The History of Hypnosis

by Andrea Szentgyorgyi, DHP Acc. Hyp

Hypnosis is often described as mystical. Throughout history people have tried to define a state that was paraphrased as trance, sleep, hallucination, magic state, mesmeric state, lucid sleep; or the very recent definition of alpha state of mind. Today we can firmly state that hypnosis is not magical. The hypnotic state is a natural state of mind, it is part of our nature as biological beings. 

The beginnings

Hypnosis is as old as humanity, its roots existed in the ancient ages. One of the oldest medical papers, the Ebers Papyrus, written 1550BC, gives a description about a technique that involves eye fixation then suggestions while the eyes are shut (Stefan 2015) as an aid for treating pain and doing surgeries (Meares 2009). In Egyptian sleep temples, priests induced trance by chanting to recall dreams for analysing.

The word hypnosis comes from “hypnos” (Greek), meaning sleep. Hippocrates explained the purpose of hypnosis: “the affliction suffered by the body, the soul sees quite well with eyes shut” (Chadwick 1950 cited in Maldonado et al 2015). Ancient Greeks also had temples devoted to the God of Healing where they used music, prayers and incantation to call Hypnos, the God of Sleep, to visit them, then the priest made suggestions to heal them (Heap et al 2002).

Chinese medicine also has roots in hypnosis. Wong Tai used a trance technique involving passing hands. Also the Hindu Vedas mentions hypnotic procedures in 1500 BC (Bishop 2011).

Native American shamans used self-hypnosis to achieve a trance where they could see the future and also for curing purposes (Thomason 2015).

The Bible mentions that God put Adam into a deep sleep before taking a rib out to create Eve; and God gave a deep sleep to Abram and Samuel to find ways of protection (Nickels 2006). However, Christian religion declared hypnosis witchcraft, therefore it was practised secretly for centuries.

Hypnotism back in fashion

In the 18th century Franz Anton Mesmer studied Newton`s gravity theory and tried to apply it to human illness. He called it animal magnetism (wikipedia 2017) and initially believed that there was a magnetic fluid within the body.

Soon medical professionals challenged this idea about a magnetic fluid and even Mesmer acknowledged that the patient`s imagination of such fluid helped to cure them. He took the first step towards modern hypnotherapy by putting the emphasis on the patient.    

Marquis de Puysegur noticed the similarities between the induced, the natural sleep and sleepwalking or somnabulism. He explained the mesmeric state as a relaxed, quiet state of mind instead of crisis. Another contribution to hypotherapy today was that he believed that he could pass the healing process to his patients (Heap 2002 p. 27.).

His followers contributed to the development of hypnosis by their researches such as Kluge describing the six degrees of states of animal magnetism (Ellenberger 1994 p. 78.). Charpignon, Gauthier, Lafontaine, Despine, Dupotet and Durand understood that the rapport was in the centre of the treatment, they also investigated the importance of individual treatment (Ellenberger 1994. p. 76.).

Abbe de Faria pointed out that the main factor of achieving success in “lucid sleep” is the susceptibility factor. “We cannot induce concentration in individuals whenever we desire, rather we need to find people who are inherently susceptible” (cited in Heap et al 2002. p. 28.). He also called attention to verbal suggestions instead of using objects.

James Esdaile and John Elliotson performed operations using the mesmeric state as a sole anaesthetic. Pierre Janet talked about the subconscious mind by explaining dissociation. Bernheim and Liebeault proved the influence of repetitive suggestions in Nancy School.

James Braid used the term “hypnosis” for the first time in 1840, describing that hypnosis is not a sleep and introduced expressions such as relaxation, focused attention, eye fixation, trance and suggestion. His book, Neurypnology contained a description of his cases. He worked on stroke patients, dealt with pain, headaches, skin and rheumatic problems and he admitted it when his treatment did not work. He started a new era of hypnotherapy, the modern hypnotherapy by pointing out that hypnosis is a psycho-physiological state, therefore ,“hypnosis is characterised by a state of heightened concentration on a single idea suggested by the hypnotist. In this state, imagination, belief and expectancy are more intense than in a normal waking state” (cited in Heap 2002. p. 30.). In 1892 the BMA accepted the therapeutic use of hypnosis and rejected the theory of Mesmerism.

The 20th century

Sigmund Freud turned away from hypnotherapy, however, he contributed to the development of hypnosis by focusing his attention on the unconscious mind and discovering transference (Bachner-Melman 2001).

After the World Wars hypnosis was used to treat patients with Post Traumatic Disorders. Soldiers were mentally breaking down after the shocking events of the wars and that lead to legitimisation of hypnotherapy as a medical treatment. In 1930 the Mental Treatment Act accepted hypnosis as treatment in outpatients clinics (Dryden 1996.) After World War II, group treatments emerged as it was cost effective for the NHS. In 1955 the BMA approved the use of hypnosis, and a year later Pope Pius XII approved hypnosis as a useful aid for childbirth and anaesthesia.

Milton H. Erickson has completely reformed the method of hypnosis by developing the indirect hypnotherapy. He put the main focus on the rapport between the client and the therapist. His approach was based on the need of the individual. He agreed with Freud that every problem has a root in the past, however, he stated that the unconscious mind has a solution to the problem that the client has to find within himself. Erickson emphasized the importance of the language. He focused his attention on metaphors, riddles, jokes and statements made by the client to find a code to the unconscious mind.

Hypno-psychotherapy today

Today hypnosis is used as a treatment for anxiety, phobias, sleeping disorders, pain management, smoking, weight management, depression, stress, post traumatic disorders and dealing with grief and infertility. The NHS uses hypnotherapy successfully to help patients with irritable bowel syndrome (Miller et al 2015).

Researches focus on fields, methods and deeper understanding of the hypnotic state. Eva Banyai, Hungarian psychologist is researching the active-alert hypnosis, a hypnotic state that can be achieved by monotonous or extreme physical activity.

Hypnotherapy had a long journey from demon releasing crisis, through blocked body fluids to releasing pent-up emotion and treatment of mental health issues.

Hopefully, the future brings more discoveries about the clinical practice of hypno-psychotherapy and its validity as a medication free treatment.


Bachner-Melman R., 2001. `Freud’s Relevance to Hypnosis: A Revaluation.` American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis 44:1, July [pdf] Available from [Accessed: 19. 10. 2017].

Bishop, S. 2011. History of Hypnosis. [online] Steve Bishop Hypnotherapy Centre. Available from [Accessed: 21. 10. 2017].

Dryden, W. 1996. Handbook of Individual Therapy. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi. Sage Publications Inc. Pp. 4-8.

Ellenberger, H. 1994. The Discovery of the Unconscious. The history and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. [ebook] Pp. 75-80. [Accessed: 19. 10. 2017].

Heap, M., Aravind, K. 2002. Hartland`s Medical and Dental Hypnosis. 4th edition.[ebook] Edingburg, London, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Sydney, Toronto. Pp. 1-34.

Maldonado, R., Spiegel, D., 2015. Chapter 94 Hypnosis in Tasman, A., Kay, J., Lieberman, J., First, M., Riba, M., Pyschiatry Volume 1., Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences Stanford University School of Medicine. [pdf] Available from,+the+soul+sees+quite+well+with+eyes+shot&source=bl&ots=s6xJgBgND7&sig=u7M_BzfCRhHSXEiRIVqzaiV7xxQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjk89ny4P7WAhVpLsAKHTpmC-0Q6AEIKzAA#v=onepage&q=Hippocrates%20the%20affliction%20suffered%20by%20the%20body%2C%20the%20soul%20sees%20quite%20well%20with%20eyes%20shot&f=false). [Accessed: 20. 10. 2017].

Meares, A. 2009. The Nature, Use and Abuse of Hypnosis. pp 157. [online] Available from [Accessed: 20. 10. 2017].

Miller, V., Carruthers, H., Morris, J., Hasan, S., Archbold, S., Whorwell, P. 2015. Hypnotherapy for irritable bowel syndrome:an audit of 1000 adult patient. [Pdf]

Nickels, R. 2006. Awake out of Sleep! [online] Giving and Sharing. Bible Studies. Available from [Accessed: 20. 10. 2017]

Stefan. 2015. Short-history-of-hypnosis-using-power-suggestion [online] Available from ( [Accessed: 21. 10. 2017].

Thomason, T. 2015. The Role of Altered States of Consciousness in Native American Healing [online] Cuyamungue Institute. Available from [Accessed: 21. 10. 2017].

Wikipedia 2017. Animal Magnetism. [online] Available from [Accessed: 20. 10. 2017].

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