Hypnosis, as we explained in our main article in this section, What is hypnosis?, is a natural state of mind that many of us enter several times every day, so it’s a bit difficult to talk about the history of hypnosis without involving anthropology (the study of humankind). So in this article we’re going to deal with the history of intentional use of hypnosis – and it begins a few millenia ago 🙂
The word “hypnosis” comes from the Greek word hypnos, meaning “sleep”, although hypnosis isn’t sleep – if you’ve tried it, you know that you’re awake all the time, just deeply relaxed (see how hypnosis works for more details).
The history of group hypnosis can be traced back to the Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Greeks: both cultures had religious centers where people came to seek help with their illnesses and other problems. Hypnosis was used to induce dreams that the priests would analyze and interpret, trying to find the root cause of the issue.
The earliest writings confirm that hypnosis and trance (under different names) were used for different forms of healing: the father of Chinese medicine, Wong Tai, wrote about techniques that involved incantations in 2600 BC, and the Hindu Vedas, written about 1500BC, mention hypnotic procedures.
Many ancient religions – shamanic, druidic, voodoo, yogic – used trance-like states to heal the mind before actual medical practice. We know that even today, in some parts of the world, mass chanting and meditation to a steady drum beat are parts of religious ceremonies.
History of Hypnotherapy
The pioneer of modern hypnotherapy was Austrian physician Franz Mesmer (1734 – 1815), who believed that illnesses were caused by magnetic fluids in the body getting out of balance, and used magnets and other hypnotic techniques to treat people. Before him, people experimented with animal hypnosis:
In the 1600’s, people calmed chickens hypnotically by various means, such as balancing wood shavings on their beaks or tying their heads to the ground and drawing a line with chalk in front of their beaks. In France, farmers learned to hypnotize hens to sit on eggs not their own. (Source: danielolson.com)
Mesmer was the first to propose a rational basis for the effects of hypnosis and first to develop a consistent method for hypnosis. Although the medical community of his time accused him of fraud, for a very long time hypnosis was known as “mesmerism”. Mesmer is also the one we have to thank for the popular image of the hypnotist, as he was fond of dressing up in a cloak and playing ethereal music on the glass harmonica while performing mass inductions (it was the 17th century 🙂 ).
For a long time after Mesmer’s experiments, hypnosis was a dangerous interest for any mainstream physician – or anyone who wanted to be taken seriously. It had to wait till the late 19th century to become accepted as a valid clinical technique, and that was primarily thanks to surgeons and physicians like John Elliotson and James Esdaille who risked their reputation to use hypnosis to perform surgery, including amputations, and the researchers like James Braid, who revealed the physical and biological truths behind the “mesmerism”.
Braid was also the one who coined the term hypnosis, and he developed interest in this field practically by accident:
His interest in the phenomenon was aroused when he arrived late for an appointment and discovered his patient staring in intense fascination at the flickering flames of an oil lamp. The man proved very amenable to suggestions whilst in this state of locked attention. This experience, together with subsequent experiments, demonstrated to Braid that hypnosis is nothing more than a fixation of the attention, and that a number of remarkable things can be achieved whilst in this state. (source: abouthypnosis.com)
Hypnosis in the Modern Times
One of the names that you’ll probably recognize is Sigmund Freud – he used hypnosis in some of his early research. At the beginning of 20th century, practitioners such as Pierre Janet and Clark L. Hull advanced the scientific and academic study of hypnosis, and Emile Coué (best remembered for the phrase “day by day in every way I am getting better and better”) promoted the idea of auto-suggestion. He was also one of the first to realize that hypnosis is something that should be done with the client’s participation, rather than something which is done to the client by a hypnotist.
But the major figure of modern hypnotherapy is the therapist Milton H. Erickson (1901-1980) who pioneered “indirect hypnosis”, a permissive style of trance induction, based on subtly persuasive language patterns. His approach was based on understanding that the hypnotherapy needs to be meaningful to the individual in order to be successful – the approach that is still used in the 21st century.
Today, hypnosis and medicine are acknowledged to be related, and there are many official organizations that promote the safe and responsible use of hypnosis, and educate both medical professionals and the public about hypnosis and its uses.
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