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Imagine that: Animal magnetism exposed.

PARIS, December 1785--Imagination and wonder, those bewitching sirens of superstition, received official condemnation with the release of an investigation of animal magnetism by a French Royal Academy of Sciences commission. Those who claim to use animal magnetism, also known as mesmerism, to elicit various physical cures and wild convulsions from their subjects actually exploit the awesome force of human imagination, the report concludes.

Commission members hope that their findings will help launch an era of sober, rational thinking led by philosophers, scientists, and other enlightened thinkers.

"Enthusiasts of mesmerism may be sincere, but the cures and convulsions that they produce actually spring from their subjects' fervid imaginations," remarked commission member and American inventor Benjamin Franklin in an interview conducted at a Parisian saloon. "Now excuse me, I must hasten outside and fly my kite in a raging thunderstorm to find out if a key hanging from its tail conducts electricity."

At the king's behest, the royal commission investigated miraculous medical cures and mental transformations attributed to German physician Anton Mesmer. He and his disciples claim to manipulate an invisible magnetic fluid in their subjects to unleash astonishing physical and mental powers.

Au contraire, responds the royal commission. Franklin and his band of enlightened men stoically sat through sessions conducted by accomplished mesmerists. Rather than convulsing violently, commission members remained calm and rational to the core.

The commission report concludes that mesmerism incites dramatic responses in three ways. Its practitioners make physical contact with their subjects, the subjects imitate reactions that they have seen in others undergoing mesmerism, or the subjects submit to the "terrible power" of their imaginations.

The fascination with animal magnetism has grown out of a long-standing interest in allegedly wondrous events and objects. Consider Gervase of Tilbury, an English noble who in 1210 published a description of 129 marvels of the known world. His catalog of the amazing included a magnetized stone, an herb that restored sight to blind sheep, werewolves roaming the countryside, and a water source that changed location whenever something dirty was put into it.

"I have it on good authority that all of my marvels are genuine," wrote Gervase in an unpublished diary, "but people may think of it only as Gervase's Believe It or Not."

Wonder exists as a craving for novel or unexpected events where the causes are unknown, Gervase explained.

Since then, religious and scholarly communities have often viewed marvels--presented in collections and public displays--as the exceptions that confirm the established order of nature. European voyages of discovery, which yielded a stream of surprising finds from foreign lands, raised wonder's intellectual status to new heights.

However, dissenting scholars argued during the Middle Ages that wonder has more in common with ignorance and fear than with intellectual discovery. The royal commission's report on animal magnetism sides with those foes of unbridled imagination.

"The mesmerists who murmured and gesticulated at me had no effect on my rational capacities, though the experience was rather relaxing," Franklin says. "I now feel compelled to crow like a rooster when I hear the word spectacles, but I'm sure that's just coincidence."
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Author:Bower, B.
Publication:Science News
Date:Dec 18, 1999
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