A brief history of hypnosis

The history of hypnosis (short and sweet)

The history of hypnosis is a deeply fascinating yet often misunderstood subject that is shrouded in mystery and fairy tail. The first time I heard the stories of Mesmer and his magnetism and Erickson’s metaphors, I was sitting in an old dusty library tucked away in the tiny back roads of Devon. The smell of those ancient books and those miraculous stories lit up my imagination and I was hooked. I invite you to journey with me back through time and to enjoy the stories of how it all began.

The beginning

It is hard to pinpoint where our history journey should begin. Trance is naturally occurring so it would have been around for as long as our ancestors could day dream. In fact the Druids, Celts, ancient Chinese, Hindus, Egyptians and Greeks all used forms of hypnosis in their healing ceremonies. The Egyptians were famous for their sleep temples where they would go into trance and sleep until they received dreams and later the Greeks used positive suggestion and eye fixation techniques and gazed upon metal discs to create trance. From 3000 BC to 2018 AD every civilisation has had its version of hypnosis with many of those early techniques still being used today. 

Michael Heap in “The history of hypnosis” interestingly states:

Hypnosis itself hasn’t changed for millennia, but our understanding of it and our ability to control it has changed quite profoundly. The history of hypnosis, then, is really the history of this change in perception.

Micael Heap

So lets begin to unpack these mysteries and understand how perceptions have changed.

Mind and Body

Fast forward to 1500 and our next chapter is opened by a rather eccentric chap by the name of Paracelsus. Paracelsus  was as notorious for his volatile nature and his penchant for swearing as his healing work. He was a forward thinking physician who was one of the first to question the use of blood letting. He expressed a belief that doctors should be concerned with treating both the mind and the body. This was a radicle concept then and one which is still only filtering into mainstream medicine some 500 years later. Most importantly for our story he was one of the first pioneers to use magnetism and imagination for the combat of ‘invisible’ diseases. This paved the way some 300 years later for the somewhat inappropriately named Father Hell to pick up the gauntlet. 

Father Hell

Hell devised a remarkable technique using magnetic plates to combat the pain associated with rheumatism, an affliction that he himself suffered with. He was however perhaps better know as the mentor of a certain young Franz Anton Mesmer. Hypnosis and its reputation was about to change forever.  


Any history of hypnosis would not be complete without delving into ‘Mesmerism’. Franz Anton Mesmer was born in 1734 in Germany, where he developed an interest in the effects of the tides and how they effected fluids in the body. It was not long before he was gripped with the idea of using magnets to effect flow. Unlike those before him who believed in the power of their magnetic stones and amulets, Mesmer believed differently. He realised that he did not need trinkets and could achieve similar effects with passing sweeps of his arm. A more humble man might have questioned all possible reasons for such a discovery, however young Mesmer did not. He jumped to the conclusion that it was because of his own super human magnetic powers.  He believed that these powers enabled him to conduct ‘animal magnetism’ and ‘mesmerism’ was born. 

The power of placebo

We now know that Mesmer’s conclusions were a little presumptuous, but today’s hypnotherapist can learn plenty from his confidence. It is undeniable that his incredible self belief would have greatly amplified the effectiveness of his ‘hypnotic’ work.  He wore yellow robes, waved a wand and encouraged his patients to convulse (similar to the faith healers of today). As a result of this pomp and ceremony in his sessions there would have been an incredible placebo effect. This clip from Derren Brown explores this concept further and is well worth a watch. 

Charlatan or genius?

Mesmer enjoyed substantial fame and notoriety amongst the upper echelons of Parisian high society, however the French were divided. Was Mesmer a charlatan or a genius? Eventually Louis XVI appointed the Royal Academy of Medicine to set up a commission to investigate Mesmer’s claims. The commissioners (that included the future president of the United States  Benjamin Franklin) concluded that Mesmer’s success was entirely down to the imagination of his patients and not from hypnosis and his self proclaimed magnetic powers. He was forced into exile, and ended his days in Switzerland. 

19th Century and the Great Britains

Mesmer inspired generations of future hypnotists however he also left behind a tarnished legacy that still lingers to this day. Three British surgeons by the name of Elliotson, Esdaille and Braid were to become victim to his curse. 

James Esdaille

In the 19th Century some surgeons were using hypnosis for pain relief during medical procedures.  James Esdaille performed thousands of painless operations and helped his patients using only the power of suggestion. While out in India he became famous for his surgical work (especially in the niche area of scrotal tumours) and discovered that by using similar methods to Mesmer his patients would recover quicker, bleed less and become less prone to infections.  Esdaille reduced the death rates associated with his surgery dramatically. Unfortunately despite his tremendous clinical success both he and Elliotson followed in Mesmer’s footsteps and ended up being shunned by the medical profession they served.

James Braid

The third of our British J’s was James Braid. Often regarded as the Father of modern hypnosis Braid  was the person who popularised the word ‘hypnosis’ after the greek word for sleep. He practiced what he preached and used self hypnosis with great effect to treat his own rheumatism.  He believed at first that it was visual focus and fatigue of the optic nerve that created the hypnotic state. Later on in his career and after much research he was open to change and did a ‘U’ turn on his definition. He stated it was mental concentration and suggestion that created trance and nothing  physical. Without Braid our history of hypnosis may never have developed as it has.

It was Braid’s enquiring mind and systematic exploration of what hypnosis was (and perhaps more importantly what it was not) that did much to improve the reputation of the profession enabling it to shake off a little of Mesmer’s reputation. It is a fitting tribute to his memory and work that his ‘eye induction’ technique (despite the original theory behind it changing) has stood the test of time and is still as effective today as it was back then. You can see a demo  of me performing this here.

Across the Channel

While the three J’s were battling it out in Britain, antlers had also been locked across the Channel in France. In one corner stood Charcot, renowned for his work concerning neurology and his research into Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinsons. In the other corner was the Nancy school led by Liebalt. Liebalt famously offered his patients free hypnosis instead of paid for surgery to help clean up the profession’s reputation. 

Seconds away round one

Charcot believed that hypnotic phenomena such as anaesthesia (pain relief) and catalepsy (body stiffness) were just exaggerated forms of suggestibility. He believed that these phenomena could only be achieved with hysterical subjects. The Nancy school disputed Charcot’s beliefs. They argued that hypnosis was nothing to do with magnets, eye fixation or hysteria but was simply pure suggestion. 

Round two

Hippolyte Bernheim, the forefather of psychotherapy and a pupil of Liebault, took the work of his teacher to the world. He realised that he could create a light trance and do much of his therapeutic work prior to hypnosis. He claimed “it is suggestion that rules hypnotism,” a view which is still widely held today. As the final bell rung the result was a double knock out for both schools. Disagreement between the two and the advent of chloroform and ether for surgery meant  hypnosis once again fell from favour.

The 20th Century

As the 19th century turned and  the 20th century began, history saw a new bread of hypnotist being born. Therapists such as Janet, Hull and Hartland again embraced science and pushed the envelope of hypnosis forward with their research. 

  • Janet explored dissociation and how present day trauma could be connected with past experiences.
  • Hull (amongst many other things) recognised that hypnosis was not a sleep state but rather a state of heightened focus. He also explored behavioural therapy and the work of Pavolv and his famous salivating dogs. NLP anchoring techniques can be traced back to this work.
  • John Hartland flew the flag back at home in the UK with his work on ego strengthening. He also writing the book ‘Medical and Dental Hypnosis’ which is still available on Amazon today. He was one of the first people to champion the deregulation of hypnosis from being a tool purely for the medically trained to something the layperson could learn and practice (a luxury that is still not available in most US states).

The two giants

No history of hypnosis would be complete without a mention of the two most notorious hypnotherapists of the Twentieth Century – Milton Erickson and Dave Elman.


Dave Elman (1900-1967) was exposed to hypnosis when his father was treated for pain relief while dying of cancer. Keen to learn everything he could on the topic, he began researching and refining his skill set. He was soon known as ‘the worlds youngest and fastest hypnotist’ as he performed on the vaudeville stage circuit. He had a successful career in both music and radio before finally settling down to teach hypnosis in 1949 to doctors and dentists. 

Before his death Elman managed to write down many of his teachings in his classic green book entitled ‘hypnotherapy’. I discovered complete mental relaxation after learning the classic Elman induction. I am a huge fan of its ingenious mix of direct suggestion, compliance, fractionation, and the phenomena catalepsy and amnesia. It is just brilliant!


If Elman was the chalk then Erickson was his cheese. Elman was direct and snappy with his inductions however Erickson was indirect and ‘artfully vague’. A ninja with the use of English language, he would weave a web of double binds and suggestion that would give his patients the illusion of choice while taking them easily and elegantly into trance. He would confuse and enlighten with his often lengthy inductions that were scattered with metaphor and ambiguity. Grinder and Bandler (of NLP fame) championed Erickson and modelled the way he worked. Books such as Patterns of the hypnotic techniques of MiltonH. Erickson and Trance-formations allow us an insight into his brilliance. 

One of Erickson’s most notorious inductions was his famous ‘handshake pattern interrupt.’ Instead of completing a handshake he would interrupt the expected outcome by hijacking the client’s hand and use it to take them into trance. Erickson used this technique so prolifically that people became wary of even shaking his hand.

The next chapter

There are still a few pages left blank in our history of hypnosis. ‘The story yet to come’. I work in the medical profession like Elliotson, Esdaille and Braid and I believe we are finally beginning to turn a corner and recognising what Paracelsus predicted all along. 

“You must treat the mind and the body together.”


Pain science is beginning to realise the failings of a purely structural way of thinking. It is now widely accepted that pain and discomfort is not something you can see on an X-ray or MRI but is rather a  complex interaction between your physical structures, beliefs and fears. Our words are as important as our hands when it comes to removing the barriers to health, and a well paced hypnotic suggestion can create the space to allow movement to occur again. 

Daniel Baines
Daniel Baines

Daniel Baines is an Osteopath, Hypnotherapist and movement coach who is intrigued by all things mind and body.