History of Hypnosis

Mind-Body Medicine and mind-body healing, as we now call it is not new.  The term “hypnosis” has been around since the 1840s, but healers began using this technique, or some form of it, centuries earlier. We have records of hypnosis going back 2,500 years in ancient China and Egypt. In ancient Greece, the physical remnants of the sleep healing temple of Asklepios still exist.

The physician Asklepios created a sleep healing temple where people would enter a dimly lit stone room (called an Abaton) and recline on a stone bench that was elevated on one end, much like a chaise lounge. (This bench was called a klini, which is the origin of our word “clinic.”) The patients were prepared for several days in advance with purifying waters, baths, and fasting. They learned to relax into a peaceful calm. Then on the day of their treatment they would enter the Abaton. They were instructed to recline on the klini, to enter their calm reverie and silently await Asklepios. He would then come into the chamber and whisper his intention to them, based on their illness or condition. He might say, “I’m going to take your headaches away,” or “You can eat anything you want now, free of discomfort,” or “You will sleep well now.” After his gentle touch and affirmative words he would then leave. We believe his treatments worked because his patients carved testimonials into the stones and rocks around the temple telling of their cures.

Although not yet known as “hypnosis,” this kind of treatment continued throughout history, from practitioners such as the Persian physician Avicenna around 1000 A.D., the Swiss physician Paracelsus in the 16rh century, and others. Yet the person who had the most influence on modern hypnotism was Franz Anton Mesmer, an Austrian physician who lived from 1734 to 1815. Around 1770, he began investigating what was then called “animal magnetism,” which was the practice of using magnets to move energy around people to heal them. (It had nothing to do with animals; instead, “animal” referred to sentient beings as opposed to the vegetable and mineral classes.) In one reported experiment, Mesmer cut a patient and after he passed a magnet over the wound, the bleeding stopped. However, the bleeding also stopped when he used a stick of wood instead of a magnet. In time, he created trance-inducing methods including touching and stroking patients, as well as staring into their eyes and waving magnetic wands that he believed would remedy the “cosmic fluid imbalance” in their bodies. He was convinced that these techniques could banish illness and suffering, and they often did if the patient was susceptible to this “mesmerism.”

Mesmer became very popular, and he let this go to his head. He grew eccentric, wearing capes and gowns decorated with stars and crescent moons, and often made a spectacle of himself by waving around an iron rod. In 1784, other physicians petitioned King Louis XVI of France to investigate Mesmer and his techniques, to which many people of the time objected. Louis appointed a commission to do this work; it included Benjamin Franklin, who then lived in France; the chemist Antoine Lavoisier; and Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the peaceable man for whom the guillotine was later, and unfortunately, named (even though it was his brother that invented it). The commission ultimately decided that Mesmer’s methods had no medical merit—remember that medical practices at the time included “scientific” methods such as blood-letting and applying leeches—and Mesmer was discredited.

However, other French and British physicians in the mid-1800s who were interested in the excellent results Mesmer obtained with his patients studied his work and techniques. They eventually discovered that whatever healing occurred was not the result of anything magnetic but because of the power of suggestion. Mesmer’s patients, whom he was able to induce into a very relaxed, dreamy state, responded to his suggestions so that their bodies responded appropriately in some unknown way that healed their condition or illness. This discovery led the British physician, John Elliotson, who was president of the Royal Medical and Chirugical [Surgical] Society of London to become more interested in mesmerism. He founded and edited a magazine called The Zoist about this new technique, but he, too, was ridiculed because of his interest in it. However, Elliotson also introduced the stethoscope to England, and that became a long-lasting tool of medicine.

Many believe that in 1843, James Braid, a Scottish surgeon, coined the term “hypnosis” from Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, in the mistaken notion that someone in a hypnotic trance is asleep. However, my distinguished colleague, Dr. Melvin Gravitz, a noted authority on the history of hypnosis, tells me that the term “hypnosis” was first used by the French physician de Cuvillers. While many physicians continued to disregard hypnosis, a number of others began investigating it. Sigmund Freud studied it around 1885 and used it for a time but then abandoned it in favor of conscious psychoanalysis.

In 1920, Emil Coué, a French pharmacist, wrote the first book on “autosuggestion,” or self-hypnosis, titled Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion. He had long given his patients affirmations, or positive statements, to say in a daily ritual, in the belief that these suggestions would improve their lives and health. His most famous affirmation is, “Every day in every way, I am getting better and better.” In his book, he offered other instructions about self-hypnosis, including the warning, “Never the nots.” This is a warning to use only positive statements in self-hypnosis because the subconscious mind cannot recognize a negative statement. For instance, if you say, “I do not want to smoke,” your subconscious hears, “I want to smoke,” and you act accordingly, puzzled why your interest in cigarettes is not reduced.

The modern study of hypnosis began with psychologist Clark Hull. In his book, Hypnosis and Suggestibility, published in 1933, he offered a rigorous examination of hypnosis. He determined that hypnosis was not sleep and had no connection with it. His work also reined in hypnotists’ extravagant claims and demonstrated the reality of pain reduction through hypnotic trance. He clearly showed that effects of hypnosis were the result of suggestion and motivation. Hull is famous for the way he stared into the eyes of his patients until they became hypnotically induced.

Thanks to Hull’s work of training doctors, many wounded soldiers in World War II were treated for pain successfully with hypnosis on the battlefield when morphine was not available. These results led to the creation of the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis (SCEH) in 1949, now an international organization of “psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, nurses, dentists and physicians who are dedicated to the highest level of scientific inquiry and the conscientious application of hypnosis in the clinical setting.” In 1957, Dr. Milton Erickson and others created the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis (ASCH). Both of these professional societies share and have similar memberships, yet the former is more oriented towards experimental research and the other towards clinical applications of hypnosis. The American Society of Clinical Hypnosis is now the organization that provides the certification in clinical hypnosis. This certification is much more professional than the certifications from other schools awarded to people who do not have degrees in medicine, psychology, dentistry, social work, or therapy.  For an interesting look into the world of unregulated hypnosis certification check out Dr. Steve Eichel’s experiment.

Better research methods and technologies in recent years have brought mind-body medicine and hypnosis more into the public eye. With neuro-imaging devices such as functional MRIs and PET scans, we can see inside the brain to view in real time what is happening when someone is pretending, imagining, or using hypnotic suggestion. What we have found is that the brain cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is only imagined. The brain responds as if the event is actually happening: When a person imagines a cat, the brain acts as if a cat is actually present. If a person is given a hypnotic suggestion that something painful is happening to her foot, the portion of the brain that senses pain in the foot “lights up” just as if the pain were real.

An interesting study about color was done with people in a hypnotic trance. While they were in this state, it was suggested to them that they were looking at a black-white-gray scale when, in fact, they had a full-color scale in front of their eyes. However, the part of the brain that manages monochrome images became very active, while the part of the brain that manages color remained quiet. These results, and others, give much credibility to the powers of hypnosis and suggestion.

I believe we’re on the edge of many more and greater discoveries in the field of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to reorganize itself according to various stimuli. As studies performed with Tibetan monks and other long-time meditators have shown, brain changes occur in response to meditation done over long periods of time. Many other studies have demonstrated that exercises, activities, and even thoughts will cause physical changes in the brain. Hence we now have a new mantra; ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’.  We are indeed what we think!

In large part, this explains the same thing happening with hypnosis—we change based on what we tell our brains—or more accurately, what we tell the subconscious mind so that the physical brain reacts accordingly. With hypnosis and other methods, we use the power of our minds to physically influence our brains for healing and enhancement of body, mind, and spirit.

For a most interesting treatment of the subject of the history of clinical and medical hypnosis look at A Critical History of Hypnotism: the Unauthorized Story by Saul Marc Rosenfeld.