The History of Hypnosis: The World in a Trance

History of Hypnosis

The Ancients Enchanted

The roots of hypnosis stretch deep into the historical mantle, from the modern day to its origins in prehistorical times. There are historical sources indicating that the practise of hypnosis was observed as far back as 1550 B.C in ancient Egypt, where descriptions of a practitioner using their hands on a patient as using eye movement/fixation for the purposes of healing.

In his work The Story of Civilisations, historian Will Durant observes the origin of hypnosis as laying within the borders of ancient India. He writes about the practise, utilised by Hindus, of transporting sick people to their temples to undergo procedures that involved hypnotic suggestion or what has been coined as “temple” sleep”.

Historians have also cast their eyes to Persia where Persian Polymath Avicenna is observed to have differentiated regular sleep from observed states of what we know today as hypnosis. He published The Book of Healing in 1027 and in it he mentions the ability of a practitioner to create the requisite conditions allowing a person to accept the hypnotic state. This is confirmation that even ancient societies observed the sort of suggestible hypnotic states of which today (unlike with the ancients) we have a much deeper scientific and evidenced-based understanding.

Entranced Through Middle Ages

Although attempts at explaining and practising “hypnosis” in a rational, and eventually scientific manner are not observed until the 18th century, hypnosis certainly had its place in the worldview of those living during the middle ages.

During the middle ages, fear of the divine and the inexplicable was certainly part of everyday life, and since most kings, princes, and other rulers were often viewed as either divinely anointed or at very least extensions of god’s divinity in human form on earth, these rulers were commonly believed have magical healing powers.

Rulers in the middle ages were quite commonly believed to have the so-called “Royal Touch”, where even the presence of their hands on the body of a sick person was thought to have been able to facilitate a cure. This cure was attributed to divine intervention, relayed through the body of the king or prince. Evidence for this is seen in the existence of sources that document this phenomenon, starting with King Edward the Confessor, who was thought to have the ability to cure scrofula.

Utterly Mesmerised: A Scientific Entanglement

Up until the 18th century, explanations and views on what we know today as hypnosis were not based in rationality or observation. Even Paracelsus, who was the first person known to have eschewed divine/holy intervention in the curative context, instead utilised magnets for the purposes of healing. However, the origins of any real attempt at the scientific explanation and practise of hypnosis is seen first with Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer.

Mesmer should be considered a pioneer in the context of hypnosis, owed to him being the first to attempt to explain and utilise hypnosis in a rational manner. He was the first to establish a reliable methodology for hypnosis. Mesmer is almost certainly the originator of the modern-day stereotype of the average hypnotist, since he was frequently seen in public dressed in macabre attire and playing music to crowd for purposes of induction. Franz Mesmer’s name is also the origin of the term “mesmerise”.

One of Mesmer’s students, Marquis de Puysegur, was the first person to successfully reproduce a deep hypnotic state that bore similarities to sleepwalking. It must be remembered, however, that the importance of these figures is not whether the experiments were successful, but rather shifting the belief from hypnosis effects originating from objects (like magnets) to another force entirely.

Suggestible States: Hypnosis today

Perhaps one of the most famous names in the history of psychology to have experimented with hypnosis is Sigmund Freud, whose formative research involved hypnosis. More pioneers in the modern history of hypnosis are Emile Coué, whose gave rise to the phrase and method of conscious autosuggestion higlighted by Coué’s approach was the first to suggest the benefit of the client/patient being an active and willing participant in the hypnotic process, as opposed to previous schools of thought, which treated patients as an object or entity that hypnosis would be performed on.

“Indirect hypnosis” was also a branch of thought invented in the 20th century by the man considered to be the father of the modern practise of hypnotherapy, Milton Erickson. His work is considered by many to be the basis of hypnotherapy as we know it today, where is used as a complementary therapy by psychologists to treat ailments ranging from anxiety and sleep disorders, to damaging habits or compulsive behaviours. Hypnosis has even been utilised as a form of anaesthesia in patients unable to be anaesthetised by more traditional methods.