History of hypnosis

The history of hypnosis is certainly not contemporary. Many believe that treatment by hypnotic suggestion can be traced all the way back to antiquity. However, there is a general agreement that the modern history of hypnosis begins in the 18th century, with the work of Franz Mesmer (1734 – 1815). Mesmer was an Austrian physician who believed in the influence of the moon and the planets on the body and proposed that an invisible magnetic fluid permeated the universe. He believed that certain diseases were produced by an imbalance of this fluid within the human body and that, of course, he had the ability to restore this and thus heal the patient.

In the beginning, he used magnets but abandoned it in favor of making passes with hands over the patient’s body. He devised group methods, such as a tub filled with water and iron fillings ‘magnetized’ by Mesmer, mostly reserved for the rich. If you were poor, you would settle for a magnetized tree. There were many reports of healing which made him famous but his theories were later on dismissed and so he faded from the scene.

In England, however, there was a surge of interest in ‘mesmerism’. Among those interested, was John Elliotson (1791-1868), a distinguished English physician who actually lost his chair at the University of London because he advocated the use of ‘mesmerism’, including its application in surgery. He founded The Zoist, a journal he co-edited for 13 years and published accounts of surgery using Mesmer’s technique. A Scottish surgeon, James Esdaile (1808-1859) described numerous surgical procedures using the same technique. The advent of chemical anesthesia at the same time, however, made this application of ‘hypnosis’ redundant and it was soon forgotten.

English surgeon, James Braid (1795-1860) coined the term ‘hypnosis’ from the Greek word ‘hypnos’ meaning sleep. When it was understood that hypnosis is not sleeping, it was too late. The term was here to stay. James Braid developed a new induction method. His patients would fix their gaze on a point above eye-level to produce strain. If successful, eyes would close and the subject would enter hypnosis. Certain induction methods today are based on this same technique developed over a century ago. Braid also proposed that hypnosis was a psychological state resulting from suggestions, a notion that Portuguese J.C. Faria (1756-1859) had already advocated but was not taken seriously because he was a priest.

Jean-Martin Charcot (1835-1893) was one of the most prominent neurologists of his era and one of the most famous advocates of hypnosis. He erroneously believed that hypnosis was a neuropathological state and that only hysterics were capable of experiencing hypnosis. He actually produced and removed conversion symptoms, such as paralysis, through post-hypnotic suggestions. Charcot actually influenced Freud who also started applying hypnosis. However, it is known that Freud was not a very good hypnotherapist, so he soon abandoned it.

Charcot’s foremost adversary was Bernheim (1837-1919) of the University of Nancy, France. Bernheim was very much influenced by Libeault, a physician who was successful in using suggestions, during hypnosis, for treatment. Bernheim disputed Charcot’s beliefs about hypnosis and proposed that hypnotic phenomena are normal products of suggestions and ‘normal’ people could experience it. In the end, Bernheim’s views prevailed.

There were many other scientists who promoted the use of hypnosis and helped us learn more about it but to avoid an endless babble, I will go no further. Let me just say that in the 1930’s, Clark Hull started the first large-scale study in hypnosis. One of his students, Milton Erickson, developed clinical hypnotic strategies that have influenced many contemporaries (although his strategies still trigger debates). There has been a continuous rise in the interest of hypnosis since 1950 and it has now become a proven therapeutic medium which is taught in many professional societies and at Universities worldwide.