The History of Hypnosis

You may think that hypnosis is a fairly recent type of technique, or that at least the modern uses for it haven’t been around for too long.

In fact, the practices involved in hypnotism have been around for centuries. Amongst the earliest users of hypnosis for health reasons appear to have been the inhabitants of India, who had dedicated sleep temples where sufferers of different ailments were made to sleep using a form of hypnosis.

Similar types of sleep temples were used in ancient times in Egypt. A report from around 1550 BC described the death and rebirth techniques which involved terrifying out of body experiences. These were certainly nothing like the safe types of hypnosis carried out these days. Of course, the reasons for using a hypnosis type technique were very different from the reasons we have nowadays, although there is also evidence that they used chanting and similar hypnosis inducing routines to cure illnesses and possibly mental problems too.

The ancient Chinese were hugely advanced in many fields of science and medicine, so it is no real surprise to learn that one of the greats of early Chinese medicine, Wond Tai, wrote around 2000 BC (although this date varies from account to account) about the use of chanting and passing hands over the patients which seems to be a variation on the hypnotic approach used in other parts of the world.

If we move forward to the 4th century BC we can see that the Greeks has over 400 sleep temples where ill people would be put into a trance or sleep like state. After a priest got the person suffering the illness into a hypnotic state through chanting and spells they would keep them like that for up to three days while making a series of suggestions aimed at curing their problems.

Around the start of the 11th century the Persian physician Avicenna wrote a book called “The Book of Healing” and is widely credited as being the first person to clearly define the difference between being in a hypnotic state and being asleep.

Around the 1770s the Austrian physician Dr Franz Mesmer began to look at the subject and from his surname the word “mesmerism” came into use. He also coined the phrase “animal magnetism”, although his magnet based approach to healing was later discredited.

In the mid 19th century the Scottish surgeon James Braid gave the world the word “hypnotism” and is one of the most important figures of modern hypnosis theories, as he looked to give the subject a solid and logical basis. His full phrase, which comes from Greek and means “nervous sleep”, was “neuro-hypnosis”. He later settled on “hypnotism” as the name, with “hypnos” simply meaning “sleep” in Greek. After he came to the conclusion the hypnosis was not really related to a state of sleep he attempted to change the name he had put on it, but it had already become too popular to be amended by that stage.

After Braid’s death the next wave of investigations was mainly carried out by mental health experts rather than surgeons and some religious misgivings around hypnosis were cleared up by Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, who both confirmed that provided that it wasn’t used for illicit purposes there was nothing inherently wrong or immoral about it.

The American Civil war then saw widespread use of hypnosis by doctors when treating injured soldiers. The result s which have been recorded were very positive but the imminent introduction of chemical based anaesthesia would render it virtually obsolete for field doctor use.

In the 1930s the Yale University psychologist Clark Leonard Hull conclusively proved that hypnosis has nothing to do with sleep and also helped disprove some of the more outlandish claims made by hypnotists of his time.

The history of hypnosis is filled with a lot more interesting facts and important names, all of which has led us to the privileged position we are now in; that of having a wealth of scientific and anecdotal evidence of the powers and limits of the technique.

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