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For the curious..A brief history of Hypnosis

Hypnosis and its therapeutic uses have been part of human cultures for thousands of years. It has gone through many expressions and changes to reach Hypnotism as we understand it today. These are some of the methods and pioneers that influenced the development of modern Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy.

From Sleep Temples to Ego Strengthening


Dream-like states and Hypnotic Suggestion

The Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans had Sleep Temples  where people used hypnosis-like practices to put sick people in trance-like states, using their dreams to diagnose and cure them. Greek sleep temples were dedicated to Asclepios the Greek God of Healing. After undergoing a ritual purification practice and donating to the temple, people were brought into an Abaton, a sleep room where the God Asklepios would visit them in their dreams and either healed them or suggested the cure.


Paracelsus (1491-1541)  and the Mind -Body Connection

Paracelsus was a Swiss renaissance physician who believed in the healing power of magnets and used magnets and the passing over of hands to cure people.  Paracelsus is credited with bringing the mind-body connection concept to the west after travelling and studying extensively in India and central Asia for over 8 years. He also learned about the medicinal uses of plants and folk remedies from Gypsy communities. He theorised that there were two magnetic forces in the universe, one that connected everything and another that  was “the vital spirit” in everything  living which could be directed for healing purposes  by the human mind, either your own or someone else’s.  

Fr Maximilian Hell (1720-1792) and his magnetized loadstone plates

Interest in working with magnets continued into the Enlightenment with the interestingly named Jesuit priest Father Hell who was also a physician who worked with magnets and applied steel plates to people’s bodies as part of his  treatment. One of his students was to take the next leap forward in the history of Hypnotism.

Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) and his universal magnetic fluid

Hypnotism exploded into Western cultures during the Enlightenment with one of its most charismatic pioneers, Viennese physician  Franz Anton Mesmer.

Building on the work of earlier magnetists, Mesmer initially  used magnets to perform so called mesmeric passes over people much like a modern Reiki Healer to remove blockages   He later found just passing his hands alone  had beneficial effects and began investigating an effect he called Animal Magnetism,  as opposed to mineral magnetism. He  believed that he was able to tap into an invisible  magnetic fluid which was present throughout the universe and direct it in another person’s body as a healing modality. His name is where the term Mesmerism comes from.

With the discovery of electricity, people during the Enlightenment  period believed there were invisible forces everywhere and his work  caught the zeitgeist and  imagination of the people of the time. In his practice, Mesmer was also very successful in healing people to the chagrin of the medical community who generally had a poor ratio of patients surviving their treatments.

 ”He was a tall, handsome, imposing man. Every now and then he would place himself en rapport with a subject seated opposite him, foot against foot, knee against knee. This practice, often provoking a trance-like state, is thought to have been the germ of what would become hypnotism”.(Extract from Franklin and Mesmer : An Encounter)

 As his popularity grew, Mesmer had wooden tubs constructed called  Baquets  which held  thirty plus people who could be hypnotised at once; these Baquets were filled with iron filings and magnetised water.  Over  a period of 10 years, he became very successful and wealthy with  many aristocratic clients. The scientific community of the time  despised his success, his showmanship and his  theatricality,  healing using the force of his personality, along with the robes and rituals in his performances.

His theory  was later discredited by the Franklin Commission  appointed by King Louis XVI in 1784 to evaluate Animal Magnetism  headed by  Benjamin Franklin, ambassador to France at the time, and interestingly names Monsieur  Guillotin, namesake of the eponymous device he later invented. They concluded that the force known as Animal magnetism did not exist and any benefits people experienced was down to their imagination and suggestibility. Mesmer was declared a charlatan, now infamous, his popularity  dwindled.


The Marquis de Puysegur (1751-1855) and his theories of Hypnotic Induction

The interest in magnetism and mesmerism continued unabated  despite Mesmer’s fall from grace and the next key figure in the development of Hypnotic practice was French Aristocrat  the Marquis De Puysegur who  was a Magnetist and disciple of  Mesmer. He is  credited with inventing the Hypnotic induction,  the process Hypnotists uses to bring people into Hypnosis. He realised  that suggestion and words  were more effective than mesmeric passes or material aids  at bringing  a person into a  trance like state which he called :  Artificial Somnambulism  and pioneered its psychotherapeutic applications. Somnambulism is the deepest trance state. He also discovered that people in deep trance could be operated on without experiencing pain or the need for anaesthesia


Abbé de Faria (1756-1819) and his understanding of the power of suggestion

Abbé de Faria was a Goan Catholic Monk, he was also a theologian, a philosopher, and a scientist

De Faria rejected the concept of Animal Magnetism and understood that Hypnosis which he termed “Lucid sleeping” worked purely by the will and the suggestibility of the subject  being hypnotised,  not the powerful personality and animal magnetism of the mesmeriser. His theatre shows demonstrating  “Lucid sleeping”  damaged his reputation.  During the French Revolution he  was imprisoned and spent his time distilling  his  theory and techniques of self-suggestion.  Interestingly Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo features the character of an imprisoned  Abbé Faria .

James Esdaile. (1808 – 1859) Mesmerism and its practical application in surgery and medecine

Until the 1840s,  most surgeries were conducted without pain relief as Ether and Chloroform had yet to be invented and  Hypnosis became  a popular form of anaesthesia. Scottish surgeon James Esdaile performed hundreds of major surgeries whilst practising in India . He was a Magnetist and believed passing his hands over patients, stroking their skin  achieved pain relief. Using Hypnosis as his only form of anaesthesia, just 5% of his patients died during surgery compared to the average of 50% driving the belief that Hypnosis  was responsible for the lower mortality rate. Back in England he tried in vain to get the medical Establishment to consider the value of Hypnosis as a legitimate therapeutic technique but  was widely ridiculed. When Ether and Chloroform came on the scene, it was realised these were quicker to use,  and were an opportunity to control a very lucrative and captive  market. 

The word “Hypnosis” is born.

James Braid (1795-1860) Gentleman Scientist and a Father of Modern Hypnotism

Scottish Surgeon James Braid is  considered as one of the Fathers of modern Hypnotism. In 1843 he coined the term Hypnosis  based on the Greek word “ Hypnos” for sleep as he theorised Hypnosis  produced a “Nervous Sleep” which of course it does not, and the term mesmerism was consigned to the history books. He later tried unsuccessfully to rename it monoideism. Braid discovered, by chance,  that getting a patient to fixate upon something was one of the most important factors in  bringing them into a trance. The swinging pocket watch was popularised during that time, something many people associate with Hypnotism.


The French Schools of Hypnosis :  Jean Martin Charcot (1835-1892) and Hippolyte Bernheim (1837-1919)

Dr Jean-Martin Charcot  established a school in Paris and Dr Hippolyte Bernheim, and Dr Liebault established a School in Nancy. There was fierce rivalry between the Schools  with Charcot theorising that Hypnosis was the result of hysteria and Hippolyte Bernheim theorising it was a natural state based on intensified suggestibility.  Modern hypnosis follows in the steps of Hippolyte Bernheim and in 1891 the British Medical Association issued a resolution in favour of the use of Hypnosis, but it was not ratified until 1955.



Once Hypnosis gradually broke away from its association with Mesmerism, it gradually shifted its focus from Europe to the USA

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)  Incorporating Hypnosis and the dynamics of Psychoanalysis

Early on in his career Freud was interested in  Hypnosis and used it to treat his patients but due to his lack of success, he abandoned it in favour of Free Association. Freud was such a key figure that  avoidance of hypnosis and his influence on the field of psychotherapy dissuaded many of his contemporaries from exploring hypnosis during the first decades of the 20th century.

Émile Coué (1857-1926) and his Laws of Suggestion

Coué was a French psychologist and pharmacist, he pioneered self-improvement through positive  self-talk and autosuggestion. Coué  believed people had the solutions they needed within themselves and that the power of their imagination could help them visualise success through autosuggestion, which he also termed Applied Conditioning. He formulated the Laws of Suggestion and is  the author of the famous mantra “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better

Pierre Janet (1859-1947) and Dissociation and Transference

Janet was a pioneering  French psychologist, physician, philosopher, and psychotherapist. A student of Charcot,  Janet proposed events from a client’s past were connected to their present-day trauma, He conceptualised the idea of “ Dissociation” and the “Subconscious”. He also investigated  the rapport between client and hypnotherapist which was  later developed in psychoanalytic theory as transference. Initially opposed to Hypnosis, he later was in favour of its use due to its therapeutic and relaxing effect.

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) and the Collective Unconscious

He is considered one of the founders of modern psychology along with Freud, and  developed the idea of archetypes, universal  patterns of instinctual behaviour often used in metaphorical suggestions in hypnosis to bypass the rational and conscious mind.


Ivan Petrovich Pavlov 1849-1936 and Anchors

Russian psychologist who developed the concept of the conditioned reflex  also known Stimulus Response Theory which a foundational part of  linking and anchoring behaviours in Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP).

Clarke Hull (1894-1952)  The Modern Scientific Method and behaviour in terms of stimulus and response

Clark Hull was the first to legitimise the experimental study of Hypnosis and was the first to measure Hypnotic suggestibility and gave rise to the state non state debate. He was a pioneer searching for the means to make behaviourism - and a behavioural view of hypnosis - an exact science. His book Hypnosis and Suggestibility was the first book on Hypnosis to follow the modern scientific method.

Carl Rogers (1902-1987) and the Therapeutic Alliance

Rogers pioneered the modern person-centred approach to therapy where the client was viewed with unconditional positive regard and a strong therapeutic alliance was essential in working to achieve the client’s goals. H also saw the client as resourceful and able to find their own solutions.


Milton H. Erickson (1901-1980) Pioneered the art of indirect suggestion in hypnosis.

 Milton Erickson was one of the most successful modern-day hypnotherapists. He was a psychotherapist who used hypnosis to work with clients, he was a great observer of people and had an uncanny ability to build rapport tailoring his style to meet the needs of each client. Milton  introduced innovative Hypnotherapy techniques such as metaphor, storytelling, confusion and established and his style of Induction is named Ericksonian Hypnosis.


John Hartland (1901-1977) Enhancing the inner resources of a client

Dr John Hartland was British medical practitioner and psychiatrist who used Hypnotism in his practice and is  famous for conceptualising the term  "ego-strengthening" with the publication his  ego-strengthening script in the 1960's. This script was seen revolutionary because it was considered brief therapy as opposed to a course of psychotherapy which could last years.


Contemporary figures in Hypnosis

There are any more contemporary figures who have impacted the story of Hypnotherapy outside of the scope of this article. These include Richard Bandler and John Grinder who developed Neuro Linguistic Programming techniques (NLP), David Elman who developed the Elman Induction  and who taught hypnotherapy to medical and psychology professionals.

I’ll leave you with a question to ponder. Do you think the early pioneers of Hypnosis would recognise Hypnosis as it is, and its many therapeutic applications?



If you are interested in learning more about the History of Hypnosis, you may find these resources useful:

Hughes, J. The Illustrated History of Hypnotism. National Guild of Hypnotists. Merrimack .2008

Hammond, D. (2013). A Review of the History of Hypnosis Through the Late 19th Century. The American journal of clinical hypnosis. 56. 174-91. 10.1080/00029157.2013.826172.

Leskowitz, Eric. (2019) Mesmer reconsidered: from animal magnetism to the biofield. Explore 15:95_97


Lopezb, Claude-Anne. Franklin & Mesmer: An Encounter  Yale Journal of biology and medicine 66 (1993), pp. 325-331


Hypnosis in History

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