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A Brief History of Hypnosis

The use of hypnosis, in its general sense, is found in virtually every culture across the world. It most likely stretches back into ancient history. For example, hieroglyphics found on Egyptian tombs, believed to be from 3000bc, depict the use of hypnosis in religious rites and surgical procedures. Ancient Greeks were known to have used hypnosis for surgical preparation as well as for hypno-healing. Hypnosis has also been used by Hindu Fakirs, native medicine men, witch doctors, and shamans.

Unfortunately, the pioneers of hypnosis have done little to de-mystify it. Instead they have jealously guarded their ‘special gift’ and often linked it with religion and thus instilled an aura of supernatural power in themselves.

Franz Anton Mesmer 1734 – 1815 was one of the first to offer an explanation of what he was doing other than claiming some mystical powers. Mesmer believed that an invisible magnetic fluid was to be found throughout nature and within every human body. He claimed that magnets could restore the balance of magnetic fluid and thus cure the sick. Mesmer chanted and used an eye fixation method to induce a hypnotic trance. Notable physicians and religious authorities denounced Mesmer as a fraud. Both Mesmer and later De Peysegur’s work implied that the magnetiser or hypnotist had some power which, he could call at will, to effect a cure. This incorrect idea is probably partly responsible for the fear and misunderstanding which surrounds hypnosis to this day.

The modern scientific understanding of hypnosis originates with the pioneering work of a Scottish doctor named Dr James Braid (1795-1860). Having watched a stage performance of magnetism, he came to the conclusion that it was entirely a hoax. He categorically rejected any supernatural explanations of trance and grounded the study of hypnosis on a firm empirical and scientific basis. He coined the term hypnosis based on the Greek ‘hypnos’ meaning sleep. This is an unfortunate term, as hypnosis is not the same as sleep. Having realised this, he later tried to change the term hypnosis, but unfortunately the term stuck and its use persisted. He published his findings in Neurypnology (1843), arguably the first book on ‘hypnosis’

Dr John Elliotson (1791-1868), a London physician performed over one thousand painless operations using hypnosis. This was much to the wrath of his fellow doctors. Despite’s Elliotson’s low mortality rate and high success rate, his fellow doctors believed that pain was necessary for healing, and eventually the medical profession closed ranks and virtually forced him out of hospital practice.

A Scottish doctor Dr James Esdaile (1808-1859) used hypnosis whilst chief surgeon of a hospital in Calcutta, India. He used it in over 3000 operations and noted it produced insensitivity to pain. Also, the mortality rate during operations dropped from the normal rate at that time of 25-50% down to 5%. His work was widely accepted and even revered in India whilst the British Medical Association stated that it was probably so successful in India because it was likely to be accepted by the masses there, and would be unlikely to work in England. When Esdaile returned to England he was unable to repeat the successes he achieved in India. He put this down to lack of belief and negative expectation. He was accused of being a charlatan and eventually was discredited and demoralised.

Doctors Hippolyte Bernheim and Auguste Ambrose Liebault formed the Nancy school of hypnosis 1837–1919. They were French doctors who helped to demystify hypnosis and create an understanding of it as a normal state. They stated that hypnosis was not caused by any mechanical means but by suggestion. Bernheim published his book ‘De La Suggestion’ that proposed suggestion as a cure for the mind and body.

Dr Jean-Martin Charcot’s 1825–1893 principal contribution to the history of hypnosis was in identifying and labelling varying depths of trance. This was the first recorded attempt at scientific classification. Charcot was widely recognised throughout the medical world for his expertise in neurology. Since he had a belief in the use of hypnosis, it also became accepted by many doctors.

Doctor Sigmund Freud 1856-1939 initially used hypnosis to release the emotions of patients whilst they were in a trance state. In 1895 Freud co-authored his famous book “Studien uber Hysterie” with Joseph Breuer, master hypnotist. Breuer discovered he could address patients directly whilst they were in hypnosis which led to the basis of modern day hypnoanalysis and psychoanalysis. Freud found Breuer’s work invaluable, and soon led him to develop the art of psychoanalysis. Freud was unfortunately quite poor at inducing hypnosis and eventually discontinued its use altogether, instead simply using free association in a wide awake state.

During the second world war hypnosis was used in some prisoner-of-war hospitals. They used hypnosis as a substitute for chemical anaesthesia and as a form of pain relief. They were delighted to find that hypnosis worked well and healing took place more rapidly. After the war, reports of these events became available to the medical profession and some doctors began applying hypnosis in many fields including dentistry, obstetrics, dermatology and pain relief.

A number of notable American hypnotists including Ormond McGill and Dave Elman helped this upswing in the use of hypnosis. Dave Elman, around the mid 20th century, taught hypnosis exclusively to many hundreds of doctors across the United States.

The American Medical Association AMA in 1958 approved a report on medical use of hypnosis and encouraged more research. The British Medical Association in 1892 and 1955, endorsed the therapeutic use of hypnosis, and advised all physicians and medical students should receive training in hypnosis. Unfortunately, that advice, that has been largely ignored.

Probably one of the most well known contributors to the science of hypnosis in the 20th century was an American psychiatrist, Dr Milton Erickson. One of Erickson’s most notable achievements was the use of a very naturalistic approach to both the induction of hypnosis and the effecting of cures through it. A whole field of indirect suggestion using the power of metaphor was conceived. Erickson was a master of symbolic story telling and his techniques have been studied, modelled, and adapted by many of the recent and present day leading figures in hypnosis.

Best wishes,


Dr Paul Ogilvie
Dr Paul Ogilvie
Also see: what is hypnosis?