The Victorian age was an era when many people were interested in exploring the range of the human mind with hypnotism (originally, mesmerism, named after Anton Mesmer, 18th century discoverer of “magnetic sleep,” i.e. hypnotic trance. renamed hypnosis in 1841 by Dr. James Braid) The work of Alfred Binet and Pierre Janet were also focused on studying trance states. Janet healed many painful physical symptoms with the use of hypnosis, yet even today we understand little about “hypnosis,” “disassociation” and related phenomena. We still know little about “multiple personalities” and the phenomenon of one “personality” forgetting about the life of another that shares the same body. Nor do we understand multiple personality disorder, now named disassociative identity disorder. In his book Rewriting the Soul, Ian Hacking tries to explain these phenomena. See also, From Mesmer to Freud: Magnetic Sleep and the Roots of Psychological Healing, Adam Crabtree .
While Virginia Woolf said, “No generation since the world began has known quite so much about character as our generation…. The average man or woman today thinks more about character than his or her grandparents; character interests them more; they get closer, they dive deeper in to the real emotions and motives of their fellow creatures.” I think she was wrong. Today we have more terms from psychology but do we really know more about our inner world? Do we know why our minds can influence subatomic particles? Why there is a statistically proven field of study called Extra Sensory Perception? Do we understand the incredible feats of yogis? I should say we are as ignorant of ourselves as the Victorians but today we have many more prejudices in favour of “science.” The success of the physical sciences should not persuade us that there is no other yardstick for humanity. That is why we have plants producing nuclear energy without knowing how to dispose of it’s waste or how to make absolutely certain we don’t destroy our world with it. This is another example of technology without values. (I was very glad to hear that Siemens, the huge technology conglomerate has decided to stop making atomic power plants. Germany has given up nuclear power.) Freud himself said that if he had another life to live, he would spend it studying psychic phenomena. One of the most easily studied places to start is with hypnotic phenomena, what Binet called “Double Consciousness,” or magnetic sleep as hypnotic trance was called.
In the years just before discovery of chloroform, Dr. James Esdaile, a Scottish physician, working in India, performed thousands of painless operations with “magnetic sleep.” But chloroform and ether were easier to administer and so won out as the anesthetic of choice among the medical fraternity.
In the early years of the twentieth century, my own grandmother, who was a hard headed business person, used to hold seances with her friend and next door neighbour, Mrs. Lipchitz. My mother saw metal trumpets fly around the room in broad daylight. It may be more convenient to discount all aspects of spiritualism and ESP but, if we are scrupulous in aiming at the truth of human experience, we must be prepared to examine the unexplained incidents in our lives instead of congratulating ourselves on knowing which buttons to push on a computer.
In my view, these phenomena remain great unanswered questions, whose solutions could have many practical benefits. Here, too, I believe, lie solutions to some of the questions posed by spiritualist phenomena. Today, the reliable and highly profitable “magic” of electronic technology has displaced any other kind. This is unfortunate since there are no cultural values attached to electronic technology. Yes, the technology is affecting our society but not always in ways that have a human dimension. Often, technology develops because of the profit motive and little else is considered. Discovering more about our own dark corners could have far reaching implications in terms of the values of contemporary society which, in my opinion, need a serious overhaul.