I don’t know about you, but the mere mention of the word ‘history’ usually puts me into a deep trance! Here, though, is a short, action-packed account, picking out the people whose work influenced me the most and made significant contributions to the development of our understanding of hypnosis.
The earliest references to hypnosis date back to ancient Egypt and Greece. Indeed, ‘hypnos’ is the Greek word for sleep, although the actual state of hypnosis is very different from that of sleep. Both cultures had religious centres where people came for help with their problems. Hypnosis was used to induce dreams, which were then analysed to get to the root of the trouble.
There are many references to trance and hypnosis in early writings. In 2600 BC the father of Chinese medicine,Wong Tai, wrote about techniques that involved incantations and passes of the hands. the Hindu Vedas written around 1500 BC mention hypnotic procedures. Trance-like states occur in many shamanistic, druidic, voodoo, yogic and religious practices.
The modern father of hypnosis was an Austrian physician, Franz Mesmer (1734 - 1815), from whose name the word ‘mesmerism’ is derived. Though much maligned by the medical world of his day, Mesmer was nevertheless a brilliant man. He developed the theory of ‘animal magnetism’ - the idea that diseases are the result of blockages in the flow of magnetic forces in the body. He believed he could store his animal magnetism in baths of iron filings and transfer it to patients with rods or by ‘mesmeric passes’.
The mesmeric pass must surely go down in history as one of the most interesting, and undoubtedly the most long-winded, ways of putting someone into a trance. Mesmer would stand his subjects quite still while he swept his arms across their body, sometimes for hours on end. I suspect that this probably had the effect of boring patients into a trance, but it was certainly quite effective. Mesmer himself was very much a showman, conveying by his manner that something was going to happen to the patient. In itself this form of indirect suggestion was very powerful. Mesmer was also responsible for the popular image of the hypnotist as a man with magnetic eyes, a cape and goatee beard. His success fuelled jealousy among many of his colleagues and this eventually led to his public humiliation. looking back, it is quite incredible that hypnosis survived in these early years, because the medical world was so dead set against it.
Another forward thinker was John Elliotson (1791 - 1868), a professor at London University, who is famous for introducing the stethoscope into England. He also tried to champion the use of mesmerism, but was forced to resign. He continued to give demonstrations of mesmerism in his own home to any interested parties, and this led to a steady increase in literature on the subject.
The next real pioneer of hypnosis in Britain appeared in the mid-nineteenth century with James Braid (1795 - 1860). Primarily a Scottish eye doctor, he developed an interest in mesmerism quite by chance. One day, when he was late for an appointment, he found his patient in the waiting room staring into an old lamp, his eyes glazed. Fascinated, Braid gave the patient some commands, telling him to close his eyes and go to sleep. The patient complied and Braid’s interest grew. He discovered that getting a patient to fixate upon something was one of the most important components of putting them into a trance.
The swinging watch, which many people
associate with hypnosis, was popular in the early days as an object of
fixation. Following his discovery that it was not necessary to go through
all the palaver of mesmeric passes, Braid published a book in which he
proposed that the phenomenon now be called hypnotism.
The French were also taking an interest
in the subject of hypnosis, and many breakthroughs were made by such men
as Ambrose Liébeault (1823 - 1904), J.M. Charcot (1825 - 93) and
Charles Richet (1850 - 1935).
A man of enormous compassion, Coué
believed that he did not heal people himself but merely facilitated their
own self-healing. He understood the importance of the subject’s participation
in hypnosis, and was a forerunner of those modern practitioners who claim,
‘There is no such thing as hypnosis, only self-hypnosis.’
In a sense Coué also anticipated the placebo effect - treatment of no intrinsic value the power of which lies in suggestion: patients are told that they are being given a drug that will cure them. Recent research on placebos is quite startling. In some cases statistics indicate that placebos can work better that many of modern medicine’s most popular drugs. It seems that while drugs are not always necessary for recovery from illness belief in recovery is!
Sigmund Freud (1856 - 1939) was also interested in hypnosis, initially using it extensively in his work. He eventually abandoned the practice - for several reasons, not least that he wasn’t very good at it! He favoured psychoanalysis, which involves the patient lying on a couch and the analyst doing a lot of listening. He believed that the evolution of the self was a difficult process of working through stages of sexual development, with repressed memories of traumatic incidents the main cause of psychological problems. This is an interesting idea that has yet to be proved.
Freud’s early rejection of hypnosis delayed the development of hypnotherapy, turning the focus of psychology away from hypnosis and towards psychoanalysis. However, things picked up in 1930s in America with the publication of Clark Hull’s book, Hypnosis and Suggestibility.
In more recent times, the recognised leading authority on clinical hypnosis was Milton H. Erickson, MD (1901-80), a remarkable man and a highly effective psychotherapist. As a teenager he was stricken with polio and paralysed, but he remobilized himself. It was while paralysed that he had an unusual opportunity to observe people, and he noticed that what people said and what they did were often very different. He became fascinated by human psychology and devised countless innovative and creative ways to heal people. he healed through metaphor, surprise, confusion and humour, as well as hypnosis. A master of ‘indirect hypnosis’, he was able to put a person into a trance without even mentioning the word hypnosis.
It is becoming more and more accepted that an understanding of hypnosis is essential for the efficient practice of every type of psychotherapy. Erickson’s approach and its derivatives are without question the most effective techniques.
Over the years hypnosis has gained ground and respectability within the medical profession. Although hypnosis and medicine are not the same, they are now acknowledged as being related, and it is only a matter of time before hypnosis becomes a mainstream practice, as acceptable to the general public as a visit to the dentist.
I have run through the main pioneers in the exploration and study of hypnosis, but it is also interesting that many creative individuals have used a trance-like state to access their talents. Artists, writers,, poets and composers have induced a form of hypnotic trance to help them with their work.
The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-92) would repeat his own name to himself again and again like a mantra, and by doing this would access a different state of consciousness in which whole poems came to him that he could then transcribe. Mozart (1756 - 91) apparently composed Cosi fan tutte, one of his most famous operas, while hypnotised, and Rachmaninov (1873-1943) reportedly composed one of his concertos following a post-hypnotic suggestion.
When the University of Strasbourg gave classes in hypnosis, students included the poet and playwright Goethe (1749-1832) as well as another composer, Chopin (1810-49). Thomas Edison (1847-1931), Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), Henry Ford (1863-1947), Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) all used trance-like states to help in the development of their ideas.
Many of history’s greatest innovators made documented use of some ‘special’ level of consciousness. These days huge numbers of leading athletes, business people and artists in many different fields use similar approaches with great success.
The Dalai Lama recently questioned our reasons for sending investigative teams into outer space and under the sea when the real undiscovered treasures of humanity lie within the realms of our minds, and I must say I have to agree with him!
THE HYPNOTIC WORLD OF PAUL McKENNA
published by Faber & Faber.