Bengal 1845

Mind over matter

The Zoist receives news that a British surgeon in India, James Esdaile, has performed dozens of pain-free operations by mesmerising his patients.

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Esdaile’s first patient

was a prisoner with a huge scrotal swelling. In front of a distinguished audience including doctors, magistrates and the local governor, he removed it painlessly in minutes.

Many more operations followed, from tooth extractions to amputations. Esdaile was given a hospital ward in Kolkata to develop his new technique.

Quiz: Guess the Tumour

Esdaile had observed Indian yogis and fakirs putting themselves into trances. He presented himself to local healers as a fellow magician, although in private he didn’t share their mystical beliefs. He had learned his mesmeric techniques from an English pamphlet.

The Lancet had pronounced mesmerism a fraud – but Esdaile’s news from India had proved its powers beyond doubt.

These techniques still work today

How could these powers be explained?

The Scottish surgeon James Braid developed a radical new theory. He investigated the trance states of Indian yogis and fakirs, particularly their state of mental “hibernation”, in which some could be buried alive for days.

Experimenting on his friends, Braid discovered that he could induce deep trances using simple mental techniques: suggestion, controlled breathing and focused attention.

Braid announced that there was no need to believe in animal magnetism, occult powers or vital energies. Trance states, and all the mysterious phenomena they generated, could be produced by the mind alone.

He coined a new term for the process: hypnotism.

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