Fiction as Hypnosis: The Mesmerizing Effect of Literature

All fiction readers want to be tricked by an author. Outside of the literary world, other people have realized humanity's need for stories and have exploited it.

In the 18th century, Franz Mesmer began practicing medicine. Mesmer has been called a master and a hack, a scientist and a huckster, and he is best known for establishing the proto-philosophy which hypnosis is based on: Mesmerism. Mesmer postulated that a fluid moves throughout the universe (he referred to it as "magnetisme animal," magnetism of the anima) that controls human interaction, and he and others possessed the ability to control this magnetism to different degrees. He also found out that he could convince a lot more people of his fiction with elaborate stage costumes and by swinging the magnet back and forth.

The OED defines hypnosis as "an artificially produced state in which the subject appears to be in a deep sleep, without any power of changing his mental or physical condition, except under the influence of some external suggestion or direction." Fiction is similar: it also produces this artificial state and gives the reader external suggestions and directions for imagining. Where does it differ?

Hypnosis requires an induction, a method of lulling a subject into a frame of mind where they are susceptible to the hypnotist. This is an elaborate process, traditionally incorporating wristwatches or necklaces. But when authors publish fiction, there is no induction; they assume that their readers want to be tricked.

Mesmer's art was a joke scientifically. He would "search for magnetism" in patient's bodies while his eyes locked with theirs, sometimes for hours on end, lulling them into a near-sleeping state, in a spectacle not unlike certain contemporary performers. Modern hypnotists have picked up on Mesmer's techniques and use the power of words to convince patients what they are feeling and should feel. Hypnotic subjects are guided through their subconsciouses until the hypnotist gets the information they want or plants a subliminal trigger. To do this, the hypnotist will often use a narrative. A subject is asked to envision imagery and environments that are either familiar or alien to them, and this accordingly affects their overall consciousness.

Why a narrative? Because historically, humans have been receptive to being taken in by a narrative. In areas such as recovered memory therapy, some hypnotherapists have even been accused of actually implanting false memories into their patients' minds.

You know that beautiful young starlet that you remember seducing you on Friday night? Yeah, we made that shit up.

Posted by kevin on Sat, 05 Apr 2008 20:47:20 -0400 -- permanent link

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