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Hidden Depths:

The Story of Hypnosis

By Robin Waterfield

Macmillan, 464 pages, $42

The problem with hypnotism is not in seeing what it does to people, but in understanding how it does it. Even assuming that much of what passes for hypnosis is fakery, there's a vast catalogue of apparently truthful experiences available. What is happening to these non-fakers when they are induced to enter a hypnotic trance?

This question largely defeats British writer Robin Waterfield in Hidden Depths: The Story of Hypnosis, but that's not really his fault. After 450 pages tracing the history of a phenomenon with a credibility problem much like water divining and crop circles, it's clear that no one else is really sure what's happening, either.

Waterfield, who's written some 25 books, makes a half-hearted stab at a working definition, but it's hardly a catchy T-shirt slogan: "Hypnotism or hypnosis is the deliberate inducement or facilitation by one person in another person or a number or people of a trance state. A trance state is (briefly) one in which a person's usual means of orienting himself in reality have faded, so that the boundaries between the external world and the inner world of thoughts, feelings, memories and imagination begin to dissolve." It's this absence of clarification, though, that makes hypnosis such a universally fascinating subject. Scientists have labelled, classified and effectively reduced many of our experiences to a set of file cards, but it's the large, unwieldy box in the attic marked "Unexplained Phenomena" that always draws us.

Once readers are over the fact that Hidden Depths is not a science textbook, and that our fascination with the unexplainable is not about to end with a snap of Waterfield's fingers, it's time to sit back and enter the twilight-zone world of hypnotism. Waterfield's book comes alive in weaving together a colourful history of hypnosis that bursts with charlatans, unscientific shenanigans, perplexing case histories and a healthy dose of unresolved mystery.

Dismissing sketchy evidence of hypnotic dabblings in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and in medieval Europe, Waterfield appoints Germany's Franz Anton Mesmer as the 18th-century originator of modern hypnosis. A conceited fanatic whose ideas were later discredited, Mesmer is hardly a noble founding father. Establishing the concept of "mesmerism" and coining the phrase "animal magnetism," Mesmer believed that hypnosis occurred when he magnetized -- using a magnet -- the bodily fluids of his patients. Augmenting his technique with a magician's outfit and spooky music, he captivated audiences across Europe.

The Marquis de Puysegur, a French aristocrat attracted to Mesmer's approach, later discovered that the trance preceding Mesmer's "magnetic crisis" was effective on its own. James Braid, a Scottish physician, finally jettisoned the magnets when he discovered that fixing the subject's attention on a small object could also induce a trance. He was the first practitioner to use the word "hypnotism." His theory was later refined by French doctor Ambroise-Auguste Liebeault, who showed that suggestion -- not fixation -- was the key to hypnosis.

From this point, hypnotism spread rapidly -- and sometimes dangerously -- across the world. Hypnotized subjects in France appeared able to detect illness in others, so were used as a diagnostic aid. A British Empire surgeon in 1840s India exchanged anesthetics for hypnotic trances to conduct major surgery on local patients, including one who had a 30-kilogram testicular tumour removed.

In England, hypnosis drifted from fashionable dinner-party entertainment to a down-market activity associated with the working classes. One high-society grande dame said hypnotism was "advocated by women without principle, and lectured upon by men who drop their 'h's." Dickens, always with his finger on the pulse of popular culture, was an advocate of the phenomenon, becoming a keen amateur hypnotist and befriending the founder of the London Mesmeric Infirmary.

But hypnotism was already being left behind when medicine began its 19th-century transition from leeches and superstition to scientific cause-and-effect. Hypnosis failed to gain the foothold in this new medical orthodoxy that, say, psychiatry or psychology did. Sidestepping the more pragmatic reasons for this, Waterfield points the finger at Freud, who publicly condemned hypnosis as a "senseless and worthless proceeding" because, Waterfield says, he wasn't very good at it.

In the later part of Hidden Depths, Waterfield offers a pleading defence of hypnotism and a call for its wider use which never quite matches the energy or interest of his section on the phenomenon's pioneering age. It's here that the book comes unstuck. Waterfield claims that hypnosis "has immense potential for good," but he's unable to make his case in a convincing or realistic fashion.

In fact, scientists and medical experts continue to debate whether there is such a thing as a hypnotic state. And, despite the apparent achievements of some hypnotists, a $100,000 bounty offered in the United States to anyone who can prove the existence of a hypnotic state remains unclaimed.

Hidden Depths will neither alter the minds of skeptics nor dissuade the faithful supporters of hypnosis. For the rest of us, the book is an erudite exploration of a pseudo-scientific subject that continues to fascinate and beguile. John Lee is a Vancouver freelance writer with an interest in hypnosis.