The History of Hypnosis & Hypnotherapy

There are many differing opinions regarding the history of hypnosis* and many frequently asked questions.
Who was the first hypnotist? Who discovered hypnosis? Who invented Hypnotherapy? Are there different types of hypnotherapy? What is Ericksonian therapy?
Below we attempt to answer these questions and discuss the many modern and equally important traditional theories of hypnosis. We’ll also look at both the medical history of hypnotherapy as well as some of the pioneers of stage hypnosis.

The History of Hypnosis

Scottish surgeon James Braid (1795-1860) introduced the term hypnotism between 1841 and 1842 as an abbreviation for his term neuro-hypnotism. He used the term neuro-hypnotism meaning sleep of the nervous system to describe a person’s psycho-physiological response to the focus of their attention. Braid’s lifelong exploration of the field of hypnosis began in November 1841 when he attended a public demonstration by a Swiss mesmerist Charles Lafontaine in Manchester. Braid sought to debunk Lafontaine’s work and to his shock, when examining Lafontaine’s subject Mary, he found that she displayed genuine psychological changes including an altered pulse rate and sensitivity to pain. Braid forced a pin between Mary’s nail and finger finding she remained undisturbed.
Braid’s work brought a scientific and rational approach to the phenomena of mesmerism in his psycho-physiological research. In moving towards process driven theories of hypnosis, Braid sought to debunk much of the mysticism surrounding mesmerism.
James Braid is often considered the father of Hypnotherapy.

Who Invented Hypnotherapy – What is Mesmorism?

Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) was a German physician who practiced magnetism for therapeutic purposes. The process of passing magnets over a patient’s body to control blood flow or the nervous system influenced his early work before a realization that he could get equivalent results by simply passing his hands over a patient. This realisation led Mesmer to the belief that his hands were magnetic and that he possessed healing powers. Mesmer, and indeed many of his followers attributed his healing powers to the influence of planets and the supernatural. He would accentuate this belief with the use of dramatic props such as his famous “baquet”, a large round vessel that was filled with iron filings. Patients were positioned around the baquet and held metal rods against their affected area. Mesmeric powers were then passed through the vessel to heal their ailment. Mesmer’s work gained notoriety and became prolific and in 1784, King Louis XVI commissioned an official investigation into his work. After many experiments, the commission (including Benjamin Franklin) concluded that the results of mesmerism should be attributed to the clients belief and imagination rather than magnetism (or animal magnetism as it was often referred).
Braid’s research into the phenomena of mesmerism identified the fixation of attention as a contributory cause of a patient’s mesmeric disposition.
The above discoveries became key attributes to hypnotic theory; belief, imagination and fixation of attention, underpin many modern concepts of hypnosis.

Religion and hypnosis – Did the Egyptians use hypnosis?

Although Braid and Mesmer are considered by many to be the fathers of hypnotherapy, evidence exists that hypnosis was utilised as earlier as 3,00 BC by the Egyptians. As modern conceptualisation and understanding highlight the necessity for factors such as belief to be present when facilitating hypnosis, it becomes apparent that people were experiencing or establishing environments that incorporate similar or identical factors that were often labelled differently.
Some argue that documented religious experiences could be attributed to similar factors. In his 1962 book “Religious Aspects of Hypnosis”, William J Bryan discusses whether some of Jesus’ miracles could be attributed to hypnosis. This link between hypnosis and religion is often made when considering the works of Catholic priest Father Johann Joseph Gassner.
Gassner conducted hundreds of exorcisms between the 1760s and 1770’s. He would harbour a person’s belief in his powers as an exorcist to cast out evil spirits. Mesmer himself was asked to investigate Gassner’s work. Mesmer concluded that his results were due to his unknowing use of animal magnetism. Scientific interest in hypnosis outside of Braid’s work began as early as 1815 with Abbe Jose Castodi De Faria. It is considered that Faria was the first man to theorise that psychological attitudes could affect a person’s hypnotic condition. His discoveries also included the fixed gaze method of induction also prevalent in Braid’s work.

John Elliotson Vs James Braid

Not all scientists discredited theories of magnetism.
Between 1837 and 1868 Professor John Elliotson used ‘prestige suggestions’ and magnetism in his work with patients. He demonstrated, sometimes in front of many interested parties, that he could perform major surgery on patients influenced via magnetism. Although his work helped raise the profile of hypnosis, many of his contemporaries including Braid believed that his work was damaging to the field. Elliotsons’ work with mesmerism was continued with gusto by surgeon James Esdaile (1818-1859). Easdaile performed and documented 300 major operations including 19 amputations in a Calcutta hospital, his later work utilised his good friend Braids’ hypnosis.
His successful removal of post operative shock through hypnosis reduced related death rates from 50% to below 8%.

French doctor Ambroise August Liebault set up his School of Nancy in 1864. Leibault treated patients with both hypnotic interventions and medicine at the school. His work was crucial in the development of modern hypnosis as he credited his hypnotic results to psychological factors alone rather than physical processes. Liebault was later joined by Professor Hippolyte Bernheim, who recorded their works in his 1886 guide to medical hypnosis “suggested therapeutics”.

Dr Sigmund Freud & Hypnosis

Most of the work done during the 1800s within the field of hypnosis utilised direct suggestion, more often delivered in a hetero scenario. In 1880 Dr Joseph Breuer whilst working with a patient discovered that they could converse during hypnosis. Through conversations he had with patients he learned he could help them recover memories previously hidden. Breuer theorised that these memories could not have been discovered without the use of hypnosis and ‘hypno-analysis’ was born. Breuers’ later discovery of ‘free association’ underpined the field of psychoanalysis famously developed by Dr Sigmund Freud. Freud who had previously studied with the school of Nancy became interested in Breuer’s work.
It was Freud’s lack of skill with hypnosis that led to him to try free association outside of hypnosis, the success of this led Freud to reject the use of hypnosis. Freud’s success with psychoanalysis and his leaning away from hypnosis caused the subsequent decline of interest in the field hypnosis for many years.

Medical Hypnosis

During the following quiet period in hypnosis’ history few people paid it much attention. It did not really begin to re-emerge until an upswing in demand for psychotherapy following the First World War and the veterans development of war related anxiety disorders. One man who continued to work within the field of hypnosis during this period was Emile Coue.
Coues’ fascination with hypnosis began following a lecture by Lebault at the Nancy school in 1885. He spent some time working and observing Lebault before returning to Troyes to hold hypnotic clinics himself. His work led him to conclude that the results of both hypnotism and some medicines were due to what he termed conscious ‘auto suggestion’ (what is now termed placebo). This conclusion gave him the platform to develop his theory and practice of auto suggestion, whereby he would teach patients ‘affirmations’ that they would repeat to themselves outside of hypnosis. His theories are paramount to the development of modern self hypnosis.

The field of hypnosis began to regain momentum during the Second World War when a lack of drugs left no alternative but the utilisation of hypnotically produced (suggested) anaesthesia. As hypnotherapy meandered its way through the early 19th and 20th centuries stage hypnosis chugged along in the background with its foundations similarly in mesmerism.

What about stage hypnosis?

The likes of Ormond Gill’s stage hypnosis shows in America maintained a regular audience and it was Gills’ contemporary Dave Ellman who in 1948 left the stage to pursue work educating the medical community about the benefits and uses of hypnosis in a clinical environment. Ellmans’ work was instrumental in raising the profile of hypnosis in this clinical environment. As the field of medicine grew to accept the benefits of hypnosis The American Medical Associations’ Council on Mental Health accepted and accredited its use in 1958.

Modern hypnosis – Is hypnosis real?

Both constant research into the field of hypnosis and the rapid development of neuroscience have in recent years begun to answer many questions posed by both sceptics and disciples of its practice.
However there are still great divides within the hypnosis community as to how it functions as a process. These questions stretch further and deeper into neuroscience than perhaps just looking for answers about how the brain functions using hypnotic processes and goes as deep as how ‘mind’ is measured.
Questions regarding quantifying consciousness and/or unconsciousness may never be fully answered and the current gaps in knowledge leave the field of hypnosis divided.
This divide of theory is often formalised with the terms ‘state’ and ‘non-state’. Both state and non-state proponents offer up legitimate arguments with some heavyweights in both corners.
For example, Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapists would often argue for a social cognitive model of hypnosis. In this model the interaction between therapist and client is based on previously learned/observed hypnotic behavioural reactions that are then played out (acted) within the therapeutic environment. CBH schools teach that hypnosis is a learnable process rather than a mechanical function or is a mindset that can be adopted for the interaction.

State theorists often argue that during hypnosis a subject enters a particular state of mind that is either specific to or is directly related to the hypnosis. An article published by Dr David Speigel in the ‘American Journal of Psychiatry’ (2000) demonstrated confirmation of neurological changes occurring as a direct result of hypnosis. This article ‘Hypnotic visual illusion alters colour processing in the brain’ establishes that hypnosis can modulate colour perception.

Ericksonian Hypnosis – Who was Milton Erickson?

The most prolific hypnotherapist of the modern age Dr Milton Erickson began studying hypnosis under the tutelage of Clark C Hull at Wisconsin University in the early 1930s. Erickson developed his state theory of indirect suggestion believing that people have all the tools they need to change. He taught that these tools are stored in our unconscious mind and in therapy we help the client discover these tools. Erickson described the discovery of these tools during hypnosis as the “evocation and utilisation of unconscious learning”
Erickson used permissive, indirect, ambiguous language to effect change. He used storytelling, anecdotes, puns, humour, metaphors and other communication tools such as pacing, as well as utilising external stimuli, such as sound and the clients own experience in therapy. A key principal behind his use of tales and metaphors is his theory that these communication styles effectively bypass the critical factor (the part of the mind that analyzes information and decides what is accepted or rejected, at a conscious level). Simply put the stories distract conscious awareness and keep it occupied while the unconscious unravels the embedded meanings within them. It is often said that the tale itself works on a ‘surface structure’ level and the meaning works at a ‘deep structure’ level.

The belief that suggestions can work in this way relies heavily on the state perspective.
It supposes that the mind works in a certain way in order for these suggestions to be accepted.

A non state argument to the contrary would suggest that everything done within a hypnotic context can be done outside of hypnosis with equally efficacious results.
Theodore X Barber researched hypnosis at the Medfield State Hospital and between 1961 and 1978 wrote over 200 papers and 8 books on the subject of hypnosis. His greatly respected work includes countless demonstrations within the clinical environment of hypnotic phenomena being created outside of the hypnotic environment.
His work is crucial in supporting modern non-state theories including the ‘cognitive behavioural’ theory of hypnosis developed with John Chaves and Nicholas Spanos.

Influenced by Theodore Sarbins’ 1950 theory of ‘role taking’, Barber attributed hypnotic phenomena to the presenting individual’s motivations, beliefs and expectations. These same factors have been echoed both before Barber in the works of practitioners and theorists such as Braid and since in the works many modern researchers and practitioners such as Professor Irving Kirsch.
Kirschs’ ‘response expectancy theory’ successfully demonstrated that both subjective and physiological responses can be altered by a persons own expectations. Kirsch theorises that these are the mechanisms by which placebo and hypnosis can effect.

As opinions remain divided within the field of hypnosis research regarding the neurological processes involved continues.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and hypnosis – The Science of Hypnosis & Evidence Based Hypnotherapy

My own sphere of competence and knowledge allows me to draw my professional influences from both state and non state theories. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is widely accepted within the field of modern medicine as both efficacious and evidence based.

In the 1995 paper ‘Hypnosis as an adjunct to cognitive behavioural psychotherapy’ Kirsh, Montgomey and Sapirstein’s meta-analysis of data from 18 separate studies including 557 participants concluded that for 70% of participants Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy was more efficacious than CBT alone.

The rationale and evidence that support the interventions that underpin much of the work I do utilizing CBH interventions creates an environment of confidence and congruence that work best for me in my practice.

Many presenting issues that lead clients to work with modern hypnotherapists benefit from behavioural tasking, taken from the field of CBT. For example, diarising thoughts or behaviours for habit control or routine interruptive tasks are essential parts of my working practice.

Development of interventions championed by CBT practitioners such as ‘cognitive restructuring’ and ‘thought disputation’ may have been originally derived from the field of hypnotherapy however the benefits the field of hypnosis gains from empirical studies and rigorous testing by CBT exponents is significant.
These rigorous tests have led to the acceptance of CBT by the medical community at large. The work of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck weighs heavily when considering the roots of CBT. Aaron Beck developed ‘cognitive therapy’ in the 1960s and along with Ellis’ ‘rational emotive therapy’ underpin much of the work now practiced under the umbrella term CBT.

Hypnotic regression – Hypnosis and Memory

In practice I utilise many cognitive interventions and behavioural principles taken from CBT and CBH approaches , in contrast I do not choose to use the approaches taught and practiced in the field of regression therapies.

Although many hypnotherapeutic approaches utilise memory, regression therapy or recovered memory therapies, involve associating into those memories and primarily dealing with negative experiences.
This is where the process becomes considered by many to harbour risks.
Unlike for example ‘Timeline therapy’ where a client revisits an experience in a dissociated state, in regression the client associates into the experience and deals with it in the present tense. The therapist uses the language of present tense and guides the client to heighten and revivify their experience in the ‘now’ i.e. relive it.
This is also done with positive memories as facilitated in many interventions. The difference lies in the release of the associated negative emotion attached to the memory during regression, rather than encouraging the client to bring traits of the experience back into the now.
At present there is great uncertainty about the nature of memory regarding its factual content that leads to problems associated with the use of regression.

Research and evidence leads many to the conclusion that the reliability of memory undermines the efficacy of regression in many therapeutic instances.
Many governing bodies have sought to discontinue/discredit its use therapeutically.

It is due to the above risks associated with regression we choose not use it in our Southampton hypnotherapy practice & favour more evidence-based approaches.


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