The Origin of Hypnotism: James Braid’s Life & Work

The Origin of Hypnotism

James Braid’s Life & Work

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2009.  All rights reserved.

This is an excerpt from the book The Discovery of Hypnosis: The Complete Writings of James Braid, the Father of Hypnotherapy.

James Braid was born to James Braid (senior), a landowner, and his wife Anne Suttie on 19th June 1795 at Rylaw House in the Portmoak parish of the town of Kinross in Scotland.  On 17th November 1813, Braid married Margaret Mason (or Meason).  They had a son, James (b. 1822), who also became a doctor, and a daughter.

Braid attended Edinburgh University, from 1812-1814, and graduated at the age of 20 as a Licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons (L.R.C.S.), subsequently becoming M.R.C.S.  Braid was originally apprenticed to the father and son surgeons Charles Anderson in Leith, to whom he subsequently dedicated Neurypnology (1843).  Anderson was a founding member, and vice-president, of the elite learned society called the Wernerian Natural History Society of Edinburgh.  The Wernerian Society was created in 1808 by Robert Jameson, professor of natural history at Edinburgh University, as a break-away group from the Royal Society of Edinburgh.  It was dissolved in 1858, a few years before Braid’s death.

It seems that Anderson may have provided Braid with access to this learned body; Braid’s writings therefore also carry the designation ‘C.M.W.S.’ or ‘M.W.S.’, denoting his status as a ‘Corresponding Member of the Wernerian Society’.  (This little-known fact is supported by his contribution of some early articles, on subjects unrelated to hypnotism, to the society’s journal.)  Indeed, in Neurypnology (1843) Braid emphasises that one of the first people to whom he demonstrated his discovery of hypnotism was Captain Thomas Brown, a fellow Wernerian, respected natural historian, and curator of the Manchester Museum.

In 1816, after his apprenticeship to Anderson, Braid was appointed as a mine physician attached to Lord Hopetoun’s silver-lead ore mines in Leadhills, Lanarkshire.  Subsequently, in 1825 he opened a private practice working as a surgeon and ophthalmologist in Dumfries.  In 1828, however, at the request of a patient named Mr. Petty, he moved to Manchester where he lived and worked for the rest of his life. 

Even in his youth, he was a well-respected specialist and published a number of articles in various medical and scientific journals.  It is perhaps notable that as a surgeon who treated and published work on ophthalmology and musculoskeletal conditions, Braid should emphasise the use of eye-fixation and “muscular suggestion” in his method of hypnotism.  Certainly, by the time of his death, he had acquired a considerable reputation as a physician and surgeon, apparently specialising mainly in conditions such as strabismus, club-foot, muscular paralysis, and spinal curvature. 

His competence as a surgeon won him a solid practice and his geniality many friends.  He was also noted for his compassion towards patients too poor to pay a fee.  (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘James Braid’, 2007)

Braid’s charitable nature was demonstrated, e.g., by the fact that he offered free-of-charge hypnotic treatment to anyone suffering from hydrophobia (rabies) within travelling distance of Manchester in his ‘Author’s Preface’ to Neurypnology (1843).

Given his modest professional status as a provincial surgeon, Braid had a surprising number of friends and supporters among the most distinguished scientists, academics and physicians of his day.  To some extent this may be attributed to his early association with the prestigious Wernerian Society.  However, his endeavours seem naturally to have attracted the support of the many Victorian empiricists who were keen to disprove “occult” theories such as Mesmerism, and to offer more credible scientific explanations in their stead.  Most notable among these was Prof. William B. Carpenter, the distinguished physiologist, whose concept of the “ideo-motor response” became an essential part of Braid’s later “mono-ideo-dynamic” theory of hypnotic suggestion.

The Lafontaine Incident (1841)

On 13th November 1841, in Manchester, Braid attended a public stage demonstration of phrenology and animal magnetism, conducted by a Swiss Mesmerist called Charles Lafontaine.  This kind of performance – though predating Braid’s introduction of hypnotism – is probably the prototype of the modern “stage hypnosis” show.  Called the Mesmeric séance or conversazione, it was a popular form of public lecture or entertainment across Europe at the time.  Lafontaine was a well-known and successful Mesmerist who toured his stage show, using two young assistants called Eugen and Mary as his subjects.  Curiously, the practice of using one’s own assistants for demonstrations was common at the time and did not seem to arouse quite as much suspicion as it might today.

            Lafontaine, by all accounts, was an intense-looking man with a heavy accent, and a large beard, who dressed in completely black attire (Forrest, 1999: 193).  He spoke very limited English and, somewhat bizarrely, performed with the aid of an interpreter.  Braid claims that he was initially a sceptic, believing the whole of Mesmerism to be due to collusion and deception.  The letter from Mr. Simpson reporting on Braid’s own demonstrations notes, ‘It was during a Mesmeric experiment conducted by M. Lafontaine – to which, in his then incredulity and disdain, he was almost dragged by a friend – that this idea occurred to Mr. Braid’.  In the first chapter of Neurypnology (1843), Braid writes,

The first exhibition of the kind I ever had an opportunity of attending, was one of M. Lafontaine’s conversazione, on the 13th November, 1841.  That night I saw nothing to diminish, but rather to confirm, my previous prejudices.

However, for some reason Braid returned.

At the next conversazione, six nights afterwards [19th November], one fact, the inability of a patient to open his eyelids, arrested my attention.  I considered that to be a real phenomenon, and was anxious to discover the physiological cause of it.  Next night, I watched this case when again operated on, with intense interest, and before the termination of the experiment, felt assured I had discovered its cause, but considered it prudent not to announce my opinion publicly, until I had had an opportunity of testing its accuracy, by experiments and observation in private.

One of these lectures was very graphically described by an astute witness, Prof. William Crawford Williamson, a distinguished academic and physician, in his Reminiscences of a Yorkshire Naturalist (1896).  It seems that, in an attempt to debunk the whole Mesmeric performance, Braid, Williamson, and others, mounted the stage led by a prominent eye surgeon called Mr. Wilson.  However, all three were surprised to find, on Williamson raising her eyelids, that the girl’s pupils were unusually contracted, an involuntary response normally indicative of deep sleep.  In his introduction to Neurypnology, Braid also remarks that he was impressed by the inability of Lafontaine’s subject to open her eyelids, a phenomenon now dubbed “eyelid catalepsy”. 

With the typical forthrightness of a Victorian surgeon, Braid proceeded to jam a pin underneath the girl’s fingernails but found her completely anaesthetised to what would normally have been an excruciatingly painful injury.  He was therefore forced to recognise that a genuine, and noteworthy, transformation had occurred in the subject’s state of mind and physiological responses.  A week later, Braid returned, this time determined to observe Lafontaine’s method more closely and discover a more rational explanation for the phenomena than the supposed power of animal magnetism.  For his own part, Lafontaine published his memoirs in 1866, which contain his own rather sensational, and probably somewhat unreliable, report of his time in England and encounter with Braid (q.v. Waite’s ‘Introduction’ to Braid on Hypnotism, 1899). 

After the Discovery (1841-1843)

After attending Lafontaine’s show and discovering that he could produce the same results without the need for animal magnetism, Braid appears to have acted very quickly indeed and argued forcefully to establish his views that nervous fatigue, concentration, habit and imagination accounted for the observable results of Mesmerism, without the need for any reference to occult forces or telepathic powers, etc.  In the opening chapter of Neurypnology he explains,

In two days afterwards [23rd November?], I developed my views to my friend Captain [Thomas] Brown [a fellow member of the Wernerian Society], as I had also previously done to four other friends; and in his presence, and that of my family, and another friend, the same evening, I instituted a series of experiments to prove the correctness of my theory, namely, that the continued fixed stare, by paralysing nervous centres in the eyes and their appendages, and destroying the equilibrium of the nervous system, thus produced the phenomenon referred to.  The experiments were varied so as to convince all present, that they fully bore out the correctness of my theoretical views.

According to his introductory remarks in Neurypnology, Braid immediately wrote to the Medical Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in order to arrange delivery of a professional report entitled ‘Practical Essay on the Curative Agency of Neuro-Hypnotism’ before his peers.  It seems evident that Braid had therefore already coined the term “neuro-hypnotism” by late 1841.

However, his proposal to the British Association was declined; apparently because of concern over the controversial nature of the subject.  Frustrated, Braid advertised his own public reading of the ‘Rejected Essay’ (as he calls it) on 27th December 1841 which seems to have been attended by many of the British Association members.  This was one of five public lectures which he undertook at this time to promote his ideas, and which were reported in detail in the Manchester newspapers.  Braid attracted opposition from both Mesmerists and sceptics, but he also immediately drew credible supporters from among his “scientific friends”.  On 31st December 1841, a conversazione on Braid’s methods was given by a surgeon, Mr. Duncan, at the Hanover Square Rooms in London, and reported as “A New Theory of Animal Magnetism” in The Medical Times (vol. v, 1841-1842, p. 175).  This event seems also to have acted as an introduction for Braid who was soon to visit London himself.

On 1st March 1842, Braid travelled to the capital, where he arranged a formal lecture held in the Hanover Square Rooms.  In defence of his position, he later recalls,

[…] I had, at great personal inconvenience as well as pecuniary sacrifice, gone to London, that my views might be subjected “to a rigid examination” of the most learned men in our profession, to propound to them the laws by which I consider it to act, and above all, to prove to them “the uniformity of its action” and its practical applicability and value as a curative agency, by [my] mode of operating.  (Braid, Satanic Agency, etc., 1842)

Several eminent scientists and physicians were present, most notably Herbert Mayo, Professor of Physiology & Pathological Anatomy at King’s College.  Mayo seems initially to have been sceptical but was convinced by his observations.  He was himself hypnotised by Braid and also vigorously tested the anaesthesia of a hypnotic subject by pushing a pin straight through the back of the man’s hand and out the other side, through the palm.  At the same lecture, Braid also hypnotised a group of eighteen people, en masse, who were instructed to gaze upon the base of a chandelier.  Reportedly, the only ones who did not respond to the satisfaction of the audience were two participants who refused to fully comply with the procedure.

So much interest was generated that it proved necessary to immediately repeat the lecture at the London Tavern the following day to accommodate all those who wished to attend.  (The Hanover Square Rooms and London Tavern were venues used for medical and scientific lectures in London.)  After this validation, Braid began to report his work in letters and articles in the medical periodicals.  On 12th March 1842, The Medical Times published an enthusiastic report on Braid’s lectures in London, accompanied by a letter by Braid himself on ‘Animal Magnetism.’  This seems to be his first known publication on the subject, just four months after his encounter with Lafontaine.  At this early stage, Braid expresses the essential criticisms of Mesmerism which would become the basis of his theory of hypnotism.  He argues that the fixed gaze and “passes” of the animal magnetist were merely monotonous stimuli designed to induce a state of physiological fatigue in which subjects somehow became more liable to respond to their own imagination, and therefore to ideas arising from their own expectations or from external influences, i.e., through suggestion or imitation.  The report mentions Braid’s introduction of the term “neurypnology” used in distinction from Mesmerism.  It was followed on 26th March by another letter on ‘Animal Magnetism’ in the same publication.  In an article entitled ‘On Mr. Braid’s Experiments’ in The Medical Times 2nd April 1842, Mayo reported as follows in response to Braid’s letter,

The same cures which you effect have, indeed, before been made by the ordinary process of Mesmerising but that process is so extremely tedious, occupying for the first sittings in general from half to three-quarters of an hour, as, joined to the uncertainty of producing any effect after all, practically to wear out the patience of experimenters, and to prevent the method advancing, either as a subject of inquiry, or its being brought into general use as a curative means.  It took up too much time.  What you appear to have done is to have found out a method, by which, in five minutes, the susceptibility of any given individual towards the [hypnotic] trance may be determined (or, at all events, by the repetition of the same brief process, a few successive days.)

In the years to follow, Braid would publish many articles and letters in The Medical Times, which seemed to welcome his contributions on hypnotism.

At this point, however, he became embroiled in what seems to have been the first of several controversies caused by his views.  Reverend Hugh McNeile, one of the most popular and outspoken Anglican preachers in the country at the time, delivered a scathing attack upon Braid in which he appears to accuse him of deceiving his patients, and even of doing the work of Satan.  The sermon was given on Sunday 10th April 1842 at St. Jude’s Church in Liverpool.  Braid immediately wrote to McNeile responding to the accusations, but received no reply.  He then held a public lecture on 21st April 1842, in response to the sermon, to which he formally invited McNeile, but he did not attend.  In fact, McNeile now responded by publishing the text of his original sermon in his ‘Penny Pulpit’ review without any acknowledgement of Braid’s objections.  Frustrated, Braid’s hand was forced and he rushed into print on 4th June 1842 with what appears to be the first independent publication on hypnotism, though he had previously penned various letters and his unpublished report.  He had this “open letter” printed himself and distributed as a twelve-page booklet expounding and defending his views.  As such, this must be the first publication (other than his published letters) in which Braid uses the term “hypnotism”.

On 29th June 1842, he delivered a conversazione to the British Association in Manchester, which was reported in the Manchester Times.  Braid seems to have delivered his “rejected” paper on ‘The Curative Agency of Neuro-Hypnotism,’ once again at this event.  He states that he exhibited several patients successfully treated with hypnotism, as discussed in Neurypnology, including Sarah Ann Mellor (Case 19), Thomas Morris (Case 21), and Samuel Evans (Case 17).  He also exhibited a female subject who seemed able to follow the scent of a rose around, though blindfolded, because of olfactory hyperacuity developed in hypnosis, as discussed in excerpts from the Manchester Times quoted in Neurypnology.  Braid then published another letter entitled ‘Neuro-Hypnotism’ in The Medical Times of 9th July 1842, and then a short case study entitled, ‘Account of case of total deafness successfully treated by hypnotism’ in The Manchester Times of 1st September 1842.  As far as I am aware, these were his only publications on the topic of hypnosis prior to Neurypnology (1843), which he tended later to refer to simply as his book “on Hypnotism”. 

Neurypnology appears to have been something of an instant success, selling an impressive 800 copies within a few months of its publication, according to a letter published soon afterwards by Braid in the Medical Times (11th Nov. 1843).  It is true that Neurypnology was Braid’s only full-length book, though it is important to realise that he subsequently published several other small booklets on hypnotism, often extended essays based upon previously published articles in medical journals.  These smaller books, and his other writings, are essential in order to understand the evolution of Braid’s thought, which underwent radical modifications in response to his growing clinical and experimental experience.  Indeed, near the end of his life, Braid composed a short essay, summarising the content of his later works and quoting at length from them, which was meant to be included as an appendix to a proposed French translation of Neurypnology.  It is clear that he felt this was necessary in order to place his earlier views in context.

After Neurypnology (1843-1860)

After publishing Neurypnology, only two years after he discovered hypnotism, Braid began to gradually revise his views, shifting emphasis from the physiological state of nervous fatigue onto the psychological state of mental abstraction or “monoideism”.  This paralleled an increasing recognition of the role of suggestion, a word which itself becomes increasingly common in his writings over time.  In Neurypnology, Braid had recognised that physical manipulations could evoke certain responses, a phenomenon which he terms “muscular suggestion”.  He had also recognised the fact that, once induced into nervous sleep, a subject became increasingly susceptible to re-entering the condition as a result of imagination, habit, and expectation.  However, the following factors seem to have contributed to his progressive growth of interest in suggestion,

  1. Carpenter’s “ideo-motor” theory of reflex action, which provided an early neuropsychological framework for understanding the nature and function of suggestion.
  2. Braid’s own experiments proving that the phenomena attributed by Baron von Reichenbach and the Electro-Biologists to forces such as magnetism, odyl, or electricity, could be reproduced in the “waking state” by a variety of psychological means, such as verbal suggestion, etc.

Even in Neurypnology, Braid complains of the misconception that hypnotism should be accompanied by a loss of awareness, resembling sleep.  This problem finally led him to argue that the word “hypnotism” should be reserved for those cases in which the subject experiences no recollection afterwards of what happened during the process, though he emphasised that this accounted for only 10% of his subjects.  The other 90% of Braid’s subjects were in a “sub-hypnotic” state referred to as the “vigilant” or “waking” state, or as “concentration”, “abstraction”, or “monoideism”, meaning focused attention upon a single idea or train of thought to the exclusion of other stimuli.  He increasingly recognised, moreover, that hypnotic suggestion and other techniques could be surprisingly effective without any induction whatsoever, in the normal state of mind.

            Braid therefore introduced the term “mono-ideo-dynamic”, and related expressions, to describe the general theory that focused attention, along with expectation and other psycho-physiological factors, can enhance the ideo-motor response and bring about a variety of physiological changes as a result.  Braid concluded it was necessary to emphasise the fact that suggestion may be operative in the waking state, and increased even in states of reverie or focused attention which it would be incredibly misleading to describe as “nervous sleep”.  He carried out many experiments debunking pseudoscientific placebo therapies including “subtle energy” treatments like Mesmerism, magnets, crystals, homeopathy, etc.  Ironically, these Victorian “nostrum” (i.e., quack) remedies were the precursors of many of the currently popular complementary therapies with which modern hypnotherapy is frequently associated.  However, Braid was perhaps as well-known in his own day as an intelligent and powerful critic of pseudoscientific therapies and paranormal claims.  In any case, his own observations increasingly forced Braid to recognise that real effects could be produced by various forms of suggestion and autosuggestion in the normal waking state, without any specific induction technique or change in the nervous state.

            In his earliest writings, Braid places cardinal emphasis upon the physiological basis of hypnotism, in an obvious attempt to distance himself from those, like Thomas Wakley, the editor of The Lancet, who dismissed Mesmerism as mere “imagination” or pretence.  Arguably, Braid is somewhat hamstrung in this regard by his Christianity, which biases him against materialism and in favour of a dubious metaphysical theory of mind.  In Neurypnology, for instance, he enters into a lengthy digression attempting to argue in favour of a Cartesian dualist theory, i.e., that the mind (or immortal soul) and body are two fundamentally distinct entities which causally interact.  Later in his career, he introduces the term “psycho-physiology” (we now say “psycho-somatic” or “mind-body”) to help clarify the fact that he thinks the psychological and physiological changes in hypnotism causally interact.  Physical and mental changes are intertwined.  On the one hand, body can affect mind; for instance, changes in physical posture and facial expression can be used to evoke psychological responses – by making a subject frown we evoke feelings of sadness in his mind.  On the other hand, mind can affect body; for instance, attention, imagination and expectation may not only make someone believe that he is sleepy, but may actually change his physiological state, and bring about physical phenomena such as lowering of heart rate and dilation of the pupils, usually considered autonomic, or involuntary. 

In Braid’s writing, therefore, the study of hypnotism, “neuro-hypnology”, expands to encompass, more generally, the combined effect of attention and dominant ideas (suggestions) upon the body, termed “mono-ideo-dynamics”, and ultimately becomes subsumed within the study of mind-body interaction in the most general sense, or “psycho-physiology”.  Hypnotism was psycho-physiological therapy, and as Braid repeatedly argued, it conformed to the well-established laws of psychology and physiology.  Hence, his later book Hypnotic Therapeutics (1853) concludes emphatically,

I beg farther to remark, if my theory and pretensions, as to the nature, cause, and extent of the phenomena of nervous sleep have none of the fascinations of the transcendental to captivate the lovers of the marvellous, the credulous and enthusiastic, which the pretensions and alleged occult agency of the Mesmerists have, still I hope my views will not be the less acceptable to honest and sober-minded men, because they are all level to our comprehension, and reconcilable with well-known physiological and psychological principles.

Contrary to the popular misconception that confuses Mesmerism and hypnotism with each other, therefore, Braid emphasised from the outset that his theory was intended to oppose the views of the Mesmerists.  He wrote in The Lancet, ‘I adopted the term “hypnotism” to prevent my being confounded with those who entertain these extreme notions, as well as to get rid of the erroneous theory about a magnetic fluid, or esoteric influence of any description being the cause of the sleep’. (‘On Hypnotism’, The Lancet, 1845; vol. 1: 627-628)


The Origin of Hypnotism: James Braid’s Life & Work — 2 Comments