Everything you wanted to know about the history of hypnotherapy

Updated: Sep 24, 2020


Take three deep breaths, and then gently rest your eyes on a point way off in the distance. In your mind’s eye picture an opulently decorated drawing room in mid to late eighteenth century Vienna. A man dressed in a heavy, black velvet cloak, adorned with mystical symbols, is ministering his particular brand of hypnotism, and approximately twenty people are crowded around a crude wooden rounded cabinet with bottles and iron rods protruding from its top (a bacquet – a crude apparatus used for treating people). This is Franz Anton Mesmer, the controversial mesmerist - more on him later - his modern counterparts are known as hypnotherapists. This particular form of complementary therapy, along with its healing effects on a range of physical and psychological ailments, has experienced a massive surge of interest of late. So what has modern science got to say on the subject and how did it evolve?


Well, recent research conducted by Spiegel, a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University, indicates that the state of hypnosis is a genuine occurrence within the nervous system. It has also been seen to alter perception. This was shown in a study Spiegel carried out in 2000, when subjects’ brains’ illuminated in a specific colour processing region of the brain, after they were hypnotised and told to view a grey pattern as being coloured. The same region of the brain didn’t show any activity in non-hypnotised subjects who were given the same instructions. So how do these findings have a real world application?


Spiegel argues that due to hynotherapy’s ability to modify perception it can be used to aid a number of health issues and performance anxieties – for example pain relief, exam performance and sporting achievement. Furthermore, his most current research suggests that brain processes modify in three distinct ways when a person is in a hypnotic state. He states that this could have positive ramifications for those who find it difficult to be deeply hypnotised, as their brains could be stimulated in these three specific spots to increase their propensity to trance: subconscious plumbing, if you will.


Metaphor making aside, hypnotism’s provenance goes back to ancient days. The great Egyptian, Mayan and Greek civilizations dabbled in it, as did the druids and pagans of Celtic Britain. Even Genghis Khan was known to have used the power of suggestion to rouse his troops prior to battle. To what extent this was as an ethical person centred intervention, rather than an agent of power and control, is questionable. However, the rise of modern hypnotherapy can be traced back to Mesmer, who as we saw earlier, hit upon the therapeutic qualities of going under. He didn’t fully understand the altered state, possessing some odd ideas about ‘magnetic fluids’ in the body being out of balance, causing illness, and how his own ‘magnetism’ as a ‘magnetiser’ was superior in curing others. Nevertheless, his work played significant role in contributing to the development of early hypnotism.


Other early mesmerists followed in his wake. The Marquis de Puysegur, who found that the positive relationship between the magnetiser and person being treated is crucial, something that is certainly true today. Leading on from this Abbe Faria, a Portuguese monk, rejected magnetism and concluded that the power of suggestion was the fundamental factor of mesmerism. Pioneering the technique of eye fixation to induce the hypnotic state, like Mesmar he was highly criticised and his work discredited. It seems that European society was not ready to embrace the advantages from understanding their work.


In the early nineteenth century, two British doctors became interested in the phenomenon. As an eminent academic of medicine, John Elliotson discovered that the trance state eased the pain of patients having major operations without anaesthesia. Again he fell victim to suspicion and ridicule, and was not permitted to practice mesmerism at the hospital where he was based. His upper middle class contemporaries became dubious of his practice of using ‘lowly’ working class Irish maids to demonstrate his methods, and his conclusions were disregarded. Later on, James Braid invented the term hypnotism and recognised that it has some psychological basis. He rejected mesmerism, was interested in the language used to induce focus and he thought that mental ill health was due to fixating on negative ideas. At last, we’re getting closer to modern ideas.


Whilst in the 1860s in France, two main schools of thought developed in an attempt to explain things further. The Nancy approach (as put forward by Dr Liebeault) claimed that hypnosis can heal, certainly echoing thought today. Whereas the Salpetriere clinic, under the guidance of Jean-Martin Charcot, asserted physiological issues cause emotional disturbances, a belief that isn’t given much credence today. Furthermore, he believed that physical activity would alleviate such emotional issues, which is an interesting point considering the mood altering benefits of physical exercise and the endorphins it releases. He also managed to distinguish and name distinct stages of trance, getting nearer and nearer to uncovering the nature of hypnosis.


No journey into this fascinating sphere would be complete without some understanding of the influence of Sigmund Freud. Recognising that the mind is an enigmatic entity and much of its workings are submerged from conscious thought and motivation, he named and emphasised the workings of the unconscious mind. He advocated the view that the unconscious mind, known as the subconscious, can be split into the three distinct sections and named these the id, ego and superego. The id is said to be the driver of primitive impulses, such as aggression and sexual desire. Whereas the ego is the part of the id that has been influenced by external social influences, and therefore toned down to some extent. Finally the superego is the aspect of the psyche that aims to control the influence of the id, and comprises the ideal self and the conscience. Failing to fully accept the power of hypnosis, Freud’s conclusions contribute greatly to our appreciation of subconscious thought and how it drives and influences our conscious actions. His work is vital to getting to the crux of how hypnotherapy works.


In the past century Dave Elman and Milton Erikson made further developments. The former began as a stage hypnotist, then went on to train a vast number of medical practitioners in the techniques of hypnosis. Primarily he is also known for his rapid methods of induction, said to incur deep trance. Milton Erikson was also a major proponent of hypnotherapeutic methods. He himself had used self- hypnosis to overcome polio in his childhood. Working as a psychiatrist in later life, he used the treatment in a good proportion of his cases. This work was often done in clandestine circumstances, as the use of hypnosis was not approved by the medical establishment, and Erikson could have been stripped of his professional status if found to be operating in this way.


Taking a step back, we can conclude that hypnosis has been a contentious issue through the centuries. This may have something to do with the way in which its mechanisms are not observable and the scientific community are only just beginning to identify and value its positive application. It’s clear that throughout time there are several commonalities between hypnosis then and now: an authority figure or expert who ‘guides’ you into trance; some understanding that a narrowing of focus is required; a positive and warm relationship between the hynotised person and hypnotiser is required; a reliance on the power of suggestion to alter deeply held, unhelpful beliefs.


So in a few moments, I’m going to count backwards from one to five. One – remembering the original work of Mesmar and mesmerism. Two – thinking about how the Nancy and Salpetriere schools advanced further development. Three – considering Freud and his ground-breaking work on the unconscious mind. Four – turning your attention to Speigel’s recent research on brain activity in hypnotised subjects. Five – remembering what you have learnt about the magnificent power of the hypnotic state and how you may use it in future.

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