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A Brief History of Hypnosis.

So where does Hypnosis originate? Trance states have been recognised throughout history for hundreds of years. For instance there is some evidence, but it remains inconclusive that trance states were recognised in ancient Egypt. Some ancient cultures and religions today utilise the trance state; for example the Shaman (master of spirits) with his hypnotic drumming, chanting and dancing, who achieves a trance like state and then communicates this to his audience with the purpose of healing.

However, it was Anton Mesmer, born in Germany 1766 who first came up with the concept of Mesmerism. In today's context Mesmer can be seen as a faith healer, however importantly at a time in history when medicine was not really addressing ‘neuroses and psychosomatic illness' (Waterfield: 2002) Mesmer was the first person to really delve into the area of psychological healing. Mesmer basically connected Astrology with human health and believed that the planets exerted a cosmic force through invisible fluid. He used magnets to channel the invisible magnetic fluid, and through his strong belief in himself and power of influence over his patients managed a certain degree of success in curing largely psychologically based ailments. In fact in 1777 Mesmer was able to bring back the sight of a young girl musician, blind from birth. Unfortunately a major side effect to this cure was the loss of the girl's ability to play the piano, consequently Mesmer was accused of magic and was forced to flee from Austria to France. The story continues however, into the late 1780's when Mesmer developed his methods to include magnetising a tree; his patients were thus cured of their symptoms by holding onto ropes attached to the healing tree. Towards the latter years of his career Mesmer's personal credibility was challenged, but his basic ideas continued and others took the exploration of Mesmerism further.

The story in fact continues with the Marquis de Puyseguer, who studied briefly under Mesmer's methods at the Society of Universal Harmony. Trying Mesmer's techniques on a young man, De Puysequer witnessed his subject appear to go into a profound sleep. The young man however was able to talk to De Puyseguer when questioned, exhibiting a different and more open personality. This was something new and came to be called ‘Mesmeric Somnambulism', a state between sleep and wakefulness and a place where the subject was still able to communicate with the external environment. De Puyseguer continued his work with other subjects leading to the notion that in all of us there lies alternative paths of consciousness, or layers of the mind thus leading ultimately of course, to Freud's concept of the unconscious.

Importantly De Puyseguer went on to realise the connection with the Hypnotic process and human Psychology as well as developing the first steps in the therapeutic process. For instance De Puysequer realised that establishing a good working relationship with his clients was essential to the success of the treatment, thereby in fact discovering the idea of ‘building rapport' a concept much used in today's world.

Moving forward to 1814, a flamboyant character by the name of the Abbe Jose Custodia di Faria arrived in France, claiming to have a background as a Brahmin. Dressing in the garb of an Indian magician, Faria conducted magnetic cures. Rejecting Mesmer's concept of magnetic fluid, Faria induced the trance state by using his voice and allowing his subjects to sit comfortably, whilst gazing at his raised arms. Faria's method in fact introduced the importance to hypnosis of not only the concept of expectation but also the subject's heightened sense of suggestibility. The first indication really that the use of suggestions is a vital part of trance work.

Back in Britain, John Elliotson, eminent doctor at University college Hospital London was the first person to use Hypnosis in British medicine. Elliotson can be credited with discovering the usefulness of Hypnosis in inducing anathaesia during surgical procedures, as well as treating diseases of the nervous system. The doctor however also succeeded in alienating much of his hospital's authorities with the result that surgical anasthaesia was sided lined in favour of the new chemical methods.

In 1840 James Braid came up with the word ‘Hypnosis' and although this is derived from the Greek god of sleep Hypnos the term has stuck. Braid did realise his mistake of linking Hypnosis to sleep and tried to come up with another name that of monoeidism, meaning the influence of a single idea, however he clearly didn't succeed. Braid also put together a scientific study into the process, drawing the conclusion that any cures were not due to magnetic fluid but to suggestion work.

Meanwhile Doctor James Esdaile, working in an Indian hospital near Calcutta, was able to utilise the Hypnotic process to perform operations on approximately 400 patients without them feeling pain. The post operative death rate at this hospital fell from 50% to 5%, an astonishing figure. Unfortunately once again this work was not taken seriously. The British medical establishment also suggested with a less than politically correct response that whilst Hypnosis may have been applicable to the population of an Indian hospital it was hardly appropriate in the European or British contact.

For some while in the late 19th century the progress of Hypnosis hit a bleak spot. However when a paper was read out at the French Academy of Sciences, a French doctor by the name of Liebeault became intrigued. Quietly working with his patients Liebeault came to realise that Hypnosis was all about suggestion, his method simply being to use suggestion to induce a deep sense of relaxation and isolation from the external world. Liebeault wrote a book on his work, which was picked up by Bernheim, the professor of internal medicine at the University of Nancy. Bernheim hoping to expose Liebeault as a fraud, sent him a patient suffering from chronic sciatica, but when the man was cured the French professor became intrigued by the process. Working together Bernheim and Liebeault developed the now modern view of Hypnotism that the force of suggestion can work with even physical disorders. The doctors were also the first to use the term ‘psychotherapy', whilst Bernheim pioneered the concept of the hypnotic lilting screed as used by therapists today.

Meanwhile Marie Charcot another eminent French physician, disagreed with Liebault and Bernheim about the nature of hypnosis proposed that it was a form of hysteria. Charcot however did go on to identify three stages in the Hypnotic process those of; lethargy, catalepsy and somnambulism. Lethargy can be described as similar to fainting, whilst catalepsy is where the person's eyes remain open, but the limbs can be manipulated by someone else without resistance. Somnambulism's chief feature is the effect of anaesthesia. Charcot's chief contribution to Hypnosis was linking the process to the nervous system, he thereby succeeded in putting Hypnosis into the realms of science.

But let's not forget Sigmund Freud, Freud is significant in this story because although he rejected the use of hypnosis as a therapeutic tool he did map the role of the subconscious mind. In all probability Freud rejected Hypnosis because he found he wasn't that good at it, but also because he found a personal enthusiasm for the process of ‘free association' and the exploration of dreams.

So finally to Milton Erickson, in the modern era Milton Erickson is considered to be one of the most influential hypnotherapists in the world. His unique and creative approach to psychotherapy and hypnotherapy was in most part due to his experience of the world from an early age, in particular his tone deafness, dyslexia and two attacks of polio. Erickson successfully rejuvenated the field hypnosis by developing an indirect and non authoritarian approach to suggestion work, enabling those he worked with to use their own resources to solve problems in their own way. Erickson's experimental work spanned over 50 years until his death in 1980, with his legacy to modern hypnotherapeutic practice remaining strong to this day with numerous Ericksonian institutes and societies created throughout the world in his honour.

Michelle Krethlow Shaw


Waterfield, Robin. The story of hypnosis. Pan, 2002.

Battino, MS and South, Thomas L South. Ericksonian Approaches. Crown House Publishing Ltd, 2006.

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© 2012 Michelle Krethlow Shaw