A Brief History of Therapeutic Hypnosis…

22 May 2019/ Therapeutic Hypnosis

Where did Strategic Psychotherapy come from?

This is one of the questions we seek to answer today.

The Origins of Hypnosis

People have been going into trances for millennia.  But the earliest verified mention of therapeutic trance is in the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus – only dated to c. 1550 BCE.  OK.  That's still thousands of years.  But use of trance almost certainly goes back to well before the Ebers Papyrus. 

It seems, from shamanic and other practices, trance has always been a traditional healing tool.

Paracelsus and the Aethers

In the 1500s, a physician nick-named Paracelsus posited the existence of a magnetic-astral fluid or aether.  He wished to explain the apparent influence of celestial bodies on human fate.  Indeed, he had a good shot at explaining the nature of all existence! 

He also often found himself at odds with the medical establishment of his time. For whatever reason, but possibly because of this, he seems to have sought to justify his methodology in writing.  So his philosophical writings demonstrate his method of obtaining medicinal cures in some detail.   He employed a distinct method for developing intuitive understanding.  Were we to describe his method, we might call it a process of absorption.

He made all kinds of different phenomena his target.  Yet, he wished to understand without verbal reasoning.  Verbal reasoning, he proffered, was just the stuff everyone else thought.   Instead, he sought to join with the “aethers”of his object of study.  Thus, he developed a distinctly alchemical pharmacology. Even more remarkable his pharmacology was demonstrably superior to the medicine of his day.  All the more so for being derived without a verbal reasoning process.  Doubtless no one will be surprised that many, if not most of his curative solutions were adopted by his opponents. This, after they had safely disposed of his troublesome person and the framework of ideation he employed.

An Explanation of Fate 

People of the time did not consider astrology a pseudo-science but a useful knowledge discipline.  Astrology was a source of knowledge for the rulers of nations.  So princes and magnates employed astrologers because they actually tended to give better advice about what to do than other people gave.  How much the advice had to do with the movement celestial bodies is anyone's guess. But astrology, at that time, had prestige.  Sufficient prestige to demand some kind of explanation for its success. 

Paracelsus is more famous now because he sought to provide that very explanation.  No one questioned whether celestial bodies really did affect people; that was considered obvious.  Borrowing from the Neo-Platonists, Paracelsus proposed an action on luciferous (light-bearing), fluidic “aethers.” These aethers existed between everything and interpenetrated everything.  Unlike today, when the word has taken on so many other connotations, “aether” for Paracelsus just meant, literally, “stuff.”  He also called it “first matter,” or prima materia.  He believed a human being was a microcosmic version of the larger systems - like planets, solar systems or constellations.

We can trace these ideas back to the Hermeticism of Egypt in the Hellenic period.  So with aethers, a Hermetic framework and a very organic view of the universe he explained how the movement of these distant celestial bodies could influence the mass-behaviour of human beings. 

The Knowledge Trance

He considered interaction with the aethers the source of his knowledge.

This is not to say he did not employ trance in order to create his cures and explanations.  Far from it.  He frequently writes of “becoming one with” the particular phenomenon he wished to understand.  This state of absorption is most definitely a trance, and in fact auto-hypnosis.  His method of discovery was highly reliant on self-induced trances and altered-states.  From within these altered-states he produced his alchemical procedures and formulations. From within these trances he developed his curative alchemical pharmacology.

Not many people understood his explanations.  He was considered “brilliant” in his day, probably because his cures worked.  However, he antagonised many people and his star dimmed during his own lifetime.  Finally his ideas more or less fell permanently from academic favour with the rise of 19th Century “scientific” materialism.

The First Magnetist

Fast-forward 200 years from Paracelsus to the 18th Century.

Suddenly, as if from nowhere, we find another physician, Maximillian Hell begin adopting the magnetic aether idea of Paracelsus.

But there was one very significant change. Hell did not view the fluid-aether as a phenomenon whose activity was to be observed and cajoled into delivering curative properties.  Instead, he believed that human agency was able to manipulate this “astral stuff,” directly.  In fact, he believed he could used this medium of fate to heal.

Thus, when Maximilian Hell coined “Magnetist,” he meant someone manipulating fluid aether.  His idea was really not unlike the “Qi” in Qi Gong (or “Ki” in Reiki).

Franz Anton Mesmer

Hell’s student, yet another physician, Franz Anton Mesmer then set out to popularise “Animal” or “Fluid” Magnetism in Enlightenment Europe. Mesmer, after experimenting with magnets, animals and people thought he had found “Fluid Magnetism” a scientific basis.   He believed he was either transferring or manipulating it to perform an “operation” on another person.  According to Mesmer, a physician could use this operation for both trance and healing.  Mesmer was savagely attacked for his claims and accused of being a charlatan.  His practices were profoundly at odds with the establishment.  This was especially true of the newly ascendant schools of surgery for whom “operation” was to come to mean something profoundly different.  The Colleges of Surgeons sought to dominate medicine and they ended up succeeding. 

A French Royal Commission (peopled by such “luminaries” as Guillotine, Lavoisier and Franklin) determined Mesmer to be a fraud.  It was quite a poor show of intellectual acumen from the luminaries because of its rather biased treatment of “evidence.” There was only one member of the commission whose comments could be said to be fair and rational and they were dissenting. It may surprise many as it did me, but the rational dissenting opinion wasn't Benjamin Franklin's.  His comments can be most charitably summed up as 100% politician and 0% scientist. 


After Mesmer’s death, Magnetism (then called Mesmerism) only grew even more renowned.  Mesmerist surgeons were achieving extremely high levels of analgesia, anaesthesia and much higher rates of post-operative recovery in those early surgeries than other methods (ether, opiates, etc.)  Indeed, by 1842 when Scots eye-doctor James Braid coined the term “Neuro-Hypnotism” (meaning “nerve sleep”) there were thousands of reports of Mesmeric-trance assisted surgery.

From Recarnier’s single reported surgery in 1821, reportings grew steadily. Notably, John Elliotson, who brought the stethescope to Britain, published the results of numerous mesmeric trance assisted surgeries in 1834.  Eventually, James Esdaile had reported over 2000 minor and 345 major surgeries using mesmeric anaesthesia throughout the 1840s. 

James Braid

A sceptical James Braid sought an acceptable explanation for the “magnetic” practices of the Mesmerists.  So, taking the flamboyant fluid-magnetist, La Fontaine as his model, the unimpressed Braid postulated a different explanation.  He gathered evidence to show eye-fixation, auditory repetition and other ideomotor actions could induce trance, publishing his findings in 1842.  He later developed an “absorption” theory of trance, renaming his Neuro-Hypnotism “Monoideism” (meaning, of-one-idea).  But the new term never caught-on.

Oddly, Braid's considerable efforts against the Magnetists appear driven by a conviction that Fluid-Magnetism required an external “operator” as a necessity for Mesmeric trance; Braid showed trance could be entered without one. Yet Mesmer’s Fluid-Magnetism depends on no such condition.

The “Hypnosis” of Paris and Nancy

With Braid’s death in 1860 and better chemical anaesthetics, interest in trance waned. Then, twenty-plus years later, two French schools re-named Hypnotism “Hypnosis,” and began competing for who’s theory would explain it.

Supposing trance was “like sleep,” as the word  “hypnosis” suggests, Charcot’s Paris School hypothesised hypnosis was “cortical inhibition. ” This was partly because good hypnotic subjects also often suffered from “hysteria.” (Hysteria was a mental disease that seems to have more or less disappeared).  Cortical inhibition was thought to cause hysteria at the time.  Cortical inhibition also became part of Pavlov's theory of sleep.  However, both cortical inhibition and sleep have nothing to do with hypnosis as we understand it today.  Hypnosis is not sleep and the cortices are not inhibited during hypnosis: exactly the opposite process takes place.  Hypnosis is the learning state.

Meanwhile, Faria, Liebault & Bernheim had founded the so-called Nancy School.  They  proposed a theory of ideomotor action and suggestion.  Their model also included a theory of  post-hypnotic suggestion.

Pierre Janet sought a synthesis between the two schools with a theory where dissociation, unconscious processes and traumatic memory formed hypnosis’ main characteristics.  Extraordinarily, his understanding still informs ours to this day.

Suggestion Theory

Somewhat later, Emile Coué reworked Braid’s auto-hypnotism. More importantly, Coué  famously demonstrated “Imagination is more powerful than will.”  He evinced a very pragmatic approach to hypnosis and suggestion.  Since his time more modern clinicians have criticized Coué for his Pollyannaish approach to therapy.  But despite such criticisms, his work became a really important stepping stone in the development of functional hypnotherapy.

Clark Hull’s later rigorous exploration and development of Suggestion Theory rested upon Coué's work.  Hull was one of the giants of early twentieth century clinical hypnosis.  He systematised a largely disorganised field into something deserving academic respect.  

For many years, hypnotic inductions had blended Braid’s ideas with stage Mesmerist theatricality.  In time, a common view arose that inductions required a monotonous voice, “focus” (like a pendulum, crystal or candle) and authoritarian “operator” who put the subject in trance. 

Many people, both within the field and outside it, got entirely the wrong idea about what hypnosis is and what it isn't. The notion developed that a hypnotist made trance and hypnosis happen by some queer method or other. Thus, those people inaccurately perceived how suggestions worked and how hypnosis happened.

In this idea of hypnosis we can find the genesis of so-called “hypnotisability.”

Hypnotisability Scales

The great Ernest Hilgard at Stanford University was the most influential of several experimental hypnotists to invent susceptibility scales. He formulated his scale based on who could be hypnotised “scientifically.”

He used a monotonous tape-recorded induction. Unsurprisingly, Hilgard was a zero on his own scale.

Unfortunately, hypnotisability is an idea fraught with methodological problems.  One of the most obvious problems is not all scales agree.  This is essentially because not all trances are the same.

Many hypnotists have found difficulty obtaining some trance phenomena in some people. That is true.  However, the standardized scales thus obtained fail to account for alternative methodologies.  And such scales are also often a poor guide to clinical responsiveness.

Modern clinical hypnosis rests on quite different understandings.

Milton H. Erickson

Clark Hull’s student, Milton H. Erickson, was a different kind of psychiatrist. His patients got well and went home.  That was something largely unheard of in the 1950s and 60s.  Becoming a psychiatric patient was akin to incarceration for life.  He was a psychiatrist who was also a hypnotist.

Erickson used hypnosis very differently from those before him. He did not engage in much regression-to-cause or other hypno-analysis methods like automatic writing. Erickson was less interested in his patients' difficulties than their internal resources.  He was less interested in their childhood history than their motivations. 

He accommodated clients’ subjective worlds.  So then, he pioneered a permissive approach to suggestion.  Finally, Erickson completely changed how hypnosis happened with his indirect approach to trance induction.  Indeed, he demonstrated that language itself was hypnotic.  

Thus Erickson widened the scope of clinical hypnosis.  Practically everyone he encountered achieved the benefits of hypnotic phenomena.  In fact, he showed repeatedly, given the right framing, anyone could be hypnotized.

He has therefore been called the “father of modern hypnosis” by many.

Strategic Psychotherapy

Erickson’s success intrigued “Brief Therapy” co-originator Gregory Bateson who sent his student, Jay Haley, to investigate.  Hayley’s “Strategic Psychotherapy” was the result; Ericksonian hypnosis became a major vehicle for interventions.

Therapeutic practitioners of Ericksonian hypnosis today include a number of Erickson's students: Bill O’Hanlon, Steve Lankton, Jeff Zeig, Stephen Gilligan, Ernest Rossi.  Additionally, their numbers include 2nd generation students like Darren Marks, Jay Haley’s student Michael Yapko.  And all the many others who have learned from Erickson's original students including my own teachers Gordon Young and Lisa Webber. 

Also, practitioners from the related field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming employ many of Erickson's patterns and strategies.  Indeed, Richard Bandler, John Grinder, the Andreas family, Robert Dilts and many of their associates all contributed greatly to the current understanding of how Erickson's methods really worked.  More than anyone else, NLP practitioners prevented his work from disappearing into the abyss of uniquity by making his methods replicable.  Strategic Psychotherapists like me will always owe a debt of gratitude to Milton Erickson and all the other practitioners of different aspects of his work as well as those from the related fields of communication, family and solution oriented therapy.

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