The History Of Hypnosis

Thisis an overview of hypnosis history and when it was first used in the healing professions and how the techniques changed over the years.

Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), an Austrian physician, is widely acknowledged as the 'Father of Hypnosis'. He believed that there was a quasi-magnetic fluid in the very air we breathe and that the bodys' nerves somehow absorbed this fluid. As a doctor, his main concern was how to effectively treat his patients, and he considered disease to be caused via a blockage of the circulation of this magnetic fluid in the blood and the nervous system. Curing disease would, in his view, involve correcting the circulation of this liquid.

Initially, he used a magnet, and later his hand, which was passed over the diseased body in an attempt to unblock the magnetic flow. The hand (and later the eyes) was believed to unblock the fluid by increasing its amount and flow as his hand passed over the affected area. The term 'animal magnetism' was born, and the procedure referred to as Mesmerism.

The Marquis de Puysegur (1751-1825), a pupil of Mesmers, used 'animal magnetism' on a young peasant who entered into a state of sleep while still being able to communicate with Puysegur and respond to his suggestions. When the peasant 'awoke' he could remember nothing of what had occurred. Puysegur thought that the will of the person and the operators' actions were important factors in the success or failure of the 'magnetism', in other words psychological influences were extremely important in the whole process.

John Elliotson (1791-1868), an English physician holding a chair at University College London was disbarred from the medical profession as a direct result of his demonstrations of animal magnetism, while James Esdaile, a surgeon was operating on his patients using 'mesmeric sleep' as his anesthetic of choice in the 1840s. The medical profession was therefore divided on its opinion of the usefulness of mesmerism.

It wasn't until 1843 that the terms 'hypnotism' and 'hypnosis' were coined by James Braid (1795-1860), a Scottish surgeon working in Manchester. He found that some experimental subjects could go into a trance if they simply fixated their eyes on a bright object, like a silver watch.

He believed that some sort of neurophysiological process was involved and that hypnosis was very useful in disorders where no organic origin to the problem could be identified (e.g. headaches, skin problems etc.) He showed that a single stimulus (e.g. a word or an object) was enough to re-hypnotize his subjects. No-one knew how the process of hypnosis 'worked', though there were several theories put forward:

1. Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893), a leading neurologist of his day and head of the neurological clinic at the famous Saltpetiere in Paris, used hypnosis to treat hysterics. He concluded that hypnosis was an induced seizure when his hysteric patients showed epileptic-like symptoms when they were in a trance.

2. Hippolyte Bernheim (1837-1919), a professor of medicine at the University of Nancy regarded hypnosis as a special form of sleeping where the subject's attention is focused upon the suggestions made by the hypnotist. He therefore emphasized the psychological nature of the process of hypnosis.

3. By the 1920s, hypnosis became the focus of experimental investigation by psychologists like Clark L. Hull (1884-1952), who demystified hypnosis saying that it was essentially a normal part of human nature (1933). The important factor was the subject's imagination - some people were more responsive or suggestible' than others to hypnosis.


Support for the teaching of the therapeutic use of hypnosis in medicine finally came in 1955 from the British Medical Association, who was closely followed in 1958 by the American Medical Association. Today, an International Society of Hypnosis coordinates and assesses standards and practices of professional hypnotists across the world. Hypnosis is currently used in dentistry, medicine and psychology and has proved helpful if used alongside more conventional treatments and therapies.

It has received a 'bad press' of late, mainly due to the unscrupulous practices of some stage hypnotists, but its professional use in treating both physical and mental disorders continues to thrive. Now it is generally seen as a form of 'relaxation', and it is possible to teach individuals how to hypnotize themselves (via progressive relaxation techniques). It is widely used in the treatment of addictions (e.g. in aiding smoking cessation), but should always be conducted by a professional in a controlled setting.

Misuse of hypnosis can have dire consequences, and may be especially harmful in the treatment of people who were sexually abused as children (as is the case in False Memory Syndrome). Care should always be taken when hypnosis is to be employed and patients should be 'brought out' of the hypnotic trance before they leave the clinic. Historically, the use of 'trances' is much older than Mesmers' findings but it was the Austrian physician who first brought the process to the attention of the medical community.

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