hypnosis History of Hypnosis

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The History of Hypnosis

This page covers a lot information and is one of the longest (and some might claim most boring) topics in this course. In order to absorb all this information please take a moment to relax and clear your mind, and mentally affirm the goal of taking all the quizzes to complete the course and purchase the document package. In the interest of being concise here is a quick summary of this section:

  • Hypnotic-like trances have been around for at least 3,000 years
  • Franz Mesmer developed animal magnetism which was a precursor to hypnosis of dubious value
  • Mesmer was a wand waving charlatan and run out of France by Ben Franklin and the Royal Academy
  • Despite this trance states continued to be used in medicine by doctors like founding father Benjamin Rush
  • James Braid became the father of hypnosis by actually coining the term "hypnosis" in 1842
  • Hypnosis has been approved by medical associations for over 115 years



Hypnosis is akin to trance states induced by spiritual or religious means. Even if you are not religious it's easy to recall being brought into a special mood or altered state by a ritual or ceremony. Perhaps the joy of celebrating at a friends wedding, or energized feeling at a graduation ceremony, or the warmth and generosity felt at upon seeing a decorated christmas tree surrounded by gifts.


test tipBecause of the similarity of various trances hypnosis text books typically claim the use of hypnosis under other names stretches back into prehistory being nearly as old as our earliest efforts at healing. Often cited are Egyptian hieroglyphics from the reign of Ramses the XII some 3,000 years ago. These claims are stretching it a bit, and only valid if you call any form of trance hypnosis. We can say religious trances have been around for a long time, and some have been used for healing. egypt hypnosis


There is general agreement that hypnotism of a various sorts are a very old subject, though the name was not coined until 1842. Ancient examples include the "mysteries of Isis" in Egypt thousands of years ago, and most likely the magi mentioned in the Bible and of the "wise men" of Babylon and Egypt. The effects of "laying on of hands" can be caused by a form of hypnotic trance, and Greek oracles of Delphi and other places seem to have been delivered by priests or priestesses who went into types of hypnotic trance.


In ancient India the Hindus often took the ill to special sleep temples where they were treated by hypnotic suggestion. Other predecessors to modern hypnosis include Apollonius of Tyana in the third century CE and special “temple sleep” practices of the Asclepian cult in ancient Greece. Even Shakespeare described altered states resembling hypnosis.

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hypnotic hand clasp

The concept of hypnosis as altered state of consciousness is generally considered to be Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) who developed the ideas of Animal Magnetism and for whom mezmerization is named.

Mesmer treated patients both individually and in groups. With individuals he would sit in front of his patient with his knees touching the patient's knees, pressing the patient's thumbs in his hands, looking fixedly into the patient's eyes. Mesmer made "passes", moving his hands from patients' shoulders down along their arms. He then pressed his fingers on the patient's hypochondriac region (the area below the diaphragm), sometimes holding his hands there for hours. Many patients felt peculiar sensations or had convulsions that were regarded as crises and supposed to bring about the cure. Mesmer would often conclude his treatments by playing some music on a glass armonica.


test tipWands, Tubs, and Magnets

Deleuze, the librarian at the Jardin des Plantes gave the following account of Mesmer's experiments: 

"In the middle of a large room stood an oak tub, four or five feet in diameter and one foot deep. It was closed by a lid made in two pieces, and encased in another tub or bucket. At the bottom of the tub a number of bottles were laid in convergent rows, so that the neck of each bottle turned towards the centre. Other bottles filled with magnetized water tightly corked up were laid in divergent rows with their necks turned outwards. Several rows were thus piled up, and the apparatus was then pronounced to be at 'high pressure'.

hypnosis lecture

The tub was filled with water, to which were sometimes added powdered glass and iron filings. There were also some dry tubs, that is, prepared in the same manner, but without any additional water. The lid was perforated to admit of the passage of movable bent rods, which could be applied to the different parts of the patient's body. A long rope was also fastened to a ring in the lid, and this the patients placed loosely round their limbs.

No disease offensive to the sight was treated, such as sores, or deformities. "A large number of patients were commonly treated at one time. They drew near to each other, touching hands, arms, knees, or feet. The handsomest, youngest, and most robust magnetizers held also an iron rod with which they touched the dilatory or stubborn patients. The rods and ropes had all undergone a 'preparation' and in a very short space of time the patients felt the magnetic influence.

The women, being the most easily affected, were almost at once seized with fits of yawning and stretching; their eyes closed, their legs gave way and they seemed to suffocate.

cannot get up

In vain did musical glasses and harmonicas resound, the piano and voices re-echo; these supposed aids only seemed to increase the patients' convulsive movements. Sardonic laughter, piteous moans and torrents of tears burst forth on all sides. The bodies were thrown back in spasmodic jerks, the respirations sounded like death rattles, the most terrifying symptoms were exhibited.

Then suddenly the actors of this strange scene would frantically or rapturously rush towards each other, either rejoicing and embracing or thrusting away their neighbors with every appearance of horror. 

mesmerAnother room was padded and presented another spectacle. There women beat their heads against wadded walls or rolled on the cushion-covered floor, in fits of suffocation. In the midst of this panting, quivering throng, Mesmer, dressed in a lilac coat, moved about, extending a magic wand toward the least suffering, halting in front of the most violently excited and gazing steadily into their eyes, while he held both their hands in his, bringing the middle fingers in immediate contact to establish communication.

At another moment he would, by a motion of open hands and extended fingers, operate with the great current, crossing and uncrossing his arms with wonderful rapidity to make the final passes." 

Hysterical women and nervous young boys, many of them from the highest ranks of Society, flocked around this wonderful wizard, and Mesmer made a great deal of money. While he started out as a genuine and sincere student of the scientific character of the new power he had indeed discovered; Mesmer by many accounts unfortunately became little more than a charlatan. He marketed "prepared" rods, and magnetic tubs.


The French Royal Academy

hypnotictest tipAlthough Mesmer had many successes with his techniques, including curing an apparently blind patient, he fell into disgrace after being judged poorly by a commission of the French Royal Academy of Sciences. Interesting the commission members include American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, and Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the inventor of the guillotine.


test tipIn the second half of the 18th century, after Mesmer’s death, the attitude of the scientific establishment was more favorable toward his discoveries. Another American Founding Father Benjamin Rush incorporated what can be described as hypnotherapy into his medical practice in Philadelphia.


Intriguingly many of the signers of the first declarations proclaiming the start of the French Revolution on 1789 were connected mesmerism. But members of the French aristocracy were active in mesmerism as well. For example Marquis de Puységur coined the term somnambulism.


James Braidtest tipJames Braid

The evolution of Mesmer's ideas and practices led James Braid (1795-1860) to coin the term and develop the procedure known as hypnosis, which is derived from the Greek hypnosis (sleep), in 1842. Popularly titled the "Father of Modern Hypnotism", Braid rejected Mesmer's idea of magnetism causing hypnosis, and attributed the “mesmeric trance” to a physiological process—the prolonged attention on a bright moving object or similar object of fixation. He postulated that "protracted ocular fixation" fatigued certain parts of the brain and caused the trance, "nervous sleep."


At first he called the procedure neuro-hypnosis and then, believing sleep was involved, to hypnosis. Realizing that hypnosis was not sleep, he later tried to change the name to monoideaism, but the term hypnosis had stuck.

He noted that during one phase of hypnotism, known as catalepsy, the arms, limbs, etc., might be placed in any position and would remain there; he also noted that a puff of breath would usually awaken a subject, and that by talking to a subject and telling him to do this or do that, even after he awakes from the sleep, he can be made to do those things. Braid thought he might affect a certain part of the brain during hypnotic sleep, and if he could find the seat of the thieving disposition, or the like, he could cure the patient of desire to commit crime, simply by suggestion, or command.

Braid's conclusions were, in brief, that there was no fluid, or other exterior agent, but that hypnotism was due to a physiological condition of the nerves. It was his belief that hypnotic sleep was brought about by fatigue of the eyelids, or by other influences wholly within the subject. In this he was supported by Carpenter, the great physiologist; but neither Braid nor Carpenter could get the medical organizations to give the matter any attention, even to investigate it.

Braid used hypnotism to treat both psychological and physical conditions. At the same time as Braid’s work James Esdaile (1808-1859) performed numerous surgical operations in India using only hypnotic suggestion for anesthesia.


As is often the case in wartime need necessitate innovation. During the American Civil War (1861-1865) the first extensive medical application of hypnosis was used by doctors in the field. Although hypnosis was used effectively for pain management, the introduction of the hypodermic needle and the general chemical anesthetics of ether eventually reduced its use.


In 1892 the British Medical Association unanimously endorsed the therapeutic use of hypnosis and rejected the earlier theories of Mesmer (animal magnetism). Even though the BMA recognized the validity of hypnosis, Medical Schools and Universities still largely ignored the subject.

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  rigid hypnosis

The Twentieth Century 

Emile Coué (1857-1926), a French pharmacist, popularized the following laws of suggestion:

The Law of Concentrated Attention 

The Law of Reversed Effect 

The Law of Dominant Effect 

We will discuss Coué's work in detail later in the course.

Russian medical science experimented extensively with using hypnosis during child birth. Platanov, in the 1920s, became well known for his hypno-obstetric successes. Impressed by this approach, Stalin later set up a nationwide program headed by Velvoski, who originally combined hypnosis with Pavlov techniques but eventually used the later almost exclusively. Ferdinand Lamaze, having visited Russia, brought back to France "childbirth without pain through the psychological method."

hypnotised woman swooning 

test tipIn 1952, the Hypnotism Act was brought by United Kingdom government to regulate the public demonstrations of stage hypnotists for entertainment. On April 23, 1955, the British Medical Association (BMA) approved the use of hypnosis in the areas of psychoneuroses and hypnoanesthesia in pain management in childbirth and surgery. At this time, the BMA also advised all physicians and medical students to receive fundamental training in hypnosis.


In 1958, the American Medical Association approved a report on the medical uses of hypnosis. It encouraged research on hypnosis although pointing out that some aspects of hypnosis are still unknown and controversial.


Milton Erickson

Milton Erickson (1901-1980) developed many ideas and techniques in hypnosis that were very different from what was commonly practiced. His style is commonly referred to as Ericksonian Hypnosis and it has greatly influenced many modern schools of hypnosis.


Erickson believed that the unconscious mind was always listening, and that, whether or not the patient was in trance, suggestions could be made which would have a hypnotic influence, as long as those suggestions found some resonance at the unconscious level. You can be aware of this, or you can be completely oblivious that something is happening. Now, Erickson would see if the patient would respond to one or another kind of indirect suggestion, and allow the unconscious mind to actively participate in the therapeutic process. In this way, what seemed like a normal conversation might induce a hypnotic trance, or a therapeutic change in the subject. It should be noted that "[Erickson's] conception of the unconscious is definitely not the one held by Freud."


Erickson was an irrepressible practical joker, and it was not uncommon for him to slip indirect suggestions into all kinds of situations, including in his own books, papers, lectures and seminars.


Erickson also believed that it was even appropriate for the therapist to go into trance.


I go into trances so that I will be more sensitive to the intonations and inflections of my patients' speech. And to enable me to hear better, see better.

Erickson maintained that trance is a common, everyday occurrence. For example, when waiting for buses and trains, reading or listening, or even being involved in strenuous physical exercise, it's quite normal to become immersed in the activity and go into a trance state, removed from any other irrelevant stimuli. These states are so common and familiar that most people do not consciously recognize them as hypnotic phenomena.


The same situation is in evidence in everyday life, however, whenever attention is fixated with a question or an experience of the amazing, the unusual, or anything that holds a person’s interest. At such moments people experience the common everyday trance; they tend to gaze off—to the right or left, depending upon which cerebral hemisphere is most dominant (Baleen, 1969) —and get that “faraway” or “blank” look. Their eyes may actually close, their bodies tend to become immobile (a form of catalepsy), certain reflexes (e.g., swallowing, respiration, etc.) may be suppressed, and they seem momentarily oblivious to their surroundings until they have completed their inner search on the unconscious level for the new idea, response, or frames of reference that will restabilize their general reality orientation. We hypothesize that in everyday life consciousness is in a continual state of flux between the general reality orientation and the momentary microdynamics of trance...


- Erickson & Rossi: Two-Level Communication and the Microdynamics of Trance and Suggestion, The American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 1976 Reprinted in Collected Papers Vol.1


Because Erickson expected trance states to occur naturally and frequently, he was prepared to exploit them therapeutically, even when the patient was not present with him in the consulting room. He also discovered many techniques for how to increase the likelihood that a trance state would occur. He developed both verbal and non-verbal techniques, and pioneered the idea that the common experiences of wonderment, engrossment and confusion are, in reality, just kinds of trance. (These phenomena are of course central to many spiritual and religious disciplines, and are regularly employed by evangelists, cult leaders and holy men of all kinds).


Clearly there are a great many kinds of trance. Many people are familiar with the idea of a 'deep' trance, and earlier in his career Erickson was a pioneer in researching the unique and remarkable phenomena that are associated with that state, spending many hours at a time with individual test subjects, deepening the trance.


That a trance may be 'light' or 'deep' suggest a one dimensional continuum of trance depth, but Erickson would often work with multiple trances in the same patient, for example suggesting that the hypnotized patient to behave 'as if awake', blurring the line between the hypnotic and 'awake' state.


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