The History of Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy


“Look into my eyes not around the eyes but into my eyes.” Kenny the stage Hypnotist in Little Britain.

Actually you very rarely ask anyone to look into your eyes – unless you are trying to "read" them a la Derren Brown - you may however use fixation – i.e. stare at a fixed point which could be a target or a picture or beam of light or even a pencil. Most Hypnotherapists or Hypnotists however would more likely use progressive relaxation to induce a state of trance. Contrary to popular myth it is usually the case that the client is always aware of what is happening and sadly won't be doing the funky chicken for the Hypnotists's amusement! The swinging watch was used centuries ago and people think that most of us use it still - but alas we don't - for the theatrical now you would have to see Derren Brown or read below about the grandaddy of all that myth of the staring eyed Hypnotist in cloak and with a goatee beard - Mesmer started that!

The swinging watch

More myths:

Trilby and Svengali – in the famous book a non singer is turned into a singer of international repute by a coercive manipulative and evil Hypnotist. There is some basis of truth in non singers being given sufficient confidence which with lessons turn out to be much more successful than they might ever have imagined. A lot of the rest is part of the myth making that surrounds the subject. A recent episode of NEW TRICKS on BBC TV suggested that a hapless victim was forced under hypnosis to act inappropriately or even murder or commit suicide when called with a "key word". Sadly this perpetuates the myth that people are completely under the control of the Hypnotist - when in fact they are aware all the time - yes even on stage... but I'm not going to talk about Stage Hypnosis.

“Animal Magnetism is the most significant discovery ever made, even if, for the time being, it brings more enigmas than it solves” Arthur Schopenhauer

"Mesmerism is too gross a humbug to admit any farther serious notice. We regard its abettors as quacks and imposters. They ought to be hooted out of Professional society.”  Thomas Wakley First editor of the Lancet

In any discussion about hypnosis of hypnotic like phenomena we are bedeviled by the lack of a clear acceptable definition. From the 'physicalists' (Heidenhain 1888, Pavlov 1923) through the 'suggestionists' (Bernheim et al. 1884) to the more recent 'no special hypnotic state' school (Barber, Sarbin et al. 1969) and "there is no such thing as hypnosis there is only self hypnosis" - it is clear there is a wide divergence of opinion which is likely to persist well into the future.

What do you think it is?

We know from recent research that there is finally a measurable verifiable Hypnotic state which is like no other in the mind – we have seen pictures of it in brain scans.

We also know from Dr L G Walker working now in Hull that Hypnosis seems to prolong life in Cancer and Aids patients.

We have also seen strange Russian experiments where subjects thrust their arms into ice cold water under hypnosis and felt no pain although the monitoring equipment suggested pain off the scale.

It seems that Hypnosis has some interesting and extraordinary things to offer. It is recently being discussed that Doctors could profitably learn Hypnosis for pain relief in patients - The Guardian. It wasn't until 1958 that the BMA stopped it's hostility to Hypnosis and started to see that it clould be a brillaint treatnment for IBS and pain relief - in Main stream Medicine they are just starting to see the benefits and Doctors are being urged by the BMA to learn it and teach it to patients for pain relief through self hypnosis.

Early History of Hypnosis:

Trance goes all the way back to the shaman, medicine man, druid or tribal witch doctor. We don't know who discovered trance but it has been induced and still is in some culture using one or a combination of the following: dance, drugs, chanting and drumming or music.  We see references in just about all religious texts to trance or trance like states accompanying healing or learning or getting in touch with an inner adviser.

In Ancient Egypt and Greece there were sleep temples - where patients in a trance like sleep would have their dreams analysed. Indeed, 'ypnos' is the Greek word for sleep, though the actual state of hypnosis is very different from that of sleep. Both cultures had religious centres where people came for help with their problems. Hypnosis was used to induce dreams, which were then analysed to get to the root of the trouble.

Before that in 2600BC the father of Chinese medicine, Wong Tai, wrote about techniques that involved incantations and passes of the hands. The Hindu Vedas written about 1500BC mention hypnotic procedures. Trance like states occur in many shamanistic, druidic, voodoo, yogic and religious practices. There was a lay Irish Priest way back who healed people with trance. There may be an element of trance and belief in the successful working of the faith healers today.


The modern father of hypnosis was an Austrian physician, Franz Mesmer (1734 - 1815), from whose name the word 'mesmerism' is derived. Though much maligned by the medical world of his day, Mesmer was nevertheless a brilliant man. He developed the theory of 'animal magnetism' - the idea that diseases are the result of blockages in the flow of magnetic forces in the body. He believed he could store his animal magnetism in baths of iron filings and transfer it to patients with rods or by 'mesmeric passes'.

The mesmeric pass must surely go down in history as one of the most interesting, and undoubtedly the most long-winded, ways of putting someone into a trance. Mesmer would stand his subjects quite still while he swept his arms across their body, sometimes for hours on end. His appearence with  his goatee beard, cloak, staring eyes and repetitive movements certainly put patients into a trance, and he seems to have been so successful that Society flocked to him and all the jealous members of the Viennese medical and scientific establishment couldn't stop him. Sadly he got hoist by his own petard - he treated a young brilliant pianist who was beautiful and blind and it seems there was more than treatment going on it ended in a sword fight with the Girl's Father and Mesmer's expulsion from Vienna!

Mesmer went to Paris - the same story - huge success, cured patients and Society flocking to him - including the Queen Marie Antoinette. His enemies could not touch him. Two who tried to investigate him were Benjamin Franklin and Dr Guillotine! Guillotine incidentally had invented the famous method of execution because he was opposed to Capital Punishment and thought that if they must execute people they should do so humanely. He actually made an enemy of Robespierre and if Robespierre hadn't died himself would have been executed on his own machine. It seems that Mesmer never really realised that the "animal magnetism" wasn't really the effective treatment and it was left to his pupils to realise and develop the early use of trance for treatment. France was the place to be for the further development of hypnosis, and many breakthroughs were made by such men as Ambrose Liebeault (1823 - 1904), J. M. Charcot (1825 - 1893) and Charles Richet (1850 - 1935).

I should mention Emile Coue (1857 - 1926), who moved away from conventional approaches and pioneered the use of auto-suggestion. He is most famous for the phrase 'Day by day in every way I am getting better and better'. His invented the use of affirmations and this still is cited in self help books as an effective way to change things that you do not like!

A man of enormous compassion, Coue believed that he did not heal people himself but merely facilitated their own self healing. He understood the importance of the subject's participation in hypnosis, and was a forerunner of those modern practitioners who claim, 'There is no such thing as hypnosis, only self-hypnosis.'

Coue's most famous idea was that the imagination is always more powerful than the will. For example, if you ask someone to walk across a cord on the floor, they can usually do it without wobbling. However, if you tell them to close their eyes and imagine the cord is tied between two buildings hundreds of feet above the ground, they will always wobble.

In a sense Coue also anticipated the placebo effect - treatment of no intrinsic value the power of which lies in suggestion: patients are told that they are being given a drug that will cure them.

Recent research into placebos is quite startling. In some cases statistics indicate that placebos can work better than many of modern medicine's most popular drugs. It seems that while drugs are not always necessary for recovery from illness, belief in recovery certainly is! So a combination of explanation leading to a belief and then a ritual and trance may well be said to lead to a sucessful desired change in a cllient - thus utilising the placebo effect under hypnosis. We have seen relatively recently clients being taken through a Gastric Band operation in their imagination under trance losing the same amount of weight and keeping it off in the same manner than they would if they had undergone the actual operation. There is some debate as to whether this the best approach as some hypnotherapists think that changing how, how much, and what people eat as well as dealing with why the client has overeaten junk food in the past is the better option - that and encouraging more exercise. The jury is out as to which is more effective - but it illustrates the way in which the imagination can be a powerful tool to facilitate a wanted change to a postive end!

John Elliotson (1791 - 1868), was a professor at London University, famous for introducing the stethoscope into England. He tried to champion the cause of mesmerism, but was thrown out. He gave demonstrations of "mesmerism" at home to anybody interested, and people began to write about the subject.

James Braid (1795 - 1860) was a Scottish eye doctor, who developed an interest in mesmerism by chance. He was late for an appointment and he found his patient in the waiting room staring into an old lamp, his eyes glazed. Fascinated, Braid gave the patient some commands, telling him to close his eyes and go to sleep. The patient complied. His major discovery was that getting a patient to fixate upon something was one of the most important parts of putting them into a trance.

The swinging watch, which many people associate with hypnosis, was popular in the early days as an object of fixation. Following his discovery that it was not necessary to wave your arms around in mesmeric passes, Braid published a book and proposed that the phenomenon now be called hypnotism.

Meanwhile, a British surgeon in India, James Esdaile (1808 - 1859), recognised the enormous benefits of hypnotism for pain relief and performed hundreds of major operations using hypnosis as his only anaesthetic. When he returned to England he tried to convince the medical establishment of his findings, but they laughed at him and declared that pain was character-building (although they were biased in favour of the new chemical anaesthetics, which they could control and, of course, charge more money for). So hypnosis became an 'alternative' form of medicine - this is changing gradually.

The sad fact is that it is swinging back the other way as many people have died of the anaesthetic - the Chinese have been few of the World's people who have continued to use Hypnosis and Trance in major operations instead of anaesthetic. A recent programme on TV showed a man undergoing deep root canal surgery under hypnosis.

Even Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939) was interested in hypnosis, initially using it extensively in his work. He eventually abandoned the practice - for several reasons, but mostly because he was a rubbish hypnotist! He favoured psychoanalysis, which involves the patient lying on a couch and the analyst listening usually without much interruption. He believed that the evolution of the self was a difficult process of working through stages of sexual development, with repressed memories of traumatic incidents the main cause of psychological problems. This is an interesting idea that has yet to be proved.

Freud's early rejection of hypnosis delayed the development of hypnotherapy, turning the focus of psychology away from hypnosis and towards psychoanalysis.

However, in the 1930's in America was a seminal modern text: Hypnosis and Suggestibility by Clark Hull. Hypnotherapy was developed from this point by many such as Dave Elman and Erickson among others.

Milton Erickson, MD (1901 - 1980), is still a towering influnce on modern Hypnotherapy an amazing human being - his books are fascinating insightful and funny. As a teenager he had polio and was paralysed, but he remobilised himself. It was while paralysed that he had an unusual opportunity to observe people, and he notice that what people said and what they did were often very different. He became fascinated by human psychology and devised countless innovative and creative ways to help people. He healed through metaphor, surprise, confusion and humour, as well as hypnosis. A master of 'indirect hypnosis', he was able to put a person into a trance without even mentioning the word hypnosis.

It is becoming more and more accepted that an understanding of hypnosis is essential for the efficient practice of every type of psychotherapy. Erickson's approach which was "modelled" by Bandler and Grinder in the sixties became the foundation of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) which is an effective part of the modern Hypnotherapist's techniques. Further developments of the Hypnotherapist's art came with Dave Elman. WE continue to see the uses of Hypnosis broadening and becoming more mainstream. Not so long ago a bus full of children was seized and a threat made against their lives. The American Police had nothing to go on but a partial number plate froma witness - a Hypnotist knew that in the subconscious we store everything so hypnotised the man to get the rest of the number and the children were found and rescued without loss of life. From treatments for pain, anxiety, stress, trauma, fears and phobias, quitting smoking and weight loss or losing other addictions and much else hypnotherapy seems to finally being recognised as not just a complementary or alternative therapy but increasingly a mainstream one. Sportsmen and artists use Hypnosis and NLP to improve performance - though who Tiger Woods models his performance on I am not sure - perhaps Tiger Woods on a good day! Hypnosis is developing in leaps and bounds and can also be the ultimate self help in that you target yourself with the help of a therapist to enable change and move forwards and acheive that holy grail of living for now and enjoying the small things of life again leading to better and happier mental health.

Any opinions expressed above are the author's own and I have merely placed them in one place for the curious to find different versions in one place as a service to the curious about the History of Hypnosis.

I would like to thank Richard MacKenzie, Daniel Olson and Paul McKenna whose work I read as background for this article. I hope that they will take any unconscious echoes of their work as a compliment!

Graham Howes Edge of the World Hypnotherapy and NLP

01206 391050


Hypnotherapy Hypnosis and NLP in Manningtree Essex and Hadleigh Suffolk for weight loss quit smoking and also facing fears phobias and changing habits for good and also enable the possibility of moving on from any past traumas.

Here's an article on "Does Hypnosis exist and work" from the BBC:

 Hypnosis has 'real' brain effect Hypnosis has a "very real" effect that can be picked up on brain scans, say Hull University researchers. An imaging study of hypnotised participants showed decreased activity in the parts of the brain linked with daydreaming or letting the mind wander. The same brain patterns were absent in people who had the tests but who were not susceptible to being hypnotised. One psychologist said the study backed the theory that hypnosis "primes" the brain to be open to suggestion. Hypnosis is increasingly being used to help people stop smoking or lose weight and advisers recently recommended its use on the NHS to treat irritable bowel syndrome. “ This shows that the changes were due to hypnosis and not just simple relaxation ” Dr William McGeown, study leader It is not the first time researchers have tried to use imaging studies to monitor brain activity in people under hypnosis. But the Hull team said these had been done while people had been asked to carry out tasks, so it was not clear whether the changes in the brain were due to the act of doing the task or an effect of hypnosis. In the latest study, the team first tested how people responded to hypnosis and selected 10 individuals who were "highly suggestible" and seven people who did not really respond to the technique other than becoming more relaxed. The participants were asked to do a task under hypnosis, such as listening to non-existent music, but unknown to them the brain activity was being monitored in the rest periods in between tasks, the team reported in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. Default mode In the "highly suggestible" group there was decreased activity in the part of the brain involved in daydreaming or letting the mind wander - also known as the "default mode" network. One suggestion of how hypnosis works, supported by the results, is that shutting off this activity leaves the brain free to concentrate on other tasks. Study leader Dr William McGeown, a lecturer in the department of psychology, said the results were unequivocal because they only occurred in the highly suggestible subjects. "This shows that the changes were due to hypnosis and not just simple relaxation. "Our study shows hypnosis is real." Dr Michael Heap, a clinical forensic psychologist based in Sheffield, said the experiment was unique in showing brain patterns supporting the theory that hypnosis works by "priming" the subject to respond more effectively to suggestions. "Importantly the data confirm that relaxation is not a critical factor. "The limited data from this experiment suggest that this pattern of activity then dissipates (at least to some extent) once the subjects start to engage in the suggestions that follow." But he said the small study, which needed repeating in other populations, did not prove that people being hypnotised were in an actual "trance".

Story from BBC NEWS: