There is some evidence from artefacts that hypnosis or going into trance states was going on in Ancient Egypt thousands of years before Christ. It was also known to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Trance states are found in many indiginous cultures across the world.
The creation of the concept of hypnosis in more modern times owes its existence mostly to a 18th century healer named Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). Mesmer had an interest in Paracelsan astrological principles: the supposed direct influence of heavenly bodies on human health. Mesmer first applied magnets to patient’s bodies in elaborate rituals that often resulted in expected spasmodic muscular contractions and collapse.
The clearest transition between Mesmer’s magnetism and modern therapeutic hypnosis was represented by Manchester surgeon James Braid, who coined the term hypnosis in 1843. The term refers to Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, because most forms of mesmerism at that time involved the production of an apparently sleep-like condition. Mesmer had come to believe that it was not physical forces via magnets but he himself that was producing the cures he produced. Others not long after Mesmer soon began to suspect that the human imagination played a large role in the process A split arose between those interested in hypnosis as a subject of scientific investigation and as an adjunct to medical treatment, and those who considered it a tool for personal or spiritual fulfillment, or for esoteric investigations of religious or ‘magical’ nature. In the early 20th century, the foundation for most hypnotic theory was laid by the members of the so-called “Nancy school” of hypnosis (such as Liebault and Bernheim) who elaborated a theory of hypnotic suggestion based on ideomotor action.
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychotherapy, had a deep interest in hypnosis for much of his life. Freud was reportedly a very poor hypnotist, being limited to a simple authoritarian style of induction, and in 1896, he rejected hypnotic induction ritual as unnecessary and replaced it with free association.
What qualified acceptance of hypnosis in medicine that we have today is largely due to the efforts of pioneers in the experimental study of hypnosis, starting in the 1920’s and 30’s. Foremost early researchers were Clark Hull and his then student, Milton Erickson. Hull’s 1933 discussion of scientific research into hypnosis (Hypnosis and Suggestibility) is still considered a classic. Erickson later came to disagree with Hull on the important issue of fundamental approach, stressing the complex subjective inner processes operating in hypnosis, rather than the measurable correlates and standardized procedures promoted by Hull. Hull went on to make important contributions in learning theory, while Erickson went on to become the name most closely associated with clinical hypnosis today. Milton Erickson died in 1980, but left a legacy of often zealous followers, a number of important contributions to the field, and several offshoot schools of applied psychology based on his core principles of indirect strategic therapy and suggestion, and based on hypothetical unconscious processes and indirect forms of human communication. The ‘Ericksonian’ models deliberately blur the traditional distinction between hypnosis and other forms of therapy.
In addition to Erickson and Hull, modern scientific research into hypnosis is often associated with a period of experimental research in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s by scientists such as J.P Sutcliffe, T.X. Barber, M.T.Orne, E.R. Hilgard, R.E. Shor, and T.R. Sarbin.
These days hypnosis used to treat psychological issues is referred to as hypnotherapy. It is currently seen as an alternative treatment but is gaining acceptance in the medical community due to its growing evidence base. Hypnosis is combined with other psychotherapeutic techniques to bring about rapid change.