The following is an excerpt from the book Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being by Thom Hartmann (Park Street Press, 2006), available for purchase from Inner Traditions " Bear & Company, Amazon and IndieBound. Reprinted with permission.
In the book, Hartmann explains how walking allows people to heal from emotional trauma. When we walk, we engage both sides of the body, simultaneously activating both the left and right sides of the brain. Hartmann explains that both hemispheres of the brain join forces to break up the brain patterning of a traumatic experience that has become "stuck" in the brain through the bilateral therapy of walking. Below, he covers the history of earlier bilateral therapies (such as hypnosis) and why they were shunned following an uproar in the 1890s.
"It still strikes me as strange that the case histories I write should read like short stories and that, as one might say, they lack the serious stamp of science."
--Sigmund Freud, 1895
The first person to develop a system that involved bilateral cross-hemispheric stimulation was a man named Franz Anton Mesmer. In the late 1700s, Mesmer, an Austrian physician who lived in France, healed people of trauma by a variety of techniques that he believed stimulated people's "animal magnetism," which he defined as the animating life force within the human body. To accomplish this healing he sometimes used lodestones (magnets) or water that he had "magnetized." He even claimed to use the direct force of his own "magnetism," including a technique of holding two fingers in front of a patient's face and gently waving the fingers from side to side for a few minutes at a time while the patient held her or his head steady and followed the physician's fingers with the eyes. As Mesmer's biographer James Wyckoff wrote, "Mesmer now considered passes with his hand as the essential part of his cure."
This pioneering physician termed his system mesmerism, and for the latter part of the eighteenth century he was one of the most famous and notorious physicians in Europe. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a friend of Mesmer, and his opera Bastien et Bastienne was performed in 1768 in the garden of Mesmer's home. Mozart later wrote Mesmer into his opera Così fan tutte:
This magnetic stone
Should give the traveler pause.
Once it was used by Mesmer,
Who was born
In Germany's green fields,
And who won great fame
Mesmer's system was often highly effective and was widely practiced to treat all manner of physical and psychological ailments, although he was careful not to take patients suffering from clearly "organic" problems such as cancers, sexually transmitted diseases, and other types of obvious infections. Trained as a classical physician, by making this distinction Mesmer was separating out those to whom he either would prescribe medications or would refer to other physicians for surgery or other medical techniques.
Mesmer's special interest was in those conditions caused by a lack of vitality, or magnetism--what Freud referred to as hysteria and what today would be considered psychosomatic or psychiatric conditions--those caused by or rooted in emotional trauma. At the height of his career, Mesmer trained hundreds of physicians across Europe in his techniques and had a following that included royalty and people from the highest echelons of society, as well as the most destitute, whom he treated for free.
As happens with many new and unconventional therapies, the medical establishment of his day decided that Mesmer was a threat to them. A "commission of inquiry" was convened, which included a number of France's most well-known physicians, along with the American scientist Benjamin Franklin. The investigators taught themselves what they thought were Mesmer's techniques by having one of his students, d'Eslon, perform mesmerism cures on them. None of them was sick, however, so none was cured.
Recognizing this obvious flaw in their study, the investigators retired to Ben Franklin's home, where, for three days, they tried to repeat what they had seen d'Eslon do, only this time they practiced his techniques on people of "the lower classes." One of the commission members, de Jussieu, got good results and dissented from the majority report, concluding that mesmerism worked. The rest thought it a failure and wrote their opinion in a report dated August 11, 1784. The report, which debunked mesmerism, was a huge blow to Mesmer's reputation and career in France, and caused him to retire to a home in the countryside, where he lived until his death in 1815. He continued to see patients and train doctors, but never again did "grand tours" of the major cities of Europe. Nonetheless, mesmerism and magnetism lived on as healing systems, and were widely practiced all across Europe and the United States well into the nineteenth century.
In November 1841 a French magnetizer by the name of Dr. Charles Lafontaine traveled to England to teach the technique; in the audience was a Manchester physician of Scottish ancestry named James Braid. Braid was fascinated by the techniques Lafontaine presented, and he began to experiment with them extensively. Braid concluded that Mesmer's claims for the powers of magnets were overstated; the power of trance induction through mesmerism, however, intrigued Braid. He called the phenomenon neurohypnosis, later shortening the name of the trance-induction phenomenon to hypnosis.
Braid carefully chronicled the aspects of trance states that could be brought about by Mesmer's technique of waving fingers in front of the eyes, so that his patients' eyes moved from side to side while they considered their malady. Braid wrote:
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