Back to Articles Home
Review of 'From Mesmer to Freud – Magnetic Sleep and the Roots of Psychological Healing' by Adam Crabtree
This is a review of a book that I consider relevant to the Gurdjieff teaching because it describes the historical background to and the transition away from old magic practices towards a different, scientific paradigm relating to the inner world of man. From Mesmer to Freud addresses the emergence of the idea that there are different streams of consciousness in the human mind. Gurdjieff, who trained as a physician and a priest, would have been likely to have come into contact with this new approach.
Many concepts will be familiar to Gurdjieff students and this book helped me understand more deeply the significance of Gurdjieff’s descriptions of Atlantis, Anulios, the Moon, the Zoostat, Hanbledzoin, Inklianzanikshanas, Okidanokh, hypnotism and much more.
Adam Crabtree traces the discovery of animal magnetism by Franz Anton Mesmer in 1774 through the somnambulistic and paranormal experiences of the 19th century and into what we call psychology today. Crabtree makes a startling point about the role of Freud in creating our modern psycho-spiritual assumptions: more about this below.
It is important to first note that the idea of animal magnetism and its healing qualities was supported by the most brilliant thinkers and researchers of the time and cannot simply be dismissed as a crackpot notion.
According to Crabtree, Mesmer was likely well-versed in the teachings of the Rosicrucians and Freemasons, and Crabtree elaborates how “animal magnetism stood in clear continuity with the various scientific-occult systems dating back to Paracelsus” and had connections with Freemasonry and Swedenborg.
By 1774, Mesmer’s research using magnets and their healing effects had developed into the discovery of what he termed animal magnetism. Mesmer claimed to have discovered that he was able to “receive magnetic power” and that he could transmit it to anything that he touched. He drew the parallel between the influence of sun and moon on the human body, and asserted that magnets can be used to affect the “tides” of the body. By using his own magnetic body and by placing his hands on the subject to create a circuit he could transmit a healing force. As well as using his hands directly, Mesmer adopted the use of metal baths which he magnetized and in which he immersed his patients. Mesmer concluded that animal magnetism resulted from the “influence of a fluid that is universally distributed and continuous”.
Mesmer’s scientific explanations of the healing properties of animal magnetism provided modern scientific credibility to the powers of traditional healers who worked by the laying on of hands and who were gradually being discredited as a result of the enlightenment and the growing importance assigned to science.
Mesmer’s follower Puységur discovered that magnetization could produce an altered state of consciousness where subjects were able to diagnose themselves, prescribe their own treatment and even determine the length and course of their illness. Puységur called this state “magnetic sleep”, describing it as a sleepwalking kind of consciousness of suggestibility that the subject did not have access to in the waking state. Magnetic somnambulists experienced a very close rapport with their magnetizers and were almost completely under their influence when in the somnambulistic state. Puységur asserted that it is through nervous electricity that we can operate in this way on others.
Puységur formulated the strongly ethical approach of magnetic healing which was to act exclusively for the good of the patient. Puységur stated that when touching a subject the magnetizer should “strongly and constantly to will the good and the benefit of the ill person, and never to change or vary the will”. Puységur began referring to “divided consciousness” or “double consciousness”, and believed that the phenomenon of electricity was a variation of the universal magnetic fluid.
In the 19th century, the healing of what were know as “hysterics” through the use of animal magnetism led to the first conclusions about how illness can manifest as an expression of the subconscious. This represented a scientifically acceptable explanation for what had previously been described as demonic possession or the work of evil spirits. Crabtree describes this latter approach as the intrusion paradigm, where an outside entity intrudes to generate an illness, while the new method of healing a subject by accessing the unconscious is described as the alternate consciousness paradigm.
The practices associated with magnetic sleep eventually led to the emergence of a practice termed hypnotism, where the subject was placed in a somnambulistic and suggestible state and the practitioner could assert his will over the subject. This practice began to lose its ties with the strong healing ethic of the magnetic tradition, and became more focused on power and show. However, it was gradually accepted that hypnotism was a psychological state in its own right closely connected with suggestion.
The rise of spiritism, clairvoyance and table turning in the 19th century originated in the spread of the practices associated with magnetic sleep. These links with the paranormal started to cause magnetic healing to be viewed with suspicion by the scientific community.
Crabtree covers the many major magnetic practitioners and summarizes their individual contributions in a digestible way. Much of this material is highly relevant to the Gurdjieff teaching. For example, in 1847, George Bush in his book Mesmer and Swedenborg, said: “Everyone is surrounded by an invisible aura or atmosphere, which is constantly exhaling from his person and spreading to some distance on every side, and bearing to him somewhat the same relation that the aerial atmosphere does to the earth.” In 1854, Boyce Dodds described the “two brains” in humans that function using an “electro-nervous force”, Crabtree explains: “The “back brain” mediates the involuntary or instinctual powers of the mind, while the “front brain” mediates the voluntary powers.”
In the 1850s, Von Reichenbach experimented with a force he named od (derived from the Norse god Odin) and defined it as a power that permeates all of nature and that emanates from every substance in the universe, referring to this as odic emanations.
In 1852, Edward Coit Rogers developed the idea of the unconscious and referred to the opposition of the decisions of one mind against another, stating that man was “divided against himself”. He elaborated that when self-conscious personal identity is suspended during hypnosis, a person can be made to assume any identity. Coit Rogers concluded that man when he is “controlled by outward objects acting upon internal senses” is an “automaton”.
The anonymously published Lettre de Gros Jean in 1855 developed the notion of multiple personalities and elaborated that a person can find himself separated into several distinct parts, each with its independent thoughts and identity.
In the new alternate consciousness paradigm, human beings began to be viewed as divided beings, divided between their day-to-day consciousness in which we all live and function, and the deeper, hidden consciousness which reveals itself in magnetic sleep or hypnosis. Crabtree describes the symptoms of a patient as the language of their inner disturbance, and concludes that “with the rise of awareness of a second consciousness intrinsic to the human mind, a new symptom language became possible. Now the disordered person could express (and society could understand) the experience in a new way.” Crabtree asserts that this explains why multiple personality disorders made their first appearance during this period.
The idea of a double consciousness in a single human being continued to be explored in the second half of the 19th century, and the second, hidden, consciousness was found to frequently be more elevated, more intelligent than the primary consciousness.
In the 1880s Pierre Janet concluded that a “hysteric” was a person who was “in a perpetual but unrecognized dream state, in which a second personality was able to manifest undetected in daily life.” Janet claimed that personality involves the grouping of psychological phenomena in a synthesis that experiences itself as “I” and that “ideas could group themselves in various units, each with a sense of self or “I””. According to Janet, in the state of the deepest level of somnambulism there can be no subconscious acts as this is “the state of perfect psychological health: the power to synthesize being very great, all psychological phenomena, whatever their origin, are united in the same personal perception, and consequently the second personality does not exist. In such a state there would be no distraction, no anesthesia (systematic or general), no suggestibility and no possibility of producing a somnambulism”.
For Janet, psychological health comprised an internal “synthesizing force”. A weak synthesizing force produces a plurality of groupings, or personalities, leading to pathological symptoms, where the secondary groupings are at odd with the waking personality and causing conflicts such as phobias, compulsions and hallucinations. Janet goes on to describe weak synthesizing force as a state of “psychological misery” and concludes that “even the most normal men are far from always existing in such a state of moral health [of synthesis]; and as to our [hysterical] subjects, they attain it very rarely.”
In the first years of the 20th century, Frederic Myers concluded that human beings contain multiple “personalities, more or less complete, alongside the normal state. And I would add that hypnotism is only the name given to a group of empirical methods of inducing these fresh personalities”. Crabtree explains that Myers asserted that personality was not a unitary and stable element of human consciousness, but was shifting and discontinuous, and goes on to explain that Myers “wondered on what basis we could assume that our ordinary waking consciousness is superior to other types of consciousness, such as sleep states, states of naturally occurring somnambulism, multiple personality states, or hypnotic states.” Myers distinguished between the subliminal and supraliminal self. Crabtree explains: “The way Myers saw it, the screening of messages from the subliminal was necessary for the proper functioning of the supraliminal self. If it were flooded by awareness of the diverse activities of the subliminal consciousness, it would be incapable of dealing with the problems and challenges of everyday existence.”
Crabtree shows clearly how Freud diverged from the tradition of hypnotic sleep in that Freud worked on the assumption that we are one, not many. Freud described his position as follows: “Human consciousness is unitary and, like a searchlight, shines now on one group of elements, now on another”. Crabtree elaborates: “Whereas Binet, Dessoir, James, Sidis, Prince, and especially Myers were able to embrace more and more dissociative phenomena [including higher states] – both morbid and healthy – in their systems, Freud gave them very little attention. Freud’s system could not easily handle these phenomena, and the psychoanalytic tradition that has evolved since then has done little to remedy that defect.” This is a striking point that I have never heard made before, and of key importance to the psychology of man’s possible evolution.
Crabtree elaborates by describing Colin Ross’ concept of the ‘cultural dissociation barrier’, which is where modern psychiatry rejects “paranormal experiences, deep intuitive consciousness, and programs responsible for running the physical organism. Because of the dissociation barrier, the executive self – what we ordinarily call “I” – is disconnected from these vital experiences and must relegate them to second-class status of risk feeling at odds with what is culturally accepted as real.”
To summarize, Crabtree shows that through magnetization the soul becomes free from its usual adherence to the brain and nervous system and that in this state thoughts can be conveyed from one person to another by means of magnetic fluid. Magnetization can induce a sympathetic response in an ill person that may restore him to health, and the magnetizer and the subject cooperate psychologically to produce the effect of healing: the scientific formulation provided a modern equivalent of ancient magic and shamanic practices.
We are aware that Gurdjieff gave up hypnotism before starting to teach in Russia and it is well known that he practiced a form of healing to prolong the life of his dying wife. There is also a whole chapter in Beelzebub’s Tales with the title ‘Hypnotism’.
Had Gurdjieff seen that hypnotism had become associated with power over people and that a new formulation relating to this state was needed? Was he aware that he might be viewed as a healer or a miracle worker, and that this would be counterproductive to his aims? Did he see that this kind of guru was not required for our times, but that something different was needed to be palatable enough to slip into the contemporary thought stream?
In addition to the illuminating relationship with the Gurdjieff teaching, this book has helped me to be able to view many mysterious phenomena such as channeling, zombies, depression, chi, voodoo, demonic possession, reiki, holy water, saying grace before a meal, miracle working and even circle dancing with more depth. For this, I am grateful to Adam Crabtree.