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Posted on 13 March 2013, 22:42

Although it is now more than sixty years since Dr Albert Mason cured a disease that was thought at the time to be incurable by any means, using nothing more than hypnosis, as I describe in the first chapter of If This Be Magic, the case continues to be widely cited as one of the most remarkable cures ever recorded.

The disease was a hideously disfiguring and disabling skin ailment known as congenital ichthyosiform erythrodermia of Brocq, to give it its full title. As stated uncompromisingly (but wrongly) on the current National Health Service web site: There is no cure.

Mason himself has given several interviews over the years in which he has always stuck to his original account without any subsequent embellishment or retraction, and he seemed to be as bewildered in his eighties as he had been in his twenties. So, it seems, is everybody else, and with good reason. Despite the continuing wide coverage, what is lacking is any serious attempt to explain two things: 1 – How did he do it? and 2 – Why couldn’t he do it again? I thought I had explained all that, but since the coin has apparently still not dropped, let me try again, and examine some of the implications of what he did which have never been fully faced.

He did it for two reasons: he literally didn’t know what he was doing, and he sincerely believed that he could. When he first saw the patient, a 15-year-old known as John, he could only see the boy’s hand under the sheet and assumed that he was just afflicted with an unusual number of warts. He had succeeded with them before, and although there were more of them than usual, he saw no reason why he couldn’t do so again, so he just went ahead and did it. He hypnotized John and told him to come back in a week with one arm clear of ‘warts’, which is just what John did, to the astonishment of the surgeon who had tried and failed to do a skin transplant. Mason then carried on his treatment and got rid of enough of the ‘warts’ to enable John to use his hands, learn a trade and embark on a normal life. It was a classic instance of what Virgil was talking about when he wrote ‘Mens agitat molem et magno se corpore miscet’, which could be rather freely translated as ‘the mind moves matter and affects the whole body’. 

Mason duly published his results in the British Medical Journal and became an overnight celebrity. Media coverage was huge and worldwide. Not surprisingly, he was besieged by eight other ichthyosis sufferers, but he failed to cure a single one of them, now that he knew that what he had done for John was impossible although he had just done it. As a friend of mine who attended a lecture he gave soon afterwards put it, ‘He felt he had done something wrong’, and his experience created such a conflict in his mind that he gave up hypnosis, became a psychiatrist and moved to California.

As for the implications, they are considerable. In 1993 a huge (713-page) tome was published by the Institute of Noetic Sciences entitled Spontaneous Remission. An annotated bibliography by Brendan O’Regan and Caryle Hirshberg, listing a total of no less than 3,500 references to cases in which diseases, some of them potentially life-threatening, had just cured themselves and gone away. This raises the question: if any disease can just go away, is it not likely, or at least worth trying, that a skilled hypnotist can persuade a patient’s mind to rearrange its matter and so affect the whole body, however supposedly incurable the condition? It has been done at least once, so why can’t it be done again?

The usual suspects will insist that spontaneous remission cases were just responding belatedly to treatment given previously or had been wrongly diagnosed in the first place. This argument will not do in John’s case. He was a patient at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead where the world-renowned Sir Archibald McIndoe was in charge of the reconstructive surgery department. There was no doubt regarding the diagnosis, and he had not responded to any kind of treatment. If John couldn’t be cured there, that was the end of the line. He could only expect a life of debilitating misery.

However, Mason did cure him, because he was able to transfer his belief and intention to John’s immune system and enable it to get on with its job of making new skin, so this was not a case of spontaneous remission but of what we might call induced remission made possible by the hypnotist’s confidence of success. It was his mind, not John’s, that persuaded the matter of John’s body to move enough to achieve a cure, but once he had lost that initial confidence, he also lost his ability to persuade other minds to move their bodies’ matter.

It has been known at least since 1844 that ‘one mind originates motion in two bodies’, as the Rev. C.H.Townshend put in his book Facts on Mesmerism. More than half a century before then, the Marquis de Puységur had found that, in his words, he could ‘change the mind’ of his patient. The early mesmerists discovered something that seems to have been swept under the carpet and only rediscovered by accident, as in Mason’s case.

The coin that has yet to drop is this: hypnosis may not be a panacea, a cure for all ills. Yet if it has cured an ‘incurable’ disease once, why should it not do so again, especially in the case of diseases that have been known to have apparently cured themselves? It won’t do so until hypnotists accept the idea that it is worth trying, and can be done in a way that does not violate ethical considerations, such as by inducing amnesia in the patient’s conscious mind, leaving the suggestions in the subconscious and allowing the body to get on with the job of carrying them out.

It may look like magic, yet as King Leontes says in the final scene of The Winters Tale when the statue of Queen Hermione comes to life and descends from her pedestal:

O, she’s warm.
If this be magic, let it be an art
Lawful as eating.

GUY LYON PLAYFAIR was born in India and educated in England, obtaining a degree in modern languages from Cambridge University. He then spent many years in Brazil as a freelance journalist for The Economist, Time, and the Associated Press, also working for four years in the press section of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The first of his twelve books, The Flying Cow, in which he described his experiences investigating the psychic side of Brazil, was translated into six languages and became an international best seller. His most recent book is Twin Telepathy. He now lives in London and is a council member of the Society for Psychical Research.

His books include:
If This Be Magic: The Forgotten Power of Hypnosis
The Flying Cow: Exploring the Psychic World of Brazil
This House is Haunted
Twin Telepathy


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Elaine, Wed 1 Jan, 12:41

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