Hypnosis has worked for millions of people for thousands of years, became a science in the 19th century, is recognized by all major medical and psychiatric associations around the world and has been shown to be effective in the treatment of diseases and disorders.
In ancient cultures throughout the world, places of worship were centers for both spiritual and physical healing. Religious leaders commonly used trance states as a part of their healing treatments and religious ceremonies. Hieroglyphics found on Egyptian tombs, believed to be from 3000 BC, depict the use of hypnosis in religious rites and surgical procedures. Hypnotic healing techniques are mentioned in ancient Chinese and Hindu writings dating as far back as 2600 BC. Ancient Greeks and Romans were also known to have used hypnosis for surgical preparation, anesthesia, healing, and to induce dreams to find the root of illness.
Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815)
The founder of modern hypnosis was Austrian physician, Franz Mesmer, from whose name the word “mesmerism” is derived. Mesmer theorized that an invisible magnetic fluid circulated within every human body, and that any disruption of the proper balance of this fluid could cause illness. Mesmer claimed to be able to conduct the flow of this magnetic fluid to heal his patients, using hypnotic techniques which came to be known as “mesmerism.” The popular image of the hypnotist as a man with magnetic eyes, cape and goatee beard comes from Mesmer.
James Braid (1795-1860), “Father of modern hypnosis”
The modern scientific understanding of hypnosis originates with the pioneering work of prominent Scottish surgeon, James Braid. A skeptic at first, Braid closely observed three public demonstrations of mesmerism and examined the physical condition of the mesmerized subjects, especially their eyes and eyelids. He concluded that they were, indeed, in quite a different physical state, although he rejected the notion that it had anything whatsoever to do with the demonstrator’s “magnetic gaze” or “irresistible powers.” Setting out to prove this, Braid began conducting experiments and discovered how to hypnotize himself and others through eye fatigue, simply by fixating the eyes on an object. For years, he continued to make a detailed scientific study of hypnotic techniques and the various phenomena obtained in trance.
Wanting to remove the idea of any mesmeric powers attached to the state of trance, Braid adopted the term “hypnosis” because of the outward resemblance to sleep (derived from “hypnos”, a Greek word for sleep). Braid regarded hypnosis as a “nervous sleep” which differed from ordinary sleep. Because of the confusion between hypnosis and actual sleep, however, he later tried unsuccessfully to change the term to “monoideism” (focused attention on a single idea).
John Elliotson (1791-1868)
Medical doctors continued to experiment with hypnotism, refining its use during the 1800s. In London, professor and physician Dr John Elliotson performed numerous painless operations using hypnosis, and advocated its use in therapy. Despite Elliotson’s low mortality rate and high success rate, his interest in hypnosis led to conflicts with the hospital’s medical committee and his resignation. He continued to give demonstrations of hypnosis in his own home to any interested parties, leading to a steady increase in literature on the subject.
James Esdaile (1808-1859)
James Esdaile, a British chief surgeon practicing in Calcutta, India, performed over 3000 major operations using hypnosis as his only anesthetic. The mortality rate during operations dropped from 25-50% down to 5%. When Esdaile returned to England, he was unable to repeat the successes he achieved in India. He attributed this to lack of belief and negative expectation.
The development of chemo-anesthesia at the end of the nineteenth century brought the use of hypnosis in medicine to a standstill. Doctors began to rely on anesthetic drugs which were easier to use and effective with a wide range of patients.
Hypnosis in the 20th Century
Use of Hypnosis during the Wars
The use of hypnosis in the treatment of neuroses flourished in World War I, World War II and the Korean War. Hypnosis techniques were merged with psychiatry and were especially useful in the treatment of what is known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
During World War II, hypnosis was used in some prisoner-of-war hospitals as a substitute for chemical anesthesia and as a form of pain relief. Often, healing took place more rapidly with the use of hypnosis. After the war, reports of these events became available to the medical profession and some doctors began applying hypnosis in many fields including dentistry, obstetrics, dermatology and pain relief.
Milton Erickson, MD (1901 – 1980)
Probably one of the most well-known contributors to the science and acceptance of hypnosis in the 20th century was an American psychiatrist and family therapist, Dr. Milton Erickson. At age 17, Erickson was struck with polio. Every day, he would imagine getting out of bed and walking to the window. His muscles began to respond, and eventually he was able to walk again. During the time of his illness, he became fascinated by his observation of human behavior and devised innovative and creative ways to help people.
Erickson made use of an informal conversational approach, complex language patterns, and therapeutic strategies. He developed the use of indirect suggestion, metaphor, surprise, confusion, and humor in hypnosis. Erickson was a master of symbolic storytelling and his techniques have been studied, modeled, and adapted by many of the recent and present day leading figures in hypnosis.
Significant Dates in Hypnosis History
- 1892: The British Medical Association (BMA) approved hypnosis as a genuine therapeutic agent “frequently effective in relieving pain, procuring sleep, and alleviating many functional ailments.”
- 1925-1947: The use of hypnosis in dentistry was developed in the U.S.
- 1955: The British Medical Association again issued a statement supporting the usefulness of hypnosis as a form of therapy.
- The Catholic Church accepted hypnosis as legitimate therapy.
- The American Medical Association issued statements supporting the usefulness of hypnosis as a form of therapy.
- The American Psychological Association (APA) approved hypnotherapy for use by professionally responsible individuals.
- British Hypnotherapy was founded.
- 1962: A brain operation was performed under hypnosis in Indianapolis.
- 1968: The British Society of Medical and Dental Hypnosis was founded, exclusively for medical doctors and dentists.
- 1996: A National Institutes of Health panel recommended the use of hypnosis for a variety of issues.