A Brief History of Hypnosis

Within the history of hypnosis there exists two misconceptions, both mingled with some truth.  One misunderstanding is that it is an ancient activity with occult, religious, and mystical beginnings.  The other is that hypnosis is a later development in history, involving new age, hippie-type origins.  As Clark Hull put it in his book Hypnosis and Suggestibility, “All sciences alike have descended from magic and suggestions, but none has been so slow as hypnosis in shaking off the evil associations of its origins.”

My theory as to how such misconceptions in the history of hypnosis developed is rather simple.  The history of most medical treatments began with a single source:  Louis Pasteur’s work led to treatment for small pox; Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine.  In these cases, the development and treatment of these diseases can be traced back to a single person/persons.  Throughout history, however, what we now call hypnosis came from diverse civilizations all over the planet, at various times and in different ways.  

Each culture had those who observed and reflected on the phenomenon of what we term the unconscious, or what I am calling the Middle Mind.  The science of hypnotherapy developed as these different people from far different cultures and different times worked to analyze the operations of the Middle Mind and to determine how to manipulate it.  Of course, people did not consider hypnotherapy a science at the beginning.  The religious were the earliest to claim it, and thus is became a spiritual tool for priests and temple leaders.  Magicians thought they had discovered real magic.  Greedy profiteers saw this developing tool as a real money maker, and hijacked it (or the illusion of it) for a money-making scheme.  It was those with a more medical inclination who began to examine this idea of hypnosis as a type of therapy.

The roots of hypnosis are ancient.  Cultures as old and distant as those of Sumatra, Persia, China, India, Egypt, Greece, and Rome used hypnosis in some form. Some Egyptian writings dating back to 1550 BC describe healing that used some form of hypnotic trance such as eye fixations.  Other historians describe Indian Hindu “temple sleep” and Egyptian and Greek “sleep temples” as evidence of hypnosis which were religious tools for healing.  These practices point to nascent hypnotic practices.

Confusion regarding hypnosis may well have started with the combination of two factors:  the failure to recognize the existence and nature of Middle Mind and the misunderstanding of the “operator” of the cure or change in the hypnotic subject.  Some contend the cause of a subject’s change came from the stars or planets.  Some “healers” argued that magnets were the tools needed to “heal” subjects who had problems.  Others pointed to gods and spirits as the source of healing.  The more brazen claimed that they themselves had the gifts or magic necessary to cure what ails people.  It took millennia for scientists to realize that the main actor is the subject’s own Middle Mind causing the change!  Who knew?  Apparently no one for the longest time.

It was not until the 1800s that studies began to grow around the idea of an individual’s mind generating and creating change within itself.  European physicians and early proponents of psychology began to hypothesize and test different theories concerning the consciousness and unconsciousness of people.  Once they identified not only the mind as the location of the internal programming, but also that each individual served as the chief operator of his/her own mind, they then determined that it is the power of suggestion that works to effect the change.  As they became more aware of the incredible ability of the Middle Mind, physicians began to use hypnosis to meet the needs of their patients.  As early as the 1840s, surgeons were using hypnosis as anesthesia during major surgical operations.  During the Civil War, hypnosis was widely used during amputations.  With the advent of chemical anesthesia, however, hypnosis again fell into disuse.

Scottish ophthalmologist James Braid is considered the father of modern hypnosis.  He coined the word hypnosis to distinguish it from mesmerism, magnetism, or hysteria, terms which had been attached to the less-than-scientific art of hypnotism.  Braid would later regret using the term hypnosis because it connoted sleep, rather than the actual trance that occurs. His attempt to replace the term with monoideism (or single thought), however, came too late and did not take root.

Braid’s attempt to change the term to monoideism actually denoted a most significant advancement of the science of hypnosis, as he was the first to state that hypnosis was psychological, disconnecting it from a treatment involving outside forces like magnets, spiritualists, and magicians.  Braid was the first practitioner of psychosomatic medicine, in which a subject could be healed by his mind rather than the chemical.

Hypnosis advanced quickly in America during the twentieth century.  Interest grew with the use of hypnosis to treat soldiers who suffered psychologically following the world wars and the Korean conflict.  Today, we know that post-traumatic stress syndrome can affect more people than soldiers, and hypnosis has become an integral part of therapy.

As the interest in hypnosis grew, so did the general field of psychological studies.  Hypnosis became an important field of research, and schools like Yale and Stanford led the way.  Their work, in conjunction with the developments brought about by private practitioners in the healing sciences, helped define the terms of use and advance hypnosis as a legitimate field of practice and science.  Even as the public may remain to some degree skeptical of hypnosis, science and the healing arts have embraced the practice, giving it a large stamp of approval.  

Hypnosis continued to gain ground in the medical profession.  In 1955, the British Medical Association approved hypnosis for treatment of neuroses and for use in surgery and childbirth, endorsing training in hypnosis for medical students and physicians.  Three years later, the American Medical Association followed suit, as did the Canadian Medical Association.  In 1958, the Canadian Psychological Association endorsed hypnosis, followed by the American Psychological Association two years later.  In 1961, the American Psychiatric Association added its endorsement, as well, to the practice of hypnosis.

From divergent and often bizarre beginnings, the journey to discovering the Middle Mind, how it works, and more importantly, how it can work to improve lives has reached a respected position, at least among professionals.  Not just a parlor room trick any more, hypnosis is a legitimate practice, supported with over sixty years of endorsements.