Hypnosis: How It Changed From a Mystical Practice to a Medical Aid to a Therapeutic Technique

Dr. Noah Kass

What is Hypnosis?

Hypnosis is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a trancelike state that resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted by the subject.” As a result, oftentimes when people hear the word hypnosis, they immediately think about people doing something outlandish on stage, such as clucking like a chicken or jumping on one foot every time they hear a specific word. This conceptualization of hypnosis - as a very directive technique relying on suggestibility, entertainment, and showmanship - is a far cry from earlier intentions of hypnosis. Some would argue that it is unfortunate that because of its associations with occultism and mind control, the word hypnosis carries with it such a negative and superfluous connotation. However, as the use of Ericksonian hypnosis has grown tremendously among clinicians in the past two decades, it is finally being researched and accepted as a holistic treatment in alternative medicine.

The History of Hypnosis: From Mysticism to Medicine

Depending on the theoretical stance one takes on hypnosis, the foundation of it can be said to have stemmed from different places. W. V. Bechterew suggests that hypnotism and suggestion were practiced in ancient times and that there is evidence that these practices were used by Egyptian priests as a way to harness the power of the gods with the intention of using it to heal. Albert Moll also makes the claim that hypnosis was used in ancient religious practices, referencing several cultures that attempted to reach an altered state by gazing steadily into a variety of objects. In the Handbook of Hypnosis for Professionals, Ray Udolf makes the claim that the use of hypnosis was in the first book of the Bible, which states that “God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up flesh instead thereof” (Genesis 2:21, King James Version). If we take this as an instance of a hypnotic state, it not only implies that hypnosis is an altered state of mind similar to a deep sleep, but that this state also has analgesic properties. 

From a more modern-day perspective, it was Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815) that popularized the idea of magnetism, which is the basis for most modern historical descriptions of hypnosis. Mesmer’s major additions were that he brought the use of magnets out of the religious world and into the medical realm. His use of a trancelike state was so widespread that the word “mesmerized” is still commonly used in the English language to refer to someone who is in a trancelike state or “spellbound.” Next came Marquis de Puysegur (1751-1825), a Mesmer disciple, who found that by passing magnets over the patient’s body in a series of wave-like arm motions, his patients soon fell into a peaceful sleep; yet unlike regular sleep, Puysegur found that in this state, patients would often speak about personal matters that were upsetting to them. However, Puysegur feared that these disturbing thoughts might make the illness worse and tried to stop them from talking about these negative thoughts by inducing more positive ones. For instance, he might suggest imagining winning at a shooting contest or dancing at a party. Puysegur found that in this state, these suggestions immediately became realities for his patients, and that they would act out the behaviors as if they were in the situation. Puysegur declared that magnetism should not be used for experimentation or demonstration, but only for the therapeutic purposes and the good of the patient.

Fast forward almost another century, and John Elliotson (1791-1868), who was a professor of surgery at the University College in London, found that using mesmerism at his hospital to perform surgeries helped patients feel less aware of their pain. He also wrote about painless surgical operations, cures of long-standing pain, and even a work on clairvoyant activity induced in one of his patients under magnetic sleep. In addition to his use of hypnosis for anesthetic purposes, he also asserted that mesmerism was particularly useful in treating hysteria and other nervous disorders. The use of mesmerism in performing surgeries reemerged with Elliotson’s predecessor, James Esdaile (1808-1859), a Scottish surgeon practicing in India (Udolf, 1981). Esdaile performed more than 2,000 painless major surgical procedures in which patients were relaxed and quiet during the operation, including massive scrotal tumors and amputations, using hypnosis as the only anesthetic. According to Udolf, surgical shock and also the mortality rate for the removal of scrotal tumors reduced dramatically with his method, with Esdaile’s rate reported at 5% as compared to the 50% mortality rate for the procedure at the time.

It was not until James Braid (1795-1860), an English physician who was a professional and conservative member of society, popularized the use of hypnosis that it gained widespread acceptance. Braid rejected Mesmer’s theories of a magnetic fluid and instead proposed a theory based on brain physiology. He even coined the term “neurohypnology,” meaning “nervous sleep,” which was then modified and shortened to the term “hypnosis.” It was Ambroise-Auguste Liebeault (1823-1904), however, whom many have recognized as the real founder of suggestive therapy.  Concurrently, Hippolyte Bernheim (1840-1919) also became an ardent proponent of suggestion used within a trance state for medical purposes and published his textbook, De La Suggestion in 1884. He used hypnosis mainly for organic diseases of the nervous system, menstrual disorders, and gastrointestinal diseases. 

Hypnosis and Mental Health

Although hypnosis was gaining credibility within the medical field and being used for psychiatric conditions, it was Sigmund Freud’s rejection of hypnosis that most impacted the field of hypnosis and mental health. Freud (1856-1939) abandoned hypnosis based on his beliefs that it stripped patients of their much-needed defenses, the patient did not benefit unless actively participating, and that hypnosis included a mutual seduction between the hypnotist and patient. In addition to Freud’s rationale against hypnosis, he also dismissed hypnosis due to the fact that he simply was not very good at it. Freud stated in Five Lectures that “When I found that, in spite of all my efforts, I could not succeed in bringing more than a fraction of my patients into a hypnotic state, I determined to give up hypnosis.” 

Although the rise of Freudian psychoanalysis set the study of hypnosis back several decades, there have been several notable theorists in the past century that have kept the field alive and new techniques have emerged that have revitalized the field as a legitimate form of therapy: Clark H. Hull (1884-1952) and Milton H. Erickson (1901-1980). Hull was one of the first psychologists to apply a rigorous scientific approach to the use of hypnosis and is often cited as the father of modern hypnosis. In his classic work, Hypnosis and Suggestibility: An Experimental Approach (1933), Hull documents his research with a wide range of hypnotic techniques. It was Milton H. Erickson, however, who may be the most influential and resourceful hypnotherapist of the 20th century. Unlike classical hypnotic methods, Erickson incorporated the use of indirect suggestion, which alludes to engaging in a behavior without suggesting it outright. The Ericksonian method relies primarily on the use of metaphor and analogy, but also proposes a number of techniques that allow the hypnotist to make suggestions in a way that is subtle enough that the person being hypnotized does not register them as commands. By making use of indirect suggestions, Erickson was able to bypass the defense of resistance, which is generally the main obstacle to inducing a hypnotic trance.

It is important to note that Erickson viewed hypnosis as an interchange between people which allows the access of unconscious feeling, ideas, and memories. Therefore, Erickson’s view does not compete with or disavow psychoanalysis, but is simply presented as an alternative way to access the unconscious. In fact, it has been my experience that hypnosis and psychoanalytic theory align well. While Freud believes that the unconscious mind uses symbols to represent ideas in dreams that the conscious mind cannot handle, it makes sense to develop a route to the unconscious that uses symbolization in order to bypass consciousness.

How Does Hypnosis Work?

When hypnosis is used within a therapeutic context, it is called hypnotherapy. This type of therapy helps clients utilize their strengths to facilitate meaningful change in their lives. Through the use of guided imagery, targeted analogies and metaphors, therapists help clients explore their mind and identify obstacles and resistances. In his seminal book in 2012, Hypnosis: A Handbook, Michael Heap succulently states that hypnosis is "a waking state of awareness in which a person’s attention is detached from his or her immediate environment and is absorbed by inner experiences such as feelings, cognition and imagery." When hypnosis is combined with traditional psychotherapeutic methods, it can be a distinctly useful therapeutic tool, as the mind is free to wonder and wander, holding onto what it needs and disregarding what it does not.

Hypnotherapy, when practiced by licensed mental health professionals, provides clients a chance to safely explore a part of themselves that has remained hidden. Of note, organizations such as the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis and the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis state that only individuals with specific training in hypnosis and mental health should be practicing hypnotherapy.

Dr. Noah Kass is a Psychotherapist at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy. To learn more about how mindfulness & hypnotherapy can help you or to make an appointment, please contact us here.

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