A History of Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy


Hypnosis, the oldest form of psychotherapy (Ellenberger, 1970) If we examine the religious and healing ceremonies of primitive people we can find the basic elements required to induce the hypnotic trance. It is possible from this to extrapolate that these ceremonial behaviors existed before written histories and that the use of rhythmic chanting, monotonous drum beats, together with strained fixations of the eyes accompanied by catalepsy of the rest of the body are of their selves trance inductions. If we accept this hypothesis, we might deduce that hypnosis as we call it existed as a method of accessing the unconscious and allowing the unconscious to help the conscious achieve the changes and benefits desired, as long as we have wanted to change our behavior. These behaviors would not have been called hypnosis, although hypnotic in behavior until Braid in 1842.

The oldest written record of cures by ‘hypnosis’ was obtained from the Ebers Papyrus which gives us an idea about some of the theory and practice of Egyptian medicine before 1552 BC. In the Ebers Papyrus, a treatment was described in which the physician placed his hands on the head of the patient and claiming superhuman therapeutic powers gave forth with strange remedial utterances which were suggested to the patients and which resulted in cures. Both the Greeks and the Romans followed the practices of inducing sleep or relaxation state, Hippocrates, discussed the phenomenon saying, “the affliction suffered by the body, the soul sees quite well with the eyes shut.” Unfortunately early Christianity saw the practice as being unholy and linked with non Christian and banned religious practices and ultimately witchcraft.

In the 18th century the most influential figure in the development of hypnosis was Dr Frantz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), an Austrian physician who used magnets and metal frames to perform “passes” over the patient to remove “blockages” (as he saw them the causes of diseases) in the magnetic forces in the body and to induce a trance-like state. In 1775 he discovered that he could reach equally successful results by passing his hands over the patient, this he would do for hours at times and he named this method “animal magnetism”. In 1784, the Marquis de Puysegur a student of Dr Mesmer, discovered how to lead a client in to a deep trance state called “somnambulism”, using relaxation and calming techniques. The term “somnambulism” is still widely used among hypnotherapists today in reference to a deep hypnotic trance state and sleep-walking. This technique was used for many following decades by surgeons in France including Dr. Recamier who performed the first recorded operation without anesthesia in 1821. The Marquis de Puysegur described three cardinal features of this deep trance state or somnambulism. These were: Concentration of the senses on the operator, Acceptance of suggestion from the therapist, Amnesia for events in a trance. Over two hundred years later these three theories of Puysegur still stand.

These uses of mesmerism to facilitate pain free medical procedures were most famously employed by John Elliotson (1791 – 1868) in England and James Esdaile (1808 – 1859) in India.

In 1841 a Scottish optometrist, Dr James Braid (1775 – 1860) discovered by accident that a person fixating on an object could easily reach a trance state without the help of the mesmeric passes advocated by Dr Mesmer. He published his findings, refuted Mesmer’s work and inaccurately named his discovery “hypnotism” based on the Greek word “Hypnos” which means “sleep”. This was an unfortunately choice as hypnosis is not sleep, however the name has remained and mesmerism became hypnotism.

During Braid’s research into hypnosis he formed the following ideas, most of which still stand today:

1) That in skilled hands there is no great danger associated with hypnotic treatment and neither is there pain or discomfort.

2) That a good deal more study and research would be necessary to thoroughly understand a number of theoretical concepts regarding hypnosis.

3) That hypnosis is a powerful tool which should be limited entirely to trained professionals.

4) 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.

Auguste Ambrose Liebeault (1823 – 1904), and Hippolyte Bernheim (1840 – l919) founded the ‘Nancy School’, which was of great significance in the establishment of a hypnotherapy acceptable in many quarters. Liebeault is often described as a ‘simple country doctor’, but by offering to treat the peasants of Nancy without charge, he was able to amass a considerable experience and expertise with hypnosis. His first study of hypnosis began in 1860. In 1882 he obtained a cure for sciatica in a patient long treated without success by others.

Bernheim was a fashionable doctor in Paris, who began making regular visits to Nancy, and the two men became good friends and colleagues. Bernheim published the first part of his book, De la Suggestion, in 1884. The second part, La Therapeutic Suggestive, followed in 1886. The publication of these two books raised interest in Liebeault’s own book which had been published twenty years earlier and which at the time had only sold one copy.

In 1882 Jean-Martin Charcot (1835-1893) presented his findings on hypnotism to the French Academy of Sciences. Charcot believed that hypnosis was essentially hysteria and, being a neurologist, he was listened to. However Charcot had obtained much of his knowledge of hypnotism from his work with twelve hysterics at the Saltpetriere, and most of his conclusions on the subject was based on that tiny sample. The Nancy school opposed Charcot’s conclusion and won acceptance of hypnosis as an essentially normal consequence of suggestion.

Pierre Marie Félix Janet (1859 – 1947) a French neurologist and psychologist studied under Jean-Martin Charcot at the Psychological Laboratory in Pitié- Salpêtrière Hospital, in Paris. In several ways, he preceded Sigmund Freud. Many consider Janet, rather than Freud, the true founder of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. He first published the results of his research in his philosophy thesis in 1889 and in his medical thesis, L’état mental des hystériques, in 1892. He was one of the first persons to draw a connection between earlier events in the subject’s life and their present day trauma, and coined the words ‘dissociation’ and ”subconscious’s’. It was he who was largely responsible for the ‘dissociation’ theory of hypnosis. This initially opposed to the use of hypnosis until he discovered its relaxing effects and promotion of healing.

In 1898 Janet was appointed lecturer in psychology at the Sorbonne, and in 1902 he attained the chair of experimental and comparative psychology at the Collège de France, a position he held until 1936. He was a member of the Institut de France from 1913. In 1923 he wrote a definitive text, La médecine psychologique, on suggestion and in 1928-32, he published several definitive papers on memory. Whilst he did not publish much in English, his Harvard University lectures in 1908 were published as The Major Symptoms of Hysteria and he received an honorary doctorate from Harvard in 1936.

Josef Breuer (1842 – 1925) was an Austrian physician, born in Vienna whose works lay the foundation of psychoanalysis. He graduated from the Akademisches Gymnasium of Vienna in 1858 and then studied at the university for one year, before enrolling in the medical school of the University of Vienna. He passed his medical exams in 1867 and went to work as assistant to the internist Johann Oppolzer at the university. Josef Breuer discovered that, while hypnotised, some people could recall past events which seemed to help cure ailments they may have. He called this a “talking cure”. This was put to use by the German army in the First World War who treated shell shock through hypnosis.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the father of psycho-analysis, used hypnosis in his early work but became disillusioned by the concept. There is a belief that he did not have the patience necessary for hypnosis and was not a good hypnotist. He became involved in hypnosis between1883-1887 and practiced for some time and in 1885 Freud spent some time with Charcot, and was very impressed. He also translated into German Bernheim’s De la Suggestion.

In Vienna, Freud and his friend Joseph Breuer used hypnosis successfully in psychotherapy and in 1895, they produced their classic ‘Studies in Hysteria’ Freud had visited Nancy in 1889, and this visit had convinced him of the ‘powerful mental processes which nevertheless remain hidden from the consciousness of men’. He discovered the ‘positive transference’ when a female patient he had awakened from hypnosis threw her arms around his neck. On this Freud wrote ‘I was modest enough not to attribute the event to my own irresistible personal attraction, and I felt that I had now grasped the nature of the mysterious element that was at work behind hypnotism’.

Later however, he was to abandon hypnosis saying that it was ineffective, and concentrated on developing psychoanalysis. He focused his attention on analysis and free association, this “defection” was damaging to hypnosis particularly in the context of psychology as it created enduring prejudices and misconceptions which have only started to fade in recent times. With the development of psychoanalysis and the use of anesthetics, the interest in hypnosis declined.

Another precursor of modern hypnosis and self development was Dr. Emile Coué (1857 – 1926) who, at the end of the 19th century, was a believer in auto-suggestion and in the role of the hypnotist as a facilitator of change and healing by involving the total participation of the client in the hypnosis process. By 1887 Coué was developing the theory of auto-suggestion, which is perhaps the first time ego-strengthening (a mainstay of traditional occult and shamanistic practices) was used by the modern scientific community. He believed in the importance of the imagination in directing the will of the person, and performed experiments to study how making suggestions to people changed their actions. His well known self-help statement: “Day by day in every way I am getting better and better”, is still used in most self-improvement therapies.

1. Coue’s Laws of Suggestion: The Law of Concentrated Attention – “Whenever attention is concentrated on an idea over and over again, it spontaneously tends to realize itself”

2. The Law of Reverse Action – “The harder one tries to do something, the less chance one has of success”

3. The Law of Dominant Effect – “A stronger emotion tends to replace a weaker one”

Coue believed that he did not heal people himself but merely facilitated their own self-healing and he understood the importance of the subject’s participation in hypnosis, a forerunner of the belief that ‘There is no such thing as hypnosis, only self-hypnosis.’ Perhaps his most famous idea was that the imagination is always more powerful than the will. For example, if you ask someone to walk along a plank of wood on the floor, they can usually do it without wobbling. However, if you tell them to close their eyes and imagine the plank is suspended between two buildings hundreds of feet above the ground, they will always start to sway. It could be said that Coue also anticipated the placebo effect; a treatment of no intrinsic value, the power of which lies in suggestion (patients are told that they are being given a drug that will cure them).

Dr. Oskar Vogt developed the induction method of fractionation, and one of his students, Johannes Schultz, was later to introduce Autogenic Training considered by many to be a form of auto-hypnosis.

Ivan P. Pavlov (1849 – 1936), a Russian scientist, worked on the concepts and mechanisms of hypnosis. He is best known for his discovery of the conditioned reflex, known the Pavlovian Response. After World War 1, hypnosis and its therapeutic uses experienced a revival when psychiatrists realized that soldiers suffering traumas such as paralysis and amnesia, of a psychological rather than physical origin, responded well to hypnosis and were rapidly cured.

Milton Erickson (1932-1974) was a psychologist and psychiatrist who pioneered the art of indirect suggestion in hypnosis. He is considered by many to be the father of modern hypnosis. His methods bypassed the conscious mind through the use of both verbal and nonverbal pacing techniques including metaphor, confusion, imagery, surprise and humour; all were part of his arsenal of therapeutic tools. Erickson used hypnosis throughout his career to aid his clients’ progression and recovery. He was a great and fast observer of people and could rapidly build rapport with his clients. His hypnotic methods, nowadays called Ericksonian Hypnosis, added another dimension to modern hypnotherapy. His work, combined with the work of Satir and Perls, was the basis for Bandler and Grinder’s Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).

In 1952 Albert Mason was a young anaesthetist based at a hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex, England, which had, after World War II become a specialist hospital for plastic surgery. One day the surgeon he was working with, a Mr. Moore, had been upset when the skin graft that he had carried out on a teenage boy hadn’t worked, and indeed had made matters worse. The boy was suffering with an extremely bad case of ichthyosis. This is usually a hereditary condition in which the patient has fewer sweat and sebaceous glands than usual, which causes the skin to become dry and scaly. The boy’s body was almost covered in a thick, smelly, black layer of hard, dried skin which often oozed with a bloody serum. The youth, nicknamed “the boy with elephant skin” had suffered from this condition since birth and conventional medicine had failed to help him. This was the second time he had been given a skin graft operation but each time the new skin flared up like the rest of his body.

Possibly unaware of the medic thinking of the time, that hypnosis was not intended to be used to heal congenital diseases, Dr. Mason offered to help the boy. In front of a dozen skeptical doctors, he hypnotized the boy and gave him suggestions that his left arm would become clear. Five days later the blackened skin became crumbly and fell off to reveal underneath, reddened but otherwise normal skin. Ten days later the boy’s arm was clear. Dr. Mason proceeded to use hypnosis on the other parts of the boy’s body, achieving remarkable results and the case was reported in the British Medical Journal for 1952. Three years later Dr. Mason wrote a follow up article reporting that the results appeared to be permanent. Albert was besieged with people suffering from Ichthyosis, they came from miles around, but he was never able to reproduce the success he had had with the boy. Albert’s reasoning for this was that by then he ‘knew’ that Ichthyosis could not be treated with hypnotism and this was either being communicated to the patient somehow, or the belief was inhibiting his success.

In 1952, the British Parliament passed the ‘The Hypnotism Act’. It was intended to protect the public against potentially dangerous practices in stage hypnotism. Hypnotism is a powerful tool in the hands of properly trained doctors and therapists by many believe it is far too potent to mess around with for entertainment. Throughout history there have been public demonstrations of hypnosis, with the presenters often following their shows with private consultations. However, the reputation of hypnotism was eventually compromised by numerous fakes employing crude routines and paid stooges.

Interest in hypnotism was revived with the success of an American stage hypnotist, Ormond McGill. As well as pioneering hypnosis as TV entertainment, McGill wrote what is now known as the bible of stage hypnosis, his books The New Encyclopaedia of Stage Hypnotism and Professional Stage Hypnotism. In the UK, the revival of stage hypnotism was accompanied by a heightened concern about the possible dangers of stage hypnosis, and the 1952 Hypnotism Act was brought in.

In 1994 a panel of experts was set up by the Home Office to examine any evidence of possible harm to people taking part in public entertainments involving hypnotism, and to review the effectiveness of the law governing hypnotism for entertainment. Publication of the expert panel’s report was announced in parliament in 1995, which concluded that “there was no evidence of serious risk to participants in stage hypnosis, and that any risk which does exist is much less significant than that involved in many other activities.”

Hypnosis was officially approved as a tool in medicine by the British Medical Association (BMA) in 1955.

In the USA the Council on Medical health of the American Medical Association accepted the use of hypnotherapy in 1958.

William J. Bryan Jr. (1924 – 1977) a medical doctor, a minister of religion, and an attorney, founded the American Institute of Hypnosis and became its first president, on May 4, 1955. It was founded to be an educational body devoted to promoting all the phases of hypnosis in field of medicine and dentistry. In so doing, the Institute was founded to fill a gap that existed in that area. The Institute had members from the field of medicine, dentistry, psychology, psychiatry, theology and other professional people. Its growth was rapid and it become the world’s most respected educational institution devoted solely to teaching hypnosis in medicine and dentistry to physicians and dentists all over the world.

In the 1970’s a discovery was made in the field of self improvement and the harnessing of inner resources. Although it is not directly related to hypnosis, many of its techniques can be used with hypnosis or as an aid to hypnotic therapy. This technique was created by Richard Brandler, an information scientist, and John Grindler, a linguistic professor. They named it Neuro-Linguistic Programming. It came about, in large part, by its two founders studying, understanding and developing the methods used by Milton H. Erickson in psychotherapy. NLP is a tool for improvement, using our neurology and thinking patterns (neuro), our way of expressing our thoughts and their influence on us (linguistic) and our patterns of behavior and goals setting (programming). It has been described as the ultimate software for the brain.


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