in 1895, stopped using cocaine in 1897, in the fall of that year proposed the Oedipus complex as the basis for much neurosis, and then turned to dream therapy ten years later. However, if you superimpose the historical timelines of the development of hypnosis as therapy and as stagecraft and the publication of Jean Mornas and of Trilby on the timeline of Freud’s life and work, the simple fact emerges that Freud stopped practicing Mesmer’s technique of rhythmically moving his fingers in front of his patients’ eyes or repeatedly tapping alternate sides of the face and upper chest at the same time that the newspapers had branded that practice as “black magic” and had determined that it was a ploy used by Jewish men to seduce and exploit vulnerable women.

At that time, all doctors were men and nearly all of the psychiatric patients were women. In the wake of the Trilby-induced hysteria of 1895, in all probability Freud couldn’t have continued using Mesmer’s version of eye-motion therapy even if he wanted to: virtually all of his patients were women from the educated classes who read newspapers and novels, and would likely have run from the office screaming if their physician tried using the same well-publicized methods the fictional Svengali employed to seduce and exploit the unfortunate Trilby.

Nonetheless, Freud continued to hold his conviction of the power of having his clients move their eyes from side to side, or tapping on alternate sides of the body—what at that time he referred to as “hypnosis.” But it took him almost thirty years to again even mention hypnosis in public. In 1923, in Psychoanalysis: Exploring the Hidden Recesses of the Mind, Freud wrote: “The importance of hypnotism for the history of the development of psychoanalysis must not be too lightly estimated. Both in theoretic as well as in therapeutic aspects, psychoanalysis is the administrator of the estate left by hypnotism.”

But, convictions aside, the year 1895 was to mark the end of Freud’s use of hypnosis. Right up to the day he committed suicide with a morphine overdose on September 23, 1939, he never again publicly used or advocated the techniques employed by Mesmer, Braid, and the fictional Svengali.

Freud’s body of work that emerged post-1895 has not well withstood the test of time. Although Freudian analysis is still practiced around the world, there are no clean scientific studies that support the efficacy of Freudian psychotherapy or many of the offshoots it has spawned. Drawing on the case of Bertha Pappenheim, Freud concluded that her “talk-therapy” sessions every morning and evening with Josef Breuer, which included many emotional outbursts as she told of her earlier experiences, were a cathartic abreaction process similar to lancing a boil. Although Freud and Breuer freely acknowledge that Bertha wasn’t “cured” by this talk-therapy process, Freud nonetheless built an entire therapeutic model on it. (Breuer went back into family medicine after his one experience in psychiatry with Bertha.)

Many observers of the psychology/psychiatry scene have noted over the years how ironic it is that Freud’s psychotherapeutic legacy was founded on a single case that ended with his patient having to be involuntarily hospitalized. Yet he and his disciples became famous largely because of his other (unpublished) early successes. In the years prior to 1895, Freud relied almost entirely on bilateral techniques, and had profound and lasting successes, the stories of which traveled by word of mouth through the psychiatric community and the upper echelons of society, bringing him patients from around the world.

Many historians of psychotherapy have speculated over the past century about why Freud abandoned his early successful quick-therapy bilateral techniques for his later techniques that required years of commitment and were for the most part unsuccessful. The most cynical have suggested that Freud was simply building a practice and an industry that would sustain itself financially because patients would have to come back regularly over a period of years, providing a good income for the therapist.

The truth is probably more flattering to Freud: He had to stop using hypnosis because of a fiction-inspired hysteria that swept the world so powerfully that he couldn’t defend himself against it, even though truth was on his side.

Because Freud’s “secret” lay hidden for almost a century, millions of people the world over were denied the benefits of the rapid-healing techniques he called hypnotism, a process grounded in the simple practice of alternately stimulating the two hemispheres of the brain while thinking of a problem or issue. Society as a whole was also denied a discussion of bilaterality and its broader implications for cultural development.

This is the first of a multi-part serialization of the book Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being by Thom Hartmann, available for purchase from Inner Traditions • Bear & Company, Amazon and IndieBound. Copyright © 2006 by Thom Hartmann. For more information, visit the Inner Traditions • Bear & Company website or the Inner Traditions • Bear & Company Facebook page.

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Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and author of more than 25 books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.