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The Curative Influence Of The Imagination
Source: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery
At the present day the remarkable benefit which often results from
hygienic and mental influences combined is well shown in the so-called
Kneipp cure, originated by Sebastian Kneipp, formerly parish priest of
Woerishofen in Bavaria. Briefly, its chief principles are simple diet,
the application of water by means of wet sheets, douches, hose, or
watering-pots; the covering of the wet body with dry underwear; and
stimulation of the imagination, together with physical invigoration, by
long walks afield barefoot, or with sandals; and lastly, music and
mental diversions. In a word, a modernized Esculapian treatment.
The remedial virtue of verbal charms and incantations is derived from
the human imagination, and upon this principle is founded the art of
mental therapeutics. The idea of a cure being formed in the mind reacts
favorably on the bodily functions, and thus are to be explained the
successful results oftentimes effected under the methods known as
Christian Science, Mind Cure, and Faith Cure. Mrs. Mary Baker
Eddy, the founder of the first-named system, avows that Christian
Healing places no faith in hygiene or medicines, but reposes all trust
in mind, divinely directed. She declares that the subconscious
mind of an individual is the only agent which can produce an effect upon
his body. There is undoubtedly much that is good in the doctrines
of the Christian Scientists; but a fatal mistake therein is their
contempt for skilled medical advice in sickness. God has placed within
our reach certain remedies for the relief or cure of many bodily
ailments; and whoever fails to provide such remedies for those dependent
upon him, when the latter are seriously ill, is thereby wickedly
negligent. Mental influence is oftentimes extremely valuable, but it
cannot always be an efficient substitute for opium or quinine, when
prescribed by a competent practitioner. We read in Ecclesiasticus,
XXXVIII, 4, 10, 12: "The Lord hath created medicines out of the earth,
and he that is wise will not abhor them. . . . My son, in thy sickness
be not negligent, but pray unto the Lord, and He will make thee
whole. . . . Then give place to the physician, for the Lord hath created
him. Let him not go from thee, for thou hast need of him."
In treatises on suggestive therapeutics stress is laid upon the
exaltation of the imaginative faculty induced by hypnotism; and it is
well known that during induced sleep this faculty accepts as real
impressions which would not pass muster if inspected by the critical
eye of the waking intelligence. The whole secret of cures alleged to
have been wrought by animal magnetism or mesmerism, may be explained by
mental influence; and so likewise those affected by metallic tractors,
anodyne necklaces, and a host of other devices. We have indeed an
intelligible explanation of the rationale of many therapeutic methods in
vogue at different periods of the world's history.
But, to recur to Christian Science, or Eddyism, it is certain that the
alleged cures of organic affections, by the methods of that system, are
not genuine. The many cases benefited by those methods have been and are
such as are amenable to mental healing, of whatever kind. A writer in
the "American Medical Quarterly," January, 1900, avers that Eddyism is
an intellectual distemper, of a contagious character; that it is
epidemic in this country, and that, in its causation, its rise and
spread, it presents a close analogy to the great epidemics of history.
The ancient magicians, in their various methods of treating the sick,
strove ever after sensational means of healing, and their example has
been closely followed by the quacks of every succeeding age. They failed
to appreciate that a tablet of powdered biscuit, discreetly
administered, may be as beneficial therapeutically as any relic of a
holy saint, because the healing force in either case is wholly mental,
and resides in the patient. The exceptional notoriety achieved by
Paracelsus was largely due to his shrewdness in pandering to the love of
the marvellous, while utilizing also bona-fide materia medica.
Indeed, however strong may have been the belief in magical agencies as
healing factors, the most eminent early practitioners were ever ready to
avail themselves of material remedies. For they maintained that the
actions of the physician should not be hampered by metaphysical
considerations. Not only did the magicians employ precious stones
and metals as remedies, on account of their intrinsic value and the
popular belief in their virtues, but they also prescribed the most
loathsome and repulsive substances. The early pharmacopoeias and the
works of noted charlatans, together with the annals of folk-medicine,
afford ample evidence of this fact.
Apropos of this subject, we quote from a lecture given by Dr. Richard
Cabot at the Harvard Medical School, February 13, 1909:--
In one of our great hospitals here it has been the custom for
a long time to use for treatment by suggestion a tuning-fork
which is known at that hospital as a magnet. It is not a
magnet; it is merely an ordinary, plain, rather large
tuning-fork. But people have, as you know, a very curious
superstition about the action of magnets, and believing this
tuning-fork to be a magnet, they attribute occult and
wonderful powers to it. When placed upon a supposedly
paralyzed limb or on the throat of a person who thinks he
cannot speak, it has wonderful powers just because it is
supposed to be a magnet, when in fact it is a tuning-fork. I
remonstrated once with the gentleman who uses this tuning-fork
because, so far as I could see, it was a lie, like all other
forms of quackery; but he said, "Why, no, it does a great deal
of good; it cures the patients." I replied that I had no doubt
of that. So does skunk oil and Omega oil; so does the magic
handkerchief which Francis Truth has touched; so does the
magic ring, the electric belt, and the porous plaster. They
all cure, but they all deceive people, in so far as one
supposes that something is going on which is not revealed,
something like imaginary electricity in the ring, something
like the supposed medical activity in the porous plaster. In
another great hospital in this city electricity is used in the
same way. Electricity has medical action of course, in some
cases, but it is used also in a great number of cases where it
is not supposed to have any medical action because it has so
strong a psychical action. When one sees a brass instrument
that looks like a trident approaching one's body, and feels
long crackling sparks shoot out of its prongs against one's
body, it naturally makes a very strong impression upon one's
How psychological methods may be employed in everyday life was the
subject of an address by Professor Hugo Muensterberg, of Harvard
University, before the Commercial Club of Chicago, December 13, 1908.
The success of these methods in the field of medicine is attested by
the constantly increasing number of cures of nervous and other
affections. "There is no magic fluid," he said, "no mysterious power
afloat; it is just a state of mind. Every one can suggest something to
every one else. It is the idea that is strong enough to overcome the
idea in another mind that produces the effects wondered at. Hypnotism is
only reenforced suggestion. It is a tool which no physician should be
Psychological knowledge, according to the same authority, is
gradually leaking into the world of medicine. The power of suggestion,
with its varied methods, is slowly becoming a most important therapeutic
agent in the hands of reputable practitioners. The time has arrived when
medical students, about to enter upon professional life, should be
equipped with a knowledge of scientific psychology. Physicians do not
now deserve sympathy, if they are dumfounded when quacks and pretenders
are successful where their own attempts at curing have failed. It is
evident, however, that reform in this field is at hand, and it may be
admitted that even those knights-errant have helped, after many
centuries, to direct the public interest to the paramount importance of
psychology in medicine.
We may cite the invocations of the Egyptian priests to obtain a cure
from each god for those submitted to his influence; the magic formulas,
which taught the use of herbs against disease; the medicine of
Esculapius's descendants, the Asclepiads, an order of Greek physicians,
who practised medicine under the reputed inspiration of that deity, and
were bound by oath not to reveal the secrets of their art. Is it
necessary to speak of the king's touch, of the miraculous cures at the
tomb of the French ascetic priest, Francois Paris (1690-1727), and
especially of Lourdes, and other noted pilgrimage resorts? Many
professional healers may be mentioned, "of whom some were honest and
believed themselves to be endowed with supernatural powers like certain
magnetisers, and who used suggestion without knowing it, as for example
the Irishman Greatrakes (1628-1700), the German priest Gassner
(1727-1779), and many others whose fame does not extend beyond the
region where they exercised their mysterious power."
In the same category, as regards their modus operandi, may be classed
medical charms and healing-spells. These serve also to inspire hope, or
the expectation of cure, in the patient's mind, and thus act as tonics;
they may also be useful as a means of diverting the mind of a
hypochondriac, and changing the current of his thoughts, in which sense
they may be classed as mental alteratives.
Allusion has been made to the magical spells, of ancient repute among
the Hindus, which are known as mantras. They are available for sending
an evil spirit into a man, and for driving it out; for inspiring love or
hatred; and for causing disease or curing it. The Hindus do not repose
confidence in a physician, unless he knows, or assumes to know, the
proper mantra for the cure of any ailment. And this is the reason why
European practitioners, who are not addicted to the use of spells, do
not find favor among them. The medical men who pretend to be versed in
occult lore, whether charlatans or magicians, are ready to furnish
suitable mantras at short notice, whether for healing, for the recovery
of stolen property, or for any other conceivable purpose. The
ethics of quackery are probably on the same plane everywhere; and not
only are the spells forthcoming, if sufficient compensation be assured,
but they are also more or less effective, through the power of
suggestion, as therapeutic agents.
In nervous affections, where the imagination is especially active,
amulets and healing-spells exert their maximum effect. No one,
however cultured or learned, is wholly unsusceptible to the physical
influence of this faculty of the mind; and it has been well said that
everybody would probably be benefited by the occasional administration
of a bread-pill at the hand of a trusted medical adviser. But
faith on the patient's part is essential. Pettigrew, in his work on
"Medical Superstitions," illustrates this by an example whose pertinence
is not lessened by a dash of humor. A physician, who numbered among his
patients his own father and his wife's mother, was asked why his
treatment in the former case had been more successful than in the
latter. His reply was that his mother-in-law had not as much confidence
in him as his father had, and therefore had failed to receive as much
benefit. Similarly, if a verbal charm is to cure a physical ailment, the
patient must first form a mental conception of the cure, and believe in
the charm's efficacy. But faith in healing-spells of human devising is
sometimes cruelly misplaced, as is shown in the following anecdote,
taken from the writings of Godescalc de Rozemonde, a Belgian theologian.
A woman, suffering from a painful affection of the eyes, applied to a
student for a magical writing to charm away the trouble, and promised
him a new coat as a recompense. The student, nothing loath, wrote a
sentence on a piece of paper, which he rolled in some rags and gave to
the woman, telling her to carry the charm always about her, and on no
account to read the writing. The woman gladly complied, was cured of her
eye-trouble, and loaned the charm to another woman, similarly affected,
who also soon experienced relief. Thereupon a natural curiosity
prompted them to examine the mystic spell, and this is what they read:
"May the Devil pluck out thine eyes, and replace them with mud!"
In "Folk-Lore," for September, 1900, there is an interesting article,
giving an account of popular beliefs current in a remote village of
Wiltshire, England, where medicines are usually regarded as charms. A
man who had pleurisy was told by his doctor to apply a plaster to his
chest. On the doctor's next visit, he was informed that his patient was
much better and that the plaster had given great relief. Failing,
however, on examination of the man's chest, to find any sign of
counter-irritation of the skin, he was somewhat puzzled; but he soon
learned from the mistress of the house, that having no chest at hand,
she had clapped the plaster on a large box in the corner of the
Dr. Edward Jorden (1569-1632), an English physician, wrote regarding the
oftentimes successful results of treatment by means of incantations, and
leechdoms or medical formulas, that these measures have no inherent
supernatural virtue; but in the words of Avicenna, "the confidence of
the patient in the means used is oftentimes more available to cure
diseases than all other remedies whatsoever."
From the beginning of time, the fortune-teller, the sorcerer, the
interpreter of dreams, the charlatan, the wild medicine-man, the
educated physician, the mesmerist, and the hypnotist, have made use of
the patient's imagination, to help them in their work. They have all
recognized the potency and availability of that force.
Modern psychology explains the healing force of verbal charms as being
due to the power of suggestion. For these suggest the idea of a cure to
the subjective mind, which controls the bodily functions and conditions.
Robert Burton, in the "Anatomy of Melancholy," said in reference to this
All the world knows there is no vertue in charms; but a strong
conceit and opinion alone, which forceth a motion of the
humours, spirits and blood, which takes away the cause of the
malady from the parts affected. The like we may say of the
magical effects, superstitious cures, and such as are done by
mountebanks and wizards. . . . Imagination is the medium
deferens of Passions, by whose means they work and produce
many times prodigious effects.
To give joy to the sick, said the Latin historian Cassiodorus, is
natural healing; for, once make your patient cheerful, and his cure is
accomplished. In like vein is an aphorism of Celsus: It is the mark of a
skilled practitioner to sit awhile by the bedside, with a blithe
William Ramesey, M.D., in "Elminthologia" (1668), remarks that fancy
doth not only cause but also as easily cureth divers diseases. To this
agency may be properly referred many alleged magical and juggling cures,
attributed to saints, images, relics, holy waters, avemarys,
benedictions, charms, characters, and sigils of the planets. All such
cures, wrote this author, are to be ascribed to the force of the
Written charms against toothache in Christian lands have usually a
marked family resemblance; the theme being the same, but the number of
variants legion. Saint Peter is represented as afflicted with the
toothache, and sitting on a marble stone by the wayside. Our Lord passes
by, and cures him by a few spoken words. The following quaintly
illiterate version of this spell was in vogue in the north of Scotland
within recent years: "Petter was laying his head upon a marrable ston,
weping, and Christ came by and said: 'What else [ails] thou, Petter?'
Petter answered: 'Lord God, my twoth.' 'Raise thou, Petter, and be
healed.' And whosoever shall carry these lines in My Name, shall never
feel the twothick."
The following is a translation of a Welsh charm against toothache:
"As Peter was sitting alone on a marble stone, Christ came to him and
said: 'Peter, what is the matter with you?' 'The toothache, my Lord
God.' 'Arise, Peter, and be free'; And every man and woman will be
cured of the toothache, who shall believe these words. I do this in the
name of God."
Another version of this charm is popular in Newfoundland. The inscribed
paper, enclosed in a little bag, is hung around the neck of the
afflicted person, from whom its contents are carefully concealed. "I've
seed it written, a feller was sitten on a marvel stone, and our Lord
came by; and he said to him, 'What's the matter with thee, my man?' And
he replied, 'Got the toothache, Marster.' Then said our Lord, 'Follow
Me, and thee shall have no more toothache.'"
Still another form of this spell is in use among Lancashire peasants.
The paper, inscribed as follows, is stitched inside the clothing: "Ass
Sant Petter sat at the geats of Jerusalm, our Blessed Lord and Sevour
Jesus Christ Passed by, and sead, 'What eleth thee?' He sead, 'Lord, my
teeth ecketh.' Hee said, 'Arise and follow mee, and thy teeth shall
never eake eney mour.' Fiat + Fiat + Fiat."
Every one is aware that it is a common experience to have an aversion
for certain articles of food, and to be affected unpleasantly by the
mere thought of them. Whereas, if a person partakes of such food
without knowledge of it, no ill effects may ensue. The sense of taste is
affected by the imagination. A man sent the cream from the
breakfast-table because it tasted sour, but found it sweet when it was
brought back by a servant, supposing it to be a fresh supply. A laxative
medicine may produce sleep, in the belief that it is an opiate; and
contrariwise, an anodyne may act as a purgative, if the patient believes
that it was so intended. Dr. Robert T. Edes, in "Mind Cures from
the Standpoint of the General Practitioner," remarks that mental action,
whether intellectual or emotional, has little or no effect upon certain
physiological or pathological processes. Fever, for example, which is
such an important symptom of various acute diseases, does not appear to
be influenced by the imagination. Typhoid fever runs its course, and is
not directly amenable to treatment by suggestion; but nevertheless hope,
courage, and an equable mental condition do undoubtedly assist the vis
medicatrix naturae. The confident expectation of a cure is a powerful
factor in bringing it about, doing that which no medical treatment can
In recent works on suggestive therapeutics, the curative power of the
imagination is emphasized and reiterated. "It is not the faith itself
which cures, but faith sets into activity those powers and forces which
the unconscious mind possesses over the body, both to cause disease and
to cure it."
Reference has been made to a certain similitude of religion and
superstition. Oftentimes there appears to exist also a remarkable
affinity between superstition and rheumatism, for these two are wont to
flourish together, as in days of yore. Many a man of intelligence and
education has been known to conceal a horse-chestnut in his pocket as an
anti-rheumatic charm. A highly respected citizen, of undoubted sanity,
was heard to remark that, were he to forget to carry the chestnut which
had reposed in his waistcoat pocket for more than twenty years, he
should promptly have a recurrence of his ailment.
Daniel Hack Tuke, M.D., in referring to the systematic excitement of a
definite expectation or hope, in regard to the beneficial action of
totally inert substances, relates that a French physician, M. Lisle,
especially recognized the efficiency of the imagination as a power in
therapeutics. He therefore adopted the method of treating divers
ailments by prescribing bread-pills, covered with silver leaf, and
labelled pilules argentees anti-nerveuses. These pills were eagerly
taken by his patients, and the results were highly satisfactory.
We may here appropriately cite one of several cases reported in the
"British and Foreign Medical Review," January, 1847. A naval officer had
suffered for some years from violent attacks of cramp in the stomach. He
had tried almost all the remedies usually recommended for the relief of
this troublesome affection. For a short time bismuth had been
prescribed, with good results. The attacks came on about once in three
weeks, or from that to a month, unless when any unusual exposure brought
them on more frequently. Although the bismuth was continued in large
doses, it soon lost its effect. Sedatives were given, but the relief
afforded by these was only partial, while their effect on the general
system was evidently very prejudicial. On one occasion, while suffering
from the effect of some preparation of opium, given for the relief of
these spasms, he was told that on the next attack he would be given a
remedy which was generally believed to be most effective, but which was
rarely used, owing to its dangerous qualities. Notwithstanding these, it
should be tried, provided he gave his assent. Accordingly, on the next
attack, a powder containing four grains of ground biscuit was
administered every seven minutes, while the greatest anxiety was
expressed, within the patient's hearing, lest too much be given. The
fourth dose caused an entire cessation of pain, whereas half-drachm
doses of bismuth had never procured the same relief in less than three
hours. Four times did the same kind of attack recur, and four times was
it met by the same remedy, and with like success! Dr. Tuke remarks that
the influence of the mind upon the body, which is ever powerful in
health, is equally powerful in disease, and this influence is
exceedingly beneficial in aiding the vis medicatrix, and opposing the
vis vitiatrix naturae.
He dwells upon the remarkable power exerted by the mind "upon any organ
or tissue to which the attention is directed, to the exclusion of other
ideas, the mind gradually passing into a state in which, at the desire
of the operator, portions of the nervous system can be exalted in a
remarkable degree, and others proportionately depressed; and thus the
vascularity, innervation and function of an organ or tissue can be
regulated and modified according to the locality and nature of the
disorder. The psychical element in the various methods comprised under
psycho-therapeutics, is greatly assisted by physical means, as gentle
friction, pointing, passes, et cetera."
At the siege of Breda, in the Netherlands, A. D. 1625, the Prince of
Orange, son of William the Silent, availed himself of the "force of
imagination" to cure his soldiers during a serious epidemic then
prevailing among them. He provided his army surgeons with small vials
containing a decoction of wormwood, camomile, and camphor. The troops
were informed that a rare and precious remedy had been obtained in the
East, with much difficulty and at great expense. Moreover, so great was
its potency, that two or three drops in a gallon of water formed a
mixture of wonderful therapeutic value. These statements, made with
great solemnity, deeply impressed the soldiers, and their expectation of
being cured was realized. For we are told that "they took the medicine
eagerly, and grew well rapidly."
Thomas Fuller, in the "Holy State," book III, chapter 2, relates the
following, which he styles a merry example of the power of imagination
in relieving fatigue:
"A Gentleman, having led a company of children beyond their usuall
journey, they began to be weary, and joyntly cried to him to carry them;
which because of their multitude he could not do, but told them he would
provide them horses to ride on. Then cutting little wands out of the
hedge as nagges for them, and a great stake as a gelding for himself,
thus mounted, Phancie put metall into their legs, and they came
In his ward at the Hopital Andral, in Paris, Dr. Mathieu had a large
number of tubercular patients. One morning, while making his rounds, he
lingered before one of them and remarked to the house physician and the
students who were with him:
That there had just been discovered in Germany a specific for
tuberculosis--namely, "antiphymose." Next day he again spoke
of this antiphymose, and, in the hearing of the patients, as
before, told of the wonderful results it yielded when employed
in the treatment of tuberculosis. For a week the patients
talked of nothing but that wonderful antiphymose; they
couldn't understand why "the chief" didn't try the new drug.
Their wishes were at last acceded to, and the experiments with
antiphymose, which Dr. Mathieu said he had obtained from
Germany, began. To judge of the action of that drug, which was
injected under the skin, it was determined that the
house-physician himself should take the temperature and
register the weight of the consumptives under treatment.
This was done, and soon it seemed evident that a powerful and
highly beneficent medicine was at work. Under the influence of
this new remedy, the patients' fever subsided and their weight
increased. Some gained a kilogramme and a half, some two, and
some even three kilogrammes. Meanwhile the cough ceased, and
those who had been unable to touch food began to eat; those
who had been unable to sleep now slept all night. And if, to
complete the test, the injections of antiphymose were stopped,
the fever returned and all the old symptoms reasserted
themselves. The victims grew thin.
Now this famous antiphymose, this marvellous drug procured
from Germany, was nothing but water, ordinary water, but
sterilized in Dr. Mathieu's laboratory! All that talk before
the patients about the discovery and therapeutic virtue of
antiphymose, all those little bluffs involved in the
house-physician's taking the temperature and the weight of the
patients, were simply a mise-en-scene designed to create a
sort of suggestion and to reenforce it as much as possible.
And it was manifestly suggestion, and not the injections of
pure water, that checked the fever, arrested the cough,
diminished the expectoration, revived the appetite, and
increased the weight.
A simple experiment, with a view to proving that a patient is accessible
to auto-suggestion, is described by Professor Muensterberg. Some
interesting-looking apparatus, with a few metal rings, is fastened upon
his fingers, and connected with a battery and electric keys. The key is
then pushed down in view of the patient, who is instructed to indicate
the exact time when he begins to feel the electric current. The
sensation will probably shortly be felt in one of his fingers; whereupon
the physician can demonstrate to him that there was no connection in the
wires, and that the whole galvanic sensation was the result of
Joseph Jastrow, in "Fact and Fable in Psychology," remarks that the
modern forms of irregular healing present apt illustrations of occult
methods of treatment which were in vogue long ago. And chief among these
is the mental factor, whether utilized when the patient is awake or when
he is unconscious, as a curative principle. The legitimate recognition
of the importance of mental conditions and influences in therapeutics is
one of the results of the union of modern psychology and medicine.
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