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A Brief History of Hypnosis

Hypnosis has been used for thousands of years for treatment and healing of various problems. Although it has been called by many other names, many practices evoked in people is what we understand now as hypnosis. Elaborate rituals induce the deep concentration of mind that we now recognize as a hallmark of hypnosis. In this state a suggestion would be delivered to bring relief.

The history of hypnosis reveals to us some of how the myths about hypnosis developed. Early practitioners realized they were doing something that worked, but did not understand why. They developed theories based on their world view and limited information. Their understanding of hypnosis changed as belief systems and science changed. For better or worse, popular understandings of hypnosis lag because of the time it takes for information to flow from scientists to lay audiences.

1770’s—Father Gassner and Franz Mesmer

The history of modern hypnosis has roots in Switzerland in 1770, with a Catholic priest named Father Gassner who began to practice faith healing. The prevailing understanding of mental illness during that time was based in a belief in witchcraft and demon possession. Father Gassner had a great advantage in inducing hypnotic trance. His parishioners believed him to be God’s representative on earth. He enacted elaborate rituals in a dimmed cathedral, circling the supplicant with a diamond studded cross as he spoke quietly in Latin – the language of faith. Most of his subjects would enter a trance in as little as 7 seconds. Those who were more difficult to hypnotize would go instantly into hypnosis when he touched their heads with the cross. Grassner was the first to use a quiet, sleep like state for hypnosis, unlike the Mesmers who often induced more physically dramatic states such as shaking.

Franz Anton Mesmer became curious about the stories of Father Gassner. Mesmer was a German who had studied philosophy and law, and was eventually granted a medical degree; although it appears he didn’t actively practice medicine. After seeing Gassner perform cures, Mesmer began to form his own understanding of what was happening. During his lifetime, much early research was being done on magnetic and electrical force. The popularity of these ideas may have influenced his theory. Mesmer decided that the body must have magnetic poles and that magnetic fluid must flow between them. He thought illness was caused by an interruption of this magnetic fluid and that it was restoring that flow that effected a cure. He also believed that only certain people that had “animal magnetism” were able to do that. Mesmer became very popular. He used strange mechanisms, ethereal music and created a séance-like atmosphere all of which aided in inducing trance. He was able to perform many cures using the technique that became named after him, Mesmerism. However, the medical establishment at the time, Viennese Medical Council, could find no logical reason for the results he got, and perhaps out of jealousy, exposed him as a fraud. They were both right and wrong. His explanation was wrong and methods were unnecessary. In fact, his methods and those of Gassner are partly why hypnosis became surrounded by misunderstanding and myth. While there was a great deal of skepticism surrounding Mesmer, he was the first who was able to make a connection between treatment of the mind and improved physical health. With the lack of scientific understanding and the pairing of hypnosis with strange performances like Mesmer’s, the technique was largely ignored by the medical field. In Europe it was relegated largely in popular culture to spiritualists and magicians who used it to entertain.

1800’s: Use in Medicine

In the 1840’s an English doctor named James Braid, was the first to begin scientific studies of Mesmerism. He recognized the trance-like state and named the process hypnotism, from the Greek word for sleep. This has given rise to another myth about hypnosis—that it is a state of sleep or unconsciousness. It is neither.

In India in the 1800’s, doctors were able to perform surgeries, including amputations using hypnosis. The introduction of ether in 1849 as an anesthetic by William T.G. Morton, a Boston dentist quickly brought a halt to the surgical use of hypnosis at that time. In the Late 1800’s Jean-Martin Charcot, an eminent French neurologist, rescued hypnosis from the medical community’s prejudice against Mesmerism. His main focus shifted from neurology to hypnosis, which he studied in relation to treating hysteria.

In 1885 Sigmund Freud went to study with Charcot. Freud also used hypnosis as he worked with his mentor Josef Breuer. Breuer discovered that if he hypnotized patients, he was able to find out what they were thinking about on a deep, subconscious level when their symptoms were activated. Freud and Breuer realized that when traumatic memories were brought to light, symptoms disappeared. Breuer used hypnosis to access these memories to great effect in a process called hypnoanalysis. Freud used hypnosis but was apparently not very good at it. He abandoned the practice in favor of the development of psychoanalysis.

Modern history: 1900’s

Although Freud abandoned the use of hypnosis, others continued to explore its use. In 1958 the American Medical Association officially approved hypnosis for use in medicine and dentistry at their 107th annual meeting. However, the public impressions of hypnosis were already deeply ingrained with many myths and misunderstandings that persist to this day.

In 1974 American Academy of Medical Hypnoanalysts (AAMH) was founded. All of the founders had been trained by William Bryant, MD and were trainers with him. Bryant, a brilliant man, further developed the techniques Breuer used, making hypnoanalysis a modern, highly effective technique. For many decades, members of AAMH knew that hypnosis was effective for many problems—from improving performance to treating anxiety, phobias, depression and a wide range of human suffering. They had a greater understanding than their predecessors of how it worked. However, recent decades have brought much exciting, new information.

Brain researchers using PET and FMRI scans are discovering the brain structures and processes that are at work in hypnosis. They are discovering why hypnosis works and are proving the effectiveness of hypnosis and hypnoanalysis, scientifically.

There are a variety of mispellings for the word hypnosis and hypnotist including Hypotist, Hypmotist, hypitisum, hipnitherapy. The word hypnosis comes from the Greek word hypnos, which means sleep. In fact, hypnosis is not sleep, but a natural state of having a concentrated mind, combined with relaxation for therapeutic or clinical hypnosis.

What is Hypnosis?

Many people misunderstand therapeutic hypnosis because of the way hypnosis has been portrayed in books, movies, television and by stage hypnotists. Medical Hypnosis is very different from those portrayals. In fact, using hypnosis the way it is sometimes presented in popular media would be a violation of a therapist’s ethical standards.

Hypnosis is a very natural state that we all enter at various times. In hypnosis one’s attention is focused in one area, closing out other stimulation. It is similar to day dreaming or being so completely engrossed in a book or TV program that you may ignore someone speaking in the same room. That is basically what hypnosis is. Here is another example. Just before falling asleep every night, we pass through a phase that is very similar to hypnosis, called the alpha state.

In that state we are able to give ourselves suggestions. For example, you may have wanted get up at a different time then usual. You may have reminded yourself just before falling asleep, to wake up early and then found you had awakened up ten minutes before the alarm. In that situation, you gave yourself the idea to wake up. That idea is called a post hypnotic suggestion and is similar to how hypnosis works. Hypnosis is a state of consciousness. It can be measured using an EEG, an instrument that reads brain wave activity.

What Does Hypnosis Feel Like?

In general, therapeutic hypnosis is a pleasant feeling of relaxation. Many people expect to feel something special or different when in hypnosis, even though it is a normal state. Hypnosis is a state in which the mind is highly absorbed or concentrated. We have all been in this state many times before. Sometimes it seems so normal to a person that he/she denies being in hypnosis. One can hear sounds going on around and sometimes one’s mind wanders. Each person’s experience is different and will vary from time to time. Most people feel very relaxed and comfortable and so, have little desire to move or open their eyes, although this is totally possible.

Hypnosis is a normal brain wave state. Below are the waves measured in hertz with the state of consciousness:Hypnoanalysis Headset

  • Beta: Waking conscious state, alert 14-30 Hz
  • Alpha: hypnosis Daydreaming, creative, relaxed, closed-eyed 8-13 Hz
  • Theta: Dreaming, hypnosis, meditative, subconscious, athletic “in the zone” 4-7 Hz
  • Delta: Unconscious, asleep, deep sleep 0.5-6 Hz

Hypnosis can be recognized as a state of relaxed, concentrated attention. The alpha waves that are measurable during hypnosis are also found during meditation. Bringing your mind to this state is something that can be learned and practiced. Medical science has proven that there are many health benefits to be gained from this state.

The word sleep sometimes is used to describe the hypnotic trance state. However, a person in hypnosis is far from being asleep. When in hypnosis people, are aware of their surroundings in a detached sort of way. Conscious, critical thinking is more or less temporarily suspended and yet available at a moment’s notice to cope with an emergency if one was to come up. Because of this relative inner quiet, people are more receptive to positive suggestions. The mind is concentrated on the suggestions and pays little attention to other things.

The word hypnosis comes from the Greek word hypnos which means sleep. In fact, hypnosis is not sleep, but a natural state of having a concentrated mind and combined with relaxation for therapeutic or clinical hypnosis. There are a variety of misspellings for the word hypnosis and hypnotist including Hypotist, Hypmotist, hypitisum, hipnitherapy.

Questions about hypnosis, myths and misunderstandings

There are a wide variety of myths about hypnosis that arose from both the history of hypnosis and from portrayals of hypnosis in movies and on stage. Most of these myths are not true, but beliefs about them persist.

  1. Will I lose control while in hypnosis?

    No one can be hypnotized against their will or without consent. Everyone achieves their own hypnotic state by cooperating with the suggestions to relax and concentrate. In reality, all hypnosis is self-hypnosis. You go into it willingly and with full awareness. In fact, it is an enjoyable experience. The hypnotherapist is like an instructor or coach, guiding you. People can decide what they will or won’t do when in hypnosis. However, when is in hypnosis a person is more willing to accept suggestions, particularly if they are relevant and are designed to help meet his/her goal.

  2. Can the hypnotherapist control my mind?

    It is unethical for any therapist to attempt to control someone else. Further, no one can control another person’s mind when in hypnosis. In hypnosis, people can decide if they want to accept a suggestion and will not accept any idea or suggestion that is against their religion, values, or ethical principles.

  3. It’s not safe…or is it?

    Because hypnosis is a natural state of consciousness, something people go into and out of every day, it is completely safe. Hypnosis is a safe therapeutic tool. Hypnosis has few side effects. Occasionally someone may experience a headache, but more often people experience pain relief. Some people feel fatigued after, but this is often because when relaxed they realize how tired they are. Occasionally, people experience traumatic memories when in hypnosis. In fact, we know from the history of hypnosis that this fact led to the discovery of hypnosis as a powerful therapeutic too. In qualified hands, this experience can lead to profound healing.

    Like any other tool, it should be used only by a trained, qualified doctor or mental health practitioner/professional. In most states, including Illinois, there are no guidelines or licensing to do hypnosis. It is easy for the lay person to take hypnosis courses and advertise treatment. Anyone seeking help through hypnosis should inquire about the person’s credentials. Make sure that he or she has a master’s or doctorate degree and is licensed counselor, social worker, psychologist, dentist, or doctor, and has taken additional training in clinical, professional hypnosis or hypnotherapy. Several organizations offer certification in hypnotherapy or Medical Hypnoanalysis. The AAMH website offers more information about Hypnoanalysis.

  4. Can I be hypnotized?

    People go in and out of hypnosis regularly—most of the time we call it daydreaming, drifting toward sleep, or concentrating. Permanent inability to go into hypnosis does not exist although there can be a temporary unwillingness. If one is willing to cooperate and learn to let go, a moderate to deep state of hypnosis can be achieved.

  5. What Is Hypnosis Used for and How Long Does it Take?

    There are many facets to the practical and therapeutic uses of hypnosis. All of them including self-hypnosis,hypnotherapy and hypnoanalysis can be very helpful and can serve useful purposes for one’s personal and professional growth and development.

    Hypnosis, including self-hypnosis can be used to reduce stress, and relax. This state is very positive mentally and physically. Regularly getting into this state can help relieve symptoms of stress related illnesses including high blood pressure. Especially during times of high stress, practicing self-hypnosis daily can help reduce the chance of physical problems. It can aid sleep by helping people keep their minds off negative thoughts that may be keeping them awake. Also, being in a deeply relaxed state can have the effect of partial or total pain relief.

    Hypnotherapy is direct suggestions given while in hypnosis. It can be used to improve performance and change simple habits.

    Hypnoanalysis is analysis or psychotherapy done while in a state of hypnosis. It may be used to relieve anxiety, phobias, panic, depression, weight issues, smoking, relationship issues, guilt, poor self-esteem, sexual problems. Hypnoanalysis can also help relieve some physical symptoms such as chronic pain and chronic fatigue, asthma, allergies and other problems that have their roots in emotions or beliefs about oneself. Hypnoanalysis is not a medical treatment and Jeanne Clark, LCSW and Mary Kullman, LCPC are not doctors, and physical illness and pain should be assessed by a medical doctor.

Finding a hypnotherapist

It is very important, even if working to change a simple habit, to make sure you find a hypnotherapist who is qualified to make an accurate assessment of what the problem really is and then help you meet your goals. For more information go to www.AAMH.com


Self-hypnosis is focusing your mind on some positive statement, specifically designed to help you meet your goal while relaxing your body. It is very similar to meditation. It is commonly understood that in fact, all hypnosis is self hypnosis. It is helpful for relaxation, stress reduction, self-improvement in areas such as concentration, study skills, sports, sales success, overcoming mild fears, self-confidence, public speaking, and much more. A person can learn self-hypnosis on one’s own or from a certified hypnotherapist, or clinical hypnotherapist.

When working with a qualified hypnotist or hypnotherapist, you can learn how to structure positive suggestions that will work. It is important that suggestions are positive and present tense. Suggestions given during hypontherapy are generally more complex and directed toward helping you meet your goals.

There are a variety of misspellings for the word hypnosis and hypnotist including Hypotist, Hypmotist, hypitisum, hipnitherapy. The word hypnosis comes from the Greek word hypnos which means sleep. In fact, hypnosis is not sleep, but a natural state of having a concentrated mind and ignoring external stimulus. Therapeutic and clinical hypnosis combines that with relaxation.


Hypnotherapy is an effective approach for simple habits such as nail biting, bed wetting, stress management, and in many cases smoking cessation and weight loss, etc., as well as to improve performance in sports, public speaking and education, pain management and relief.

How does it work?

Once the clinical hypnotherapist has helped the person enter the relaxed, focused state of hypnosis, they give direct suggestions targeted to the habit/habits that need to be changed. The suggestions are more complex than what one would use for self-hypnosis. It is easier for a person to stay focused in the hypnotic state when someone else is directing him or her. The suggestions crafted by a professional will be targeted and direct.

For more complex issues such as anxiety, phobias, panic, depression, low self-esteem, guilt, chronic fatigue, allergies and other problems, a more advanced technique is needed called hypnoanalysis or medical hypnosis.