Did you know that hypnotherapy is one of the oldest psychotherapies in history?

Although perceived as being a wacky new therapy by some and still very much misconceived amongst its critics, hypnosis was used in Ancient Greece and Egypt over 4000 years ago.


In more recent times Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) (who lends his name to the word ‘mesmerised’) achieved amazing success with clients in the 1700s although he believed ‘animal magnetism’ and its ability to draw out ’emotional crises’, was the explanation. His dramatic inductions included wearing robes and using a wand which did nothing for the reputation of hypnosis despite his successes. Scientific investigations concluded that it was belief and imaginations, rather than magnetism, that accounted for his results.

Here’s a brief history of the use of hypnosis from the 1800’s through to the present time:

Armand-Marie-Jacques de Chastenet, Marquis de Puységur (1751-1825)practised animal magnetism, also called mesmerism, but he noticed in one of his clients what he felt was a sleeping trance state similar to the state of sleep-walking called ‘somnambulism’. This influenced others in the field who also continued to pursue this state.

In 1791 a boy was in hospital for an operation on a tumour. No anaesthesia was available and so his mother sat beside him and told him a story. It was so interesting that her son became totally entranced by it and felt no pain. The surgery was successful and many years later the boy published the story. The boy’s name was Jacob Grimm and the story was Snow White.

Professor of Medicine, John Elliotson (1791-1868) (the person who introduced the stethoscope to England), championed the use of hypnosis in the 1800s but he was ridiculed by a disbelieving medical establishment, especially Thomas Wakley, then editor of the Lancet. Wakley had initially supported Elliotson and mesmerism but, possibly concerned about a backlash amongst medical professionals which threatened the authority of the new medical journal, he did an about turn and experiments challenged the animal magnetism theory.

Scottish eye doctor James Braid (1795-1860) was fascinated by how someone following a swinging pocket watch would find their eyes tired. He later realised that there were many other ways to induce a trance. He incorrectly thought hypnosis was a form of sleep and named the phenomenon ‘hypnosis’ after the Greek word for sleep, ‘hypnos’. Later, realising hypnosis was not a form of sleep, he tried to introduce another name, ‘monoideism’ but by then the term ‘hypnosis’ was too widely used. Braid was keen to establish a more scientific theory and dismissed magnetism in favour of focused attention and suggestion.

Working in India, a British surgeon called James Esdaile (1808-1859)anaesthetised his patients using only trance states. He had amazing success with hundreds of operations. Despite the obvious success of his methods, he too was ridiculed by the medical establishment.

Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault (1823-1904) was largely influenced by Braid. He formed the Nancy School which favoured focused attention and suggestionSigmund Freud visited and was influenced by Liébeault. Émile Coué (1857-1926) studied with Liébeault more extensively, as did Hippolyte Bernheim (1840-1919). The Nancy School became embroiled in fierce debate with the Paris School.

Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893) was a French Professor of anatomical pathology. He believed hysteria was a hereditary neurological disorder. This was the hallmark of his Paris School. He sought to induce hysterical states in clients and received a mixed response from a sceptical medical audience. Charcot taught hypnosis to Freud.

Unlike his predecessors, Coué believed he did not heal people, but rather, they healed themselves. He pioneered the use of self-help methods such as autosuggestion – something popular these days, such as positive affirmations (e.g. ‘every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better’) and self-hypnosis to train the unconscious mind to think differently through repetition. Most modern hypnotists (with the exception of stage hypnotists) act as ‘facilitators’ rather than all-powerful showmen and women.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) used hypnosis extensively in his own work before devising his own psychoanalytic therapy. Freud’s insights into the unconscious mind and defence mechanisms are still widely used in hypnotherapy. Freud translated some of Bernheim’s writings on hypnotism into German. His first book, ‘Studies on Hysteria’ (1895) which was co-authored with Josef Breuer, popularised the concept of hypnotic regression therapy.

Clark Hull (1884-1952) was a scientific researcher of hypnosis. He published Hypnosis and Suggestibility in 1933. His experimental work rejected the idea that hypnosis was, or was related to, sleep. Hull promoted behavioural theories of hypnosis, based on suggestion and motivation rather than the hypnotic ‘state’.

Milton Erickson, MD (1901-1980) had, it is said, incredible success with his clients. He developed a form of hypnosis that utilises the client’s thoughts, interests, fears, etc. to improve therapy by stepping into the client’s world and walking a mile in their shoes. The approach used was always tailored to the individual client. Erickson’s main contribution to clinical practice is the use of indirect methods that bypass resistance.

Stanford University professor, Ernest Hilgard (1904-2001), worked with André Weitzenhoffer in the 1950s to devise the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scales. Hilgard, who specialised in pain management, developed the ‘neo-dissociationist’ theory of hypnosis. In this theory, a ‘hidden observer’ is created in the mind during hypnosis. Part of the evidence for this theory was provided in experiments where participants could observe their own pain without suffering.

Social psychologist Theodore Sarbin (1911-2005) is well known in psychology for his ‘role theory’. Put very simply, people play particular roles, rather like actors. He believed that hypnotherapy clients were playing a particular role that was expected of them (rather than being in a particular ‘state’, for example). He was a prolific researcher of hypnosis and developed, along with Joseph Friedlander, an early hypnotic susceptibility scale which influenced later Stanford scales, called the Friedlander-Sarbin ScaleCognitive-behavioural theories of hypnosis would later draw on this work.

Martin Orne (1927-2000) was professor emeritus in the Department of Psychiatry and adjunct professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania at the time of his death. Orne dismissed the idea that age regression necessarily revived childhood memories, or that adult modes of thinking could be substituted from them. He also showed, in a classic experiment along with Frederick Evans, using antisocial behaviour as an example, that behaviours were actually a response to demand characteristics in research (participants pre-empting researcher expectations and steering results) rather than as a result of hypnosis per se. Other experimental worked showed that hypnosis did not permit people to go beyond the usual limits of human performance. He also researched false memory and cautioned practitioners about the risks of false recall, including in forensic hypnosis.

Theodore Barber (1927-2005) was a prolific researcher. Following Sarbin, he developed a nonstate cognitive behavioural theory of hypnosis that concentrated on psychological processes that would be familiar outside of hypnosis, including imagination, motivation and expectation.

These days many medical doctors are receptive to complementary clinical hypnosis. Most refer patient’s to qualified hypnotherapists as few have the time they would need to spend with individual patients. Hypnosis is used in the psychological professions too, as well as in business and sport (e.g. to improve confidence and motivation), and for personal change, e.g. tackling weight, smoking, phobias, anxiety, stress, etc.


Further reading:

Gauld, A. (1995) A History of Hypnotism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Waterfield, R. (2004) Hidden Depths: A History of Hypnosis. New York: Macmillan

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