The relationship between the two men was a strange one but I’ll leave that for another post. Today I want to talk about hypnosis.
Freud first became convinced of the genuineness of hypnotic phenomena when he attended a public performance by the famous Danish hypnotist Carl Hansen in Vienna in 1880. His belief in its efficacy was further bolstered when he witnessed the work of French doctors Ambroise Liebeault and Hippolyte Bernheim who treated patients by putting suggestions to them while hypnotised.
Freud, who had a large number of ‘nervous’ patients, was keen to adopt the practice. As he said himself quite frankly, the therapeutic arsenal for treating such patients consisted only of electrotherapy, hydrotherapy and hypnosis. He had lost confidence in electrotherapy and saw hydrotherapy as financially unrewarding for the doctor as it generally involved referring the patient on to a hydropathic establishment after a single consultation. So he turned to hypnosis, finding it gratifying to have a technique which overcame his sense of therapeutic impotence and also flattering as it allowed him ‘to enjoy the reputation of being a miracle-worker’.
Freud adapted his technique after hearing how Josef Breuer had apparently helped Bertha Pappenheim by probing the origins of her symptoms while she was in a hypnotic state. He later abandoned hypnosis altogether, finding it just as effective to do the probing and eliciting of memories while the patient was in a state of normal consciousness.
All this we know from Freud’s An Autobiographical Study, published in 1925.
But what has this got to do with The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess, you might ask.
Here is the connection. In a letter to Fliess dated 28 May, 1888, Freud begins by writing about a patient who was suffering from cerebral neurasthenia. He then goes on: “I have at this moment a lady in hypnosis lying in front of me and therefore can go on writing in peace.” The rest of the letter is taken up with details of his family life, his practice – which had been waning of late – and his writing and translating activities. He finishes with: “The time for hypnosis is up. I greet you cordially, in all haste, your Dr Freud.”
Had Freud by this time decided that neither suggestion nor questioning was necessary, that being in a hypnotic trance in and of itself was sufficient to achieve a therapeutic effect? If so, why no mention of it in An Autobiographical Study?