Historical Background of Hypnosis
Hypnosis has existed for as long as there have been human beings. This is because the
hypnotic state is completely natural; something that can be achieved by everyone.
Many ancient cultures have records indicating activity that might be described as
hypnosis. Babylonians, Greeks, Egyptians, Druids, Vikings, Indian Yogis, Dervishes
& Hindu Priests; cultures using chants, drumming and dance rituals to change or alter
the state of consciousness. These were often linked to religion or healing or both.
The earliest written records can be found in texts like the Ebers Papyrus; an Egyptian
medical text dating around 1550BC. This scroll contains 700 ‘magical’ formulas
designed to cure afflictions ranging from crocodile bites to toenail pain. It also
includes a surprisingly accurate description of the circulatory system, noting the
existence of blood vessels throughout the body and the heart’s function as centre of
the blood supply. It contains a description of a physician placing hands on the heads
of a patient and, claiming superhuman therapeutic powers, gave forth with strange
remedial utterances which would lead to cures. The Egyptians are also thought to
have originated ‘sleep temples’ in which priests gave similar treatments through the
use of suggestion.
Hypocrites discussed the phenomenon saying “the affliction suffered by the body, the
soul sees quite well with the eyes shut”. Among the Romans, Aesculapius often threw
his patients into a “deep sleep” and allayed pain by stroking the patient with his hand.
In 2600BC the father of Chinese medicine, Wong Tai wrote about techniques that
involved incantations and the passing of hands. Other accounts can be found in the
Bible, the Talmud (a book of Jewish writings) and the Hindu Vedas, written about
The advent of Christianity led to a decline in the use of hypnosis because it was
considered witchcraft. In the Religious Aspects of Hypnosis (1962) there are
descriptions of how Jesus used hypnosis in performing many of his miracles.
Modern hypnosis started in the late 18th Century. A religious man called Father
Gassner believed that patients who were ill were possessed by the devil. He
performed a form of stage hypnosis. He told patients that when they were touched by
his gold crucifix they would fall to the floor where they should await his instructions.
They were told to “die” and an observer physician felt no pulse, heard no heart beat
and pronounced the person dead. The demons were ordered to depart and then the
patient revived. In the early 1770s this was observed by Mesmer.
Franz Anton Mesmer, (1734-1815), an Austrian physician, developed a theory called
“animal magnetism,” later named “mesmerism”. He believed that disease developed
when invisible magnetic fluids were cut off or improperly distributed due to the
gravitational attraction of the planets. Mesmer believed that this mysterious fluid
penetrates all bodies. This fluid allows one person to have a powerful, “magnetic”
influence over another person. In 1775 he revised his theory of “animal gravitation”
to one of “animal magnetism”.
Mesmer used a tub filled with water and iron fillings, protruding from which were
larger iron rods. He suggested to patients that as he touched them with his magnetic
rod they would become magnetised and would eventually go into a state of “crisis”
from which they would emerge cured. Many patients claimed that this treatment cured
He went to Paris to lecture and practice in 1778. His sessions, or séances, in which he
supposedly “magnetised” patients, created a sensation. But the medical profession
considered him a fraud. A French commission was formed to study the claims of
Mesmer and his followers. It reported that the magnetic fluids did not exist. It
explained the cures as a product of the patient’s imagination. However, some of his
patients and students continued to experiment with some of his methods and found
that magnets and fluids were unnecessary.
Marquis de Puysegur, a follower of Mesmer, discovered a form of deep trance he
called ‘somnambulism’. He forgot to mention the “crisis” when working with a
patient and discovered a quiet, relaxed state.
In the mid-nineteenth century a Scottish doctor, James Braid, pointed out that
hypnosis was different to sleep and that hypnotism was a physiological response in
the subject, not magical powers. He proceeded with experiments that disapproved the
notion that the ability to induce hypnosis was connected with the magical passage of a
fluid or other influence by the practitioner over the patient. He had a psychological
view that hypnosis is a kind of ‘nervous sleep’ induced by fatigue resulting from the
intense concentration necessary for staring fixedly at a bright, inanimate object. He
realised later that it was not ‘sleep’, but a concentration of the mind’. Perhaps Braid’s
most valuable contribution was his attempt to define hypnotism as a phenomenon that
could be scientifically studied. Introduced the term hypnosis in his book
Neurypnology in 1843. He later tried to re-name it ‘monoideism’, but ‘hypnosis’
already had strong roots in language. He was interested in the therapeutic possibilities
reporting successes with paralysis, rheumatism and aphasia. He was also interested in
aspects of panic and anxiety.
During this same period James Esdaile, a Scottish Doctor working in India, began to
use hypnotism as an anaesthetic in major surgery, including leg amputations. He
performed about 200 operations with the aid of hypnosis. As a result of his work the
BMA reported in 1891, “as a therapeutic agent hypnotism is frequently effective in
relieving pain, procuring sleep and alleviating many functional ailments”.
John Elliotson, English physician who advocated the use of hypnosis in therapy and
who in 1849 founded a mesmeric hospital. He was one of the first teachers in London
to emphasise clinical lecturing and invented the stethoscope. Performed 1,834
operations using hypnotic trance. Published first journal dealing with hypnosis –
‘Zoist’. He was also an expert in child hypnosis.
Jean Martin Charcot, a French neurologist performed landmark experiments in the
late 1800s. He found that hypnosis relieved many nervous conditions. His clinic for
nervous disorders achieved a widespread reputation among scientists of the time,
including the French psychologist Alfred Binet and the Austrian physician Sigmund
Also in the late 1800’s, the French physicians Hippolyte Bernheim and Ambroise
Auguste Liebeault explored the role of suggestibility in hypnosis. These two
scientists used hypnosis to treat more than 12,000 patients. Independently they wrote
that hypnosis involved no physiological processes, but was a combination of
psychologically medicated responses to suggestions. Liebeault “the father of modern
hypnotism”, broadened the scope of hypnosis beyond pain control. He was adept at
rapid hypnosis and he realised that a deep trance was not necessary, and he rarely
spent more than fifteen minutes with his patients. He suggested away symptoms, “all
phenomena in hypnosis are subjective in origin”.
At this time a range of induction techniques were introduced. Liebeault was merely
using the word “sleep” with a hand pass, Charcot on the other hand was violently
ringing gongs and flashing drums lights. The Germans, Weinhold and Heidenhain,
preferred the ticking of a watch, and Berger was using warm plates of metal. The idea
of magnetism and magnetic processes had not yet completely worn off yet. Despite
Liebeault’s explanation of the phenomena as subjective, Piteres maintained that
certain portions of the body were particularly sensitive to stimulation of the skin, and
these so- called hypnotic zones which were described by him existed sometimes on
one side of the body and other times on both. Moll has stated that he himself had seen
many persons who were hypnotised only when their foreheads were touched. Purkinje
and Spitt stated that touches on the forehead induced a sleepy state in many persons.
Cradle rocking used to induce children was well known, and Eisenhart has mentioned
stroking of the forehead as an excellent induction technique for children. Hirt often
used electricity to induce hypnosis, and Sperling, a contemporary of Bramwell’s and
Moll’s, described the hypnotic trances of Dervishes which he had seen in
Constantinople (now Istanbul).
Freud was especially interested in the work of Charcot and Bernheim. He used
hypnotised people in his early studies of the unconscious state. He used it to help
neurotics recall disturbing events that they had apparently forgotten. As he began to
develop his system of psychoanalysis, theoretical considerations, as well as the
difficulty he encountered hypnotising some patients led Freud to discarding hypnosis
in favour of free association. However, he continued to view hypnosis as an important
research phenomenon. Late in his life, Freud modified his once negative views on
Josef Breuer, Austrian physician and physiologist who was acknowledged by
Sigmund Freud and others as the principal forerunner of psychoanalysis. Breuer
found, in 1880, that he had relieved symptoms of hysteria in a patient, (called Anna
O. in his case study), Bertha Pappenheim, after he had induced her to recall
unpleasant past experiences under hypnosis. He cured a whole range of her problems
by revealing more and more of her previous experiences. One was that she was unable
to drink water; when she was regressed to the cause it was revealed that, at home, a
dog had been given water from a glass; when she came out of hypnosis she
immediately asked for and drank a glass of water.
In the 1880s, Pierre Janet identified the connection between academic psychology and
the clinical treatment of mental illness. He stressed psychological factors in hypnosis
and contributed to the modern concept of mental and emotional disorders involving
anxiety, phobias and other abnormal behaviour.
In 1891, the BMA reported favourably on the use of hypnosis in the field of medicine.
Various American scientists have made important advances in the study of hypnotism
during the 1900’s. Morton Prince showed that hypnotised people can maintain several
mental activities at the same time. Clark L. Hull demonstrated that hypnosis is a form
of heightened suggestibility.
Milton H. Erickson developed new strategies of hypnotism by combining clinical and
research techniques. He was a master of indirect hypnosis; he was able to take
someone into a trance without mentioning the word hypnosis.
Harold Crasilneck showed that hypnotic strategies can be effective with stroke
patients. Herbert Spiegel described the natural hypnotic talents of patients. The
studies of Ernest and Josephine Hilgard helped increase understanding of pain
mechanisms in the body.
Hypnotism became widely used by physicians and psychologists during World War I
and World War II. Hypnosis was used to treat battle fatigue and mental disorders
resulting from war. After the wars, scientists found additional uses of hypnotism in
In the 1950s both BMA and AMA issued statements supporting hypnosis.