a brief history of hypnosis

In some ways, talking about the history of hypnosis is a bit like talking about the history of thinking or the history of breathing.  Hypnosis is a universal human trait, so its history is the history of humanity itself.  We might think of hypnotherapy - the use of hypnosis for healing or therapeutic purposes - as a very recent development, but its roots stretch deep into the past.  Ancient Chinese, Hindu and Egyptian texts all mention healing procedures that are hypnotic inductions by any other name.

That said, it's interesting to examine the development of hypnotherapy as a profession, as it shows an increasingly sophisticated understanding of what hypnosis is, and what it can be used for.

The modern era really begins with the Austrian physician Franz Mesmer (1734-1815).  Indeed, for a very long time hypnosis was known as "mesmerism", a word that's still in use today.  Mesmer worked with psychiatric patients, and achieved remarkable results.  Perhaps his most famous case was that of Miss Paradis, a concert pianist who suffered from a psychosomatic vision disorder - "hysterical blindness" in 18th century parlance.  Mesmer worked with Miss Paradis for days on end, inducing trance with his "mesmeric pass", an extraordinarily complex and lengthy set of hand movements across the body, and by encouraging her to follow the movements of a stick reflected in a mirror.  With admirable dedication and persistence, he retrained her to perceive motion and distinguish color, and to endure daylight.

The story didn't end happily, as Miss Paradis' parents demanded the return of their daughter, on the grounds that her pension would be stopped if she recovered!  Her blindness returned once she was back in the bosom of her loving family, and Mesmer was denounced as a charlatan and a quack.  Mesmer had always been a controversial figure, and was dogged by accusations of fraud for the rest of his life. 
Of course, from our perspective, his theories dosound like quackery - he believed that he achieved results by recharging his patients' magnetic field with his own "animal magnetism", which he was able to transmit across the ether with the mesmeric pass.  That may not be true physically, but his approach was true psychologically.  What he did worked, if not for the reasons he thought it did.  He deserves to be better remembered, as a true pioneer of hypnosis.

Mesmer's theories were picked up and developed throughout the 19th century by figures such as John Elliotson (1791-1868) and James Esdaille (1808-1859), British surgeons who used mesmeric techniques to perform surgery, including amputations.  James Braid (1795- 1860) is another important figure, often regarded as the "father of hypnosis", since his investigations established hypnosis as an area of scientific, rather than occult, interest.  He also coined the word "hypnosis" itself, taking it from the Greek word for sleep (hypnos), after discarding neurypnology, or "nervous sleep".

Braid was a physician, and his interest in the phenomenon was aroused when he arrived late for an appointment and discovered his patient staring in intense fascination at the flickering flames of an oil lamp.  The man proved very amenable to suggestions whilst in this state of locked attention.  This experience, together with subsequent experiments, demonstrated to Braid that hypnosis is nothing more than a fixation of the attention, and that a number of remarkable things can be achieved whilst in this state.  In his book, Neurypnology, Braid describes a number of cases, including that of a 33 year old woman who had mobility restored to her paralyzed legs, and that of a 54 year old woman who was cured of severe headaches and a skin disorder after receiving hypnotic treatment.

Moving into the 20th Century, practitioners such as Pierre Janet (1859-1947) and Clark L. Hull (1884 - 1952) advanced the scientific and academic study of hypnosis.  Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) also used hypnosis in some of his early research, but soon abandoned it in favor of free association techniques.  Another significant name is that of Emile Coué (1857-1926), who is best remembered for the phrase “day by day in every way I am getting better and better.”  Coué promoted the idea of auto-suggestion, something which we might better understand as self-hypnosis.  He also recognized the role of the imagination in solving problems, and was one of the first to realize that hypnosis is something which the client participates in, rather than something which is done to them by a hypnotist.

The two major figures of modern hypnotherapy, however, are Milton H. Erickson (1901-1980), and Dave Elman (1900-1967).  Erickson pioneered "indirect hypnosis", the subtle language patterns designed to shift a patient's perception of themselves and their problems, without necessarily resorting to formal, eyes-closed inductions.  More importantly, he understood that for hypnotherapy to be truly effective, it needs to be meaningful to the individual.  His whole approach was based on understanding and working with the individual client's view of the world. 

Elman is perhaps less well-known, but his book Hypnotherapy is regarded as a classic in its field.  He bridged the gap between stage hypnotism and hypnotherapy, adapting and developing the short, sharp techniques of the stage hypnotists for therapeutic purposes.  That which took the early mesmerists hours to achieve could now be done in seconds.

Hypnosis in the 21st century tends to follow the pattern laid down by Erickson and Elman, and the others who followed in their wake.  It is a brief, solution-focused practice, using rapid or indirect techniques, and totally guided by the client.  In this respect, it is different from the authoritarian and lengthy methods of the 19th century, but it's essentially doing the same thing - bringing about profound healing and change.