A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies | View All

animal magnetism (magnétisme animal)

...magnetism without imagination produces nothing....Ben Franklin et al.*

Animal magnetism is the English translation of the French expression Anton Mesmermagnétisme animal, although animal is related to the Latin animus, meaning breath or life force. (Today, the term "animal magnetism" is often used to mean sex appeal.) Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) believed that he and others possessed animal magnetism, a force he thought he was using when he was actually hypnotizing people. Mesmer believed that animal magnetism could affect the flow of a universal fluid pervading all things allowing him to heal the sick and cure the blind. Well, not quite. He apparently tried to treat a blind musician but failed, which led to his being driven out of Vienna in 1777.* A long list of Mesmer's weird beliefs regarding animal magnetism may be viewed by clicking here.

Mesmer began his career as a healer using magnetized objects, following the lead of others. He waved magnetized poles over his patients, had them sit in "magnetized" water, or had them hold the magnetized poles. He eventually found that he got the same results without the magnetized objects. (Some moderns who continue to promote magnets as having curative powers might learn something from Mesmer's experience.) Rather than recognize that he was dealing with some powerful psychological techniques we now call the placebo effect, Mesmer believed he was somehow manipulating an invisible energy or life force. He thought of this force as a subtle fluid that runs through everything in the universe. Like energy healers in every culture, he knew this to be true because he saw it work with his own eyes.

A committee of scientific investigators, including Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), found that the energy healer did have successes, but they were due to self-delusion or illnesses running their natural course. The committee found no reason to postulate magnétisme animal or any life-force manipulation to explain the satisfied customers. The power of suggestion, the theater of Mesmer's colorful flowing robes, the crowd of enthusiasts that gave hope to the participants, and the strength of desire to be cured or simply to be one of Mesmer's latest successes were enough to cure many followers of Mesmer's particular brand of magnetic snake oil.

See also chi, faith healing, malicious animal magnetism, orgone energy, and prana.

further reading


Mesmerized by hypnotherapy by R. T. Carroll

Energy Healing: Looking in All the Wrong Places by R. T. Carroll

Evaluating Personal Experience by R. T. Carroll

book reviews

My review of Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine
 by R. Barker Bausell (Oxford 2007).

My review of The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine by Anne Harrington (W. W. Norton 2008).

books and articles

Baker, Robert A. They Call It Hypnosis (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1990).

Bauer, Henry H. (2004). Science or Pseudoscience: Magnetic Healing, Psychic Phenomena, and Other Heterodoxies. University of Illinois Press.

Bausell, R. Barker. (2007). Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Oxford University Press.

Franklin, Benjamin and Antoine Lavoisier. "Report of the Commissioners Charged by the King to Examine Animal Magnetism" (reprinted in an English translation in Skeptic, Vol. 4, No. 3). The report was instituted by French king Louis XVI in 1784. See Google books for a copy.

Harrington, Anne. 2008.The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine. W. W. Norton.

Mackay, Charles. (1995). Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds. Crown Publishing. Originally published in 1841.

Pattie, Frank A. Mesmer and Animal Magnetism: A Chapter in the History of Medicine, (Edmonston Publishing, Inc, 1994).

Randi, James. An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, (N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1995).

Smith, Jonathan C. 2009. Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal: A Critical Thinker's Toolkit. Wiley-Blackwell.

Spanos, Nicholas P. Multiple Identities and False Memories: A Sociocognitive Perspective (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1996).

"Magnetic stimulation studied as alternative to ECT for depression," in NAMI Advocate, vol. 19, no. 2, September/October 1997, pp. 20-21.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation: Magnets for Depression TMS activates certain parts of the brain by using electrical energy passed through a coil of wires to create a powerful magnetic field. During the procedure, energy from this magnetic field is transferred into a patient's brain by means of the coil device applied to the head. Unlike direct electrical energy, energy from the magnetic field passes through skin and skull, activating the brain painlessly and without surgery or sedation. (Note: the magnetic fields used in TMS are orders greater than those used by magnetic healers. Also, the energy referred to in TMS is real energy, not some imaginary life force.)

The Magnetisers from Charles Mackay Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds

Last updated 27-Oct-2015

© Copyright 1994-2016 Robert T. Carroll * This page was designed by Cristian Popa.