how hypnosis came to be

A Deep Look Into The History of Hypnosis


Hypnosis is often misunderstood and many people are skeptical about it due to the myths that have been spreading fast about it as well as the image that has been created by many people about it from stage hypnosis or comedy hypnosis for entertainment.

While this is the case, hypnosis is actually a well-researched method that has been found to help with health issues and its benefits can be dated back many decades ago.

Here, we look at how hypnosis was discovered and developed through the years to become what it is today.

History of Hypnosis

The origin of hypnosis can be traced way back, about a thousand years ago.

Although the specific place of origin of the practice has not been fully confirmed, there were many practices from different areas of the world that, from a modern perspective, are believed to have had some features such as directing inwards or outwards to bring about trance-like states, which are similar to hypnosis.

The ancient healers, priests, and shamans used healing rituals that had a resemblance to the hypnotic state but complemented them with herbs and plants and other traditional forms of healing.

In the East, the ancient practices of the Hindu are said to have had certain aspects of hypnosis including experiences like anesthesia and catalepsy (1).

Other regions like Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, and pre-Columbian America are said to have had sleep temples and made use of the induction of the trance-like sleep states which they combined with eye fixation techniques, rhythmic chants, and verbal incantations.

In many religious and cultural groups, trance-like states have been used alongside the power of beliefs, ideas, imagination, expectations, and control of attention in medical diagnosis, healing rituals, clairvoyance, and prophecies.

The Early Beginnings of Hypnosis in Europe

One of the first people in the olden days who used some forms and aspects of hypnosis was Paracelsus, who was born in Switzerland and was a physician. He was one of the people who used magnetism and imagination to treat people of various diseases.

His principles are what were later used by other popular healers and scientists in healing people.

After him, Robert Fludd, a physician in England in the early 1600s as well as William Maxwell further developed the magnetism concepts he was working with (2).

Maxwell believed that there was a universal spirit that would have negative effects when it was not in balance. The negative effects were the different diseases people suffered. He also said that magnetic medicine helped promote balance in the universal spirit which would then help overcome the health issues.

In the 1700s, an exorcist and priest from Germany by the name of John Joseph Gassner became popular for curing patients who were found to have symptoms of convulsion, epilepsy, and psychosomatic condition.

He used strategies that resembled what is today referred to as stage hypnosis, where he commanded the “evil” spirits to express themselves through different hypnosis related experiences such as anesthesia, deafness, or catalepsy.

After that, the spirits would be banished from the patients through their fingertips or toes, leaving some of the patients with amnesia.

Franz Anton Mesmer

Mesmer was a physician who had a background in medicine and was well-known to the well up people during his time. In fact, one of his friends was one of the most influential composers of music in the classic period, Mozart.

Mesmer believed in the power of magnetism and its influence on the universe.

This phenomenon was called animal magnetism or mesmerism or fluidum. His theory stated that all natural things had the same magnetic force (3).

And when someone fell ill, it was due to an imbalance of the magnetic fluid in their body. Mesmer could cure the disease by redistributing the magnetic fluid in the body of the patient to restore harmony and proper alignment.

Mesmer got this concept of magnetism from Paracelsus and further developed it to become animal magnetism (4)(5).

He initially used magnets to deliver the technique but later on, he started using “mesmeric passes” using his hands by passing them over the patient’s body.

This theory was criticized by many popular people including Father Maximilian Hell, who was a Jesuit priest in the mid-1770s.

This led Mesmer to leave Vienna and going to settle in Paris. There were some physicians there who had shown positive interest in what he was doing so he decided that place would be a good fit for him.

He continued with his healing technique there and he got very popular especially with the wealthy people.

Since he had one on one healing sessions with them, he decided to mesmerize a tree that was outside the office where his clinic was so that the poor could also benefit.

He would touch a patient’s head and stroke their body from their arms to the fingertips and then he would go on to the areas that were ailing.

He combined his hands with an iron wand and would use them in his sessions.

He believed in creating a good rapport with the patients and it helped in the effectiveness of his technique.

He also went on to create a baquet, which looked like the typical bathtub we use today but was slightly shallower. In this baquet, he placed iron fillings, mesmerized water, and powdered glass.

There were iron rods of different lengths that had one edge in the mesmerized water and the other one for the patients to cling to or place in the part of the body that had problems.

He used a rope to gently tie all the patients, which would help in the smooth all-round flow of the magnetic fluid, and then Mesmer, together with his assistant, would magnetize them.

After a couple of different sessions with different patients, Mesmer and D’Elson who was one of his colleagues came to note that there were patients who got really good results as well as those who didn’t get encouraging results.

This would, later on, help to explain why some people are easily hypnotized and others less likely get into trance-like states.

Mesmer’s work brought so much attention and attracted many critics.

Disagreements arose between him and journalists, and even some of his colleagues.

In 1784, the blue ribbon panel, headed by Benjamin Franklin, started doing investigations on mesmerism under the orders of the King of France.

The panel was made of well-respected scientists in various relevant fields and after looking into the matter and doing some controlled experiments, they concluded that Mesmer’s technique only worked due to the imagination, suggestions, and imitation abilities of the patients and not by magnetic fields.

Mesmer, on the other hand, still held on to his beliefs and decided to leave Paris for Switzerland where his fame slowly faded away and died 3 decades later.

Marquis de Puysegur

Marquis was one of the members of the Society of Universal Harmony that was created by Mesmer in 1773 with the aim of training and getting the participants well acquainted with mesmerism under Mesmer’s personal guidance.

Marquis was also a student of Mesmer.

Marquis introduced the concept of Artificial Somnambulism, which was a state of relaxation and sleep like hypnosis that many of the magnetized patients under Mesmer depicted (6)(7)(8).

He made use of many of Mesmer’s techniques of magnetism such as creating a good relationship with the patient, touching the patient lightly over the head and stomach as well as stroking the eyes lightly.

Most of his sessions would be done under an elm tree usually in a group.

He believed in using the recall of previous experiences and imagination to influence this experience and many others after him including Milton Erickson took up this concept.

As years passed by, Marquis took up the idea that the patients who were somnambulistic had other mystical abilities such as being aware of what the hypnotist was intending to do with them, being able to diagnose health conditions in themselves as well as in others and the ability to perceive things that would happen in the future.

This made many people believe hypnosis had a mystical and magical aspect to it that discouraged scientists from exploring it deeply.

These paranormal beliefs about hypnosis are still taken seriously by other groups of people from different regions of the world to this date.

The beliefs also attracted a lot of criticism that then affected the abilities and authority of whom to practice hypnosis and it was declared by law that only physicians could practice hypnosis in a number of countries in Europe.

J. P. F. Deleuze

The other notable figure in the discovery of hypnosis is Deleuze who had been practicing magnetism in the 1870s. About two decades later, he published two great books on botany and magnetism.

He is said to be the first person in the olden days to have talked about many angles of hypnosis which are still recognized today.

Some of the crucial points he noted were:

1. Magnetism should only be used as a complement to acute illnesses such as reducing pain, calm spasms, influencing sleep, help with breathing, and slow pulse rate.

2. He advocated for magnetism as a treatment for health conditions like paralysis, rheumatism, migraine, epilepsy, menstrual disorders, colies, asthma, digestive problems, and spasms. He also talked about how magnetism could help with giving birth.

3. He recounted a case with dissociative disorder.

4. He mentioned different experiences of hypnosis including post-hypnotic suggestions response, anesthesia, dissociation, hyper amnesia, and visual as well as gustatory hallucinations.

5. He noted that about 1 in 20 people are somnambulistic.

Justo Custodio De Faria (Abbe Faria)

De Faria is believed to have been the student of Marquis de Puysegur and is one of the people who really steered forward the development of hypnosis (9).

His belief was that sleep was just as similar as the hypnotic stats and he selected the people he worked with as subjects by their ability to fall asleep.

He would get his subjects to close their eyes and then command them in a forceful way to sleep. If that didn’t work, he would the technique of eye fixation.

Among his many accomplishments, here are some of the things he did:

– He focused more on concentration and lucid sleep rather than magnetism as the people before him.

– He emphasized the differences in the ability to be hypnotized and said that some people were unresponsive while others were inherently susceptible.

– He was the first to direct attention and give more importance to the subject or patient, rather than the hypnotist.

– He became aware of the placebo effect and made use of a placebo that was induced hypnotically as part of his treatment.

– He influenced positive and negative hallucinations and limb paralysis.

– It is believed that he was the first person to observe that catalepsy influences anesthesia.

– Some people believe that he is the father of the suggestion theory used in hypnosis.

– Others believe that he was the first person to have emphasized on response involuntariness in hypnosis.


Although Bertrand did not make a great impact as De Faria, he is known for his public questioning of the theory of magnetic fluid.

While some claim that Bertrand was the very first person to have questioned the theory, it is said that De Faria had already done the same a few years before.

What Bertrand is famous for is his controlled experiment where he sent 3 letters to a somnambulistic subject with the intention of determining the suggestion versus magnetic theory.

He made the somnambulistic subject believe that they received three magnetized letters when in fact only one was magnetized. The second one had been forged by one of his friends and the third had nothing in it.

The results concluded that since the three letters brought about a trance-like state, the main players were expectations and suggestions as opposed to magnetism.

And the future researchers of hypnosis would build upon these factors.

John Elliotson

Before John Elliotson became identified with mesmerism, he had gained popularity for questioning the medical techniques that were being practiced back then and strongly supported the rise of a new institution (10)(11).

He would later become the first medicine professor at the University College Hospital.

Other than hypnosis related achievements, he is known to have discovered the use of drugs like iron, potassium iodide, and quinine and was also the first physician who started making use of the stethoscope.

In an age where surgeries were performed without the use of anesthesia, Elliotson used hypnosis as anesthesia and published the results of 76 hypoaesthesia surgeries.

Ether and Chloroform would later be discovered as great surgery anesthetics years later.

After Lancet, the British journal back then refused to publish Elliotson’s works that were based on mesmerism, another journal was created where Elliotson’s experiments and works would be published called The Zoist.

One memorable moment with Elliotson was when he used mesmerism on a 42-year-old woman who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

The cancer was said to be impossible to operate but Elliotson took her and applied mesmerism on her where she would remain in the hypnotic state for hours multiple times a day.

She had lost weight, strength and the tumor was growing but as Elliotson helped her, she gained her weight and strength back and the tumor started becoming smaller.

However, whenever Elliotson traveled, her condition would get worse but when he came back, she would recover. After 5 years of treatment, tests on her revealed no cancer in her body.

Sadly, she died the next year due to lung inflammation and in the autopsy, there were still no signs of cancer.

James Esdaile

Esdaile was a Scottish physician who started medical practice in India back in the 1830s. He began doing experiments with mesmerism after reading about it and then in 1845, applied it in medical situations for anesthesia (12)(13).

6 years later he had done thousands of surgeries with it and a few hundreds of them were serious ones.

Not only did the technique reduce pain for the patients but also reduce the surgical mortality rate from 50% to 5%.

Esdaile used mesmeric passes over the patient in a room that was dark and followed that up with verbal sleep suggestions.

After a while, he went back to the group of Islands in Europe known as the British isles, where he continued his work.

Around this time, mesmeric hospitals had been built and people went there to be treated of conditions like rheumatism, loss of voice, hysteria, wry neck, tic douloureux, inflammation of the face, St. Vitus’ dance and strumous ophthalmia with ulcers of the cornea.

James Braid

Braid was another person who pushed modern hypnosis a notch higher as he was practicing medicine in England (14).

He took a keen interest in mesmerism after seeing a demonstration of Elliotson’s work by LaFontaine and also believed that magnetism was not the reason hypnosis was effective.

He was the one who brought about the term “hypnosis” deriving it from the Greek word “Hypnos” which means sleep.

Instead of using the magnetic fluid theory and mesmeric passes, he stressed the use of relaxation and induction techniques that are similar to modern methods.

He also believed and insisted that hypnosis is a state of suggestibility and a form of sleep.

He heavily influenced limb catalepsy and even began working with eyelid fixation inductions with catalepsy of eyelids.

Afterward, he appears to have changed his approach and taken up more of relating with patients and telling them to close their eyes in his initial steps of induction.

Since he saw that belief and expectation played a major role in the process, he did not see the need to use verbal suggestions during hypnotic induction.

Therefore, all the other techniques of passes, baquets, and rods were longer deemed useful.

Liebeault and Bernheim

Liebeault came to know of animal magnetism when he was a student of medicine and later made use of it when he became a country doctor.

Afterward, he decided to establish a clinic in France and worked with James Braid’s technique with the focus of attention as well as suggestions for sleep and relaxation.

His suggestions were more inclined towards strengthening the ego of the patient and improving symptoms of the illnesses.

He would often treat his patients in front of the other patients deliberately to reduce the doubts in other patients who were watching and make them less resistant.

After he treated one of Bernheim’s failed cases, Bernheim decided to visit his clinic and they partnered to create an association called the Nancy School (15).

Bernheim used his techniques much like Liebeault and he is given credits for inventing negative hallucinations. He was passionate about influencing hallucinations as well as illusions.

He explained different misconceptions to his patients and then he would use suggestions for tiredness, heaviness, and for sleep.

Jean-Martin Charcot

Charcot was a French Neurologist who used hypnosis on hysterical patients in the Salpetreire, a mental hospital that was for women (16)(17).

Due to many errors in executing the method, he came to erroneous conclusions and theories.

First, he was not aware that the patients he was working with had started imitating epileptic patients and this led him to conclude that hypnosis was a certain form of hysteria.

He also made the mistake of assuming that the patients were not aware of their environment and went on to discuss his theories in front of them.

This led to the effects of expectations which made the results completely unreliable.

Charcot believed that hypnosis was a psychological state rather than a physiological one and this brought disputes between him and the Nancy School.

The Nancy School was able to win and discredit Charcot’s beliefs.

However, with the help of Charcot, the nature of the symptoms of conversion was better understood. Previously, they were thought to be because of uterine issues in women.

Pierre Janet

Janet was a French Psychologist who introduced a new theory that involved dissociating the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind as a person got into the hypnotic state (18)(19).

He believed that as a person went deeper and deeper into this system the unconscious mind took control. Another belief of his was that psychological and hysterical disorders are linked to unconscious functions and meanings with disconnection of the negative and painful experiences such as abuse from awareness of the conscious mind (20).

He used unique hypnosis methods such as unconscious exploration, suggestive hypnosis, prolonged hypnosis, imagery modification, relieving symptoms during the hypnosis session, reframing, age regression, adjusting old memory contents, and creating new memories (21)(22).

As far as the treatment of conversion reactions, post-traumatic stress disorder, and dissociative disorders are concerned, Janet’s work still carries great weight.

His work also influenced other people including Boris Sidis and Morton Prince on their multiple personality studies and Ernest Hilgard on the neodissociational theory of hypnosis.

Breuer and Freud

Josef Breuer was a Viennese physician who was well-known for treating the dissociative identity disorder of Anna. O. He specialized in using hypnosis for treating hysterical disorders that rose from traumatic experiences.

In the case of Anna, he hypnotized her and then got her to talk about the causes of her conditions, which were speech and visual disturbances as well as paralyses.

This influenced abreaction that helped her recover.

It was around this time that Sigmund Freud, a physician whose focus was directed to psychological disorders got the chance to study with Charcot for about 5 months.

This helped Freud understand well the concept of unconscious awareness and the different levels of consciousness.

He also made translations of the works of Charcot and Bernheim to the German language and then went to Bernheim to study at the Nancy School.

Freud and Breuer became good friends and got to combine their knowledge and techniques. In 1895, they both published Studies in Hysteria, that was based on using cathartic hypnosis techniques with hysterical patients (23)(24).

Later on, Freud minimized the use of hypnosis and then dropped it completely to work with a method known as Free association that had a huge resemblance to Janet’s method of automatic talking.

Freud gave credit to Janet in his early writings in regard to the function of the subconscious mind and the importance of abreaction. He used Janet’s terminology of psychological analysis but then took up them term psychoanalysis to free himself of Janet’s way of thought (25).

There are many possibilities as to why Freud gave up on hypnosis.

For some, it is believed that he was discouraged by the findings that hypnosis didn’t work the same for all the patients and it greatly depended on the depth of the relationship with the patient, therapeutically.

It is also believed that he found it uncomfortable the way the patients looked at him during the hypnosis sessions, something that is evident in the procedures he encouraged in psychoanalysis where the patient sits on the couch facing away.

It is said that Freud also believed that hypnosis may have sexual stimulation effects for the patient that might have been concluded after one of the patients embraced him during a session and due to his countertransferential reactions.

After Freud, many other scientists of various fields researched more on hypnosis with others making advancements in the method.

The main figures who are well-known include Ernest Hilgard, Platonov and Valvov, William McDougall, Clark Leonard Hull, Andrew Salter, Harry Arons, Dave Elman, Ormond McGill, Nicholas Spanos, and Martine Orne, among others.

Ideally, hypnosis has seen a lot of evolution since Mesmer’s period. It has been well studied by experts and better refined to help people struggling with various health conditions.

Due to its potency, it is a method that appears to have more abilities and advantages over other medical interventions.

And if studied, even more, we believe we can uncover more of its uses and applications in other areas of our lives.

To learn more about hypnosis, we encourage you to check out our complete beginner’s guide to hypnosis.


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