The Fascinating History of Hypnosis

Although the term “hypnosis” wasn’t coined until the 1840’s, the practice of using trance-states for healing purposes goes quite far back in history – thousands of years, at least. Just as humans learned how to use herbs, roots, flowers, minerals and other substances for healing purposes over thousands of years, we also learned how to harness the power of the natural trance state, too.

The first people that we know of who used trance-like states to heal others were shamans (tribal healers and mystics). Shamans are able to induce altered states in themselves and enter into the spirit world to heal other members of their tribe. Shamans also sometimes induce altered states in other members of their tribe, depending on their method of practice.

“Group hypnosis” also began with ancient civilizations. Many group rituals, such as mass chanting, drumming, and meditation to a steady beat were parts of religious or spiritual ceremonies. Many tribal, religious, and spiritual rituals even today still use the sound of drums, rhythmic chanting, and repetitive movement to induce trance states. The age-old practice of sitting around a fire and looking into the flames also induces a trance-like state.

There are records of “Sleep Temples” being used in ancient Egypt as far back as 4,000 years ago. Sleep temples also existed in the Middle East and Ancient Greece. In Greece, they were built in honor of Asclepios (the Greek God of Medicine) and were called Asklepion.

The temples served as healing places, and the treatment involved chanting, placing the patient into a trance-like or hypnotic state, and analyzing their dreams. There are some ancient Egyptian paintings that depict a sleeping person. with people making hypnotic passes over them. However, the best source of reference to trance states being used in early Egypt comes from a 3rd century papyrus.

During the Middle Ages, the use of trance states fell out of favor and became associated with sorcery, witchcraft and wizardry. Traveling entertainers (similar to our modern-day stage hypnotists) were primarily responsible for keeping the art and techniques of hypnosis alive during this time period.


During the Renaissance, Paracelsus (1493-1541), who today is regarded as the Father of Pharmacy, was among the first to heal the sick with magnets. His emphasis was on the magnetic flow of energy within what he called the “astral body” – a metaphysical body that he felt was an integral part of a person’s spirit. Paracelsus felt that once this astral body was put into balance with magnets, an individual’s disease or illness would disappear.



In the 1600’s, a Scottish physician named Dr. William Maxwell adhered to the magnetic theory of healing, but he also embraced the concept that a vital, universal spirit affected all human beings. Later in his work, (1679), he hypothesized that imagination and suggestion also influenced a person’s ability to heal.

Then, in the 1700’s, Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), came onto the scene. Dr. Mesmer was a German-born physician. He first studied both theology and law, but then his love for the writings of Paracelsus inspired him to take up medicine. In 1766, he graduated from the Vienna School of Medicine with both an MD and a PhD degree. In his early years of medical practice, Dr. Mesmer was a conventional physician, and spent most of his free time being a patron of the arts. (In fact, he was the patron who gave Mozart his first big musical break in Vienna!)


Then, in 1774, Mesmer saw a 28-year-old female patient who was suffering from frequent convulsions that caused severe pain, vomiting, delirium, fainting, blindness, and paralysis. Having exhausted all other methods of conventional treatment, Mesmer thought that magnetism might help. He borrowed some magnets from his friend, Father Hell (what a name!) who had been doing work with magnetism himself, and after a bit of experimentation, Mesmer was able to cure her.

Mesmer continued to experiment more with magnetism and had some amazing results. One of his better-known cases included restoring the sight of a blind pianist, Mille Paradies, who had gone blind at the age of 4 after hearing a knock at her bedroom door. However, unlike other magnetizers who believed it was the magnets themselves that caused the cures, Mesmer believed that the cures were a result of the will of the physician and “animal magnetism” or the effect of the universal fluid on the human body. Mesmer believed that the magnets were just conductors that allowed one to channel the magnetic fluid.


Mesmer began to get quite a reputation as a healer and traveled extensively throughout Europe. In Munich, he was unanimously elected a member of the Bavarian Academy after curing the director of the Munich Academy of Sciences.

Despite all his successes, however, the Viennese medical society generally did not like Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism. This was the “Age of Reason” and the whole idea seemed to occult for them. Many of them also did not like Mesmer, who not only had a very outspoken and contentious personality, but also had a tendency to cure patients whom other doctors had pronounced incurable.

In 1778, Mesmer eventually left Vienna for Paris, hoping to be received better there. In Paris, Mesmer gained mass notoriety as a great healer, and he developed a sizable following. He treated both the very rich, and the very poor, usually donating his services to the poor. Some historical records suggest that by the latter part of the 18th century, Mesmer had up to 3,000 patients seeking treatment each day! Because of the large numbers of people he treated (and also perhaps because of his love for the arts), he developed unique and extravagant methods of healing; he would often hang ropes onto trees to better accommodate the large numbers of patients coming to his clinic to be magnetized.

Despite his fame, however, the medical society in Paris never accepted Mesmer’s theories of animal magnetism. So he started his own society called “The Society of Harmony” in order to spread the teaching of Mesmerism. The society had branches in many cities throughout Europe and they did philanthropic work. However, it also proved to be part of his undoing.

In 1784, feuds began in the society, and a commission was finally set up with nine members, including Benjamin Franklin, to study Mesmerism in depth. At the end of the study, the commission agreed that miraculous healings were indeed taking place, however, they concluded that the healing was from the use of imagination and suggestion, and not “animal magnetism.” Despite the fact that babies and young children (who were too young to be affected by the power of suggestion) had been cured by Mesmerism, Mesmer was labeled a quack and a charlatan by many.

By the time Mesmer left Paris, divisions had begun within the Society of Harmony, and Mesmerism had branched into two main schools of thought – the Fluidists and the Animists. The Fluidists believed that animal magnetism existed and was the reason for the cures. The Animists didn’t believe in animal magnetism; they believed that the cures were a result of suggestion and imagination.

These days, the original method of Mesmerism is recognized by many as a physiological or a bio-energetic method of inducing a trance state, using the human energy field. Today, many of us would call mesmerism a type of “energy healing.” However, Mesmer himself always admitted that imagination and suggestion were also a vital part of Mesmerism, too.

Many other people besides Mesmer used mesmerism, and had great success with it, as well. The Marquis de Puyesgur (1781-1825) a French military officer, an aristocrat, became very famous for helping many people, free of charge. One day while he was applying magnetism to a 24-year-old shepherd named Victor for an inflammation of the chest or consumption (tuberculosis) Victor fell into a deep and peaceful sleep. The young man then opened his eyes and talked and prescribed the remedies that would help cure him. However, after he was awakened, he forgot everything he said. Puysegur called this phenomenon “artificial somnambulism,” but today, the effect is also referred to as “hypnotic amnesia.”


After that, Puysegur began experimenting quite a bit with artificial somnambulism. After placing his subjects into a trance, he often had them go back into time and recall experiences from childhood or earlier times, where he found rational explanations for seemingly irrational behavior. He then he purged the negative emotions. This is very similar to what modern hypnotherapists today call “regression hypnotherapy.”

Dr. Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), a German physician and the founder of the homeopathic system of medicine, also wrote about Mesmerism and magnetism in his work. When it came to Mesmerism, Hahnemann was a Fluidist. The sixth edition of the Organon of the Medical Art, Hahnemann devoted three aphorisms (288-290) to discussing Mesmerism, animal magnetism, including the proper techniques to be used.


Dr. Petiton, another member of Mesmer’s Society of Harmony, discovered that after he magnetized subjects, they were unable to move any part of their body until told to do so. Today, we know this as the effect of “hypnotic catalepsy.”


Joseph Phillippe Francois Deleuze (1753-1835) was the librarian of the Royal Botanical and Zoological Garden. One day, he went to personally witness Mesmer’s work, and after that, he began to study and practice Mesmerism on his own. Sometime later, Deleuze discovered that suggestions given to the patient while under the Mesmeric state would be carried out in the waking state. Today, this phenomenon is referred to as “post-hypnotic suggestion.”

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Father Jose Custodio de Faria (1755-1819) was a Portuguese priest who came to Paris from India. He gave public demonstrations in 1814 and 1815 on what he referred to as “lucid sleep.”. His theory was that the cures were not due to magnetism, but to the expectancy and cooperation of the subject. He discovered that the subject must be willing to carry out the suggestions while under the Mesmeric state.


Dr. James Esdaile (1775-1854) was a Scottish physician who was practicing in India. He performed thousands of minor surgeries, and 345 complex, abdominal surgeries using mesmerism. He also found that using mesmerism reduced the mortality rate from surgery from 50% to 5%!


Dr. John Elliotson was a well-respected surgeon who taught in London, who became very interested in Mesmerism. In fact, he became so enthusiasatic about mesmerism, that the  University told him he had to either quit Mesmerism, or be fired. He chose to leave his teaching post, and he started his own mesmeric infirmary in London.

In 1831, mostly due to the successes Esdaile and Elliotson, the French Academy of Medicine decided to reinvestigate the subject of Mesmerism. This time, the results were a success for the theory of Animal Magnetism.

La Fontaine was a Swiss magnetizer, who used to put on elaborate shows demonstrating the power of magnetism. (Today, these shows would be called stage hypnosis shows.) He once hypnotized a lion in Manchester, England, and he would often put pins underneath the fingernail beds of his subjects to show their inability to feel pain while in the magnetized state.

Dr. Braid was a Scottish physician, who today is known the Father of Modern Hypnosis, first thought Magnetism was a big hoax. Then one day he went to one of La Fontaine’s stage shows. Dr.Braid was so impressed with the inability of his subjects to not be able to open their eyes that he started experimenting with it in his own practice.

One day, he placed a female patient in room and gave her instructions to stare at a lit candle. Then he forgot about her. Realizing his mistake hours later, he came back to find her to find her still in a trance state, staring at the candle. After that, he began experimenting with eye fixation.


Braid scoffed at the energy-healing theory (animal magnetism). Instead, he contended that expectation influenced a person’s susceptibility to suggestion. He believed that a tiring of the eyes, by paralyzing the optic nerve centers, produced hypnosis. Thinking that hypnosis was a form of sleep, he coined the terms “hypnotism” and “hypnosis” (meaning nervous sleep) after “Hypnos,” the Greek god of sleep. Later, Braid realized that hypnosis was not sleep, and he tried to change the name to “mono-ideism” (focusing on a singular idea) but by then, the terms hypnosis and hypnotism had already stuck.

A French pharmacist named Emile Coue studied hypnosis at the School of Nancy (the most famous school of hypnosis during its time), and became the first person to come up with self-hypnosis. Although back then, they called it “auto-suggestion” or the Coue method. One of his most famous auto-suggestions is “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”  Today, Coue is often known as the Father of Self-hypnosis.self-mastery-through-conscious-autosuggestion-emile-coue.jpg

Since then, self-hypnosis has been used by thousands of famous and non-famous people like. Here are some of the famous people, who have used self-hypnosis:

• Albert Einstein – Einstein used self-hypnosis every day to solve problems. In fact, his “Theory of relativity” came to him one day during one of his self-hypnosis sessions!
• Thomas Edison – Edison regularly used self- hypnosis to solve problems with his inventions
• Sir Winston Churchill –Churchill used post-hypnotic suggestions to stay awake all night during WWII
• Rachmaninov – Rachmaninov was a famous composer and musician, and he used hypnosis to compose, as well
• Chopin – He was also a famous composer and musician. He used hypnosis and also took classes in hypnosis at University of Strasbourg
• Henry Ford – Ford was a regular user of hypnosis
• Cary Grant – used hypnosis

There are also hundreds of other famous celebrities and world-class athletes who
are alive today have also used self-hypnosis, too, but I won’t reveal their names here, to protect their privacy.

Hypnosis in the modern age
In the 1950’s, Dr. Milton Erickson was a psychiatrist at the Phoenix, VA, who helped many veterans with post traumatic syndrome using his famous “waking hypnosis” techniques. m-erickson-pic_orig.jpg

Partly due to the incredible success in treating post-war veterans, hypnosis was approved as a therapeutic tool by the British Medical Association (BMA) in 1957. The AMA (American Medical Association) approved hypnosis in 1958. In the 1960’s, hypnosis was taught in almost every medical school in the United States.

What people use hypnosis for today
People today use hypnosis and self-hypnosis for too many different reasons to list here; but here are of the more common reasons people use it:

• Quitting smoking
• Losing Weight
• Increasing self esteem
• Anxiety and depression
• Quitting habits
• Changing behavior
• Overcoming additions
• Falling asleep easier / insomnia
• Improving physical health and healing
• Improving mental health symptoms
• Stress relief and relaxation
• Reducing anxiety and panic attacks
• Removing imprints and trauma
• Healing post-traumatic stress responses
• Improving healing after surgery
• Learning faster
• Improving memory
• Remembering events more clearly
• Pain relief*
• Unleashing your creativity
• Unleashing problem-solving skills
• Achieving professional goals
• Achieving personal goals
• Regression hypnosis
• Forensic hypnosis
• Regression therapy and past-life regression therapy
• Entertainment (i.e. stage hypnosis shows)
• Much more!

*Important note: You should never use hypnosis for pain relief or pain control without getting your doctor’s permission first. This is because pain is the body’s way of letting you know there is something wrong, and if you suppress that pain without knowing what is causing the pain, the underlying problem could get worse.

References for this article:
• Daniel Olsen’s History of Hypnosis web page.
• Alan Chip’s; Clinical Hypnotherapy; A Transpersonal Approach
• Hahnemann, Samuel; The Organon of the Healing Art, 6th edition.
• Judge, William Q.; Mesmerism; A Theosophical Article
• Buranelli, Vincent; The Wizard From Vienna; Franz Anton Mesmer, A biography of the 18th century doctor who laid the foundation for modern psychiatry.
• org, Franz Anton Mesmer.
• McGill, Ormond, The New Encyclopedia of Stage Hypnosis
• .J. Coates, PhD. and Dr. Marcot Paret, Easy Guide to Mesmerism and Hypnotism, NLP International.
• Wikipedia (regarding sleep temples)