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Hypnosis in America



In an previous post I described how hypnosis began as a form of healing in the sleep temples of the Egyptians around 1550 B.C., and is inseparable from the origins of modern psychology and medicine. Going back to Mesmer in the last quarter of the 1700s, hypnosis was investigated intensely by psychologists. Simultaneously, hypnosis was used as anesthesia, with thousands of surgical operations performed using hypnosis.

Hypnosis was commonplace in the mid-1800s when chemical anesthetics were discovered. Street-corner “tent-shows” were popular entertainments where hypnosis was demonstrated, along with new inhalation drugs and other wonders of chemistry. It was at one of these shows that Horace Wells first got the idea of use nitrous oxide for dental extractions. As chemical anesthetics became popular, the widespread use of hypnosis for anesthesia declined.

In the 1800s there was a deep interest in metaphysical, psychic, and spirit phenomena, and this spawned different types of spiritual healing and mental healing movements. Because hypnosis was already widely known, it was natural for some spiritual healers to induce trance as part of their method. Their movements usually presented their cures as coming from a spiritual source, but the cures probably resulted more often from the combination of trance with the suggestions of the healer and the belief of the subject.

Fortunately, despite the appropriation of hypnosis for tent-shows and spiritual healing, the scientific and academic investigation of hypnosis continued. In the first half of the 20th century Joseph Jastrow taught hypnosis at the University of Wisconsin. His student, Clark Hull, became an experimental psychologist at Yale University who advanced hypnosis research significantly. In 1933 Hull published Hypnosis and Suggestibility, the first major review of hypnosis applying the standards of modern experimental psychology. Ernest Hilgard and Andre Weitzenhoffer conducted significant research at Stanford. Hypnosis gained even more scientific attention when it was used in World Wars I and II and the Korean Conflict to treat war neuroses. Since that time, hypnosis has remained a subject of rigorous scientific study.

Quite apart from the detached academic study of hypnosis, the 20th century had several influential figures using hypnosis in the field. Dave Elman, a hypnosis performer who popularized a rapid induction method of hypnosis, taught his techniques to many doctors and physicians. The American psychiatrist and psychologist Milton Erickson was one of the greatest influences on the hypnosis field. His theories that the unconscious mind is always listening led to indirect techniques of hypnosis, including subliminal suggestion and neurolinguistic programming (NLP).

In the 20th century hypnosis has also been approved by the following major medical and psychological organizations:

• 1955 – The British Medical Association approved hypnosis for treatment of neuroses and for anesthesia during childbirth and surgery, and recommended hypnosis training for medical students and physicians.

• 1958 – The American Medical Association approved hypnosis as a therapeutic procedure and recommended hypnosis training for medical students. In 1987 the AMA rescinded this along with all endorsements made before 1958).

• 1958 – The Canadian Medical Association endorsed hypnosis.

• 1958 – The Canadian Psychological Association endorsed hypnosis.

• 1960 – The American Psychological Association endorsed hypnosis.

• 1961 – The American Psychiatric Association endorsed hypnosis.


From an historical standpoint it is interesting to note that, although hypnosis was at times attached to various passing fads and movements, the clinical practice and scientific study of hypnosis have survived. That alone is a great testament to the enduring power of hypnosis to help people. Thankfully, the medical and academic fields have continued to use and validate hypnosis as a therapeutic procedure, and hypnosis research seems as active as ever. A search of medical periodicals for the terms “hypnosis” or “hypnotherapy” yields over 13,000 results. With new ways of understanding the mind, the brain, consciousness, and memory, I am excited to see what new understandings of hypnosis the 21st century may bring.