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A brief history of hypnosis

So here is a brief history of hypnosis. Hypnosis or some form of it, and not necessary called hypnosis at that time, has been around and used for thousands of years – There are references to it in Egypt, Greece, China and other civilisations. 


For example, there are references to sleep temples in Egypt, and various other different practices dating back to 3000 BC, that resembles aspects of the hypnosis modality as we know it today.

Looking at these techniques and practices that were used prior to 1770s, one find that its primary focus was healing – whether it is Psychological of physical healing. The idea of healing prominently consisted of techniques involving the trance induction, through many of the cultures around the world and pretty every continent – Char men and healers who would cast a magical charm or a spell on the sick person – mostly through some sort of ritual, gazing into flickering flames and I wonder If you had ever experience trance state, getting lost in the flickering flames while comfortably gazing at the flickering, the ever-changing shapes that flames make…

Or, these healers would apply repeated dancing, drumming and listing to the rhythmic humming and always going through some process like rituals over and over again.

Healers would lay hands on the bodies of the sick. Touching certain parts, in a specific rhythmic sequence, rocking, using nonsensical sounds like some faith healers of today use across certain Christian teachings. These ancient practices have proven to be a very effective way for inducing trance and are today still used in some form.

Along came a German therapist called Frans Anton Mesmer. It was the 1770’s and magnetism was the new in-thing and people just started to explore electricity.

Mesmer believed magnetism to be the key to his therapy.

You know, same old, same old, even today we find explanations for making sense of things by picking the latest available scientific knowledge in an attempted to explain that, that we do not yet really understand.

In the computer age, we tried to explain complex working of the human brain by comparing it to a computer; in the industrial age, we explain the workings of the human body with mechanics; whereas in the quantum age we explain the workings of the brain and healing by comparing it to quantum physics.

In the 1770s Magnetism was the scientific in thing. So what did Mesmer do? He used magnetism to try and explain and understand, his successful healing practices. He was of the opinion that everything carried a certain level of magnetism.

Although some of his ideas weren’t totally radical, unfortunately he was still somewhat off the mark as he believed that he could magnetize objects and then hold it and pass it on to someone else, who then is cured… He had all these ideas, and ended up actually being very successful as a therapist – using his mesmeric approaches and techniques.

Benjamin Franklin who had a chip on his shoulders was then tasked to investigate Mesmer’s approach and claims. Franklin had to establish whether Mesmer was a fraud or not. Franklin set up blind studies. Mesmer had to magnetize things and then get people healed by the magnetism in those things. Two trees were used. Mesmer then had to magnetise the on and not the other. People were told that the magnetised tree will heal them. Some went to the magnetised tree and other to the other tree. The result from this study was that people got cured by both trees. This was a big issue for Franklin.

In his report, Franklin concluded that everything Mesmer said was incorrect. So even though Mesmer was getting good results, Franklin and many other people ignored that part – It wasn’t that he was unsuccessful. It was his theories behind his method of healing that was incorrect and because of this, people classed him as fraud, rather than asking why is it that, although his theories are wrong, his treatments are so successful.

After Mesmer got debunked by Franklin, mesmerism started going out of favour. Mesmer was discredited and quickly went out of favour.

After Mesmer, other people picked up and did some hypnotism, which was back then called mesmerism, and they seemed to get great results. Such a person was Dr. James Esdaile who was a surgeon and a mesmeriser (hypnotist) who worked in India in the mid-1800s.

Up until that time anaesthesia was not yet discovered.

Dr. Esdaile induced trance in his patients with mesmeric type hand and arm motions so that he could perform surgeries on them, without then experiencing any pain. It is this experience his clients had while in trance, that hypnotherapists after him tried to duplicate. They called it the Esdaile State.

As Anaesthesia was not yet discovered in the 1800’s surgery was done on people alive and people died during surgery. However, Esdaile’s success rate for mortality was almost 80% that compared to other physicians from that modern world and time, was unheard off, which meant that Esdaile was doing something right.

When Esdaile arrived back in England, his colleagues were unable to replicate his success rates. And what is it that people do when someone else is head and shoulder above you? They try to destroy the competition. So, Esdaile was branded a charlatan and his career was destroyed.

Then there was John Elliotson a British surgeon who also did a lot of work on mesmerism. He illustrated and applied mesmerism and how it prevents pain during a surgical operation, how it induce sleep and ease sickness, and even cured many diseases which ordinary methods had no effect on.

Elliotson strongly believed that it was the imperative and solemn duty of the medical profession to carefully and dispassionately examine the subject he believed was not mesmerism but something else that really worked.

Elliotson continued to provide demonstrations (mesmeric) from his own residence at 37 Conduit Street, Hanover Square where he partnered up with Engledue, and began publishing “The Zoist” in 1843, and, in 1849 he founded the London Mesmeric Infirmary.

Unfortunately in the middle to late 1800s, mesmerism, that was not understood at all at that time, was associated with new age mystical stuff, with phrenology for example.

As science became a bigger and bigger thing, because scientist didn’t understand it, they started distancing themselves more and more from mesmerism. As a result of this Elliotson’s reputation also started to rapidly declined, and as it did, his once-lucrative practice also disappeared, and he died, penniless, in 1868.

Then onto the scene came James Braid a Scottish surgeon and “gentleman scientist”, who was a significant innovator in the treatment of club-foot and an important and influential pioneer of hypnotism and hypnotherapy as we know it today. He is regarded by many as the first genuine “hypnotherapist” and the “Father of Modern Hypnotism”. He was great at inducing trance by having his subjects focus their attention on a variety of illuminated objects, such as candle flames or small mirrors, held at different distances from their faces, which produced exhaustion in the eyelids and as a result of this spontaneous eye closure.

At first, Braid identified this phenomenon with sleep because he was keen to avoid any taint of mesmerism, (which proved a potentially career-threatening association in the intellectual climate of that time). Therefore he needed a new word to describe his discovery. His first suggestion was neurypnology, (meaning “nervous sleep”), which also was the title of his book on this subject.

Continuing with the sleep theme, he subsequently favoured “neuro-hypnotism”, from Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, before dropping the prefix altogether. So, it was shortened and we still call it hypnosis today.

An ironic coda to this is that Braid swiftly discovered, that hypnosis had very little to do with sleep! As a result, he tried to popularize the term “monotheism”, which means a fixation of attention. Although this more accurately describes the process of trance induction, it was too late because hypnosis had already entered the language.

Braid’s reputation firmly rests upon his experiments and studies, which established hypnosis as a subject for scientific research and he persuaded the medical establishment that it was a valid clinical technique.

So Braid recognised that it is a focussed state rather than magnetism as Mesmer thought and with his idea of “monotheism” managed to steer away and separated it from the mystical new age Mesmer stigma and scientist started doing research on hypnotism, looking at how it worked, and finding scientific answers to why it works.

Unfortunately, it again ended up being associated with stage hypnosis with people coming on the scene in the early 1900s, doing hypnosis on stage, as performers, and also bringing in new age mystical stuff again, drawing hypnosis back into the whole new age scene and into the entertainment business.

Stage hypnotists from the early 1900s would heavily advertise stage hypnosis by putting up posters claiming being powerful and that they can control everyone and can make everyone do things.

There also were stories of people that were tricked and swindled with dishonest methods by these stage performers, in doing what they wanted them to do on stage.

So suddenly there was this thing that hypnotists are powerful and they control people. People started believing that the reason why one does what you do is because the hypnotist made you do it.

Unfortunately stage hypnotists in the 1900s, through trickery, damaged that image that Braid work so hard on getting right. The sensationalism and entertainment continued past the 1900s, which means even today the dogma and perception that the hypnotist controls people and can make them do stuff, unduly sticks.

Most recently, Dr. Michael D Yapko, who is a winner of the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis (SCEH), Arthur Shapiro’s Award for Best Book on Hypnosis, explains in his book “Mindfulness and Hypnosis” that therapeutic mindfulness is different to the traditional mindfulness that comes from Buddhism. It differs in that therapeutic mindfulness is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which is, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving, that is goal focused and focuses in changing patterns of thinking or behaviour that are behind people’s difficulties, and through guided visualisation therapeutic mindfulness, which is no different than guided visualisation hypnosis, bringing about cognitive behavioural therapy now.

Dr. Yapko advices Hypnotherapist to just as well call the work they do: therapeutic mindfulness. The benefit from calling it therapeutic mindfulness is that it describes the essence of hypnotherapy but doesn’t have hundreds of years of stigma and bad press linked to it.

In his book, he explores how mindfulness/hypnosis works in a clinical context and illustrates how it helps to foster change. He also explains that mindfulness therapy (hypnotherapy) has become integrated into many treatment programs for stress reduction, pain relief, anxiety management, and other health and wellness issues. On the question asked to why to use mindfulness (hypnotherapy), as a treatment tool that might easily have been dismissed as esoteric only a few short years ago, and why it has become so widely accepted, his reply is: Because it works!

After James Braid there were a few hypnotists like Freud, who went along to the Nancy school of hypnosis in France, who did research on hypnosis.

In the 1920s hypnosis started to be used more in the America’s. Clark Leonard Hull an American psychologist and researcher at a university, sought to explain learning and motivation by scientific laws of behaviour.

During the 1920s to the 1930s Milton Erickson studied at the same university and under Clark Hull studied Hypnosis. Erickson disagreed with a lot of Clark Hull theories and views and also challenged Hull endlessly. After Hull’s book was published, Milton Erikson would often mention that the book that Clark Hull wrote on hypnosis included many of his (Erickson’s) theories and views, and yet Hull never gave Erickson any credit, and that he (Erikson) wasn’t particularly pleased with that because those ideas of his used by Hull, in Hull’s book, were actually ideas that were almost opposed to Clark’s ideas.

So after Clark, Milton Erickson came to the forefront and from there, was one of the key contributors to hypnosis and hypnotherapy, especially during the period 1930′ to the 1980s when he died – He didn’t crop up much when it comes to looking at hypnotic research and was willing to learning about hypnosis and also share and teach what he learned. Erickson has written more than one and a half thousand pages of articles on hypnosis over his lifetime.

Erickson’s approach was different from the traditional approach, in that his approach was more about respect for his client and less about dictating and putting power on people. Today there are still the traditional teaching where one could hear hypnotic suggestions such as “now you will go into hypnosis” and things like that. But there is also people using the Ericksonian approach that is a more respectful and indirect approach, that would for example instead suggest: “You may find it more comfortable to go deeper as you breathe in or will you go into trance as you breath out, knowing the deeper you go the better you feel and the better you feel the deeper you go into trance“.

He contributed greatly in Oxford Books on Clinical Hypnosis, on the part about hypnosis in the Encyclopædia Britannica, and he also set up the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis.

One hundred years after Esdaile’s use of hypnosis in surgery, Dave Elman, who once was a stage hypnotist, eventually came across “the hypnotic coma state”, which he later found seemed to be very close to if not identical to the Esdaile state.

Elman taught hypnosis to doctors and as he taught them how to use this state, there was great excitement about the possible uses of such deep trance among his hypnosis seminar participants and as more doctors learned how to induce this type of trance state, (and similar other “states”), the number of childbirths with reduced pain and dental surgeries with no anaesthesia rose greatly in those practices.

Even today there is definitely still is reason to be excited about this Esdaile/Coma state as people have successful operations on their voice cords and hernia correction and dental procedures without anaesthesia.

And today there are doctors like Dr. Ernest L. Rossi, (PhD), an internationally renowned therapist, teacher doing ground-breaking studies into therapeutic mindfulness and how it can help change your brain.

Different to the belief of some people, there is scientifically tested knowledge on hypnosis and it is found that hypnosis is not mystic but rather a very beneficial and healthy alternative to drug treatment.

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