the 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.

The term “hypnosis” has been around since the 1840’s, but healers began using this technique, or some form of it, centuries earlier. We have records of hypnosis going back 2,500 years in ancient China and Egypt. In ancient Greece, the physical remnants of the sleep healing temple of Asklepios still exist.

The physician Asklepios created a sleep healing temple where people would enter a dimly lit stone room (called an Abaton) and recline on a stone bench that was elevated on one end, much like a chaise lounge. (This bench was called a klini, which is the origin of our word “clinic.”)

The patients were prepared for several days in advance with purifying waters, baths, and fasting. They learned to relax into a peaceful calm. Then on the day of their treatment they would enter the Abaton. They were instructed to recline on the klini, to enter their calm reverie and silently await Asklepios.

He would then come into the chamber and whisper his intention to them, based on their illness or condition. He might say, “I’m going to take your headaches away,” or “You can eat anything you want now, free of discomfort,” or “You will sleep well now.” After his gentle touch and affirmative words he would then leave. It’s believed that his treatments worked because his patients carved testimonials into the stones and rocks around the temple telling of their cures.

Hippocrates, the father of medicine (460 – 377BC) recognized the power of the subconscious mind. He maintained that our feelings and emotions arise in the brain, and that the brain controls our body.

Many ancient peoples (American Indian, Africa, India, Asia and the East) have long been able to enter into the subconscious state at will.

Some of the key figures in the more recent history of hypnosis are:

Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer (1720-1792) – was the first man to systematically use an altered state of consciousness (hypnosis) for curative purposes.

Dr. James Braid (1795-1860) – was responsible for naming this state “hypnotism” (from Hypnos, the Greek God of sleep). He realized that hypnotism wasn’t sleep at all and tried to rename it. However, as his books on the subject had already been published in so many languages, he wasn’t successful.

Dr. Hyppolyte Bernhiem (1837-1919) – his contribution to hypnosis was in emphasizing the role of suggestion.

Dr. Emile Couè (1857-1926) – His work lead to the modern understanding of the laws of suggestion. According to Couè, it is not necessarily the suggestion given to the person that produces the results, rather it is how the suggestion is received. In other words, if the client does not accept the hypnotic suggestion nothing happens. The person needs to accept the suggestion as his or her own. So any suggestion must be appropriate and congruent with what the person desires to change.

In the twentieth century, two figures stand out:

Dr. Milton Erickson – a doctor who used hypnotherapy with thousands of clients, often with remarkable effects. He used metaphor or stories to deliver suggestion.

Dave Elman – trained doctors and dentists in the use of hypnosis and hypnotherapy in the United States. Elman developed and taught fast and easy methods for going into hypnosis.

In more recent times, hypnosis has been used by many professionals: doctors, dentists, counselors, nurses, midwives, coaches, psychologists, teachers, police, first emergency responders, osteopaths, natural therapists, as well as hypnotherapists and others in assisting their clients.