The history of hypnosis is long and varied, evolving from ancient Vedic sleep temples to Freudian psychotherapy and finally modern neurology. Today, hypnosis is defined as a set of techniques that induce a special brain state: one in which your perceptions, memories and behaviors are easily influenced by suggestion. The history of hypnosis, however, spans a much wider array of ideas and practices.
Ancient Spiritual Practices
The history of hypnosis may have begun thousands of years ago in ancient Greek, Egyptian, Indian and tribal spiritual practices. Rituals throughout the world use techniques reminiscent of hypnotic induction—rhythmic, repetitious sounds and movements and a fixed focus of attention—to bring about altered states of consciousness.
Many of these traditions, unlike modern hypnosis, were closely connected to sleep, dream interpretation, divination and the actions of gods. But, like all techniques throughout the history of hypnosis, they were also thought to bring about emotional and spiritual healing.
In ancient Egypt “falling of the heart”, “kneeling of the mind” and other depressed states were treated by “incubation” or sleep therapy in sacred temples. In ancient Greece a night spent sleeping in the temple of Asklepios, the god of healing, was thought to cure illness. Ancient India also had sacred sleep temples where priestly suggestions could induce different categories of sleep called Sleep-Waking, Dream-Sleep and Ecstasy-Sleep. Other spiritual practices such as Buddhist walking meditation, yoga and Qi Gong use slow repetitive movements and fixed attention to change the practitioners’ state of mind and body.
From Mesmerism to Psychotherapy and Neuro-Lingistic Programming
Although many people view hypnosis as a form of entertainment, for the majority of practitioners today hypnosis remains a powerful means of addressing emotional and psychological issues. Whether we are working through grief or attempting to lose weight, the history of hypnosis can show us how to reach our goals.
The history of hypnosis as we know it begins with the Enlightenment of the 18th century, when natural philosophers and scientists were experimenting with natural forces like electro-magnetism. At this time, Frank Anton Mesmer, the father of mesmerism, proposed that all living matter was animated by a magnetic fluid. In order to cure disease he set about to restore the proper balance of this fluid or ether using magnets.
The history of hypnosis advanced quite by accident when one of Mesmer’s followers unintentionally produced the sleeping state that we associated with hypnosis during an experiment. He was surprised to find that the subject could think and speak more intelligently in this state than when he was fully awake.
This somnambulist state was later purposefully aroused by a monk named Abbe Faria, who changed the course of the history of hypnosis by claiming that the ability to go into a trance rests within the patient. It is not caused by the hypnotist’s use of magnets.
The term “hypnosis”—in reference to the Greek god of sleep, Hypnos—first entered our vocabulary in the late 18th century. Around the same time, two Frenchman—August Ambroise Liebault and Hypolite Bernheim—became the first scholars to define hypnosis as a normal phenomenon. They also isolated expectation as the most critical variable in successfully inducing the somnambulist state.
In France, Emile Coue brought the history of hypnosis closer to its modern association with psychotherapy by introducing the concept of auto-suggestion, claiming that he could teach people to bring about their own self-healing.
Although Freud flirted with hypnosis, he later abandoned its practice. The individual who is most credited with incorporating hypnosis into clinical practice is Dr. Milton H. Erickson, an accomplished psychotherapist who pioneered the use of indirect hypnosis along with metaphor, surprise, confusion and humor to the benefit of his patients. The history of hypnosis continued to advance modern science as Ericksonian hypnosis was used to inform the contemporary field of neuro-linguistic programming.