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A Brief History of Hypnosis

The concept of hypnosis can appear rather mysterious, yet we have all used expression such as "a mesmerising beauty" or "a hypnotic melody" and so we do understand the power of being drawn into that state where something special can occur...

Most people would admit to finding the concept of hypnosis rather mysterious. However, we have all read, heard or used ourselves expressions such as a mesmerising beauty or a hypnotic melody, suggesting that we do understand the power of being drawn into that state where something special can occur. In fact, hypnosis has existed and been used across the world for millennia for various purposes, from magic to philosophy and healing…


The earliest records from ancient Egypt and Greece depict sleep temples, where hypnosis was used to induce “dreams” to discover the root of people’s problems. And many ancient practices, from Chinese medicine to shamanism and druidism amongst others, refer to trance-like states.


Paracelsus, a Swiss German physician, alchemist and occultist, rebelled against conservative medicine in the early 16th century, and worked with concepts such as dream analysis, psychosomatism, people as microcosm of the universe, and doctors treating the mind as well as the body. He also used magnets for healing, as did Father Maximilian Hell, a Hungarian astronomer, in the late 18th century, who influenced Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), a German doctor of the same era who worked in Vienna and Paris, and from whose name “mesmerism” is derived. Mesmer was a popular showman with magnetic eyes, but he was heavily criticised too. He believed that health was about the free flow of the processes of life through the body, and illness was created by blockages to this flow. His proposed cure was what he called “animal magnetism”, his theory of natural energy transference, through the practice of “mesmeric passes”, i.e. transferring his own energy into his patients. Mesmer is considered to be the modern father of what is now known as hypnosis.


One of Mesmer’s students, Marquis de Puysegur, coined the word “somnambulism”, also known as sleepwalking, with artificial somnambulism referring to the deepest state of hypnosis. The Abbe de Faria proclaimed that hypnosis 'generated from within the mind’ by the power of expectancy and cooperation of the patient. John Elliotson, an English doctor, used mesmerism extensively, and James Esdaile, a Scottish surgeon, reported to have used mesmeric sleep as the only anaesthetic to operate very successfully in India in the early 19th century, but his findings were not well received by the medical establishment back in England.


Another Scottish surgeon, James Braid (1795-1860), first coined the term “hypnotism” in 1842 and is considered by many to be the first true hypnotist. He moved the understanding of the mesmeric phenomena away from the occult and mesmeric passes and towards a psycho-physiological process instead, using just words and prolonged attention to an object of fixation by the subject, to generate a trance, or neuro-hypnosis. He wrote the first ever known book on hypnotism, “Neurypnology” in 1843. He later tried to replace the word hypnotism (after the Greek god of sleep, Hypnos) with “monoideism” (the notion of a single main idea) when he realised that it was not really a form of sleep, but the word persists to this day. After Braid's death in 1860, interest in hypnotism temporarily waned, especially with the invention of ether and chloroform as clean and simple anaesthetics.


The attention gradually shifted from England to France, where research grew and peaked around the 1880s, when the examination of hypnosis passed from surgeons to mental health doctors. Neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot (who endorsed it for the treatment of hysteria) led the way and his pupil Pierre Janet (theory of dissociation, the split in the mind leading to detachment) started an interest in the study of the subconscious. During that period, the “numerical method” was extensively tested, and the process of “post-hypnotic suggestions” was born. Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault (who first wrote about the need for “rapport”) and Hippolyte Bernheim (mainly known for his theory of intensified suggestibility) both founded the Nancy School, which in late 19th century became a leading force in the theory and practice of hypnotherapy.


In the 20th century, Ivan Pavlov (theory of “classical conditioning” and conditioned reflex) and Sigmund Freud (a student of Charcot, he initially used hypnosis for “abreaction therapy”, or catharsis work, but then turned to psychoanalysis instead), both referred to hypnosis in their work. And during WW1 and WW2, hypnotic techniques were used for the treatment of combat-induced neuroses in soldiers, including for what is now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Emile Coué (1857-1926) a French psychologist and pharmacist, studied with Liébeault but moved away from that approach to embrace Braid’s instead, and created “La méthode Coué”, based on conscious auto-suggestion. He believed in ritualistic ego-strengthening interventions, and encouraged self-improvement with affirmations, his best-known mantra being “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”.


The modern study of hypnotism started in the 1920s and 30s with Clark Hull, an American psychologist, who wrote “Hypnosis and Suggestibility” in 1933. His work proved without doubt that hypnosis had nothing to do with sleep. He believed in suggestion and motivation, on which the behavioural approach to hypnosis is based. In the UK in more recent times, John Hartland introduced in the 60s the concept of “ego-strengthening”, the idea of strengthening the client’s confidence instead of weakening symptoms. The American Milton H Erikson (1901-1980) gave us “Ericksonian hypnosis” and is famous for influencing “solution-focused brief therapy” and “neuro-linguistic programming” (mind-language-behaviour connection). As well as hypnosis, he used storytelling and metaphors, humour, indirect suggestions and confusion amongst other things. Erickson was an efficient psychotherapist and is recognised as a leading authority on clinical hypnosis, although his approach was sometimes controversial, as mentioned by his friend and occasional collaborator, André Muller Weitzenhoffer, a prolific and awarded researcher and author in the field of hypnosis of the late 20th century.


At Stanford University, Weitzenhoffer collaborated with Ernest Hilgard (who is famed for his “neo-dissociation” theory and for his studies on “induced analgesia”) in developing the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scales, a regarded research tool in the field of hypnosis. Carl Rogers (1902-1987), the father of “person-centred therapy” shared with Milton Erickson the belief that restoring control and power to the client is key to unlocking a person’s stored potential for growth and change.


In 1955, The British Medical Association approved the use of hypnosis in the areas of psychoneuroses and hypno-anaesthesia. And in 2002, the Government’s Sector Skills Council for the UK health industry published National Occupational Standards for hypnotherapy. Today, hypnosis still has no universally accepted theory to explain the phenomena, but in practice, it has proven to exist and to work time and time again, and has applications in many fields, from obstetrics to sport psychology amongst others.

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