How Psychology Emerged From Hypnosis

Until the late 1800s psychology was a branch of philosophy dealing with speculations about the human mind. There was no experimental or therapeutic practice of psychology as it is known today. Many people think that depth psychology originated solely from Freud’s analytical insights presented in his work The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899. However, depth psychology and psychoanalysis actually originated from the practices of hypnosis, mesmerism, and earlier esoteric disciplines.

Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815)
“The great thing of the eighteenth century is not the Encyclopedia…it is the sympathetic and miraculous physics of Mesmer.”
- Alphonse Louis Constant
Franz Anton Mesmer was a medical doctor in Austria around the time of the French Revolution. He followed the ideas of the sixteenth century Swiss physician Paracelsus (1493-1541). Paracelsus rejected the idea that illness was due to an imbalance of bodily humors, and was the first to theorize an “unconscious” that could cause disease. Influenced by Paracelsus' ideas, Mesmer produced an altered state of consciousness in his patients to establish communication with the unconscious, then removed their symptoms. He called his process “mesmerism,” which in a later form gave rise to “hypnotism.” Mesmer demonstrated that there are deeper portions of the mind that are not accessible in the usual state of consciousness, and that in certain altered states of consciousness the mind has the power to do extraordinary things, such as healing illnesses.

Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893)
Mesmer’s discovery was a matter of great interest in medicine, especially in France, where he did much of his work. It was here that Jean Martin Charcot, a French medical doctor and the founder of modern neurology, inspired depth psychology. Charcot was a highly regarded teacher who gave lecture demonstrations of hypnotism. By suggestion, he produced various symptoms (ex: blindness, deafness, the inability to speak, paralysis) in his hypnotic subjects, and invited his medical students to verify their authenticity. Then when he brought his subjects out of the hypnotic state, their symptoms disappeared. Mesmer had demonstrated that the unconscious could heal illness; Charcot’s lectures made it evident that the unconscious could also produce symptoms of disease.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
As a young, recently graduated medical doctor, Sigmund Freud attended Charcot’s lectures in France. He considered that if one could produce symptoms by giving suggestions to the unconscious, as Charcot did, then it is also possible that the unconscious might produce illness on its own. From this Freud theorized that a patient might be freed from symptoms by gaining access to the unconscious. He practiced hypnosis for a time, but was unable to get his patients into trance effectively. Freud determined that since sleep is an altered state of consciousness like hypnosis, and dreams occur during sleep, one could gain access to the material of the unconscious through dreams. He published his theories on The Interpretation of Dreams in 1899, which was the beginning of modern psychoanalysis.

Freud's couch. The traditional image of the psychoanalysis patient reclining on a couch remains as a relic of hypnosis.

Carl Jung (1875-1961)
Carl Jung was a young Swiss medical doctor specializing in mental illness. After Freud, he could be considered the second founder of psychology. Jung and Freud agreed that the unconscious speaks in the language of symbols, but for Freud the unconscious forces are almost always of a sexual nature. Jung was deeply in touch with his own unconscious. Like Mesmer, Jung studied Paracelsus. He recognized that there are unconscious forces which are not of a sexual origin, but which originate from a “collective unconscious,” and which are of a transcendental, symbolic, mythological, poetic, and inspirational nature. Jung arrived at these insights from his own dreams and visionary experiences. He also put his cousin under hypnosis repeatedly, and from her trance communications he determined that different parts of her psyche presented themselves as different personalities, but all with the same intention of coming together. He concluded that these parts were trying to unify and become a whole person. From this Jung theorized that there are unconscious forces within us trying to come together, and that the work of our lives is to be in communication with these deeper parts of ourselves and become more whole. This process he called “individuation,” referring to becoming an indivisible unity. Jung published his work Transformations and Symbols of the Libido in 1912, which precipitated his break from Freud.

Originally it was Paracelsus who presented the idea of the unconscious. Mesmer discovered that in altered states one could heal diseases. Charcot demonstrated Mesmer’s discovery, also showing that one could induce symptoms by suggestion in hypnosis. This led Freud to the idea that symptoms might be caused by internal unconscious forces, so he explored the unconscious through hypnosis and then dreams. Jung then returned to Paracelsus and the process of using trance to communicate with the unconscious. In this way, the theory of the unconscious, mesmerism, and hypnosis became great contributions to human knowledge and tremendously important influences in modern psychological theory.

Man is a vast being of mind, and a substantial portion of this mind is inaccessible during ordinary waking consciousness. In a way, we are alienated from our own inner natures and incomplete. Wholeness and happiness occur when we come to know our inner natures through non-rational processes, such as trance and meditation, for example. That knowing is not intellectual knowledge, but the empirical knowledge of experience, a “knowledge of the heart.” When you stop to listen to your innermost self and learn to maintain communication with your unconscious, your life is enriched.

This article is inspired by and adapted from a lecture entitled “Wisdom Beyond Psychology” from the C. G. Jung Lectures of Dr. Stephan Hoeller.