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From Mesmer to Freud and beyond ...

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Hypnotherapy is not the latest 'fad' therapy that some might assume, in fact i
t is believed that hypnosis has existed from the beginning of human kind, and there is evidence that the Egyptians in 3000BC were practising it.

However it was during the 18th Century that the development of modern hypnosis and hypnotherapy really began, although at that stage it was not called hypnosis or hypnotherapy.

The person normally considered to be the Father of Hypnosis is Franz Anton Mesmer who lived from 1734 1815.  He initially used magnets to mesmerize his subjects, but later found that magnets were not necessary, as he believed the magnetic fluid that flowed through his body could produce a cure.

He was forced into retirement in Switzerland after Benjamin Franklin headed a commission appointed by Louis XVI.  Franklin stated that Mesmer was a fraud as all his cures and theatrical results were caused by imagination and belief, ingredients that are now understood to be the basis of modern hypnosis.

The Marquise Chastenet de Puysegur was a student of Mesmer.  He discovered the sleep-like trance state that he called somnambulism.  However Mesmer and Puysegur believed that they were able to place their subjects under their power, failing to recognise that trance could not be induced against one's will.

In 1815 Abbe Jose Castodi de Faria was one of the first scientific experimenters as well as being a showman.  He linked psychological attitudes to the hypnotic state, and realised that trance could not be induced against ones will.  He developed the fixed-gaze method.

Twenty-two years later, in 1837, John Elliotson began experimenting with magnetism at University Hospital, London.  In those pre-anaesthesia days he found that patients could be surgically operated on without agonising pain.  He also used suggestion to elicit cures.  Unfortunately, although some young doctors were interested, the medical community in general attacked his work and stopped his practice.  For the next 30 years he tried and failed to get medical acceptance.

It was in 1842 that James Braid invented the term hypnosis.  He was initially sceptical of magnetism but he researched the phenomenon to find the scientific basis for it.  He believed that the eye fixation induction caused eye fatigue leading to paralysis of the optic nerve centres, causing the condition that so resembled sleep.

In 1847 he discovered waking hypnosis.  He tried to change the term hypnosis to monoidiesm when he realised that the condition could also exist in a state that does not include sleep.

Whilst Elliotson was using hypnosis during surgery in Scotland, James Esdaile, a Scottish doctor was doing similar work in India.  He painlessly performed several thousand minor operations and about 300 major ones, including amputations.  He cut the mortality rate of 50% to less than 8% mainly due to the lack of post-operative shock.

The Medical Association accepted his report on his work, but only because they felt that mesmerism or hypnosis could be expected to work on the uneducated Indians, whose belief system was already receptive to occult medicine and practices.  Esdaile found that this belief system was indeed lacking when he returned home and he was unable to duplicate his work.

A few years later in 1864 at Nancy, France, a medical doctor called Ambrose Liebault established a practice where he treated patients either medically or with free hypnotic sessions, which naturally became popular.  He is the first person known to have taught that hypnosis is purely a matter of suggestion.

Hippolite Berheim, a medical professor, initially considered Liebault a fraud, but changed his mind after visiting his clinic.  He adopted Liebaults' methods and later they joined forces and founded a centre for hypnotic healing, the School of Nancy.  They realised that psychological rather than physical forces were at work in hypnosis, emphasising the importance of the presence of emotion.  Unfortunately, they did not manage to make the quantum leap and realise that hypnosis is in reality guided self-hypnosis, but continued the belief that the hypnotist holds the power.

During this period James Charcot, a neurologist, was using hypnosis at his clinic at Salpetriere.  Although he believed in physical forces being behind hypnosis, he recognised different depths of hypnosis which he defined and named as lethargy, catalepsy and somnambulism - stages of depths that are still of practical use today.  His recognition as a neurologist caused many doctors to be more accepting of hypnosis.

The work carried out at the Schools of Nancy and Salpetriere gave widespread credence and medical acceptance towards hypnotism.  In 1880 Dr Joseph Breuer found that he could use hypnosis to discover why a hysterical girl was unable to drink water from a cup.  In her conscious state she was unable to remember why this was, but he found that she could talk rationally under hypnosis and was then able to remember the cause, which was then dealt with so removing the symptom.  This took hypnosis, or hypnotherapy, a step further than suggestion work and into the beginnings of hypnoanalysis.  Breuer went on to develop free association as a powerful methodology for hypno- and psychoanalysis.

Sigmund Freud had been a student at the Nancy and Salpetriere schools, and was also interested in Breuers work.  However, Freud was not a very good hypnotist.  He also found the process boring, which would be picked up by his patients subconscious probably causing resistance.  So Freud moved away from hypnosis and developed psychoanalysis using free association with the conscious mind, unfortunately discouraging others from using hypnosis.

After Freud's work with psychoanalysis, hypnosis could have almost disappeared within the medical community if it had not been for a few devotees such as Emile Coue who developed theories of autosuggestion and waking hypnosis.  He is probably most famous for his affirmation 'day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better', but also for his law of reversed effort.  He was an immensely compassionate man who believed that he did not heal but was a facilitator of self-healing.

Stage hypnotists also helped to keep the art alive, not only purely as theatrical entertainment, but also some of them began to use hypnosis off-stage using suggestion to help people, for example change habits or develop self confidence.

Fortunately, following both World Wars there was an upswing in interest in hypnosis, mainly due to the shortages of doctors amidst massive numbers of patients.  During World War II, prisoner of war camp doctors had to work without drugs, and successfully experimented with hypnosis.  This lead to increasing interest following the war with young doctors prepared to try new exotic techniques.

Dave Elman helped this process along by teaching hypnosis to the medical profession, leading to its eventual acceptance by the British Medical Association in 1955 and then the American Medical Association in 1958.  However, only a minority of doctors practise hypnotherapy.

A leading authority in the latter half of the 20th Century was Milton H Erickson.  He had polio as a teenager and was paralysed for a while.  During this time he developed an interest in observing people and their behaviour.  He became fascinated in human psychology.  He healed through metaphor, surprise, confusion and humour, as well as hypnosis.  He was a master of indirect hypnosis.

Modern day hypnotherapy has very strong connections with the worlds of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis.  There are many leading figures and pioneers in the world of hypnotism today, including hypnotists such as Paul McKenna whose stage show and media work have helped to popularise hypnosis and hypnotherapy and bring it to the public attention in a mainly positive way.  Or Kevin Hogan (, who has done great work in America, alleviating the suffering of tinnitus clients.  Then there are the teachers, such as our own Terence Watts (, who work hard at ensuring the hypnotherapists of the future are trained to a high standard.

Wendy Headon DHP, GHR         ring 01304 365647 or 0791 2208 196        Email

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