A brief History and Development of Hypnosis


This page will have a brief look at the history of hypnosis, charting a few of the key people who contributed to the development of hypnosis as a therapeutic tool. I also look at how hypnosis and hypnotherapy became accepted in modern medical use.


It is said that hypnosis has been around for as long as man has been around, and some authorities quote examples that suggest the existence of hypnosis in religious ceremonies in cultures earlier than the ancient Egyptians. It’s beyond the scope of this short article to examine the the use of hypnosis, so I will confine myself to taking a brief look at the most influential figures in the history of hypnosis to its acceptance today as a valid and effective form of treatment, and who created most of the theories as to the nature of trance.

Anton Mesmer (1734 – 1815). It’s from Mesmer that we have the words “mesmerism” and “mesmerise”, and it's probably with Mesmer that we can start to look at the history of hypnosis as a therapeutic tool. It was Mesmer, a Viennese physician who really started the scientific study and use of hypnosis, although he didn’t call it hypnosis and was fixed upon his idea of ‘animal magnetism’ – a concept whereby he extended universal gravitation as an explanation of human illness. He thought that the success of his ‘suggestion therapy’ was due to the transference of this ‘animal magnetism’ to his patients. Despite his success in treating a number of patients for whom traditional procedures have proved ineffective, Mesmer was denounced as a charlatan.

John Elliotson (1791 – 1868). John Elliotson used mesmerism extensively and was very diligent in documenting his successes in pain control and surgical anaesthesia.

James Esdaile (1808 – 1859) is the last of the great names of the ‘era of mesmerism’! He used mesmerism as an anaesthetic – operating on hundreds of patients. However, the process of mesmerising his patients could take several hours a day for several days! The advent of chemical anaesthetics meant that mesmerism was no longer seen as a necessary help in surgery!

James Braid (1795 – 1860), It was James Braid who started the process of scientific examination of hypnosis and the nature of trance that ultimately led to the acceptance of hypnosis by the ‘mainstream’ medical profession. It was Braid who started the formal analysis of hypnosis and observation of patients in trance. Braid developed the ‘eye strain’ method of creating trance and observed many of the ‘trance phenomena’ outlined below (The nature of trance). Above all, it was Brain who first placed ‘suggestion’ at the centre of his theory for the clinical effectiveness of hypnosis.

Pierre Janet (1859 – 1947). Pierre Janet formulated the idea (still a very important central part of hypnotherapy theory) of dissociation – whereby hypnosis creates a splitting of consciousness thus eliminating conscious control of certain behaviours.

Dave Elman. Dave Elman is one of the greatest names in the history of hypnosis. He was one of the greatest advocates of the medical and dental use of hypnosis in the 20th century. He ensured that thousands of dentists and doctors in the USA received some training in hypnotherapy, and created numerous rapid trance induction methods. His book - "Hypnotherapy" (1964) is one of the seminal hypnotherapy texts.

Milton Erickson (1901 – 1980). The other 'greatest name in the history of hypnosis' in the 20th century was Milton Erickson. Renowned as the most innovative hypnotherapist in the world, Erickson believed that each individual has the necessary internal resource to alleviate his own suffering. Erickson is particularly well known for his non-authoritarian and indirect approach to therapy, with prominent use of metaphor rather than the direct suggestion.

Modern Acceptance

Both the British Medical Association in the United Kingdom, and the American Medical Association in the USA have given their approval to hypnotherapy as an acceptable and effective mode of treatment.

In 1955 the BMA issued a report that stated that hypnotherapy is a valuable medical tool and recommending that hypnosis should be taught in medical schools. “For the past hundred years, there has been an abundance of evidence that psychological and physiological changes could be produced by hypnotism which was worth study on their own account, and also that such changes might be of great service in the treatment of patients.” (BMA Council Proceedings, BMJ, April 23rd, 1955:1019)

The Council of Mental Health of the American Medical Association published its approval of hypnotherapy as a therapy in 1958, as did The American Psychiatric Association in 1962. A number of medical schools now also teach hypnotherapy to their students as part of the undergraduate programme.