A brief history of hypnosis

Many people will instantly connect hypnosis to Dr Franz Anton Mesmer who gave his name to the words “mesmerism” and “mesmerised”, both of which can still be found in the dictionary today. However, the word hypnosis was coined by the English surgeon James Braid during the late 19th century from the Greek word “hypnos” meaning sleep. Hypnosis has existed for very much longer and has probably been used in some form for as long as man himself has existed.

A great number of ancient documents from many cultures verify the use of hypnosis as being one of the oldest therapies used by humankind. It was known to have been in use as a cure by the early civilisations of ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Indians and Persians. Elements of hypnosis can be found in magical rituals, shamanism, faith healing and many kinds of religious practices. Ancient Middle Eastern scripts dating from around six thousand years ago reveal that the Sumerians used methods of hypnosis as a therapeutic tool in which priests or physicians gave sufferers hypnotic suggestions. The Ebers papyrus of Ancient Egypt tells how trance was induced by gazing at shiny pieces of metal. The papyrus also contained a brief section on psychiatry which described a form of depression.

The 16th century saw the development of a theory about the association between disease, the stars, and also the magnetic power between one human being and another. This was a theory conceived by a Swiss scientist-physician-alchemist named Theophrastus Phillippus Aureolus Bombastus Von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus (1493-1541). It was this theory that was further developed by the Austrian doctor Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). Mesmer firstly trained as a priest but decided to change direction and study law at the University of Vienna. He then changed direction again deciding to become a doctor. He was extremely interested in the theory of Paracelsus and came to believe that there was an invisible magnetic fluid which connected the earth and all human beings. This magnetic fluid he thought was affected by the movement of the planets and when its distribution became unbalanced, pain and disease resulted. Dr Mesmer called this fluid “animal magnetism” and believed that if it’s balance could be restored in the body cures would result. Mesmer achieved a great many cures using several methods for re-balancing the animal magnetism.

His most famous treatment involved the use of a large wooden tub which stood in the middle of his treatment room. The tub contained iron fillings, sand and water, and from the tub emerged iron rods which patients were instructed to hold in silence. During this treatment, patients sometimes experienced convulsions or appeared to enter into a deep sleep. Mesmer’s medical colleagues became increasingly angry at his apparently miraculous successes, as it was not unusual for Mesmer to have around two thousand patients waiting to see him.

Mesmer later moved his operation to Paris where he gained the patronage of Marie Antoinette. After a short while Mesmers French colleagues began to show signs of professional jealousy and he was refused recognition by La Societe Royalede Medicine. Pressure from La Societe forced King Louis XVI to order an investigation into Mesmer and his practices and in 1779 a French government Commission was appointed headed by Benjamin Franklin. When no scientific proof could be found to explain the cures, Mesmer’s activities were condemned and an unfavourable report accused Mesmer of Mysticism. Dr Mesmer was forced into retirement and returned to his birthplace where he occasionally treated friends and neighbours. Mesmer died many years later in 1815.

Many years after Mesmer’s death Richard Chenevix a fellow of the Royal Society stated “the most extraordinary event in the whole of human science is that mesmerism could be doubted”.

There has been a great many pioneers throughout the history of hypnosis. The Marquis de Puysegur who followed the techniques of Mesmer was unscientific in his approach and soon discovered that magnets were not needed to bring about a cure. By 1784 the Marquis was mesmerising on a large scale and goes down in history for the discovery of the somnambulistic trance state. Abbe Faria (1755-1819) was one of the first to approach hypnosis from a scientific angle and went on to develop the fixed stare method of induction believing that the hypnotic state was induced by the power of suggestion. Abbe Faria was also the first man to discover that psychological attitudes had an effect on the individual’s hypnotic state.

The French doctor Alexandre Bertrand went further. He believed that it was the strength of the patient’s imagination that bought about a cure. Dr John Elliotson president of the Royal medical society and professor of medicine at the University College London began inducing trance like state in patients in order to relieve pain in surgery. He had been inspired, in part, by Franz Joseph Gall who developed phrenology. Elliotson was so impressed by his successes that he went on to perform painless surgery on patients using hypnosis. This upset his fellow physicians as they believed that pain was an important part towards healing. Dr Elliotson gained so many followers that he was forced to perform many of his operations in the hospital amphitheatre.

James Braid (1795-1860) was the next prominent figure to carry the baton for hypnosis. He conducted many experiments and concluded that the state of hypnosis was genuine, realising that the trance-like state could be induced very easily and that it was also effective on animals. James Braid was a very dedicated physician who stated “we have acquired an important curative agency for a certain class of disease, but I by no means wish to hold it up as a universal remedy”.

Dr James Esdaile (1808-1859) was a Scottish doctor who spent most of his working life in India. He used hypnosis with astounding results. At the end of 1846 Dr Esdaile submitted reports indicating that he had performed over three thousand minor operations and about three hundred major ones, also nineteen amputations, all painlessly using only hypnosis. He also cut the fifty percent mortality rate at the time to less than eight percent. The Medical Association accepted his report and he was assigned to the Calcutta hospital to continue the use of hypnosis in operations.

In 1846 Ambroise-Auguste Liebeault (1823-190) a French country doctor found that suggestion could be extremely effective in treatment. He did not believe that hypnosis held any magical powers and was one of the first men to teach hypnosis as purely a matter of suggestion. He felt that success only needed the suggestion to be firmly planted in the patients mind. Later Liebeault was joined by Hippolite Bernheim, a professor of medicine, and together they founded the most renowned centre for hypnotic healing The School of Nancy, in France.

At the same time Liebeault and Bernhiem were studying hypnotism, Dr James Martin Charcot (1825-1893) was experimenting at his clinic in Salptriere. He was the first one to identify and label different levels of hypnotic trance. The names he gave to these stages were Lethargy, Catalepsy and Somnambulism. Charcot became recognised throughout the medical world for his contributions to the field of neurology, and his acceptance of hypnotism caused many doctors to accept it. Dr Charcot was a distinguished physician who worked with Sigmund Freud and Alfred Binet the inventor of the IQ test. Dr Charcot also founded the Salpertriere School of Hypnotism.

Sigmund Freud used hypnosis to explore the subconscious mind and became aware that identifying the cause of a patient’s anxiety was the essential first stage of an ultimate cure. Dr Joseph Breur found that patients could speak easily during the hypnotic state, even when there was resistance to personal conversation while in the conscious state and this is the basis for hypno-analysis.

After World War I, there were many cases of war neuroses and other trauma caused by the anxiety of war, and by a shortage of psychotherapists. In World War II hypnosis was used in numerous treatments and doctors in prisoner-of-war hospitals, denied drugs were left with nothing to use except hypnotic suggestion to create anaesthesia. In most cases the healing was actually promoted, and the hypnosis worked.

Others like Dave Elman and Dr Milton H Erickson were great contributors to the subject of hypnosis during the 20th Century. Dave Elman was a teacher of hypnosis to many in the medical profession, and the council on Mental Health of the American Medical Association finally accepted the use of hypnosis in 1958. Dr. Milton H Erikson achieved such great accomplishments that he has been considered to be a master of hypnosis who worked intuitively.

The use of hypnosis has continued its quiet, steady progress and in 1953 the British Medical Association founded a subcommittee which bought out a positive report about the effectiveness of hypnosis in pain relief, dentistry, surgery and obsterics. In recent years there has been a growing awareness towards the value of hypnosis in treating a certain class of illness. Today, hypnosis is not only used in the treatments of psychological problems, dentistry and surgery, but also in many areas of self improvement by enhancing confidence, relationships of all kinds and in the work place helping to release the wonderful potential of the individual.






Kerry Weaver Clinical Hypnotherapy
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