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A Brief History of Hypnosis

To understand the history of hypnosis is to understand the history of suggestion; the development of hypnosis through the centuries is directly reflective of man’s consciousness in each era.

Suggestion has motivated man since the beginning of time. The “Sleep Temples” of the ancient Egyptians are depicted in stone dated as early as 1000 B.C.  These “temples” were places where priests put worshippers to “sleep” and suggested that they be cured – and they usually were. (These priests set forth the procedure for formal hypnotic induction much as it is known and used today.)

The success of the Egyptian temples led to their introduction in Greece by the fourth century B.C., and in Rome a hundred years after that. The temples remained popular and functional during the flourishing period of the Roman Empire. There are even scriptures in the Bible that allude to this type of “sleep.”

Early in the first century, the practice of “laying on of hands” was introduced. Its therapeutic value was reinforced by the approval of and use by the English monarchy, including Edward the Confessor (1042 – 1066 A.D.), who is famous for practicing and perfecting his “royal touch.” So popular was this cure that the procedure was soon recognized by the Church of England, along with healing hymns, to facilitate the cures written into the liturgy. Public acceptance was virtually assured as the Church was never wrong!

Hypnosis then went through various stages through the Middle Ages, and many misconceptions were formed that, unfortunately still exist.

The famous Franz Anton Mesmer first appeared on the scene in France. His “mesmerism” or “animal magnetism” as it was also called, soon became popular with the French nobility.  Of course, it is obvious now that “Mesmerism” was nothing more than suggestion…but it worked! At one time, reputable sources report that up to three thousand people a day were clamoring for his touch.

A group of envious physicians and their politician friends formed a commission to discredit Mesmer (Benjamin Franklin was part of this commission.) Although Mesmer himself was censured, his theories lived on to form the cornerstone for the group psychotherapy and imagery conditioning currently used in therapy today.

The first serious physician to study Mesmer’s work was an Englishman named James Braid (1795 – 1806). He was convinced Mesmer was a fraud and tried to discredit him. Instead, he became a believer.  Dr. Braid introduced the term “hypnosis” for the first time (which was Greek for “sleep”.) By the time Braid came to realize that the word “hypnosis” was misleading as it was NOT sleep, it had already gained popularity and the word “hypnosis” stuck.

Dr. James Esdaile (1818 – 1859), a personal friend and colleague of Braid’s, began to experiment with hypnotic amnesia while serving in the British East India Company in Calcutta, India. His outstanding success resulted in lowering of the surgical mortality rate to less than five percent!  However, when he returned to England, his well-established methods did not work. The Indian culture was full of concepts of “higher self”, meditation and other altered states, but in England, the opposite was true. The Church in England taught that suffering was a noble part of the human condition, that enduring pain established integrity. Consequently, Dr. Esdaile was scorned for “interfering with nature.”

Then chemical anesthesia was discovered in the mid-1800’s. You will not be surprised to know that at that point, the physicians changed their attitudes about pain. Suddenly, it was no longer noble to suffer unnecessarily! Queen Victoria’s successful chloroform-anesthetized childbirth put the royal seal of approval on the new chemical. This pushed hypnosis back into oblivion.

In the late 1800’s, Sigmund Freud became interested in hypnosis, but only for a short while. He abandoned it completely in favor of psychoanalysis, although most experts agree that his free association techniques were only hypnosis by another name.

In the early 1900’s, a French pharmacist named Emile Coue made a great discovery called “waking suggestion.”  Coue’s famous autosuggestion formula was, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.” Coue made the great discovery that ALL HYPNOSIS IS SELF-HYPNOSIS.  

As a result of World War II and the Korean War, hypnosis was again used for pain control and to aid the mentally crippled. By the 1950’s, there was an increasing interest in the medical uses of hypnosis, and in 1958, the American Medical Association approved the therapeutic use of the hypnosis modality.

Since that time, hypnosis has gained acceptance and respectability, a trend that continues today. You don’t have to look far to find hypnosis, by whatever name. Call it visualization, relaxation therapy, guided imagery, meditation, whatever. Acceptance of hypnosis is here to stay!

Until next time,

Connie Kvilhaug, Cert. Hypnotist
Mindset Trainer/Coach