Hypnosis is a practice that’s often shrouded in mystery. This can be credited to the media’s portrayals of spinning wheels of black and white and swinging pocket watches, as well as stage hypnotists making participants cluck like chickens in front of a crowd of people. The practice of hypnosis is misunderstood today but it has its cultural roots dating back thousands of years and modern roots in the field of science.
The ancient Greeks and Egyptians created sleep temples, where people would go to be hypnotized and have their dreams or visions interpreted by a spiritual leader in the hopes of resolving an issue. Likewise, mentions of hypnosis and trance-like meditation can be found in Chinese and Hindu writings dating back at least 1500 years ago. Going into a trance and attempting to access the subconscious mind were done in various cultural and religious ceremonies throughout history.
Later in Middle Ages Europe, magnetism became increasingly popular. During this process, a practitioner placed magnets on a patient’s body to cure physical or mental ailments. But in the 18th century, Franz Mesmer (whom we can credit for the word “mesmerizing”) was the person who launched magnetism into popularity. He would make elaborate spectacles of placing magnets on a person’s body and believing he was curing them by improving the person’s magnetic flow. It might sound comical now but his theories were grounded in the science of the time. He was very theatrical when he practiced and has been credited for the stereotypical image of the stage hypnotist, complete with a long cloak, a goatee, and hypnotizing eyes.
Shortly after Mesmer in 1813, priest Abbe Faria proposed that the results of magnetism were all due to the mind, since the mind held all the control, and magnets played no part in the person’s healing. His work was the basis for the later School of Suggestion, formed by Ambroise-Auguste Liebeault, which believed that hypnosis worked through the power of suggestion. In the Victorian era, some physicians even started using hypnosis as a form of anesthetic – it never caught on as a mainstream form of pain reduction because the doctors of the time preferred chemical anesthetics, giving hypnosis the stigma of being the “alternative”.
James Baird is now considered the father of modern hypnosis. Baird got into hypnosis purely by chance — he was sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room and noticed another man was fixated on the lamp next to him. Curious, he gave the man some basic instructions and was able to put him in a trance. From this encounter, he realized that getting a patient to fixate on something is key to inducing hypnosis (this is where the swinging pocket watch comes into play). Baird coined the term “neuro-hypnotism”, later being shortened to just hypnotism, and got the name from the Greek god of sleep Hypnos. He wanted to change the name to “mono-ideism”, since hypnosis involves concentrating on a single stream of thoughts, but it never stuck. Baird rejected Mesmerism and suggested that hypnosis was purely psychological, ensuring that hypnosis be approached from a purely scientific viewpoint.
Later, Emile Coué famously coined the phrase “Day by day in every way I’m getting better and better”, as well introducing the concept that all hypnosis is self hypnosis. This perspective emphasizes the patient’s role in their healing process. Father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud started using hypnosis to help people remember repressed memories after being inspired by a trip to France in the 1880’s but then later rejected the practice —apparently, he wasn’t a very good hypnotist.
Most recently, Milton Erikson made vast contributions to the hypnosis field through his indirect hypnosis technique. Erikson became polio stricken early in his life and during his recovery process, he had a lot of time to observe and analyze people’s quirks and behaviours. He became a master of suggestion through stories he would tell, often in metaphors, so they were more vivid and easy to understand for his clients. His technique still has a lot of followers today, even decades after his death.
Today, hypnosis is used to help with a variety of problems, including smoking cessation, weight loss, motivation, anxiety, phobias, and the list can go on. Hypnosis is often grouped into the “alternative” category with other practices like past life regression or reiki. Hypnosis can be a spiritual practice, and though it remains a cultural practice for some, its modern roots can be found in science, rationality, and psychology—this is the perspective our clinic likes to take. Evidently, the practice of hypnosis has gone through many iterations to be distilled into what it is today and it’s going to be very interesting to see what direction todays practitioners will take us next.