A Brief History of Hypnosis

Hypnos, God of Sleep... allegedly...

From around 2000 to 1000 BC, the ancient Egyptians used ‘Sleep Temples’ – places used for healing a variety of ailments, usually psychosomatic. The treatment involved chanting (psychologist Emile Coué used a similar technique, as we shall see) or placing the patient into a trance-like state and analysing their dreams to determine treatment. Meditation and prayer  were also part of the process, involving relaxation techniques which provided the recipient with an opportunity for introspection and to restore energy to mind and body.

The Romans borrowed the idea of ‘hypnos’ (sleep) healing from the Greeks. Hypnos was the god of sleep in Greek mythology and also the personification of sleep. He lived in a cave in the Underworld, where no light was cast by the Sun or the Moon. The earth in front of the cave was said to be full of poppies and other sleep-inducing plants. The river of forgetfulness flowed through the cave.

Father Johann Josep Gassner (1727-1779) was by 1770 a noted exorcist. While a Catholic priest, he gained celebrity status by claiming to ‘cast out devils’ and cure the sick by means of prayer while they lay prostate on the floor. He was attacked as an impostor, but the Bishop of Regensburg believed in his honesty and he was allowed to continue his mission.

Gassner’s methods have been linked to a special form of the hypnotic process – it was certainly dramatic – and he has been described as a predecessor of the modern hypnotist. His reputation was formidable, something that undoubtedly helped his success rate. Physicians were often amongst those who came to witness his ‘miraculous’ cures. one of those was Dr. Franz Mesmer, who surmised that the cures were something to do with the properties of the metal in Gassner’s crucifix, which he placed on the head of each supplicant and seemed to have an immediate calming effect – an observation that obsessed Mesmer for the rest of his life. This was the cause of a dispute between Gassner and Mesmer that remained at the centre of psychotherapy for the next two centuries.

Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) was a German physician who also had an interest in astronomy. He theorised that there was a natural energetic transference that occurred between all animated and inanimate objects that he called Animal Magnetism. The theory attracted a wide following from around 1780 to 1850, and continues to have some influence today. By 1775, Mesmer was treating patients using magnets. He would have them holding on to metal rods connected to magnets in a barrel of water, supposedly the medium by which the magnetic fluids would enter the body. Unfortunately, the magnets were not having any effect at all – it was expectation and suggestion that was working the real magic. Nonetheless, Mesmer’s demonstrations became extremely popular and soon attracted the attention of the authorities.

Above: Mesmers ‘Animal Magnetism’ device complete with digram and instructions. Mesmer’s statue in Meersburg, Baden-Wurttemburg, Germany.

In 1784, King Louis XVI appointed a Royal Commission to investigate. It included four members of the Faculty of Medicine and five additional commissioners from the Royal Academy of Sciences to investigate animal magnetism. Another member the Commission was someone who had a great interest in the newly discovered electricity and magnetism, the American ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin. The commission conducted a series of experiments aimed not at determining whether Mesmer’s treatment worked, but whether he had discovered a new physical fluid. It concluded there was no evidence of such a fluid – whatever benefits the treatment produced were attributed to imagination.

In 1785 Mesmer left Paris, driven into exile after the investigations on animal magnetism. By 1790 he had returned to Vienna to settle the estate of his deceased wife Maria Anna. Mesmer continued to practice in Frauenfeld, Switzerland for a number of years and died in Meersburg, Germany in 1815, where his statue stands today, overlooking the lake.

José Custódio de Faria (1756-1819) more often known as the Abbé Faria, was a Catholic monk and a pioneer of the scientific study of hypnotism. But unlike Mesmer’s magnetism, Faria understood that suggestion and autosuggestion were the real forces at work. In the early 19th century, Abbé Faria introduced hypnosis to Paris.

He also believed that what he termed nervous sleep belonged to the natural order. From his earliest magnetising séances in 1814, he boldly developed his theory that nothing came from the magnetiser – everything emanated from the subject, generated in their imagination.

Scottish surgeon James Braid (1795-1860) became the first, in 1840, to coin the word hypnosis, after the Greek hypnos, meaning sleep. He was a significant, important and influential pioneer of hypnotism and hypnotherapy and is regarded by many as the first genuine hypnotherapist and the father of modern hypnotism.

“Although Braid believed that hypnotic suggestion was a valuable remedy in functional nervous disorders, he did not regard it as a rival to other forms of treatment, nor wish in any way to separate its practice from that of medicine in general. He held that whoever talked of a “universal remedy” was either a fool or a knave: similar diseases often arose from opposite pathological conditions, and the treatment ought to be varied accordingly.” (John Milne Bramwell, 1910.)

James Esdaile, M.D., (1808–1859) was another a Scottish surgeon, who served for twenty years with the East India Company. He is a notable figure in the history of Hypnotism. He performed over 300 operations – including amputations – using hypno-anaesthesia.

In 1830, he was appointed as Civil Assistant Surgeon to the British East India Company and was based in Calcutta, Bengal, then capital of British India.

On 4 April 1845, Esdaile performed his first ‘mesmeric procedure.’ By his own admission, he had never seen a mesmeric act, but given the level of pain of this specific patient, and the understanding that he had gained from what he had read, it occurred to him that mesmerism might be of great value. In a short time, Esdaile gained a wide reputation amongst the European and indigenous communities for painless surgery.

By 1846, Esdaile’s work with mesmerism-assisted painless surgery had attracted the attention of the Deputy Governor of Bengal, Sir Herbert Maddocks. Maddocks appointed a committee of seven reputable medical and non-medical officials to investigate Esdaile’s claims. They submitted a positive report on 9 October 1846, and a small hospital in Calcutta was put at his disposal.

By 1848, a mesmeric hospital supported entirely by public subscription was opened in Calcutta especially for Esdaile’s work but was closed 18 months later by the new Deputy Governor of Bengal, Sir John Littler. Elliotson however, continued to practise mesmerism at the Sukeas’ Street Dispensary until he left India in 1851.

In 1848, Esdaile was appointed to the position of Presidency Surgeon and, in 1849, appointed to the position of Marine Surgeon. Retiring from the British East India Company in 1853 on the expiration of his 20 years’ contract, he became a Vice-President of the London Mesmeric Infirmary and a Vice-President of the Scottish Curative Mesmeric Association. He briefly returned to Scotland before his death on 10 January 1859.

John Elliotson (1791-1868) M.D. (Edinburgh, 1810) M.D.(Oxford, 1821) F.R.C.P. (London, 1822), F.R.S. (1829) Professor of the Principles and Practice of Medicine at University College London (1832) and senior physician to University College Hospital (1834).

Elliotson became interested in phrenology, and was the founder and first President of the London Phrenological Society in 1823. His interest in mesmerism was initially aroused by the demonstrations given by Richard Chenevix in 1829 and re-awakened by Dupotet de Sennevoy’s demonstrations in 1837.

Elliotson began experimenting with the Okey sisters – Elizabeth (17) and Jane (15) – who had been admitted to his hospital in April 1837 for treatment for epilepsy.

Elliotson soon began using the the sisters as subjects and in 1837 he inserted a needle into Jane entirely painlessly, without her even being aware that it had taken place. He did the same into the neck of Elizabeth Okey (the older sister) whilst she was mesmerised. The great stage hypnotist Peter Casson used to do the same in his act in the post war era.

Elliotson was interested in the so-called ‘higher states’ of mesmerism – clairvoyance, transposition of the senses (for example seeing with the fingers) thought transmission, physical rapport or ‘community of sensation,’ psychical rapport, and so on. Convinced that the elder sister, Elizabeth, had a talent for medical clairvoyance (able to see into the body, diagnose illness, prescribe treatment, and deliver a prognosis) Elliotson took her down into the wards in the dead of night and had her both diagnose and prescribe treatments.

But in August 1838, Thomas Wakley, a senior surgeon at the hospital, conducted a series of experiments on the sisters in front of several witnesses. His tests focussed on whether the girls could tell ‘mesmerised’ from ‘unmesmerised’ water, a pointless experiment if ever there was one. When they failed to do this consistently, he denounced them as frauds and proclaimed mesmerism a complete fallacy. In fact, the experiments did not prove the girls were faking nor did they show that mesmerism was false.

By the end of 1838, Elliotson was forced to resign from the hospital. The Council of the University College, after months of deliberation, passed a resolution on 27 December 1838 ‘That the Hospital Committee be instructed to take such steps as they shall deem most advisable, to prevent the practice of Mesmerism or Animal Magnetism within the Hospital.’ Elliotson, on reading the contents of the resolution, immediately resigned all his appointments.

But that was by no means the end of the matter. Wakley did all that he could, as editor of The Lancet and as an individual, to oppose Elliotson, and to place all of his endeavours and enterprises in the worst possible light. For example, in addition to an extensive range of articles in The Lancet over a number of years, there is also an anti-Elliotson pseudonymous work attributed to Wakley – Undeniable facts concerning the strange practices of Dr. Elliotson… with his female patients; and his medical experiments upon the bodies of… E. & J. Okey, etc. (1842) a copy of which is held in the British Library. Another, most likely written by either Wakley or one of his associates, is held in the collection of the Welcome Library. What an unpleasant mean-spirited jealous twat.

Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault (1823-1904) was a French physician who studied at the University of Strasbourg in 1850, at the age of 26. He established a practice in the village of Pont-Saint-Vincent, near the town of Nancy. He made many advances in the field of hypnosis and hypnotherapy and co-founded the Nancy School of Hypnosis.

The Nancy School was based on a hypnosis-centered approach to therapy as opposed to the previously adopted hysteria-centered approach used by the Paris School and the Salpêtrière Hospital. The Nancy School was distinguished by being considered a ‘Suggestion School’ – whereas the Salpetriere Hospital was the ‘Paris School’ or ‘Hysteria School.’

A fundamental belief of the Nancy School was that hypnosis was a normal phenomenon and not a product of hysteria. In addition to the foundation of the Nancy School, Liébeault published several books on his theories, techniques, and results while working with hypnosis.

In 1886, Dr. Hippolyte Bernheim (1840-1919) a French physician and neurologist published his book Suggestion, still considered a classic hypnosis text today. He is chiefly known for his theory of suggestibility  in relation to hypnotism.

Bernheim graduated as doctor of medicine in 1867 and the same year, became a lecturer at the university and established himself as a physician in the city. When the medical faculty took up hypnotism, around 1880, Bernheim was very enthusiastic and soon became one of the leaders of the investigation.

Bernheim also had a significant influence on Sigmund Freud, who had visited him in 1889 and witnessed some of his experiments and had already translated Bernheim’s On Suggestion and its Applications to Therapy in 1888. (Freud had already studied with Charcot in Paris.)

Freud described how he ‘was a spectator of Bernheim’s astonishing experiments upon his hospital patients, and I received the profoundest impression of the possibility that there could be powerful mental processes which nevertheless remained hidden from the consciousness of man.’ Freud became a pupil of Bernheim’s and it was as a result of Bernheim’s influence that led to Freud’s development of psychoanalysis.

Meanwhile, Bernheim increasingly turned away from hypnosis toward the use of suggestion in the waking state.

Dr. James Martin Charcot is best known for his work on hypnosis and hysteria and in particular for his work with his ‘star’ hysteria patient Louise Augustine Gleizes. More important, Charcot is considered the founder of modern neurology.

Charcot initially believed that hysteria was a neurological disorder caused by hereditary features in patients’ own nervous systems, but near the end of his life he concluded that hysteria was in fact a psychological disease.

Charcot’s interest in hysteria and hypnotism came at a time when the general public was fascinated in ‘animal magnetism’ and Mesmerism. Charcot and his school considered the ability to be hypnotised was a clinical feature of hysteria.  For the members of the Salpêtrière School, susceptibility to hypnotism was synonymous with hysteria, although they later recognised that grand hypnotisme (in hysterics) should be differentiated from petit hypnotisme, which corresponded to the hypnosis of ordinary people.

The Salpêtrière School’s position on hypnosis was sharply criticised by leading neurologist Dr. Hippolyte Bernheim, who argued that the hypnosis and hysteria phenomena Charcot had famously demonstrated were due to suggestion. But Charcot himself had harboured longstanding concerns about the use of hypnosis in treatment and its effect on patients. He was also concerned that the sensationalism hypnosis attracted had robbed it of its scientific interest and that the quarrel with Bernheim had ‘damaged’ hypnotism.

Josef Breuer (1842-1925) was a distinguished Austrian physician who made key discoveries in neurophysiology, and whose work in the 1880s with his patient Bertha Pappenheim – also known as Anna O – developed the talking cure and laid the foundation for psychoanalysis as developed by his protégé Sigmund Freud. Breuer was then a mentor to the young Freud and had helped set him up in medical practice.

Freud, he said, was looking for a grand theory that would make him famous and trying to identify a single cause of hysteria, such as sexual conflict. Breuer, on the other hand, was concerned about the many factors that produce symptoms, including the almost infinite different kinds of traumas.

Breuer, while he valued Freud’s contributions, did not agree that sexual issues were the only cause of neurotic symptoms. In 1907, he wrote a letter to a colleague stating that ‘Freud is a man given to absolute and exclusive formulations: this is a psychical need which, in my opinion, leads to excessive generalization.’

In 1894 Breuer was elected a Corresponding Member of the Vienna Academy of Sciences and in 1895 Freud and Breuer had followed up on their work together by publishing Studies of Hysteria. But Freud later turned on Breuer, no longer giving him any credit, and helped to spread a rumour that Breuer had not been able to handle erotic attention from Anna O and had abandoned her case, although research indicates this never happened – Breuer remained involved with her case for several years while she remained unwell.


Émile Coué de la Châtaigneraie (1857-1926) was a French psychologist and pharmacist who introduced a popular method of psychotherapy and self-improvement based on positive autosuggestion.

Coué had noticed that in certain cases he could improve the efficacy of medicine by praising its effectiveness. He found that those patients to whom he praised the medicine experienced a noticeable improvement compared to patients to whom he said nothing. So began Coué’s exploration of the use of hypnosis and the power of the imagination.

He discovered that patients could not be hypnotised against their will and more importantly, the effects of hypnosis waned when the subjects regained consciousness. So he eventually turned to autosuggestion which he describes as ‘an instrument that we possess at birth, and with which we play unconsciously all our life, as a baby plays with its rattle. It is however a dangerous instrument; it can wound or even kill you if you handle it imprudently and unconsciously. It can on the contrary save your life when you know how to employ it consciously.’

Coué believed in the effects of medication but he also believed that our mental state is able to affect and even amplify the action of medication. By consciously using autosuggestion he observed that his patients could cure themselves more efficiently by replacing their ‘thought of illness’ with a new ‘thought of cure.’ Coué discovered that repeating words or images enough times causes the subconscious to absorb them and cures were the result of using imagination or ‘positive autosuggestion’ to override one’s own willpower.

Coué thus developed a method that relied on the simple principle that any idea exclusively occupying the mind turns into reality – but only to the extent the idea is within the realm of possibility. For instance, positive autosuggestion cannot cause a severed limb to grow back, but if a person firmly believes that his or her asthma is disappearing, then it may indeed actually disappear – the body is able physically to overcome or control the illness, confirming the growing belief that you are a mind with a body, not a body with a mind! But… thinking negatively about the illness will also encourage both mind and body to accept this thought.

Coué argued that no suggestion made by himself became reality unless it was translated by his patients into their own autosuggestion. In this way, they were really healing themselves, and could do this even without him if they used the formula ‘Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.’

Rather than employing any effort of will, they were to employ this suggestion while in a state of passive relaxation, such as upon awakening or before going to sleep at night. We now understand that rapid and ritualistic repeating of a mantra twenty times a day really does work. Coué argued that the idea of the formula would penetrate the unconscious mind, where it would bring about the desired changes in both mind and body. He believed this would happen because the unconscious governs all our thoughts, behaviour, and organic functions. It so powerful that it controls us like puppets – unless we learn how to control it through the self-administration of autosuggestion.

Emile Coué was not only right, he was a genius.

In 1930 Sigmund Freud was awarded the Goethe Prize in recognition of his contributions to psychology and to German literary culture. In January 1933, the Nazis took control of Germany, and Freud’s books were prominent among those they burned and destroyed.

However, Freud continued with his optimistic underestimation of the growing Nazi threat and was determined to stay in Vienna, even after the Anschluss of 13 March 1938 when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, and the outbreaks of violent anti-Semitism that ensued. It was the shock of the detention and interrogation of Anna Freud by the Gestapo that finally convinced Freud it was time to leave Austria for America, where his strange cocaine-fuelled fixation with sexual repression resulted in the formulation of the laugh-out-loud Oedipus Complex.

In the end, Freud abandoned hypnosis altogether because he found it too unreliable. Instead, he pursued psychoanalysis where he concerned himself with asking patients embarrassing questions about their mothers.

Milton Erickson (1901-1980) American psychiatrist and psychologist specialising in medical hypnosis and family therapy.

Erickson’s unique talent was that he was able to think outside the box. He was founding president of the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis and a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Psychopathological Association. Astonishingly, he was largely self-taught. He also grew up dyslexic and colour blind and suffered from polio and frequently drew upon his own experiences to provide examples of the power of the unconscious mind. As an avid medical student, Erickson was also curious about psychiatry and he achieved his psychology degree while still studying medicine. After a second bout of polio, he used self-hypnosis to manage his chronic pain.

Erickson was a master of indirect suggestion and would often use it in his lectures and even in his books. An Ericksonian hypnotist would be more likely to say ‘you can comfortably learn how to go into a trance’ thereby providing an opportunity for the subject to accept the suggestions they are most comfortable with, at their own pace, and with an awareness of the benefits. The subject knows they are not being hustled and they feel they can take full ownership of, and participate in, their transformation. Because the induction takes place during the course of a normal conversation, Ericksonian hypnosis is often known as Covert or Conversational Hypnosis.

Erickson maintained that the unconscious mind responds to openings, opportunities, metaphors, symbols, and contradictions. Effective hypnotic suggestion, then, should be ‘artfully vague,’ leaving space for the subject to fill in the gaps with their own unconscious understandings, even if they don’t consciously grasp what is happening. An example – the authoritative ‘You will stop smoking’ is likely to find less leverage on the unconscious level than ‘You can become a non-smoker.’ The first is a direct command, to be obeyed or ignored (and notice that it draws attention to the act of smoking) whereas the second is an opening, an invitation to possible lasting change, without pressure, and is less likely to raise resistance.

Erickson’s Confusion Technique is based on the premise that a confused person has their conscious mind busy and occupied, and is inclined to draw upon unconscious learning to make sense of things. James Braid claimed that focused attention was essential for creating hypnotic trances and required extreme focus, but it can be difficult for people racked by pain, fear or suspicion to focus on anything at all, and so other techniques for inducing ‘trance’ become important. Long and frequent use of the confusion technique has successfully effected exceedingly rapid hypnotic inductions under unfavourable conditions such as acute pain of terminal malignant disease, and in persons interested but hostile, aggressive, and resistant.

A great many of Erickson’s anecdotal and autobiographical teaching stories were collected by Sidney Rosen in the book My Voice Will Go With You.


By the 1950’s, both the British and American Medical Associations accepted hypnosis as a useful therapeutic tool. From then on, hypnotherapy grew in popularity and is considered by many as a significant contribution to the treatment of emotional, habitual and psychological problems.

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