The Rise of Mental Healing Practices

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MESMERISM. The introduction of Franz Anton Mesmer's "science of animal magnetism," commonly known as mesmerism, in the 1830s and 1840s popularized a belief in the power of the unconscious mind to draw upon an invisible healing energy. Mesmer (1734-1815), a Viennese physician, believed that he had detected the existence of an almost ethereal fluid that permeates the universe. This fluid, called animal magnetism, flows continuously into, and is evenly distributed throughout, a healthy human body. If for any reason an individual's supply of animal magnetism is thrown out of equilibrium, one or more bodily organs will begin to falter. Mesmer proclaimed, "There is only one illness and one healing." The science of animal magnetism revolved around the identification of techniques for restoring a patient's inner receptivity to this mysterious, life-giving energy.

Mesmer held magnets in his hands and repeatedly passed them over the heads and bodies of his patients in an effort to induce the flow of animal magnetism into their systems. His followers later dispensed with the magnets, finding that verbal suggestions from the healer could induce patients into a trance, ostensibly heightening their receptivity to the influx of this metaphysical healing agent. Mesmerized patients claimed to feel prickly sensations running up and down their bodies that they attributed to the influx and movement of animal magnetism. Awaking from their sleeplike trance, they reported feeling refreshed, invigorated, and healed of such disorders as arthritis, nervousness, digestive problems, liver ailments, stammering, insomnia, and the abuse of coffee, tea, or alcohol. Some patients even claimed that the mesmerizing process enabled them to open up the mind's latent powers for telepathy, clairvoyance, and pre-cognition. These claims contributed as much, or even more, to mesmerism's growing popularity than its reputation for healing.

A good many of those drawn to mesmerism were middle- and upper-class individuals who styled themselves progressive thinkers and were interested in uniting science and religion in a single philosophical account of human nature. Mesmerism struck them as an important step in this direction. The phenomena surrounding mesmeric trances were thought to provide empirical proof that each human is inwardly connected with higher, metaphysical planes of reality. Adherents of mesmerism believed that under certain conditions of psychological receptivity, humans are able to open themselves to an influx of energy or guidance from these higher realms. American mesmerists borrowed terminology from transcendentalism, spiritualism, and Theoso-phy to provide their middle-class reading audience with a new vocabulary for understanding the interconnection of their physical, mental, and spiritual natures.

MIND CURE AND CHRISTIAN SCIENCE. A popular philosophy known as the mind-cure or New Thought movement grew out of the mesmerists' healing practices. Mind-cure writers in the United States published books and pamphlets describing how thought controls the extent to which we are able to become inwardly receptive to spiritual energies. From Phineas P. Quimby and Warren Felt Evans in the late 1800s to Norman Vincent Peale, Norman Cousins, and Bernie Siegel in the late 1900s, Americans have displayed a remarkable enthusiasm for this "power of positive thinking" literature. The mind-cure movement gave rise to a novel form of religious piety based on the belief that the deeper powers of our mind control our access to a metaphysical power that can instantly help us to achieve peace of mind, improved health, and a never-ceasing flow of energy. The holistic health movement of the 1960s and 1970s relied heavily upon this cluster of metaphysical ideas.

Mesmerism was also instrumental in the formation of Christian Science. In 1862 Mary Baker Eddy, in great physical and emotional distress, arrived on the doorstep of the famous mesmerist healer Phineas P. Quimby. Quimby's treatments gradually cured her of her ailments; they also gave her a new outlook on life, based upon the principle that our thoughts determine whether we are inwardly open to, or closed off from, the creative activity of a spiritual energy (animal magnetism). Soon after Quimby's death, Eddy transformed his mesmerist teachings into the foundational principles of Christian Science. Her principal text, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (1875), reveals her intention to shift the science of mental healing away from the categories of mesmerism to those that bear more resemblance to Christian Scripture, albeit her own unique interpretation of it. The basic theological postulate of Christian Science is that God creates all that is, and all that God creates is good. Sickness, pain, and evil are not creations of God, and therefore they do not truly exist. They are simply the delusions produced in an erring, mortal mind that has lost a firm hold on the belief that only those things created by God have true existence. For Christian Scientists the universe is spiritual. What we call matter (e.g., bacteria, viruses, etc.) consequently does not really exist and therefore has no causal power. Christian Science healers, known as practitioners, help individuals to overcome their faulty thinking and to elevate their mental attitudes above the delusions of the senses. Healing occurs as the individual learns to function on a metaphysical, rather than a physical plane. Healings are understood not as miracles or faith healings but as the lawful consequence of exchanging false conceptions for true ones, which center solely on the higher laws of God's spiritual presence.

Both Christian Science and the "holistic health" philosophies that emerged from the mind-cure tradition teach that our thoughts control the degree to which we avail ourselves of the higher spiritual source from which health proceeds. As a consequence, illness or disease is understood as something the sufferer has brought upon himself or herself through failure to sustain a "correct" mental posture toward life. Any ethical analysis of these forms of alternative therapy must take seriously their built-in skepticism about whether a medical system really needs to attend to material causes of illness (bacteria, viruses, etc.). The issue is not quite so acute for holistic healing practices that teach that the mind can draw upon a higher energy capable of invigorating matter but do not teach that matter itself is unreal. In other words, most holistic health systems do not deny that there are physical and material causes of illness. They simply maintain that mental and spiritual factors are entailed in the etiology of most illnesses and must be taken into account in any comprehensive medical system. And thus, although they insist that a patient's mental outlook often is a significant factor in the creation and cure of illness, they do not espouse a medical theory that puts all the "blame" for illness or "credit" for recovery upon the patient.

Christian Science, by contrast, goes much further in challenging the empirical and rational foundations of Western science. By denying the ontological reality of matter, and hence the causal power of viruses or bacteria, Christian Science is clearly at philosophical loggerheads with both medical orthodoxy and the legal systems of most Western, democratic nations. For example, the Christian Scientists'

belief system is opposed to immunization. The courts have understandably become concerned over the medical well-being of the children of Christian Science practitioners, as well as other students with whom they attend school; this has led to legal restrictions on the right of Christian Scientists to practice their form of religious healing. In 1990 the U.S. courts decided that two Christian Science parents were guilty of child neglect when their sole reliance on Christian Science methods was deemed responsible for their child's death (Hodgeson v. Minnesota). Such cases draw attention to the important ethical distinction between "private" religious belief and actions that have consequences in the "public" domain regulated by the legal system.

Christian Science healing practices, fundamentalist faith healing, and outright quackery have prompted strong responses from practitioners of orthodox medicine. The American Medical Association, emerging as a powerful national organization early in the twentieth century, set itself the task of prompting state and federal agencies to enact stricter licensing regulations. Its efforts to restrict medical practice to graduates of AMA-accredited medical schools surely furthered the cause of scientific medicine and protected the public from potentially harmful forms of quackery. It also tended, however, to force out of the medical marketplace those whose approaches to healing utilized a nonscientific worldview or whose medical services did not fit with dominant approaches to medical care.

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