The Origins of Hypnosis

From mesmerism to hypnotism.


The birth of modern psychotherapy can be traced back to hypnosis.

The birth of modern psychotherapy can be traced back to hypnosis, as this was the treatment method legendary neurologist Sigmund Freud used with his patients before he established psychoanalysis – the very first psychodynamic therapy.


Franz Mesmer and Animal Magnetism

When hypnosis originated in 18th century, it was first called mesmerism after Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer who used magnets to treat the physical and psychological ailments of French noblemen and women in Paris. Mesmer claimed he could project invisible healing energy contain within his own body– what he called “magnetic fluid” or “animal magnetism” – to put his patients into a trance-like state and induce cathartic healing in them. Mesmer’s unconventional treatment was hugely popular but it also drew the attention of scientifically-minded skeptics who considered him a charlatan.


In 1784, a commission by the French Royal Academy of Sciences which included American scientist and statesman Benjamin Franklin, French biologist and chemist Antoine Lavoisier, French astronomer Jean-Sylvain Bailly and French physician and politician Joseph-Ignace Guillotine investigated Mesmer’s therapeutic claims. Evidence showed that mesmeric fluid did not exist and that the trance effects Mesmer had induced in his patients were not caused by animal magnetism but by the patient's belief Mesmer’s “powers” and their own imaginations. After listening to the commission, Mesmer’s disciple Charles d’Elson saw the error is his former convictions about animal magnetism, and instead concluded that “the imagination thus directed to the relief of suffering humanity would be a most valuable means in the hands of the medical profession.”


A Portuguese priest known as Abbe de Fria also rejected the idea of animal magnetism but reconceptualised mesmerism as a state of “lucid sleep” that originates not from the power of the mesmerist but from the disposition of the subject.


From 1826 to 1838, the French Royal Academy of Medicine commissioned another study on mesmerism. Because mesmerism had evolved a great deal since its establishment as animal magnetism, this time the commission found that mesmerism produced genuine physical and psychological phenomena worthy of further scientific and medical research. John Elliotson, a professor of medicine at the University of London and James Esdaile, a Scottish physician who studied under Elliotson, used mesmerism as a general anaesthetic for medical procedures. During the American Civil War, before the discovery of ether, military surgeons used hypnosis to reduce pain in soldiers before amputations.


The Birth of Hypnotism

In 1841, about a century after Mesmer introduced the idea of animal magnetism, Scottish physician James Braid published an article where he reframed mesmerism within a new scientific, neuro-psychological model of suggestion-based therapy, which he called hypnotism. In 1892, a study by the British Medical Association concluded that hypnotism was indeed credible as a therapeutic technique and a superior explanation of the “trance” phenomenon that was once classified as mesmerism.


While both mesmerism and hypnotism rely on the influence of suggestions to improve the physical and psychological wellbeing of the subject, there are clear differences between the two. Mesmerism, with its esoteric leanings, attributes healing to power of the mesmerist. Modern hypnotherapy on the other hand adheres to Braid’s ideas of hypnotism, which is rational, scientific and evidence-based. In modern hypnotherapy, it is not the power of the therapist that leads to successful treatment outcomes but the collaborative participation of the client and how well the therapist and client can work together with the power of the client's imagination.


Despite it’s somewhat murky past, most psychologists and doctors now agree that hypnosis is a powerful and effective therapeutic technique for helping people to change negative habits and for treating a wide range of conditions, including anxiety, mood disorder and pain. Michael Yapko, PhD, a psychologist and fellow of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis says, “hypnosis works and the empirical support is unequivocal in that regard. It really does help people.”

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