This paper focuses on the history and science of hypnosis. The introduction discusses the origins of hypnosis that date back to pre-historic times and the first people to employ hypnotic-like methods to alter or change human behavior using the power of suggestion. A background and study of Franz Anton Mesmer, the man who most people associate with the beginning of hypnosis, is elaborated on throughout this paper. I will also discuss what hypnosis is, how it is used to explain human experiences, and how research does or does not support the theory of hypnosis. I will also give examples of how hypnosis is applied, why it’s used, and how it has been viewed in the past and present times.
A brief history of the concept of hypnosis
The science of hypnosis, remote from being a practice of modern times, is one that has been studied and pondered over since pre-historic times. The employment of hypnotic-like methods to alter human behavior using the power of suggestion and repetitious incentives to rouse the mind or the spirits were used by numerous ancient civilizations (Baker, 1990, p. 51). These methods were usually associated with a confidence in magic and the occult, and the belief that these procedures were beyond human understanding. According to Baker (1990), priest-physicians of ancient Egypt induced sleep-like states in other people. This practice was also prominent in the sleep temples of classical Greece. In this case, worshippers attempted to conjure Hypnos, the god of sleep, who it was believed brought them prophetic dreams.
Another example of the use of hypnotic-like methods dates back to 2600 BC in China, where Wang Tai, the father of Chinese Medicine, wrote of a “medical procedure that involved using incantations and mysterious passes of the hands over the patient that leaves no doubt about its hypnotic nature (Baker, 1990, p. 51). According to Baker (1990), the use of hypnotic-like techniques and procedures were mentioned in the Hindu Vera, written about 1500 BC, and the Ebers papyrus, which is known to be over 3,000 years old, narrates an expressive method extremely similar to the techniques modern hypnotherapists practice today.
Although the practice of hypnosis appears to have begun during these pre-historic times, and there are many more accounts similar to the latter, the fact is that these people of different lands, thousands of years ago, may have known about the strange powers of hypnosis; that it appeared to be magic and it helped cure the sick, but these ancient people knew little about what hypnosis really was (Kennedy, 1979, p. 22)
Attempts to provide scientific explanations for the existence and the cure of diseases began in Europe during the 16th century. Up until this time, the causes and cures for diseases were attributed to supernatural or metaphysical causes. Paracelsus (1493-1541), a physician and alchemist, who was born in Switzerland, was among the first theorists to offer such a scientific explanation. He suggested the idea that magnets and the heavenly bodies-the sun, moon, and stars-possessed healing effects that could be used on the human body (Baker, 1990, p. 53). From this time forward, a number of similar notions motivated the study of physicians, astronomers, physicists, and healers of the sick. Gul Maxwell, a Scottish physician, proposed the idea that a universal and vital force adversely influenced and affected humans, in 1679. The efforts and studies of Maxwell impacted Richard Mead, an 18th century English physician, and led him to begin studies dealing with the universality of life. Around 1771, Maximillian Hell, who was a Viennese Jesuit, became known for cures that he attained by applying a steel plate to the bodies of people who were sick or diseased. In 1774, Hell met a Viennese physician, Franz Anton Mesmer, and demonstrated to him the healing powers of his magnetized steel poles (Baker, 1990, p. 53).
Given all of this information, it is a mystery tome that the history of hypnosis is often associated with Mesmer, and that it is he who is often considered when the beginning of hypnosis is reflected. However, Mesmer did contribute to the further developments and understanding of hypnosis.
In the late 1700’s, Mesmer began using a new kind of medical treatment in Vienna, Austria. “With it, Dr. Franz Mesmer was said to be curing patients doctors called ‘incurable’. Using no medicine, Franz Mesmer was curing these people with magnets” (Kennedy, 1979, p. 25). It is true that Mesmer was thought to have cured numerous patients through “mesmerism” and “animal magnetism”, but the validity of these claims were uncertain.
Mesmer developed the theory “animal magnetism”, and surmised that a universal magnetic fluid existed in all “objects that produced disease when it was out of balance in the human body” (Baker, 1990, p. 53). As a result of this theory and the belief Mesmer had in it, he began to cultivate techniques that he thought would re-establish the equilibrium of the magnetic fluid, and as a result, diseases would be cured. Mesmer based his theories and prospects on his belief that perfect health was dependent upon an individual maintaining a right relationship with the heavenly bodies.
Mesmer became convinced that the same powers that held the sun and moon and planets in place regulated human health. When a magnet was brought into contact with a patient, the subtle and mysterious fluid exuded by the magnet entered the body of the patient and healed him of his complaint. “Animal magnetism” was the name Mesmer gave this fluid (Baker, 1990).
The execution of Mesmer’s “animal magnetism” made him famous. He called his way of curing people with this method “mesmerism” (Kennedy, 1979, p. 28). He passed long iron rods and magnets over the bodies of sick patients to enhance the balance of their fluids.
Now that we have a basic understanding of where hypnosis came from and how it transcended into time, I will explain the science of hypnosis. I will talk about how Mesmer applied “animal magnetism” in specific cases, and why his theories were refuted by many scientific and medical communities. Then, I will discuss what hypnosis really is, and how it is used to explain human experiences and what they mean. How research supports or refutes such theories will also be discussed.
For a period of about 5 years, animal magnetism was very popular in Paris around 1778. Hundreds of the sick were treated at the clinic that Mesmer and his friend founded in Rue Montmartre, a clinic that was founded with Queen Marie Antoinette’s permission (Baker, 1990, p. 56)
In curing his patients, Mesmer walked around them touching each one with a wand, advocating them to yield themselves to the magnetic fluids about. He told them that they could only be cured if they were able to focus on the heavenly powers that existed within their sick bodies. He pressed his clients to “reach further into your mind,” (cited in Baker, 1990, p. 56). He drove these people to reach what Mesmer called “a grand crisis”, known today as a grand mal convulsive seizure. Mesmer reported that this grand crisis was the reason many of his clients were cured. According to Thornton (1976), the origin of the behavior that is now attributed to hypnosis resulted from the misdiagnosis of the ancient malady epilepsy. Trying to relate Mesmer’s convulsing patients with the characteristics of hypnosis; relaxation and calamity perplexed many. Many did not see Mesmer’s patients as experiencing the same things that hypnosis would evoke from a patient.
How did Mesmer’s writhing, convulsing patients come to be classified alongside subjects responding to suggestions for body sway and arm levitation, lifting weights, experiencing hallucinations, committing antisocial acts, falling into a state of profound relaxation and so on (Wagstaff, 1981)?
Thornton (1976) concluded that in most cases that dealt with diseases of the nervous system, Mesmer was treating epilepsy. He believed this to be true because the techniques that Mesmer used to bring about the “grand crisis” are the same techniques that are known to produce epileptic convulsions. “The history of magnetism, from which hypnosis arose, is a comedy of errors (Thornton, 1976, p. 43). It is sad that this comedy of errors occurred because Mesmerists had only a rudimentary understanding of the nervous system.
We now have a term “hypnosis” which relates to mimicking of these clinical symptoms, and the bizarre range of extrapolations and exaggerated effects that accompanied and developed from them, by normal people (i.e., non-sufferers from pathological illnesses such as epilepsy). In blunt terms, when “normal” subjects are given modern hypnosis scales they are being asked to perform, to the best of their ability, what really amounts to a parody of epileptic symptoms (Wagstaff, 1981, p.218).
Although Mesmer’s animal magnetism was discredited, Mesmer’s role was essential in the history of hypnotism, since it was he who initiated the movement that was taken up later and then modified by others.
What Hypnosis Is, What Hypnosis Is Not
Today, many medical authorities are convinced that there is no such state of altered consciousness and that what we term hypnosis is in fact a fascinatingly complex combination of social compliance, relaxation, and suggestibility that can account for many esoteric behavioral manifestations (Baker, 1990).
Suggestion is the key to hypnosis, and basically the only tool a clinician has to work with when he/she uses hypnosis (Baker, 1990, p. 18). Basically, hypnosis has been centered around the employment of suggestions. “Hypnosis”, as defined by both Hull and Weitzenhoffer, is a state of enhanced suggestibility (Baker, 1990, p. 122). According to Sheehan (1979), responsiveness to hypnosis seems to be related to a person’s ability to use his imagination and fantasize, and “hypnotic suggestions are most effective when they are conveyed in the forms of images.”
Maybe the best approach to understanding hypnotism is through the common but unscientific notion of the unconscious mind (Estabrooks, 1957, p. 23). According to Estabrooks (1957), a man who talks in his sleep and can answer questions is hypnotized. This is one recognized method of producing the trance, basically by changing normal sleep into hypnotic sleep. “The skilled hypnotist can generally take the sleepwalker or sleeptalker and shift him directly over into hypnotism without either the knowledge or the consent of his subject” (Estabrooks, 1957, p.23).
When we are in a normal waking condition, our conscious mind is working and running the body. But, in a deep hypnotism, according to Estabrooks (1957), this conscious mind is gone. Actions are now under the power of the hypnotist and he controls activities and deals with the unconscious mind.
In Hypnotism, Estabrooks (1957) offers a procedure of a hypnotist as he induces hypnosis.
Since suggestion is the operator’s key and relaxation makes the subject more open to suggestion, the operator has his subject seated in a comfortable place. He then “talks sleep”. The subject is asked to close his/her eyes and the operator begins somewhat as follows: you are falling sound asleep. Relax all of your muscles and imagine that you are going into a deep sleep. Deeper and deeper. You will not wake up until I tell you to (Estabrooks, 1957).
The hypnotist will then test the subject by insisting the subjects eyes are locked closed and then dares him to open them. If the subject cannot open his eyes, the hypnotist is getting control over the unconscious mind of the subject.
Contrary, according to Baker (1990), when a person is hypnotized, they are fully conscious, and “just about anyone with a modicum of common sense can hypnotize people, that is, obtain their compliance and have them follow suggestions” (Baker, 1990, p.41).
We have fairly good experimental evidence indicating that hypnosis is a state of dissociation neither in the sense that persons in that state can carry on two independent mental processes more effectively than when in the non-trance state…It is true, however, that specific suggestions to that effect are able in hypnosis to make certain memories inaccessible to voluntary recall. These are, in a certain sense, dissociation of phenomena, but by no means such in the sense a dissociation into two independent “minds” once conscious and the subconscious…It seems fairly clear that the dissociation’s observed are not essential to the hypnotic state, but are always the result of direct or indirect suggestion. Accordingly, they must find their explanation in the general theory of suggestion, rather than in the theory of hypnosis as such (Hull, 1933, p. 390).
From these very different conclusions, we can see that people have many different ideas and beliefs concerning hypnosis. Hypnosis, according to van der Walde (1965), seems to be more a frame of mind than of an independent state of consciousness. The hypnotic situation does nothing but help motivated subjects achieve what they want under conditions that allow this to be done safely (Baker, 1990, p. 167). According to Baker (1990), the hypnotist serves only as a transference figure. Baker (1990) states, “this is obvious, since we have many successful hypnotists and responses to the hypnotist are completely unrelated to the hypnotists’s ability or to his grasp of hypnotic induction procedures.” One can conclude then, that the subject’s reaction to the induction procedure is determined by what the subjects preconceived idea of what a hypnotist should be and do than by what the hypnotist really is and does (Baker, 1990, p.167).
Hypnosis has been used to cure many ills, and over the years, has become a remedy for bad habits, such as smoking, drinking, and weight gain. But one use of hypnosis that is very popular is its use to replace anesthetics during surgery.
The use of hypnosis as an anaesthetic can be traced back to a French surgeon named Cloquet, to John Eliotson at the University College Hospital in London in the 1830’s, and to James Esdaile’s use of mesmeric techniques in India (Baker, 1990, p. 199). However, the pain killing that was reported in those instances was not clear-cut. In Hypnosis, Compliance, and Belief, Wagstaff (1981) states that the work of Eliotson and Esdaille may not have been so pain free. According to Wagstaff, the number of people who undergo surgery without pain under hypnosis is very small. This observation was shared by Baker (1990) as well. “While the number of people who could undergo painless surgery without anesthetics is quite small, it is important to point out that the number of people selected for surgery with hypnosis is equally small. Those who have studied the problem are in general agreement that the number is much less than the frequently reported ten percent. Two to three percent would be much more accurate.”
According to Baker (1990), investigators have also said that cultural factors affect the way people respond to pain. For example, people that live in Third World countries, in poverty, hunger and disease, have a tolerance for pain much unlike people from America and Western Europe. Situations that would seem very painful to Americans may not seem so painful to people of more primitive cultures. It is believed that if one is brought up to think that a surgery will cause little pain, then that is what will happen. In China, for instance, children are conditioned to believe that surgery such as tonsillectomies cause little or no pain (Baker, 1990, p. 200). This kind of conditioning is extremely important in determining what is painful and what the level of pain experienced is. According to Wagstaff (1981), if Esdaille was able to carry out operations without pain on the East Indians, this does not mean that he would have been successful if he had tried this with Americans or Europeans.
The way surgery is done under hypnosis varies. One way of suppressing pain during surgery without anesthetics is through the placebo affect. Until recently, it is very possible that many medicines were placebos, i.e., sugar pills. So, it was not the medicine that brought about pain relief but the belief that one had ingested medicine (Baker, 1990, p. 201). According to Baker (1990), an example of the use of placebos was during World War II when two surgeons without any access to anesthetics were forced to use hypnosis as a painkiller. The two surgeons suggested anesthesia from fake morphine pills, and it worked. Distraction also works well. An example of this is one needs to get stitches in his/her leg, the nurse would squeeze the patient’s hand very hard to try and distract the pain from the leg to the hand. Other distractions may include imaging a fantasyland, or trying to imagine that one’s body is completely numb in the area where the pain is coming from. This may include taking very deep breaths. “All of these activities serve well to reduce the amount of felt and reported pain” (Baker, 1990, p. 200).
In addition to the placebo effect and suggestion, relaxation is also useful when trying to alleviate pain. Muscle relaxation is clearly related to pain responsiveness. “Relaxation is very effective in reducing fear and anxiety, which are inextricably liked with the pain response” (Baker, 1990, p. 200). The main difficulty with relaxation techniques to soothe pain is that when you have a person who is suffering from a traumatic would and is in need of relief from fear and anxiety, it could be very hard to persuade this person to take deep breaths and calm down.
In today’s world, contrary to the prior situations discussed, our society’s have a very low tolerance for pain, and it is unlike that many would prefer the alternate pain relievers associated with hypnosis as opposed to anesthetics. According to Baker (1990), pain is the single most reason that people see physicians today, and it is the number one reason that people take medication.
These are just a few examples of how hypnosis is used to heal and cure, but it is unlikely that these practices are used much today. In a world full of technology and of the medical advances that we have today, it is easy to see why. But, one still has to wonder, if one really could heal himself without putting chemicals and medicines into his/her body, wouldn’t he/she rather heal themselves. I’m not sure I would, even after reading up on many cases that claim people have felt no pain during surgery because of hypnosis. In a world of medicine, I think I would opt for the friendly practitioner to scribble me a prescription that could leave me feeling better in minutes than try to convince myself that my body is numb, or that I’m in a fantasy land. However, the prospect of healing myself is tempting, just not convincing enough for my skeptical mind.
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Kennedy, Marge M. 1979. The Mystery of Hypnosis. New York: Contemporary Perspectives, Inc.
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Thornton, E.M. 1976. Hypnotism, Hysteria, and Epilepsy: An Historical Synthesis. London: Heinemann.
Van der Walde, P.H. 1965. “Interpretation of hypnosis in terms of ego psychology.” Arch.Gen.Psychiatr. Vol. (12), 438-447.
Wagstaff, Graham R. 1981. Hypnosis, Compliance, and Belief. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Weizenhoffer, A. M. 1953. Hypnotism. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
———–.1985. “In search of hypnosis” in Modern Trends in Hypnosis. New York: Plenum Press.