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Franz Anton Mesmer, the Man Who Invented Hypnotism

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A tall, striking doctor with an unusually piercing gaze sits opposite his patient, firmly pressing her knees between his own. He stares fixedly into the patient’s eyes, stroking her limbs, and then passing his hands in front of her body in a series of cryptic motions. Is this man a hypnotist or a movie villain? A healer or a charlatan? In the case of Franz Anton Mesmer, the answer to all of the above could be yes.

Mesmer was an 18th century doctor who developed the theory of animal magnetism (more about that later), as well as a related style of treatment that came to be known as mesmerism. His theories were debunked in his time and sound bizarre today, but some credit him with laying the foundation for the practice of modern hypnotism. He is also part of the select group of people in history to have an entire verb—mesmerize—named for him.

Mesmer was born in 1734 in Iznang, Germany to a forest warden and a locksmith’s daughter. After a childhood studying in a monastery and Jesuit schools, he enrolled at the University of Vienna, where he studied law and then medicine, graduating with honors. Influenced by Isaac Newton’s ideas about the role of heavenly bodies on ocean tides, in 1766 he published a doctoral thesis titled De planetarum influxu in corpus humanum (On the Influence of the Planets on the Human Body). But it was not until several years later, when he encountered Jesuit astronomer Maximilian Hell (yes, his real name) and his treatment of patients using magnets to produce artificial “tides” in the body that Mesmer began referring to animal magnetism. While that may sound like some sort of sexy super power, Mesmer’s meaning was a bit more literal.

His theory held that all living beings have a magnetic fluid (akin to electricity—it was not unusual to speak of energy as “fluid” in Mesmer’s time) running through their bodies, and that this fluid could be transferred between bodies and even to inanimate objects. Health was a result of the magnetic fluid being in balance, while illness was the result of blockages. Taking a page from Hell, Mesmer began working with patients by using magnets to move their fluid around and restore their health. But he eventually abandoned the magnets after deciding that an individual with particularly strong magnetism (such as himself, of course) could achieve the same effect by laying hands on or passing his hands over a patient’s body.

Mesmer married wealthy widow Maria Anna von Posch in 1768, cementing his place in elite society and entering a period of high times in Vienna. He entertained socialites—Mozart and Joseph Haydn among them—at his manse, where he also set up a medical practice. His treatment of patients using mesmeric techniques brought great success for a time, but his failed attempt to cure famous blind piano prodigy Maria Theresia von Paradis around 1777 eventually brought trouble. According to some accounts, Paradis was able to see when Mesmer was in the room, but went blind again when he left. When word got out that Mesmer had not cured her as he had claimed (there were also some reports of inappropriate touching), a scandal erupted, and Mesmer fled to Paris in 1778.

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Franz Anton Mesmer mesmerizing a patient.
Wellcome Library London // CC BY 4.0

Paris initially proved fertile ground for him. The Vienna scandal didn’t seem to damage his credibility much, and there were plenty of rich, ailing, bored aristocrats in need of his services. Before long, Mesmer was inundated with as many as 200 clients a day, making it difficult to treat them individually. Fortunately, the resourceful doctor harnessed his supposed ability to transfer animal magnetism to inanimate objects and built a helpful contraption, which he called the baquet. The apparatus consisted of a large wooden tub filled with iron filings, glass bottles, and water, magnetized by Mesmer himself. Iron rods protruded from the top, which patients would press to the ailing parts of their bodies.

Descriptions of the scene in the baquet salon are pretty strange. The room was richly appointed and dimly lit, the air filled with incense and weird melodies from an instrument called a glass harmonica. The afflicted sat in a circle around the baquet, hands linked, receiving a healing dose of Mesmer vibes. Mesmer, meanwhile, prowled the room outfitted in an aristocratic wizard getup, complete with a lavender robe and a magnetized metal wand. Patients (most often women) were frequently seized by violent convulsions and fits of weeping or laughter, necessitating their removal to a separate crisis room. Mesmer disappeared for long periods of time to attend the women, which led to some raised eyebrows.

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Franz Anton Mesmer and patients using a baquet.
Bibliothèque Nationale de France // Public Domain

Eventually rumors and doubts began circulating about Mesmer’s Paris operation as well. In 1784, King Louis XVI—worried because his wife, Marie Antoinette, was among Mesmer’s clientele—ordered a commission to examine his methods. The group (which included chemist Antoine Lavoisier and visiting American diplomat Benjamin Franklin) was actually less concerned with whether Mesmer’s methods worked than with whether he had discovered a new type of physical fluid. After an inquiry into the practices of Mesmer protégé Charles d’Eslon, it was determined that no such fluid existed. Soon afterward, Mesmer left the city. He wandered around Europe, then lived for years as a relative exile in Switzerland before dying in Austria in 1815.

While Mesmer was disparaged in his day, some of his patients did claim to have been cured by him. Moreover, he stumbled on something still relevant in modern psychological practice. For it wasn’t the righting of a fluid imbalance or Mesmer’s superior magnetism that relieved people of their suffering; it was his ability to induce a suggestive mental state through which ailments, often of a psychological nature, could be alleviated. This technique—stripped of the mysticism and pageantry—remains the basis of hypnosis, which, while still controversial, has become recognized as a valid therapeutic technique—no baquets necessary.

Primary image via Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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