A Contemporary History of Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy

history of hypnosis

The Contemporary History of Hypnosis

The history of hypnosis is divided into two parts.  As I mention in my article about ancient hypnosis, the practice of hypnotherapy went into hibernation in the middle ages. Hypnosis as it is thought of today began in the 18th Century with Anton Mesmer.


The modern history of hypnosis starts with Anton Mesmer. Mesmer was an Austrian who led the way in the usage of trace. This eventually earned him the nickname, “Father of Hypnosis.” His name is also the root for the term “mesmerism.”

Mesmer became interested in magnetism after studying as a Jesuit priest. Mesmer was encouraged by his friend Mozart to purchase a space where he could perform magical “cures” on people. Soon Mesmerism or animal magnetism became popular with the French nobility.

Mesmer believed all living things contained a kind of magnetic ‘fluid’ and if a person had enough of this fluid, they would be healthy.

The theory behind Mesmerism was that man could influence his magnetic fluid to bring about healing. In his salons Mesmer placed magnets on the afflicted parts of his patient’s bodies and soon he became Europe’s foremost expert at magnetic healing. His practice grew quickly and he became very famous. One day after forgetting his magnets he just made passes over a patient with his hands and was surprised to find that he got better. From there on, he thought he had sufficient magnetic fluid in himself to affect the cures.

Although Mesmer did receive much praise for his healing powers many dismissed his results as a pure imagination, probably as a result of his use of lights and other gimmicks. One of his most notable critics was Benjamin Franklin.

The Split of the Hypnotic World

In 1784 Louis XVI set up a commission of investigation.

The commission, which included Benjamin Franklin, M. La Guillotin, and La Voisier, concluded that magnetism with imagination had some effect, but Mesmer’s theories of magnetism were discredited. His Society of Harmonies continued and a member of the Society, Le Marquis de Puysegur, believed that the magnetic power was produced in his own mind and was transferred to the patient through his fingertips.He found that he could produce a sleep in which the patient would follow his commands and introduced the terms, perfect crisis and profound sleep.

In France, Abbe Castodi de Faria scientifically investigated hypnosis as it related to trances and willing participants. The “fixed-gaze method,” which is still used in stage hypnotism shows is credited to Faria.

Also during this time John Elliotson of England used magnetism and hypnosis to ease the pain of surgery.

The Origin of the Word Hypnosis

In 1843 a Scottish surgeon working inManchesterby the name of James Braid coined the terms ‘hypnotism’ and ‘hypnosis. The word hypnosis was derived from the Greek hypnos, which meant sleep. Later, believing the word to be misleading, Braid tried to change the word hypnosis but it had already gained wide acceptance so it stuck.

Dr. James Braid

James Braid had become interested in mesmerism while watching a demonstration that was part of a carnival show. At first he was convinced that it was a fraud and a swindle and was determined to discredit hypnosis once and for all. Instead, he became thoroughly convinced of its value. Using vocal suggestion, he was able to explore the influence that hypnotists had on their subjects. Braid is also honored for discovering “waking hypnosis.”

Braid concluded that eye fatigue was necessary to induce the state and found that some people could go into a trance if there eyes where fixated on a bright object. Using his shiny bright lancet case he induced his patients to enter a deep hypnotic sleep where he found that they would accept his healing suggestions. He was convinced that a neurological process was involved and that the process could be very useful when no organic origin could be found for a person disorder. He coined the word Neurypnology, which literally means nervous sleep.

Dr. James Esdaile

A Scottish surgeon working in India, Dr. James Esdaile, was a personal friend and professional colleague of Braid. Esdaile performed several hundred operations painlessly using only hypnosis as an anesthetic. He would use eye fixation to prepare a patient for surgery and would produce something like suspended animation, now known as the Esdaile State, by stroking the body of the patient for several hours.

Esdaile’s logs indicated that fatal surgical shock or post operative infection occurred in only five percent of cases compared with the then norm of fifty percent but when Esdaile presented his findings in a paper to the British Medical Society, he was scorned. This was largely due to the fact that the Church taught that suffering was a noble part of the human condition, that enduring pain established integrity. Interestingly, when chemical anesthesia was discovered in the mid-1800s the physicians changed their attitudes about pain.

James Braid and James Esdaile were the first researches who studied hypnosis scientifically. Their work helped to remove hypnosis from the realms of mysticism and began the work to discover what could really be done with it to help people.

Emile Coue

In the early 1900s, a French pharmacist named Emile Coue made a great discovery which he called waking suggestions, now know as autosuggestions. Coue contended that all hypnosis was influenced by self-hypnotic techniques.

Coue’s famous autosuggestion formula was, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better”. Coue discovered that hypnosis only works when the suggestion is accepted by the mind of the subject and stated that all hypnosis is self hypnosis. He later developed the Laws of Suggestion. These Laws are set forth in a system developed by one of Coue’s students, Charles Baudouin, who explained that everything occurs through suggestion.

Although Coue enjoyed immense popularity in his homeland, his popularity changed when he brought his theories of autosuggestion to the United States and put himself in the hands of a promoter. The promoter exploited this new wonder cure to the point of ridicule, and his original formula became the subject of jokes and jingles.

A More Recent History of Hypnosis

When exploring the history of hypnosis, you will run into a wide variety of personalities who have shaped the way people viewed and accepted the field.  Some pioneers include, Liebeault, Bernheim, Brewer and Freud. Freud became interested in hypnosis in the late 1800s, but only for a short while and was probably responsible for hypnotherapy being shelved for many years when he abandoned it completely in favor of psychoanalysis. Other personalities that showed interest in hypnosis were Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein.

The History of Hypnosis in World War I

Hypnosis was used in World War I by the Germans for pain control when they ran out of chemical anesthetics. It was also used for treatment of shell shock during and after the War. Following World War II and the Korean War, hypnosis was again used for pain control and to aid those who were “mentally disabled” by the war. This is now known as post traumatic shock syndrome.

The History of Hypnosis in America

In 1958 Milton Erickson brought about the approval of hypnosis for therapeutic use by the American Medical Association. Dr. Erickson was a psychiatrist and hypnotherapist with outstanding professional credentials and theorized that hypnosis is a state of mind that all of us are normally entering spontaneously and frequently. On the heels of Erickson’s work, hypnosis evolved into a well respected practice, used by doctors, psychologists, business and law enforcement. Today it is widely used for self help, and self improvement.

Today the history of hypnosis continues to expand as it continues to find more and more uses in our everyday lives.

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About the Author

Wil DieckWil Dieck is an author, speaker, college professor and researcher. He is also a master hypnotherapist, NLP Trainer and master martial arts instructor. For the past forty years, he has taught people, from a variety of backgrounds, how to use simple mind hacking techniques to create habits of success.

He is also a professor of psychology and business at San Diego University for Integrated Studies.

Wil runs a leadership and peak performance coaching practice in San Diego, California. He helps his clients create the belief systems of successful people and leaders, allowing them to make the most of their personal and professional lives.

He is the founder of Neuro Emotional Conditioning (NEC)© and has taught hundreds of people in individual and business settings how to use NEC© techniques to strengthen their mind’s abilities to focus on getting the most they can out of life.