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The History of Modern Hypnosis


Hypnosis, Hypnotism, Mesmerism, Neuro Linguistic Programming. However one may wish to label it there remains, even in these days of psychological enlightenment, an undying mystery to the art and science behind the operation and use of natural trance states.

The phenomena widely known as hypnosis has existed in one form or another for thousands of years (perhaps even for hundreds of thousands of years). World history is full of stories of people using hypnotic trance states particularly in acts of worship. Significant evidence exists of hypnotic trances being used amongst a plurality of ancient peoples from the Hebrews to the ancient Irish druids who used hypnotic trance to heighten their spiritual awareness and to reach new states of mind and of course the ancient Egyptians who used hypnotic trance for medicinal purposes as long ago as 1500BC as evidenced in the Ebers Papyrus.

Yet despite the lengthy history and the familiarity of most of the population with the concept of hypnosis, it remains one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented psychological phenomena in the world. Shrouded in mystery, often accused of being a dangerous or sacrilegious practice, a mere party trick or a worthless pseudo-science; hypnosis is in dire need of a public relations makeover.

In order to rescue hypnosis from the from the mist of mystery it is important to understand something about the development of modern hypnosis. As such I aim to provide a very brief history of hypnosis.

Modern hypnotism has its roots in the works of the so called magnetists, who worked on the premise that by utilising the power of magnets and magnetic forces, known as magnetism, they could cure an almost endless range of ailments. One student of magnetism was the German Dr Franz Anton Mesmer (1734 to 1815) whose work on ‘animal magnetism’ would profoundly affect the development of hypnosis. In fact so significant is the impact of Dr Mesmer that is name has given rise to the words mesmerism and mesmerised, which indicates an individual feeling a strong or spellbinding fascination of something or someone.

Dr Mesmer became famous for his ‘irregular’ yet highly effective treatment of individuals using trances which he would induce and combine with making passes over the subject with his hands. Very little was understood about the trances and the healing process was left simply to the trance itself with little input form Mesmer after induction. Mesmer’s techniques were famed all over Paris for their dramatic effects of remedying mental and physical illnesses without recourse to the savage surgical procedures which existed at the time. In fact so popular was Dr Mesmer’s practice that he was required eventually to begin mass inductions of up to 20 people at a time in order to keep up with demand for his services.

However despite the undeniable success of Dr Mesmer’s practice many doubts were raised about his works and the scientific community in Paris at the time viewed Dr Mesmer’s works with a deep scepticism. A commission established by King Louis XVI in 1784, which was comprised a number of respected intellectuals of the day including Benjamin Franklin, discredited many of Dr Mesmer’s theories, which identified the phenomena as the work of magnetic fluids, yet could not challenge the healing benefits of the phenomena.

Dr Mesmer’s reputation never fully recovered from the commissions reports, however his work on animal magnetism no matter how theoretically flawed continued to fascinate or ‘mesmerise’ many scientists.

Indeed it was one of Mesmer’s students, Marquis Chastenet de Puységur, who continued the investigation of the effects of magnetism. It was de Puységur who coined the term somnambulism, which is the sleep like yet active state found in hypnosis and in sleepwalkers! De Puységur’s proved a lot less controversial than that of his teacher, however he did believe that in a somnambulistic trance an individual could hold powers of thought transference and clairvoyance!

Then in the city of Calcutta in British India in the 1840’s a Scottish surgeon named Dr James Esdaile began a remarkable experiment in the practical humanitarian application of hypnosis or mesmerism in the course of conducting surgery on his patients. Dr Edaile would use a process he termed, mesmeric anaesthesia, to reduce the physical pain of his patients and thus carry out his procedures with his patients in a calm and controlled state. It must be remembered that at this time surgery was still carried out with little or no attempt at pain reduction, and indeed many medical professionals believed that pain was a necessary part of healing and so this development of pain free surgery was of itself controversial.

Dr Esdaile became very well known in Calcutta and was like Dr Mesmer in Paris almost a century before in great demand for his services. However despite his success in using hypnotic or mesmeric anaesthesia, Dr Esdaile’s methods were overtaken by the use of chemical anaesthesia which came into use at around the same time. Essentially it was easier to prescribe a drug than to learn to hypnotise a patient and thus the medical use of hypnosis was set back.

It was another Scottish surgeon, Dr James Braid, who coined the term hypnotism! The term is derived from the Greek for sleep and is largely responsible for many people to this day confusing hypnosis with sleep. In fact Dr Braid himself was extremely unhappy with the term, and the incorrect connection to sleep, and so he attempted to change it to the more accurate if less catchy monoideaism, meaning one single idea(ism).

Dr Braid contributed greatly to the professionalism of the study of hypnosis printing perhaps the first ever book of hypnotism, Neuropnology in 1843. His work struck out much of the understanding of the mesmerists and magnetists that went before him and he became the first true hypnotist; understanding that hypnosis was a psychological phenomena and not the result of invisible forces.

Then in France in 1884 Dr. Ambroise-August Liebeault found that through using hypnotic trance on his patients he could treat psychological problems using simple suggestion. This discovery leads us almost to the modern understanding of hypnosis. Before this hypnosis was largely used by surgeons but now it was being utilised in the treatment of psychological issues. Jean-Martin Charcot then began to endorse the use of hypnotism for the treatment of hysteria.

Dr Charcot began to give public exhibitions of the effect of hypnotic techniques on psychiatric patients suffering from what was then termed hysteria. He was able to undertake experiments in disassociation from traumatic events and the uncovering of memories! Techniques which are well known to hypnotherapists today.

Amongst the many students who attended Dr Charcot’s demonstrations was the man who would later go on to found psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. So impressed with hypnosis and hypnotic techniques was Dr Freud that he dedicated much of his early career to experimenting with the application of hypnosis in the treatment of psychological conditions. Even after abandoning hypnosis to the discipline of psychoanalysis Dr Freud was still in his later years of the opinion that psychoanalysis could be advanced through the application of hypnotic suggestion.

However it fell to two American hypnotists, Dave Elman and Milton Erickson to lay the foundations of truly modern hypnosis.

Dave Elman has given his name to the ‘Elman induction’ which is one of the most reliable ‘rapid inductions’ ever invented. His induction revolutionised the process of hypnosis for therapy as it allowed a hypnotist to induce trance to a significant depth within a few minutes as opposed to the lengthy and unreliable inductions which went before! His book ‘hypnotherapy’ is also required reading for any student of hypnosis!

Milton Erickson was the founding president of the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis and his extensive practice of clinical hypnosis has provided numerous insights into the language of the subconscious mind and inspired the inventors of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. His approaches to hypnotism are still much studied a copied by hypnotists the world over and his ideas are still being developed to this day.

The advances of hypnosis over the last two centuries are unmistakable and yet hypnosis is still a mystery to most of the population often treated with utter suspicion or disbelief. This is unfortunately a problem which hypnotists themselves need to combat if they are going to ensure that the art and science of hypnosis are available to future generations.



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