A History of Hypnosis: from Ancient Times to Modern Psychology



Hypnosis is surrounded by many myths and misconceptions. Unfortunately, despite thorough scientific research and wide clinical use, some people are scared off needlessly by the stigma that hypnosis is a mystical or esoteric procedure. As a hypnotherapist I have found that some people assume hypnosis is a recent innovation of the New Age movement, which spread through metaphysical communities in the 1970s and 1980s. Actually, hypnosis has been used in the United States since the mid-1800s, and was advanced by pioneers of modern psychology like Sigmund Freud, Pierre Janet, and Alfred Binet among others. This installment considers the history of hypnosis from ancient times to its eventual investigation by modern psychologists, physicians, and researchers.

Hypnosis in Ancient Times
The origins of hypnosis are inseparable from those of western medicine and psychology. Practically all ancient cultures, including the Sumerian, Persian, Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman, used hypnosis in some form. In Egypt and Greece, the sick often went to healing places known as sleep temples or dream temples to be cured by hypnosis. In ancient India, the Sanskrit book known as The Law of Manu described different levels of hypnosis: “Sleep-Waking,” “Dream-Sleep,” and “Ecstasy-Sleep.”

Some of the earliest evidence of hypnosis for healing comes from the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus, dating to 1550 B.C. According this ancient medical papyrus, priest-physicians repeated positive suggestions while administering their treatments and had patients fix their gaze on metal discs to enter trance, a hypnosis technique known today as eye “fixation.”

Magnetism, Fluidism, and Mesmerism
For many centuries, especially during the Middle Ages, kings and princes were believed to have the power of healing through the “Royal Touch.” Their miraculous healings were attributed to divine powers. Before hypnosis was well understood, the terms “magnetism” and “mesmerism” were used to describe these healing phenomena.

The Swiss physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) was the first to use magnets for healing, instead of the divine touch or a holy relic. This method of healing was still around into the 18th century, when Maximillian Hell, a Jesuit priest and the Royal Astronomer in Vienna, became famous for healing by using magnetized steel plates on the body. One of Hell’s students was Franz Mesmer, the Austrian physician from whom we derive the word “mesmerize.” Mesmer discovered that he could induce trance without magnets, and concluded (incorrectly) that the healing force must come from himself or from an invisible fluid that occupied space.

One of Mesmer’s students, the Marquis de Puysegur, became a successful magnetist and the first to produce a deep form of hypnosis similar to somnambulism (sleep-walking). Followers of Puysegur and the Paracelsus-Mesmer fluidism theory called themselves “Experimentalists.” The work of Mesmer and the Experimentalists was a step in the right direction to recognize that the cures they observed came not from a magnet or object, but from some other force.

The Power of Suggestion – Faria, Liebeault, Bernheim, and the Nancy School
In 1813, an Indo-Portuguese priest known as Abbe Faria conducted research on hypnosis in India, and returned to Paris to study hypnosis with Puysegur. Faria proposed that it was not magnetism or the power of the hypnotist that was responsible for trance and healing, but a power generated from within the mind of the subject.

Faria’s approach was the basis for the clinical and theoretical work of the French school of hypnosis-centered psychotherapy known as the Nancy School, or the School of Suggestion. The Nancy school held that hypnosis was a normal phenomenon induced by suggestion, not the result of magnetism. The Nancy school was founded by Ambroise-Auguste Liebeault, a French country doctor who is considered to be the father of modern hypnotherapy. Liebeault believed that the phenomena of hypnosis were psychological and disregarded theories of magnetism. He studied the similarities between sleep and trance, and saw hypnosis as a state that could be produced by suggestion.

Liebeault’s book Sleep and its Analogous States was published in 1866. His writings and the stories of his cures attracted the prominent physician Hippolyte Bernheim to visit his clinic. Bernheim (1840-1919) was a renowned neurologist who was at first skeptical of Liebeault, but after observing Lieubault he was so amazed by that he abandoned internal medicine to become a hypnotherapist. Bernheim brought Liebeault’s ideas about suggestion to the attention of the medical world with his book Suggestive Therapeutics, from which hypnosis emerged as a science. Liebeault and Bernheim are the innovators of modern psychotherapy. Their views prevailed, and to this day hypnosis is still seen as a suggestion phenomenon.

Pioneers of Psychology
Some of the pioneers of psychology studied hypnosis in both the Nancy and Paris Schools. Pierre Janet (1859-1947), who developed theories of unconscious processes, dissociation, and traumatic memory, studied hypnosis with both Bernheim in Nancy and the rival school of Charcot in Paris. Sigmund Freud also studied hypnosis with Charcot and later observed Bernheim, and Liebeault. Freud began practicing hypnosis in 1887, and hypnosis was crucial to his invention of psychoanalysis.

Hypnotic Anesthesia
During the period of intense psychological investigation of hypnosis , a number of physicians developed the use of hypnosis for anesthesia. In 1821, Récamier performed a major operation using hypnosis for anesthesia. In 1834, the British surgeon John Elliotson, who introduced the stethoscope to England, reported numerous painless surgical operations using hypnosis. James Esdaile, the Scottish surgeon, performed over 2,000 minor and 345 major operations using hypnosis in the 1840s and 1850s.

Modern Hypnotism
The Scottish ophthalmologist James Braid is the father of modern hypnotism. It was Braid who first coined the term neuro-hypnotism (nervous sleep), which later became “hypnotism” and “hypnosis” (1841). Braid had visited a demonstration of a French magnetist, La Fontaine in 1841. He scoffed at the ideas of the Mesmerists, and was the first to suggest that hypnosis was psychological. Braid is perhaps the first practitioner of psychosomatic medicine. In 1847 he tried to explain hypnosis by “monoideism” (focus on one idea), but the term “hypnosis” had advanced in the work of the Nancy School, and is still the term used today.

Hypnosis in America
In America, the use of hypnosis for rapid treatment of injuries and trauma in WWI, WWII, and the Korean conflict led to a renewed interest in hypnosis in the fields of dentistry and psychiatry. The next installment on the history of hypnosis will look at the further development of hypnosis in America.

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