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A History of Hypnosis

A History of Hypnosis

Unlike the majority of comparable therapies, hypnotherapy measures its history not in years or decades but centuries. Therefore, if the provenance of a therapy is to be determined by its longevity, hypnotherapy has stood the test of time.

Throughout much of that history, hypnotherapy has been hampered by the absence of a single theory to explain the medium through which it works – hypnosis. The usually acknowledged forerunner of modern hypnotherapy, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), believed in the existence of a universal fluid – animal magnetism – an imbalance of which in the human body caused illness. He, and others trained by him, sought to control the distribution of this fluid, restoring balance, and health, to those who sought his help. Mesmer was careful to confirm whether any given presenting problem were organic or functional, and worked with the latter, functional psychosomatic illnesses; this same caution is observed by competent hypnotherapists today. He was convinced that a successful cure might only be achieved when a patient experienced a crisis, typified by convulsions and the like. In 1784, a Royal Commission in France, where Mesmer was then resident, decided against the existence of magnetic fluid and attributed Mesmer’s undoubted successes to his manipulation of a patient’s imagination. (Buranelli 1976)

In an age not familiar with the power of suggestion alone, outside of a religious context, the significance of the commission’s findings was overlooked. But if there were no universal fluid, with nothing physical being transmitted between Mesmerist and subject, related phenomena must be psychological in origin. The blind regained their sight, for instance, through the power of imagination and suggestion, rather than animal magnetism. Since Mesmer would not allow his theory to be displaced by such a concept, and the commission discounted it, the emergence of modern psychology and hypnotherapy was postponed. Discredited by the findings of the commission and other enquiries, and the bizarre nature in which he chose to conduct therapy sessions, Mesmer eventually returned to his native Austria.

These events, along with the convulsions of the French Revolution, Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic Europe, scattered Mesmer’s followers throughout Europe and abroad. British doctors who advocated the use of Mesmerism within the medical profession fell foul of the medical and scientific establishment.

John Elliotson (1791-1868) was obliged to resign his post as Professor of Surgery of University College, London. James Braid (1795-1860) who substituted the word “Hypnotism” for Mesmerism was refused leave to read a paper on the subject to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. James Esdaile (1808-1859) who performed over 300 major surgical operations in India using hypnosis as the anaesthetic was denied access to the medical press to publish his findings.

The often legitimate suspicions aroused by the extravagant claims and behaviour of mesmerists and hypnotists – some of whom exploited, and exploit, related phenomena for “entertainment” – relegated the legitimate applications of hypnosis to the fringe of respectability. The advent of chemical anaesthetics and growth of the drugs industry impeded the study and use of hypnosis in medicine (although it was taught by National College personnel in the 1990’s at the Institute of Advanced Nursing Education at the Royal College of Nursing). Despite sporadic revivals of interest, such as after and during the First and Second World Wars when short term psychotherapy was needed, training in hypnotherapy remained largely in the hands of “lay” colleges of varying quality.

Mesmer’s student, de Puysegur (1751-1825), had quietly relegated the importance of the crisis in favour of the trance-like state typical of his therapy practice. Modern therapy, too, recognises the significance of the trance and, when we speak of somebody being “mesmerised”, we do not suppose that person to be convulsed. Although emotion may be released – most particularly when the technique of hypno-analysis is used, based on the Freudian view that repressed material may be recovered from the unconscious mind – it is a sense of calm detachment, rather than crisis, which typifies the great majority of hypnotherapy sessions.
(In much the same way as chemical agents had served to displace hypnosis in the practice of medicine, so Freudian Psycho-analysis tended to displace it in psychotherapy. Even a, relatively, contemporary view could almost have been written by Freud himself. No National College graduate would recognise the following description from a psycho-analyst œ… the hypnotic subject is being directed to assume a state of mind in which mature discriminations are excluded and childish dependence upon the hypnotist is encouraged… (Kovel 1976, p 273).)

A typical modern hypnotherapy session, influenced by research and refinement in numerous countries since Mesmer’s day, comprises induction, treatment strategy, and termination (Mallet 1989). In the induction, the therapist may, for example, speak slowly to the subject about the subject’s becoming imaginatively involved in an experience of focussed awareness, whilst peripheral distractions fade – hence the subject may, with eyes closed, concentrate upon the progressive relaxation of his/her muscles to the exclusion of external events and stimuli. A good subject, well-motivated, optimistic about the therapy and confident in the therapist (criteria in which he/she may be educated in and out of hypnosis) is then ready to engage in any therapy intended to change behaviour, thought or feeling. This means that virtually all, if not all, psychological techniques may be delivered via the medium of hypnosis. Because imaginative involvement, selective attention, and suspension of the critical process are all characteristic of the hypnotic state, hypnotherapy may often be the treatment of choice. The subject may move forward or backward in time, rehearse coping techniques, learn to correct types of thinking and feeling prejudicial to emotional well-being, and behaviour prejudicial to physical health, confront, but not exaggerate, life’s problems whilst reappraising its potential, develop the ability to use self-hypnosis and perform “homework” tasks emphasising modern hypnotherapy’s stress upon a subject’s active involvement in the desired therapeutic outcome. At the termination, cues for subsequent positive thoughts, feelings or behaviour (post-hypnotic suggestions) may be introduced or re-iterated. Finally, the subject is gently returned from what has been described as an altered state of consciousness – the hypnotic state – to the everyday state of consciousness with its diffuse and distracting stimuli. Now discussion takes place (possibly an extension of dialogue whilst the subject was in hypnosis) and the hypnotic experience is examined in order to inform and enhance future therapy sessions. In this way the therapist defers to the proper source of expertise and control which lies not with the therapist, but the subject.

Given a comfortable environment, a sympathetic and empathetic therapist who inspires confidence, and the subject’s optimism about a realistic outcome, that outcome may be achieved. Because hypnotherapy is so fundamental, and universal, even if not recognised as such, it should not be withdrawn from the public domain, either in terms of training or availability as therapy. Rather, we should be aiming to widen such training and availability. Whilst hypnosis can stand alone as a form of therapy or form an adjunct to any profession, it should become the property of none.

Virtually any book on the subject deals with the various theories of hypnosis. Rowley (Rowley 1986) offers seven such theories and Waxman (Waxman 1989) offers ten. Essentially, the debate centres upon whether or not hypnosis is a special state. State theorists might argue that the subject’s appearance and subjective reports of the hypnotic experience alone would support the theory. Non-state theorists might argue that hypnotic behaviour is the result of motivation, attitude and expectancy resulting in the subject’s willingness to follow the therapist’s suggestions. Those of you who are concerned to know how hypnosis occurs and how subjects may benefit as a consequence, might be interested to study Rossi’s views on the subject (Rossi 1986). Also, both the Editorial Commentary (Fellows 1993) and leading main paper (Sarbin 1993) in a respected specialist journal have views on this vexed subject.

[Whilst leaving the reader to follow up the various theories of hypnosis, one “accidental” discovery which resulted in the formulation of the Neodissociation Theory (Hilgard 1977) is worth recounting here.

The prominent American theorist/therapist Ernest Hilgard was demonstrating hypnotic phenomena to a group of students in the 1970s. Using a blind volunteer, Hilgard induced hypnotic deafness, telling the subject that he would only be able to hear when Hilgard placed a hand on his shoulder. (Is this reminiscent of anything you have seen when watching stage and television hypnotists?) The demonstration went well, and the subject became so bored when he could neither see nor hear, that he occupied his mind with a problem in statistics.

One of the other students wanted confirmation that the volunteer genuinely heard nothing, so Hilgard formulated a question. He asked that if some part of the subject had the ability to hear, then he would raise his index finger. To everybody’s amazement, the finger rose. Hilgard, as surprised as everybody else, then put his hand on the volunteer’s shoulder – so removing the hypnotic deafness – and asked what he remembered.

The volunteer remembered being bored and thinking about the problem in statistics, then wondering why his index finger was lifting. First telling the subject that, again, he would be able to hear nothing, including the subject’s own voice, Hilgard asked to speak to the part which had listened and caused the finger to raise. That “part” had heard everything that had taken place, and reported accordingly. This, dissociated, part was dubbed the “Hidden Observer” (Hebb 1982).

The possible implications, and applications, of the Hidden Observer phenomenon remain a subject worthy of ongoing study.]

Both I and the National College view inclines towards the Suggestion Theory (Waxman 1989, pp 20-25). Therefore, we are to be found amongst the ranks of the State theorists, whilst defining hypnosis in a general way for working purposes unlikely to put us at odds with many researchers, Hilgard included: … a condition of profound relaxation which you allow yourself to enter, during which time there is an altered state of conscious awareness.”

The permissive character of this working definition is important. It is believed that there exists a mechanism, know as the critical factor or critical censor which monitors all suggestion. Hence, were any suggestions unsuitable or distasteful (i.e., inappropriate, ambivalent, or in any way threatening) the conscious mind would be alerted, and the subject may leave hypnosis. Because we accept hypnosis as being a conscious, albeit altered conscious, state, and because of the operation of the critical factor, such reassurances may help overcome the most commonly expressed reservations about hypnosis.

Similarly, the references quoted below, should provide useful additional information for anyone who wants to understand hypnosis in greater detail. However, all books and articles have their deficiencies, not least the fact that they become out-dated by contemporary research. In addition to obtaining books, therefore, students may find it useful to subscribe to specialist journals to keep abreast of on-going research and theoretical wrangling.  suggest the following:

Contemporary Hypnosis John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Journal of the British Society of 1 Oldlands Way, Bognor Regis, West Sussex, PO22 9SA
Experimental & Clinical 01243 843335
Hypnosis e-mail:

European Journal of Clinical The Editor, EJCH, 27 Gloucester Place, London, W1U 8HU
Hypnosis Tel: 0207 486 3939 e-mail:

Hypnos P O Box 104 5-693 24 Degerfors, Sweden
Swedish Journal of Hypnosis

International Journal of Taylor & Francis Ltd., Rankine Rd., Basingstoke, Hants, RG24 8PR
Clinical & Experimental 01256 813000 (Official publication
Hypnosis of the Society for Clinical & Experimental Hypnosis

The Therapist (A general magazine, Hypnotherapy being one of the topics regularly covered.)
Journal of the European Therapy 7 Chapel Rd, Worthing, West Sussex, BN11 1EG
Studies Institute Tel: 01903 233541
NB: Readers should be aware that the content of journals may be affected by their ownership and/or the personal inclinations of their editorship.

Also, no matter how wide your reading, you may wish to research a particular topic via numerous sources. For details of an excellent information service we suggest you contact: The British Library, Boston Spa, Wetherby, W Yorks, LS23 7BQ. Switchboard: 0870 444 1500

Buranelli, V (1976) The Wizard From Vienna. London: Peter Owen Ltd

Fellows, B J (1993) Whither hypnosis? Contemporary Hypnosis Vol 10 No1, ii-iii

Hebb, D O (1982) Understanding psychological man. Psychology Today Vol 16, 52-53

Hilgard, E R (1977) Divided Consciousness. New York, Wiley

Kovel, J (1976) A Complete Guide to Therapy. London, Pelican, 1976

Mallet, J E (1989) Hypnosis and Stress. In G S Everly (ed) A Clinical Guide to the Treatment of the Human Stress Response. New York, Plenum

Rossi, E L (1986) The Psychobiology of Mind Body Healing. New York, Norton

Rowley, D T (1986) Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy. London, Croom Helm

Sarbin, T R (1993) Whither hypnosis? Contemporary Hypnosis Vol 10 No 1, 1-9

Waxman, D (1989) Hartland’s Medical and Dental Hypnosis (3rd ed). London, Bailliere Tindall

Shaun Brookhouse

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