Hypnotized by science

You are getting sleepy. Very sleepy.

I hope not. But a lot of us can remember when that would be the opening gag line for any number of sitcoms.

There was a time in the 19th century, however, when many scientists believed that it had the potential to cure everything from traumatic mental illness to migraine headaches.

That world of hypnotism and the debate over its medical utility is explored in “Little Demon in the City of Light: A True Story of Murder and Mesmerism in Belle Epoque Paris” (Doubleday, $26.95). The author is Steven Livingston, a veteran journalist and book editor at the Washington Post.

The setting of the true story is Paris in the last quarter of the 19th century. According to Livingston, hypnotism had fallen out of favor a century before when a rather notorious crank, Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer (hence “mesmerizing”) “destroyed its credibility with his wild claims of medical success.” He stated that hypnotism — which he believed to be part of the magnetic fields that controlled tides and the flow of blood — could cure paralysis, epilepsy and even blindness.

But everything old is new again, and late 19th century science had begun to flirt with hypnotism again. Not just as a cure-all, however. Some began to wonder if it was the perfect way to commit murder and get away with it. The theory was that people under hypnosis could be led to do horrible deeds at the suggestion of the mesmerizer.

There was another argument, however. Others believed that hypnotism as a parlor game or magician’s act could lead susceptible people to do something silly. But hypnotic suggestion, they argued, could not violate free will. It could not make a person commit murder.

The argument came to a boil in a murder case that captured public attention in Europe. A man had been murdered in Paris, lured to a trap by a vivacious young woman and her fellow conspirator.

The murder, its investigation and the trial are the subject of Livingston’s fascinating book. The young woman claimed her co-conspirator had her under hypnotic control and she could not control — or remember except under hypnosis — her role in the crime.

In the end, her co-conspirator got the guillotine. Her neck was spared, but she was sentenced to 20 years for her role. The legal community breathed a massive sigh of relief. If such a defense was successful anyone could claim hypnosis as a viable defense.

The larger, often unrecognized issue at the time was the rise of “scientism,” the intellectual scourge of the second half of the 19th century. Underlying the hypnotic debate was the idea that science provided an objective answer to everything, and if humanity would embrace that thinking, all human problems would disappear. Free will, the sacredness of life, human dignity — these were philosophical constructs, not scientific truths.

Scientism became a hodge-podge of everything from phrenology — measuring human worth by the bumps on the skull — to determining potential criminality based on the space between the eye sockets. All very funny now; all very scientific then.

The humor is lost, however, when we realize scientism was the basis of Nazi racialism, anti-Semitism and eugenics, as well as communist economic theories. Millions died in the 20th century on the altar of 19th-century scientism.

Scientism lingers today — the idea that the only truth is scientific truth, even though 200 years from now much of our science will no doubt look pretty rudimentary. And the eternal truths will still be eternal.

Bob Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.