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From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Practice: The Evolution of Hypnosis

The use of hypnosis can be traced back through history by many different names. What we call hypnosis today was, in ancient times, simply a connection to the mind's deeper, hidden abilities. Our ancestors understood its benefits when they would practice reaching an inner depth of consciousness, usually for healing purposes. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used forms of this practice in their sanctuaries and sleep temples where individuals would experience what they called dream incubation or temple sleep. This practice allowed them to enter a dream-like state where they would receive visions or divine messages that would be interpreted by the temple priests. In the Hindu Vedas, particularly in texts like the Upanishads, there are descriptions of deep meditative states aimed at accessing higher levels of consciousness. These states were often induced through prolonged periods of focused attention, controlled breathing exercises (pranayama), and visualization techniques. Practitioners sought to transcend the ordinary waking state of consciousness to explore deeper aspects of the self and the universe. Trance-like states occur throughout many cultures and religious practices. To me, this provides a greater understanding that humans throughout history were not merely acting out of superstition, but through actual observation of the beneficial healing.


The practice that more directly aligns with our modern understanding of hypnosis began to take shape in the 18th century with the work of Franz Anton Mesmer, a German physician. Mesmer is often called the father of ‘mesmerism’, which is considered a precursor to hypnosis. Mesmer believed in an invisible natural force possessed by all living things, which he called “animal magnetism.” He proposed that illnesses were caused by blockages in this force and used magnets and hypnotic techniques to adjust it. Although later discredited as pseudoscience, Mesmer's work brought the concept of healing through trance states to the attention of the medical community, setting the stage for later developments. His methods, despite their initial controversy, helped to pave the way for the scientific exploration of hypnosis. The term "hypnosis" itself comes from the Greek word "hypnos," meaning sleep, and was coined by James Braid in the mid-19th century. Braid, a Scottish surgeon, moved hypnosis to a more scientific framework, away from the mystical associations brought about by Mesmerism. He rejected the theory of animal magnetism and proposed that hypnosis was rather a state of focused attention, which could be used for pain control during surgeries, among other applications.


It should be noted, a man named Edgar Cayce used hypnosis in a unique way during the early 20th century. He was often called The Sleeping Prophet and his psychic ability while using his own special form of self-hypnosis, was truly astounding. His accuracy would often shock doctors. His journey to help others began when he was just a young boy, but when he became sick with laryngitis he agreed to try hypnosis as a solution. He was sick for almost a year and after seeing various doctors and specialists, was convinced he was incurable and would only be able to speak above a whisper for the rest of his life. A hypnotist, Hart the Laugh King, heard about Edgar and made a bet he could cure Edgar's hoarseness or waive his $200 fee. As a last resort Edgar accepted the deal. Once induced into a hypnotic state, Cayce was able to speak clearly and without any issue! Unfortunately for Hart, he couldn't completely cure Edgar himself but after a few more sessions with another hypnotist, Al C. Layne, his condition was eventually completely cleared. Once Cayce realized his gift was something special he finally started helping others outside of his friends and family. He would place himself into a self-induced hypnotic state, during which he could access a deeper level of consciousness, allowing him to provide insights and answers to a variety of topics—from health issues and remedies to philosophical and spiritual queries. While in this hypnotic state, Cayce would often speak to the physical and mental conditions of individuals who were not physically present, providing diagnoses and treatments that many reported to be effective. His method of using hypnosis was not only innovative but also contributed to the broader understanding and acceptance of the potentials of the human mind when altered states of consciousness are achieved. Although he is not usually credited in the historical timeline of the history of hypnosis, Cayce’s approach left a lasting impact on the fields of hypnotherapy, holistic medicine, and psychic phenomena.


In the early decades of the 20th century, pioneers like Sigmund Freud initially utilized hypnosis in psychotherapy. Freud explored hypnosis for its potential to access the unconscious mind and facilitate the release of repressed emotions. He later shifted his focus to psychoanalytic techniques, and unfortunately part of the reason hypnosis is not taught in most universities. Other notable figures, such as Pierre Janet in France, made substantial contributions by using hypnosis in the treatment of hysteria and other psychological disorders. The mid-20th century witnessed a resurgence in the interest in hypnosis, partly due to the work of Milton H. Erickson, a psychiatrist who is often considered one of the most important figures in the development of modern hypnotherapy. Erickson’s approach was characterized by his flexible, conversational technique, and innovative use of therapeutic metaphors and indirect suggestions. He demonstrated that hypnosis could be a powerful tool in therapy, leading to the development of Ericksonian hypnosis, which has influenced a wide range of psychotherapeutic practices.


As hypnosis gained popularity, the need for regulation, standardization, and rigorous training became apparent. Educational programs and professional organizations were developed to ensure that practitioners were well-trained in both the theory and practice of hypnosis and to promote its scientific study. Hypnosis began to be seen not just as an adjunct to psychotherapy but as a valuable tool in fields such as dentistry, surgery, and pain management, where its ability to alleviate pain and anxiety was especially prized. By the late 20th century, the applications of hypnosis had broadened significantly. Clinical trials and research studies began to demonstrate its effectiveness in areas such as pain management during childbirth, the treatment of burn patients, and in the management of acute and chronic pain conditions. Furthermore, hypnosis was employed to help patients with smoking cessation, weight loss, sleep disorders, and a variety of psychological disorders, including anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In more recent decades, the development of cognitive-behavioral therapy and other psychological practices have integrated hypnosis as a valuable tool in therapy.


The journey of hypnosis from ancient healing practices to a recognized psychological tool is a testament to humanity's enduring fascination with the mind and its potential. This historical perspective not only enriches our understanding of hypnosis but also underscores its legitimacy as a profound therapeutic tool. I'm hopeful that its full acceptance by the medical and psychological communities will eventually happen in my lifetime.


For a more in-depth history, watch this video provided by HMI College of Hypnotherapy.



If you are interested in experiencing hypnosis for yourself, please call for a free consultation or book your session today.


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