A Brief History of Hypnosis

The hypnotic trance is an entirely natural state for the human mind, and human brain, to enter. Every time we fall asleep we pass through the hypnotic state (the Theta brainwave state) on our way to unconsciousness. We are surrounded by examples of the normal and natural use of hypnosis every day – driving to work on “auto pilot” or simply getting “lost” in a good book.

In this context, the history of hypnosis must therefore stretch all the way back to the very begins of mankind itself. Despite this, hypnosis and hypnotherapy has a long and interesting history.

The earliest written accounts of hypnosis can be found in texts such as the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical text from circa 1550BC. Similar accounts and references to hypnosis-like techniques and practices can be found in the writings of Hypocrites, Aesculapius, Wong Tai (China, 2600BC), and in passages The Bible, Talmud, and the Hindu Vedas.

However the advent of Christianity caused a decline in the use of hypnosis, considering it to be a form of witchcraft.

Hypnosis as we recognise it today began in the 18th century with a priest by the name of Father Gassner and Anton Mesmer (from whom we get the term “mesmerism”).

It was Mesmer who observed Father Gassner’s using a form of stage hypnosis to “cure” patients that he declared to be possessed by the devil. Mesmer developed his theory of “animal magnetism” from Gassner’s techniques and his own theories that illness was caused by the incorrect distribution of magnetic fluids within the body.

Mesmer’s technique involved “magnetising” his patients and inducing them to a state of “crisis” from which they would emerge cured of their affliction. The medical professional considered Mesmer a fraud and a commission was formed in France to study his work and results. They concluded that the Mesmer’s “magnetic fluids” did not exist and that the “cures” experienced by his patients were a product of their imagination.

Unwittingly, Mesmer had been inducing a hypnotic state in his patients – albeit a stressful one.

One of Mesmer’s followers, Marquis de Puysegur, accidentally discovered the more relaxed state of hypnosis when he accidentally forgot to mention the “crisis” to a patient whilst emulating Mesmer’s techniques. He coined the term “somnambulism” to describe this state, a term we today use to describe the phenomena of sleep walking.

It would be the mid 19th century before two Scottish doctors, James Braid and James Esdaile, would make their contributions. It was Braid who first attempted to define hypnotism as a phenomenon that could be scientifically studied, publishing a book on the subject in 1843. During this same period, working independently of Braid, James Esdaile performed around 200 operations in India (including amputations) using hypnotism in lieu of anaesthesia. As a consequence of this work, the BMA acknowledged the use of hypnosis to for pain relief, sleep, and alleviating ailments in 1891.

John Elliotson, an English physician, founded a “mesmeric hospital” in 1849 and performed nearly 2000 operations to patients in hypnotic trances.

Research and application of hypnosis was also taking place in France at this time. Jean Martin Charcot established a clinic for nervous disorders when he used hypnosis relieve a wide range of conditions. His work would go to influence Sigmund Freud.

In the late 1800’s the French physicians Hippolyte Bernheim and Ambroise Auguste Liebeault used hypnosis to treat of 12,000 patients. Liebault, “the father of modern hypnotism” pushed the boundaries of hypnosis beyond pain control and anaesthesia, using the power of hypnosis to suggest away the patient’s symptoms.

Many would follow, including luminaries such as Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer, all conducting their own experiments with hypnosis and its applications. With increased interest came increased experimentation with different techniques for inducing hypnosis and its application.

In the 1900’s important advances were made by various American scientists and physicians including Milton H. Erickson who developed indirect hypnosis (referred to by many as Eriksonian Hypnosis). Hypnosis became widely used by physicians and psychologists during both World War I and World War II, expanding into clinical treatment after the wars.

In the 1950s both the BMA and the AMA issued statements supporting the use of hypnosis.