Difference between hypnotism and mesmerism

Essentially, they are pretty much the same – “mesmerism” is an old fashioned word for what is now generally called “hypnotism”.

In modern usage, however, many argue that hypnotism is a deliberate, intensely focused, form of interpersonal communication during which one person methodically induces a trance state in another, usually via a spoken “screed” plus maybe the use of some form of visual focus on a dot, spiral pattern, a swinging pendulum etc.. Typically, the process also involves gentle guided progressive relaxation in some form, or possibly subtle, indirect, suggestions, story telling etc..

“Mesmerism”, on the other hand, tends to be essentially non verbal, and usually employs intense “fascination” (eg direct eye gaze) plus a “physical driver” such as deliberate touch in a rhythmical manner, and sudden/ direct “command” rather than the gentler, more collaborative/ permissive, sustained suggestion of hypnosis.

Hypnotised people are deeply relaxed, and are in a “right brain predominant state” which allows their intuitive, imaginative, and unconscious thought processes full play, whereas those who are “mesmerised” are often rendered physically rigid – eg standing up straight, “at attention”, or become cataleptic, as if “frozen”. Many psychologists describe this as an ideomotor response – senses overwhelmed, shocked even, causing the body to “shut down” as a sort of defence mechanism. Unsurprisingly, therefore, it is very rare indeed for someone who has been hypnotised to have anything other than a pleasant experience, but those subjected to “mesmerism” (eg volunteers for “hypnosis” stage shows, which, in truth, are generally more “mesmeric” than hypnotic in style) often find it upsetting, disturbing, or even worse! Not all deliberately induced trance states are the same, and personally I’d steer well clear of anyone practising “mesmerism”, including “hypnosis entertainers”.

It’s important to recognise that most people readily enter spontaneous trance states on a regular basis: eg when absorbed in watching a play or film, or when performing tedious everyday tasks “on autopilot” whilst thinking of other things. “Daydreaming” is a commonly experienced everyday hypnotic state, and the period immediately before falling asleep may also reasonably be described as such. When someone is overwhelmed by something or someone; totally fascinated, they’re often described as “mesmerised”.

More generally, “mesmeric” states of total fascination are very common: eg listening to a very interesting speaker, or staring into the embers of a fire. Dancing rhythmically, especially when accompanied by flashing lights, drumming/ loud beats, often produces mesmeric states in participants, as can sexual excitement. Indeed, women experiencing orgasm may be described as mesmerised, and it’s notable that for a period (often as long as an hour) after orgasm many women are in a deep trance: eyes are glazed (sometimes inverted – rolled up in the head); there is complete lassitude/ physical immobility; they are extremely suggestible, and in some cases they’re cataleptic – ie arms, hands etc will remain in whatever position they’re placed. This is probably biologically determined; an evolutionary trait which serves to maximise the chances of conception occurring.

To conclude, there is nothing “magical” about hypnotism – it’s normal and natural, as is being “mesmerised” by something/ someone fascinating. “Mesmerism”, however, is mired in arcane mumbo jumbo, and generally practitioners of it are exploiting the natural capacity of humans to enter trance states for dubious purposes. In my professional work as a counsellor I have encountered more than a few clients who have been traumatised by participation in hypnosis shows; the damage is never evident at the time, but typically emerges during the weeks/ months after the “entertainment” experience. Most are people for whom hypnosis would be inadvisable as a therapeutic modality, as any ethical and competent hypnotherapist or counsellor would ascertain, but these modern mesmerists don’t give a hoot so long as their show goes down a storm with their (paying) audiences.

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