Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy Blog




History of Hypnosis

Posted on


 Much is written about the history of hypnotherapy. I have taken Hartland’s Medical and Dental hypnosis as my guide in order to give you a short and concise history and an explanation about the major players...

When looking at the history of hypnotherapy we may look back to ancient healing activities and ceremonies in ancient sleep temples. But it would probably be more accurate to locate the modern origins in 18th century Europe.

Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815).

 Mesmer was born in Iznang in what was at the time the Austrian Empire. He graduated in medicine in Vienna at the age of 32. Mesmer was highly influenced by the work of Isaac Newton and the theory of gravity. He theorized that the “tidal” influences of the planets also operate on the human body through a universal force, which he termed “animal magnetism”. Mesmer favoured an altogether gentler approach, and his devotion to his patients was quite extraordinary. His breakthrough case was that of Franzl Oesterline, a 27 year old woman suffering from what Mesmer described as a convulsive malady, “the most troublesome symptoms of which was that the blood rushed to her head and there set up the most cruel toothaches and earaches, followed by delirium, rage, vomiting and swooning” (II). These symptoms were so severe that Fraulein Oesterline moved into Mesmer’s house to receive round-the-clock care.

Returning to the theories of his student days, Mesmer effected a cure by, as he saw it, using a magnet to disrupt the gravitational tides adversely affecting his patient. He successfully induced in Fraulein Oesterline the sensation of a fluid draining rapidly from her body, taking her illness with it. Her recovery after that was complete and virtually instantaneous.

Mesmer’s taste for theatre and showmanship may well have contributed to the hostile reception he received from the medical establishment of the day, although he personally believed that it was because he dared to get results without using conventional medical techniques. In any event, his life and career became dogged with controversy. Most famously, he was denounced as a charlatan after curing the concert pianist Maria-Theresa Paradis of psychosomatic blindness. This didn’t meet with the approval of her parents, who stood to lose a royal pension if their daughter was cured. She was forcibly and rather violently removed from Mesmer’s house, where she’d been staying to receive treatment, whereupon her blindness returned. Although this says more about her parents than it does about Mesmer, the episode was seized upon by his critics as proof that he was a fraud.

Mesmer was irrevocably brought into disrepute when a royal commission was appointed to investigate his findings. The commission, which included such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and John Guillotine, could find no evidence to support his theories of animal magnetism. They observed that Mesmer was able to cure patients by having them touch “magnetized” trees, but that patients were cured even if they touched “non-magnetized” trees. Therefore, they concluded, Mesmer must be a charlatan. Nevertheless, Mesmer’s legacy persisted, into the nineteenth century and beyond, as arguments over his techniques shaped the development of hypnosis as we know it today.

The Marquis De Chastenet De Puységur (1751-1825)

Was a student of Mesmer in 1874. He was a benign French aristocrat and, unlike Mesmer, he treated rich and poor alike, including his peasants. He preferred a relaxed state of mind for his work. Puységur noted the similarity between this sleeping trance and natural sleep-walking or somnambulism, and he named it "artificial somnambulism" Today we know similar states by the name "hypnosis", although that term was invented much later by James Braid in 1842. Some characteristics of Puységur’s artificial somnambulism were in any case specific of his method.

Puységur rapidly became a highly successful magnetist, to whom people came from all over France. In 1785, Puységur taught a course in animal magnetism to the local Masonic society. He also magnetised trees for group treatment.

Puységur was one of the first practitioners to acknowledge the importance of psychological factors. He had a more patient centred approach.

The Abbe de Faria (1756-1819)

The next person to mention would be the Abbe de Faria, a Portuguese priest who attended public demonstrations of Mesmerism and then gave them himself. He rejected the notion of animal magnetism and proposed something he called “lucid sleep”.

His work is significant for the fact that he was the first to document individual differences, he proposed the important factors resided in the subject not the mesmerist, and he created an induction technique that relied on verbal suggestions. He sat his patients on a chair and asked them to focus all their attention on the concept of sleep using this as a cue word.

John Elliotson (1791-1868)

Was the leading figure of the mesmeric movement in Britain. A physician who promoted the use of the modern stethoscope. He practiced as senior physician at university college hospital in London. He advocated the use of mesmerism in surgery and even lost his chair because of this. He also worked with cerebral physiology, more commonly known as phrenology, the location on the skull of organs of human characteristics, abilities, aptitudes and so on.

James Esdaile (1808-1859)

He was a Scottish surgeon who began experimenting with mesmerism as an anaesthetic. He operated on hundreds of patients many with massive scrotal tumours. This was endemic at the time transmitted by mosquitoes. Through his work it was observed that the patients showed little sign of pain. However it took several hours a day for up to twelve days to mesmerise his patients.

James Braid (1795-1860)

We now enter the post-mesmeric period in which the concept of sleep becomes more significant.

He was the first to promote the term “hypnotism”, although he himself did not coin the word. He was a Scottish doctor practicing in Manchester. In 1841 he witnessed and exhibition of mesmerism by La Fontaine and was very impressed but could not accept the theory that was put forward. He introduced the term “neurypnology” amongst other achievements,

He developed a new induction method. The subjects fixed their gaze on a point above eye level to produce strain, the eyes would close and the subject would enter hypnosis. If unsuccessful the y would be asked to close their eyes and keep the gaze fixed. Thus method became known as Braidism.

He also developed new theoretical ideas that were rooted in psychology. He defined hypnosis as “a derangement to the state of cerebral spinal centres by fixed stare, absolute repose of the body, immobility of the body, fixed attention on the words of the hypnotist, and suppressed respiration.”

Hence hypnosis is a psycho physiological state. Later in 1855 he changed his position about the nature of hypnosis to a more psychological state, induced primarily by suggestion. He called in monoideism.

This was the beginnings of the central role of suggestion in the elicitation of hypnotic phenomena and the association of hypnosis with hyper suggestibility.  However, the essential feature was still spontaneous amnesia. Without it, it was not true hypnosis. Amnesia became the defining characteristic of hypnosis for around 100 years.


Jean Martin Charcot and Hippolyte Bernheim (1835-1893,1837-1919)

We now move to France to consider the ideas put forward by the above.

Charcot is best known today, outside the community of neurologists, for his work on hypnosis and hysteria. He believed that hysteria was a neurological disorder for which patients were pre-disposed by hereditary features of their nervous system. Charcot's interest in hysteria and hypnotism developed at a time when the general public was fascinated in animal magnetism and mesmerisation. Charcot and his school considered the ability to be hypnotized as a clinical feature of hysteria. For the members of the Salpêtrière School, susceptibility to hypnotism was “synonymous with disease, i.e. hysteria, although they later recognized 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 were sharply criticized by Hippolyte Bernheim, a leading neurologist of the time. Charcot himself long had concerns about the use of hypnosis in treatment and about its effect on patients. He also was concerned that the sensationalism hypnosis attracted had robbed it of its scientific interest, and that the quarrel with Bernheim, further mostly by his pupil Georges Gilles de la Tourette, had "damaged" hypnotism.

The controversy continued for 20 years. With Charcot insisting that hypnosis was an abnormal state of mind found in the mentally ill. However Bernheim demonstrated that the entire range of hypnotic phenomena could be elicited in 15% of the normal population. Therefore hypnosis was not confined to hysterics or neurotics.

Bernheim saw hypnosis as a form of intensified suggestibility. Rather than a special state, we have the emphasis on suggestibility, the idea that hypnosis has something to do with enhanced responsiveness to suggestion.

Pierre Janet (1859-1947)

A French psychologist and psychotherapist who put forward a theory of hypnosis based on dissociation.  Hypnosis produces a division of consciousness and eliminated conscious control of certain behaviours. He was influenced by the behaviour of his patients. He was particularly interested in abnormal states of mind such as fugue states, multiple personality and automatism. He studied phenomena such as automatic writing, whereby a subject under the instruction of the hypnotist, would write a message on paper apparently without conscious awareness. Janet’s ideas lay dormant for 70 years until revived by the American psychologist Ernest Hilgard, who formulated his neo dissociation theory.

The temporary decline of hypnosis

The second half of the 19th century has been described by some as the heyday of hypnosis. Most of the eminent psychologists of the day were interested in it, whereas nowadays the opposite is the case. It then went into decline. There are a number of reasons for this. First, as we have seen, it became associated with phrenology and also with spiritualism. Phrenology, despite its popularity, was eventually discredited and replaced by more evidence-based neuropsychological theories. Another reason for this decline was the advent of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) worked with Charcot and used hypnosis, but he eventually abandoned it. Patients varied in their response to hypnotic procedures and direct symptom removal and hypnotic abreaction produced short-lived results. Patients were not necessarily truthful when questioned during hypnosis; thus, it was not a reliable method for gaining access to ’the unconscious'. Freud described his rejection of hypnosis in Studies of Hysteria, which he wrote with ]osef Breuer in 1895.
Freud developed other methods, notably free-association. He also developed the very important idea of transference, the re-emergence of significant emotional conflicts that patients experienced in relation to significant figures in their early life. In analysis, these are manifested in the patients feelings and fantasies about the therapist, hence the importance of the analyst's maintaining a more passive, neutral role that allows the transference to develop unhindered, a role inconsistent with that of the hypnotist. Another reason for the decline of hypnosis was the rise of behaviourism. Science concerns itself with phenomena that are universally observable, or potentially so. Mental events such as thoughts, memories and feelings are privately experienced but behaviour is observed by all. Therapeutic methods based on this approach, namely behaviour therapy, gradually became popular amongst psychologists and psychiatrists. Paradoxically, a very well ­known and influential behavioural psychologist, Clark Hull, was interested in hypnosis during the first half of the 20th century and he wrote a book called Hypnosis and Suggestibility in 1933 in which he described laboratory experiments on suggestion. He wished 'to divest hypnosis of its air of mystery, which surrounds it’. These aspirations were not seriously echoed for another 25 years. 

The modern scientific era

From 1950 onwards, we have the renaissance of hypnosis. One controversy that has occupied psychologists who are interested in hypnosis has been whether, in order to explain the various phenomena, one needs to postulate a special state of consciousness, normally termed the hypnotic 'trance'. Many researchers and theorists have come to consider that this is unnecessary. This does not mean that ’there is no such thing as hypnosis;
in fact, the motivation to settle this controversy has resulted in much greater understanding of hypnosis.

One of the most important areas of activity has been the laboratory investigation of hypnotic phenomena and the development of explanatory theories grounded within mainstream psychology and neuroscience. A major achievement has been the development of scales for measuring responsiveness to suggestion and hypnosis. Another field of enquiry has been the attributes of people who are high in susceptibility. Most recently, we have seen investigators from a number of international medical and academic centres pursuing research on the neuro physiological and neuropsychological correlates of hypnotic phenomena and hypnotic susceptibility. There have been many laboratory studies investigating the alteration of pain perception by hypnotic suggestion and these have provided a vital grounding for one of the most important clinical contributions of hypnosis, namely pain management. A body of research literature is now accumulating on the evidence of the efficacy of hypnotic procedures for augmenting the treatment of a wide range of psychological and medical problems and conditions.

In 1955, the British Medical Association was sufficiently interested in hypnosis to set up an enquiry, the second one in its history (the first being in 1892), which reported favourably on hypnosis as a therapeutic medium, even recommending that hypnosis should be taught at medical schools and on courses for psychiatrists, and possibly anaesthetists and obstetricians. These recommendations were never taken up but in the last 50 years there has been an acceleration in the establishment of hypnosis societies for medical doctors, dentists and psychologists in all continents. These organise their own training courses and scientific programmes for their members.

Thanks for Hartlands Medical and Dental Hypnosis for research notes.




Mark Powlett Hypnotherapy


tel: 07980 233160


Add a comment:

Leave a comment:
  • This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.


Add a comment