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History of Hypnosis

Hypnosis can be traced back to early civilizations like the Egyptians, Greeks and Hindu’s. It was referred to as a trance state. The term “hypnosis” only gained widespread use in the 1880’s, initially amongst those influenced by the developments in France, some twenty years after the death of James Braid - who adopted the term “hypnotism”.

Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 - 1815)

Franz Anton Mesmer was born the son of a game warden of May 23, 1734, at Iznang on Lake Constance. He studied at Dillingen and Ingolstadt and received his Ph.D. He attended a theological seminary but never graduated and began to study law. He received his Doctor of Medicine degree in 1766 after presenting a paper entitled, “De Planetarum Influx (On the influence of Planets.)” Even though he was granted a medical degree, he was never interested enough in traditional medicine to practice it.

The origins of modern hypnosis began over two centuries ago in Switzerland. A Roman Catholic priest by the name of Father Gassner discovered that he possessed the power to heal. He began practicing faith cures and would make his appearance before groups and hold up a crucifix, which he lowered to touch each of them in turn. 

Mesmer, unable to swallow Father Gassner’s hypotheses that patients were possessed by demons, believed that in some way the metal crucifix held by the Father was perhaps responsible for magnetizing the patient and hence developed his ideas and explanation of the results into a theory of animal magnetism. 

The body, he surmised, must have two poles, like a magnet, and must, like a magnet, be emitting an invisible magnetic “fluid.” According to Mesmer, disease was due to some interruption or maladjustment in the flow of this fluid and correcting the flow could therefore cure it. 

He concluded that only certain people has this gift of being able to control this mysterious “fluid” and these practitioners had the power to make the fluid flow from themselves to the patient. He deluded himself into believing that he possessed such healing powers.

He also discovered that it was important that there should exist a close interest in and sympathy for each other between the physician and the patient. This he described as rapport, French for “harmony” or “connection.” 

He had many early successes and carried out many demonstrations of healing. He become a celebrity among the wealthy and was a frequent visitor at the local castles and mansions. At first he used to stroke patients with magnets but later stopped using the magnets and began relying on the laying of his hands to use his own fluids in healing. He found that the simple “passes” of his hands were sufficient to put patients in a trance. Whatever the means, patients usually went into convulsive hysterical motion following which they felt relieved and refreshed. 

Mesmer also discovered that even though he didn’t need magnets to get results, the dramatic effect of waving a magnetized pole over a person, or having his subjects sit in magnetized water while he moved around in brightly colored robes playing the scientific faith healer, made for better drama and for larger audiences. He was able to evoke from a number of his clients entertaining behaviors ranging from sleeping to dancing to having convulsions. Mesmer did basically what today’s hypnotist do in the showroom and what faith healers do in the circus tents and churches, only he did them together, making a great show out of his magnetic cures.

He restored the sight of a young famous, female musician, Mille Paradies, who had gone blind at the age of 4. When her parents came to take her home, she didn’t want to leave. She remained with him and it caused a tremendous scandal. He left for the more liberal environment of Paris and soon established himself. The wealthy aristocrats paid Mesmer large fees yet it is a matter of record that he treated hundreds of poor peasants for free. 

With Marie Antoinette’s help, Mesmer set up a clinic to treat his patients. However in 1784 the King appointed the French Academy of Science to investigate Mesmer and his methods. 

They pronounced him a fraud and said cures were due to imagination and therefore not valid. The report concluded that animal magnetism and the magnetic field were figments of the imagination and Mesmer’s practices and theories were regarded as worthless. They said medicine had many cures for the diseases magnetism cured. The report had the ultimate effects of denunciation of Mesmer, his methods and theory, although his theory was actually far more on trial than his methods. 

D’Eslon, the pupil of Mesmer, pronounced the laws of animal magnetism after this fashion:

  1. Animal magnetism is a universal fluid, constituting an absolute polonium in nature, and the medium of all mutual influence between the celestial bodies, and betwixt the earth and animal bodies. 
  2. It is the subtlest fluid in nature, capable of flux and reflux, and of receiving propagating, and continuing all kinds of motion.
  3. The animal body is subjected to the influences of this fluid by means of the nerves, which are immediately affected by it. 
  4. The human body has poles, and other properties, analogous to the magnet. 
  5. The action and virtue of animal magnetism may be communicated from one body to another, whether animate or inanimate. 
  6. It operates at a great distance, without the intervention of anybody.
  7. It is increased and reflected by mirrors, communicated, propagated and increased by sound, and may be accumulated, concentrated and transported.
  8. Notwithstanding the universality of this fluid, all animal bodies are not affected by it; on the other hands there are some though, but few in number, the presence of which, destroys all the effects of animal magnetism.  
  9. By means of this fluid, nervous diseases are cured immediately, and others medially; and its virtues, in fact, extend to the universal cure and preservation of mankind. 

It is not surprising that the commission dismissed contemptuously such a mass of sheer assertion and unsupported theory, seasoned with truth to be sure, but so diluted and obscured as not to be recognizable. However it is a noticeable fact that the many people who had been cured of their ailments seemed of no consequence. The findings of the committee discouraged any scientist from exploring this field further even though Benjamin Franklin, who was a member of the investigating committee, wrote the minority rapport, which stated the phenomenon was worthy of further consideration. 

After being denounced his popularity quickly faded and later, though it is not generally known, Mesmer and his son published works on animal magnetism. He died on March 5, 1815

Despite widespread skeptic of Mesmer’s methods, he was certainly the first person to draw the attention of the world to the important fact that mental treatment can have a direct bearing on illness of the body, and that the use of mesmerism, or hypnosis can have immense benefit to psychic investigators. 

There was no talking during the treatments, so there were no direct verbal injunctions. However, these were implicit in the therapist’s attitude. The passes, the music, the setting, the atmosphere round the tub, were factors which were indirectly to increase the effect of suggestion, but also contributed in producing a kind of sensory deprivation which induced an alteration of the state of consciousness, gradually ending in the “crisis”. Mesmer patients did not all have attacks. Some showed, rather a sort of lethargy, while still being able to walk, talk etc. in other words they were hypnotized. 

His system of therapeutics, mesmerism, is a forerunner of modern practices using hypnotism. It contributed to create a foundation for the scientific study of psychopathology. The term now also refers to therapy using hypnosis or hypnotic suggestion.

James Braid (1795 – 1860)

James Braid is one of the giants in the history of Hypnosis. He was born in 1795 in Fife Scotland and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Initially he was a physician to the mines of Leads-Hill in Lanarkshire, Scotland but later settled in Manchester (England) and became a successful surgeon.

He developed a keen interest in mesmerism, as hypnotism was then called. This interest was aroused further when he watched a demonstration by Lafontaine and he became even more fascinated with the phenomena. 

He was a calm, rational and well-balanced person and soon began his own experiments. He quickly dismissed the mistaken theories of the time that mesmeric trances were due to some form of magnetism. He disavowed the popular notion that the ability to induce hypnosis is connected with the magical passage of a fluid or other influence from the operator to the patient. 

Braid was attacked on both flanks. On the one hand the Mesmerists were naturally incensed at his undermining of the belief in some magnetic power they possessed. On the other there were the average men and woman who were incredulous of the effects of Hypnosis and believed that some trickery was involved. 

He replaced the supernatural theory, which had been around since the middle of the eighteenth century, with a genuine scientific account based on measurement and observation. Adopting a physiological view that hypnosis is a kind of sleep, induced by fatigue resulting from the intense concentration necessary for staring at a bright, inanimate object. He found that some of his subjects would enter a hypnotic trance by simply fixing their eyes on a bright object, such as a pocket watch, in a position that strained the eyes and eyelids. This would lead to a spontaneous closing of the eyes, with a vibration of the eyelids.  

Exploring the use of this technique in pain relief during surgery, at a time when the use of anesthetics was in its infancy, he was soon demonstrating and lecturing and his extensive book “Neurypnology” or “The Rationale of Nervous Sleep Considered In Relation With Animal Magnetism” was published. 

He coined the term “Neuro-hypnothology” which he himself abbreviated to “Hypnotism.” By the term “Neuro-Hypnothology,” is to be understood “nervous sleep.” A particular state of the nervous system induced by a fixed and abstract attention of the mental and visual eyes.  He got the word Hypnosis from the Greek word “hypnos” which means, “sleep.” 

Later he realized that fixation and fatigue of the eye muscles does not induce a trance. He began to believe that the hypnotist influenced the subject by suggestion rather than direct physiological effects. He then developed the view that the essence of the hypnotic experience is the narrowing of the subject’s perceptive field by concentrating on a single idea. 

Dr Braid thought it over and theorized that the hypnotic subject is never really asleep. He tried to change the word to “momideism” which means one word or thought. He felt that the hypnotic subject was so focused on one thought or idea to the exclusion of all others that the trance like condition ensued. However, the term momideism never caught on and the term hypnosis remained. 

He was mainly interested in the therapeutic possibilities of hypnosis and reported successful treatment of diseased states such as paralysis, rheumatism and aphasia. He hoped that hypnosis could be used to alleviate the pain and anxiety of patients in surgery. 

Unlike Mesmer, he maintained a good profession standing in his community during his entire lifetime, and was not only noted as an excellent hypnotist, but also widely acclaimed for his operating cases of clubbed foot and other deformities. 

He maintained his practice and interest in hypnotism during his entire lifetime, and wrote many papers and monographs on the subject. Although he is best known for his renaming of Mesmer’s art hypnotism, he was also responsible for a number of ideas that still persist until the present day.

They are as follows:

  1. That hypnosis is a powerful tool, which should be limited entirely to the medical and dental professions.
  2. That although hypnotism was capable of curing many diseases for which there had formally been no remedy, it nevertheless was no panacea and was only a medical tool which should be used in combination with other medical information, drugs, remedies etc. in order to properly treat the patient.
  3. That in skilled hands there is no great danger associated with hypnotic treatment and neither was there pain or discomfort.
  4. That a good deal more study and research would be necessary to thoroughly understand a number of theoretic concepts regarding hypnosis.

These points of philosophy were extremely sound, especially for a physician in the middle 1800’s who had limited knowledge available to him at that particular period. The fact that these concepts remain virtually unchanged today speaks highly for the brilliance of this great physician and hypnotist. He died on 25th March 1860.

Known as the “Father” of hypnosis he gave us the word we now use for our subject and brought to it clarity of thought and an energy of experimentation which is unparalleled. It was Braid who started the first scientific studies of hypnosis as a psychological condition of great scientific importance and he pioneered the medical acceptance of hypnosis. 

Milton H Erickson (1901 – 1980)

Erickson has to be admired; he has done more than any other individual to change the way Hypnotherapy is practiced. Within his own life he had many personal disabilities to contend with, which he often stressed to become proficient at practical problem solving for his clients. Despite his handicap he went on to quality as a medical doctor and psychiatrist. In the following years he become the world’s greatest practitioner of therapeutic hypnosis and one of the most effective psychotherapist ever. 

Milton Erickson taught and practiced from the 1920’s. He was an authority on hypnosis and an outstandingly creative psychotherapist.  He has been described as “the most creative, perceptive and ingenious psychotherapeutic master of all time” and is generally considered to be the most important hypnotherapist. He was known for helping popularize the use of hypnosis to reach the subconscious in psychiatry. Part of his genius was the ability to rapidly assess the needs of the client and work within the client’s map of reality. 

He was born into a poor farming community in Nevada and didn’t speak until he was four. Later he was found to have severe dyslexia and to be profoundly deaf and color blind. At the age of seventeen he was paralyzed for a year by a bout of polio so bad that his doctor was convinced he would die. 

When he was in his fifties, he was stuck by a second bout of polio that caused him a great deal of physical pain. Even this he was able to turn into a learning opportunity as he became highly effective at treating other people’s pain with hypnosis. Despite severe illness in his old age, he continued to teach, demonstrate and practice his remarkable skill as a therapist, even when eventually confined to a wheelchair till he died at the age of seventy-nine. 

He studied hypnotism under Clark L Hull. Hull was however, of the old school of hypnotist; he regarded his subjects as inanimate laboratory objects, without sensitivity to their differences as persons, and expected them to respond equally to induction. Erickson saw the fallacy of this, perceiving that people responded in a great number of varying ways to induction, and differed just as much in the degree of trance they could be put into and how they would follow the hypnotist suggestions – or commands as Hull called them. He determined that when he began using hypnotism himself it would be in a naturalistic, permissive and indirect way. 

He believed an authoritarian, domineering therapist, should not intimidate the subject but led to accept hypnosis as a totally natural method of getting a grip on whatever was ailing one’s self.

The most important things that he taught was: 

  1. Each person is a unique individual. Hence, psychotherapy/hypnosis should be formulated to meet the individual’s need, rather than expecting the person to fit the system.
  2. Every person has within himself/herself all the resources necessary to get over any problem, and the duty of the therapist is to enable the person to access and utilize those resources.

Key words, which describe the qualities he brought into Hypnotherapy, are informality, flexibility, holistic and non-dogmatic. 

  • He was informal. He did not clothe himself with an aura of authority or of mystery as some Hypnotist tended to do.
  • He was flexible. He would always adapt his approach to the particular client of personality.
  • He was holistic. He did not focus attention purely on what was going on in the clients mind and memory, but was very much aware of whatever exists in the client’s life outside the consulting-room and made active use of it as part of the process of change. 
  • He was non-dogmatic. Consistent with his general flexibility, he never seems to have propounded any dogmatic basis for his approaches. He taught by example. 

He developed a strategic approach – for individuals, couples and families – that uses hypnotic-therapy skills in observing and motivating people. He also established himself as an influential figure in the field of personal growth. 

Erickson was a great researcher into the extent and limits of hypnosis as a tool for personal change. His writing on hypnosis are the authoritative word on techniques of inducing trance, experimental work exploring the possibilities and limits of the hypnotic experience, and investigations of the nature of the relationship between hypnotist and subject.

He was convinced and concerned that most of the hypnotic study being done in America at that time – 1950’s - was in theory and not in practice. By example and urging, he got therapist out of their academic ivory towers and into day-to-day application of the art to relieve suffering humans coming to their offices. 

By 1957 there were enough health professionals using hypnosis in their practices for him to take the lead in founding the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. He served as President for the first 2 years of its existence, and as Editor of its professional journal through the first decade of publication.

Erickson maintained that a therapist’s duty was to first ease or remove the unpleasant psychological complaint. He said that if you could “lift the handle a lot could be done with the pot.” A small change has “knock on” effect which leads into other areas. For example, the lifting of a phobia can lead to increased confidence in other areas. Erickson was directive and strategic in his therapy in a time where the therapist was supposed to be passive. 

Another revolutionary approach that now seems like common sense was Erickson’s consideration of the effect of other family members on therapy. He would view a person as part of a wider system, not just an isolated individual.

His name stands above all others in the development of hypnosis into an effective therapy for stress and the ailments resulting from its various forms, and for many other conditions stemming from psychological traumas – even some that appear to be wholly physical in origin. 

More than any other person in this field he explored and demonstrated the vast potentials that hypnosis has to offer. Thanks largely to Erickson the subject of hypnosis have shed its shackles of superstition and is now widely recognized as one of the most powerful tools for change.

by Meeka O'Brien - Dip.Clin.Hyp.

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