Hypnotizing Trees?

By Robert D. Jansen, PhD

In the late 1770s, Anton Mesmer's salon in Paris featured a giant tub of iron filings in the center of the room. People attending his soirees sat holding hands around the tub in the dark while Messr. Mesmer spoke to them in soothing tones. Amazingly enough, the blind, the lame, and the halt were apparently cured of every type of affliction. Pain vanished. Infections receded.

Mesmer's reputation as a magician and healer grew to the point where he attracted the attention (and envy) of members of the Royal Society. This scientific body determined to investigate Mesmer, and appointed a committee headed by the most famous scientist in France at that time, the immensely popular ambassador from the newly-formed United States, Benjamin Franklin. There was another reason to appoint Franklin: Mesmer claimed that his cures were due to the effects of electromagnetic forces, and Franklin was the world's foremost expert on electricity (recall Franklin's kite flying experiments with lightning).

It was understandable that Mesmer would have chosen magnetism to explain his cures: Electricity and magnetism were high tech at the time, and, to make matters even better, no one really had even a sketchy understanding of how they worked yet. Mesmer was using the time-honored method of explaining the impossible in terms of the unknown.

But Mesmer's effects were real. They were caused by what would be dubbed "hypnosis" 100 years later. Research in the past 20 years has suggested that hypnotic effects have their genesis in a complex spinal reflex known as the "tonic immobility response" (TI), a vestigial defense against predation commonly known as "death feint," "animal hypnosis" or "playing possum." TI is brought on in many animals by inverting and restraining them in various ways or grasping them firmly in paraspinal areas. If done correctly, this triggers paralysis, anesthesia, vascular control of bleeding, and heightened attention to the predator. The predator, thinking the prey is dead because it is not moving anymore, often breaks off killing behavior. In one observational study of foxes and birds in the wild, more than half of the captured birds escaped using their reflexes.

The types of effects that Mesmer obtained, (anesthesia, alterations in consciousness, control of autonomic functions, e.g., bleeding, etc.), are compatible with the TI model, and have been extensively documented since then in clinical and/or experimental hypnosis. Unfortunately, Mesmer postulated a "magnetic" cause to his effects, possibly because of the patients' concentration of attention on the person doing the induction. (We still speak of "magnetic" personalities.) But the description turned out to be only poetic and proved to be Mesmer's undoing.

Benjamin Franklin was charged with determining if Mesmer was a fraud. Unfortunately, he chose to do so by testing Mesmer's ideas rather than Mesmer's patients, an error in scientific reasoning which is all too common even today. Since he could not measure magnetic forces in human beings, Franklin asked Mesmer to "magnetize" various objects, (including trees!) which were then tested for changes in magnetic field strength, polarity, etc. Since there were no measurable magnetic effects on these objects, Franklin concluded that Mesmer could not magnetize people either, including his patients, and was therefore a fraud. Mesmer was driven into exile in Germany and died a broken man: And what Mesmer was doing (i.e., hypnotism was considered quackery until 1955 when the AMA finally recognized hypnosis as legitimate. Hypnotic analgesia, (100 years before chemical anesthetics), control of bleeding, and other powerful and beneficial clinical effects were unnecessarily denied to humanity (in the West anyway) for almost 200 years.

Why did this happen? The first reason was that Mesmer himself was wrong about why he was getting the effects he was. Perhaps he made something up that sounded plausible rather than saying he wasn't sure. Perhaps he really believed the magnetic idea. No matter, he set himself up for the Franklin Commission because he identified with a particular explanation, and when that was found lacking, he wasn't just seen as wrong about the explanation, he was labeled a fraud.

In a very real sense, Franklin was more responsible than Mesmer for the erroneous suppression of hypnosis because, as a scientist, he should have known better. The assumption that Mesmer would necessarily be aware of the mechanisms involved just because he was getting good effects should not have been made.

The objectives of the Consortium for Chiropractic Research include avoiding the type of mistake that Mesmer made and the type of mistake that Franklin made. The mix of researchers in the consortium is such that we have continual interaction between practicing clinicians and professional experimentalists. For only in this way can we be assured that the survival of the chiropractic profession does not rest solely upon explanations developed by clinicians which may not be accurate or sufficient, or solely upon scientific research which may either not be clinically relevant or which may be limited by available models and technologies.

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