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The Curative Influence Of The Imagination

Sources: 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

ion 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

cheerfully home."

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.