History of Hypnosis

You may be wondering where and just how hypnosis began. What role was played in the history of hypnosis by Mesmer, James Braid, Coue, and Erickson? Discover the roots of hypnosis with this brief history of this fascinating subject.



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Evidence of hypnotic-like phenomena appears in many ancient cultures. The writer of Genesis seems familiar with the anaesthetic power of hypnosis when he reports that God put Adam "into a deep sleep" to take his rib to from Eve.

Other ancient records suggest hypnosis was used by the oracle at Delphi and in rites in ancient Egypt (Hughes and Rothovius, 1996).

The modern history of hypnosis begins in the late 1700s, when a French physician, Anton Mesmer, revived an interest in hypnosis.

These are some of the people who have most influenced the development of hypnosis today so they rightfully take a place of prominence in the history of hypnosis.

In fact, with a surging interest in hypnosis today, many practitioners are playing a continuing role is the modern history of hypnosis with creative applications.

1734-1815 Franz Anton Mesmer was born in Vienna. Mesmer is considered the father of hypnosis. He is remembered for the term mesmerism which described a process of inducing trance through a series of passes he made with his hands and/or magnets over people. He worked with a person’s animal magnetism (psychic and electromagnetic energies). The medical community eventually discredited him despite his considerable success treating a variety of ailments. His successes offended the medical establishment of the time, who arranged for an official French government investigating committee. This committee included Benjamin Franklin, then the American ambassador to France, and Joseph Guillotine, a French physician who introduced a never-fail device for physically separating the mind from the rest of the body.

1795-1860 James Braid, an English physician, originally opposed to mesmerism (as it had become known) who subsequently became interested. He said that cures were not due to animal magnetism however, they were due to suggestion. He developed the eye fixation technique (also known as Braidism) of inducing relaxation and called it hypnosis (after Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep) as he thought the phenomena was a form of sleep.

Later, realising his error, he tried to change the name to monoeidism (meaning influence of a single idea)however, the original name stuck.

1825-1893 Jean Marie Charcot a French neurologist,disagreed with the Nancy School of Hypnotism and contended that hypnosis was simply a manifestation of hysteria. There was bitter rivalry between Charcot and the Nancy group (Liebault and Bernheim). He revived Mesmer’s theory of Animal Magnetism and identified the three stages of trance; lethargy, catalepsy and somnambulism.

1845-1947 Pierre Janet was a French neurologist and psychologist who was initially opposed to the use of hypnosis until he discovered its relaxing effects and promotion of healing. Janet was one of the few people who continued to show an interest in hypnosis during the psychoanalytical rage.

1849-1936 Ivan Petrovich Pavlov - Russian psychologist who actually was more focused on the study of the digestive process. He is known primarily for his development of the concept of the conditioned reflex (or Stimulus Response Theory).

In his classic experiment, he trained hungry dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which was previously associated with the sight of food. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology in 1904 for his work on digestive secretions.

Though he had nothing to do with hypnosis, his Stimulus Response Theory is a cornerstone in linking and anchoring behaviours, particularly in NLP.

1857-1926 Emile Coue, a physician who plays a large role in the history of hypnosis, he formulated the Laws of Suggestion. He is also known for encouraging his patients to say to themselves 20-30 times a night before going to sleep; "Everyday in every way, I am getting better and better."

He also discovered that delivering positive suggestions when prescribing medication proved to be a more effective cure than prescribing medications alone. He eventually abandoned the concept of hypnosis in favour of just using suggestion, feeling hypnosis and the hypnotic state impaired the efficiency of the suggestion.

Coue’s Laws of Suggestion

The Law of Concentrated Attention

" Whenever attention is concentrated on an idea over and over again, it spontaneously tends to realise itself"

The Law of Reverse Action

"The harder one tries to do something, the less chance one has of success"

The Law of Dominant Effect

"A stronger emotion tends to replace a weaker one"

1856-1939 Sigmund Freud travelled to Nancy and studied with Liebault and Bernheim, and then did additional study with Charcot. Freud did not incorporate hypnosis in his therapeutic work however because he felt he could not hypnotise patients to a sufficient depth, felt that the cures were temporary, and that hynosis stripped patients of their defences.

Freud was considered a poor hypnotist given his paternal manner. However, his clients often went into trance and he often, unknowingly, performed non-verbal inductions when he would place his hand on his patient’s head to signify the Doctor dominant, patient submissive roles. Because of his early dismissal of hypnosis in favour of psychoanalysis, hypnosis was almost totally ignored.

1875-1961 Carl Jung, a student and colleague of Freud’s, rejected Freud’s psychoanalytical approach and developed his own interests. He developed the concept of the collective unconscious and archetypes.

Though he did not actively use hypnosis, he encouraged his patients to use active imagination to change old memories. He often used the concept of the inner guide, in the healing work.

He believed that the inner mind could be accessed through tools like the I Ching and astrology. He was rejected by the conservative medical community as a mystic. However, many of his ideas and theories are actively embraced by healers to this day.

Taking a predominant place in the history of hypnosis is much admired and respected Dr. Milton Erickson.

1932-1974 Dr. Milton Erickson, a psychologist and psychiatrist pioneered the art of indirect suggestion in hypnosis. He is considered to be the father of modern hypnosis. His methods bypassed the conscious mind through the use of both verbal and nonverbal pacing techniques including metaphor, confusion, and many others.

He was a colourful character and has immensely influenced the practice of contemporary hypnotherapy, and its official acceptance by the AMA. His work, combined with the work of Satir and Perls, was the basis for Bandler and Grinder’s Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).

As mentioned above, many modern hypnotherapists are furthering knowledge so quickly by their creative use of their therapy that the history of hypnosis grows yearly.


If you find this subject as fascinating as I do, you may want to check out how to learn more about it here. Just click on the banner and you'll see how far the world of hypnosis has grown from the early days of it's history.

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