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Comprehensive History of Hypnosis

Hypnosis History
Table of Contents

History of hypnosis starts from the early ages of civilization. In ancient times, people used it for healing purposes, especially in religious ceremonies. For example, shamans entered in a process of strong visualization and suggestion during which he willed to heal the sick person.

The first type of hypnosis started with animal hypnosis. In 1600-s farmers calmed chickens hypnotically using different methods. In 1800-s people hypnotized birds, rabbits, frogs and others. B. Danilecwsky experimented with animal hypnosis and studied its physiological workings in animals.

Key Personalities from History of Hypnosis

Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815):

An Austrian physician, is widely acknowledged as the ‘Father of hypnosis’. He believed that there was a quasi-magnetic fluid in the very air we breathe and that the body’s’ nerves somehow absorbed this fluid. As a doctor, his main concern was how to effectively treat his patients, and he considered disease to be caused via a blockage of the circulation of this magnetic fluid in the blood and the nervous system. Curing disease would, in his view, involve correcting the circulation of this liquid.

Initially, he used a magnet, and later his hand, which was passed over the diseased body in an attempt to unblock the magnetic flow. The hand (and later the eyes) was believed to unblock the fluid by increasing its amount and flow as his hand passed over the affected area. The term ‘animal magnetism’ was born, and the procedure referred to as Mesmerism.

The Marquis de Puysegur (1751-1825):

A pupil of Mesmers, used ‘animal magnetism’ on a young peasant who entered into a state of sleep while still being able to communicate with Puysegur and respond to his suggestions. When the peasant ‘awoke’ he could remember nothing of what had occurred. Puysegur thought that the will of the person and the operators’ actions were important factors in the success or failure of the ‘magnetism’, in other words, psychological influences were extremely important in the whole process.

John Elliotson (1791-1868):

An English physician holding a chair at University College London was disbarred from the medical profession as a direct result of his demonstrations of animal magnetism, while James Esdaile, a surgeon was operating on his patients using ‘mesmeric sleep’ as his anesthetic of choice in the 1840s. The medical profession was therefore divided on its opinion of the usefulness of mesmerism.

James Braid (1795-1860) :

It wasn’t until 1843 that the terms ‘hypnotism’ and ‘hypnosis’ were coined by James Braid, a Scottish surgeon working in Manchester. He found that some experimental subjects could go into a trance if they simply fixated their eyes on a bright object, like a silver watch.

He believed that some sort of neurophysiological process was involved and that hypnosis was very useful in disorders where no organic origin to the problem could be identified (e.g. headaches, skin problems, etc.) He showed that a single stimulus (e.g. a word or an object) was enough to re-hypnotize his subjects. No-one knew how the process of hypnosis ‘worked’, though there were several theories put forward.

Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893):

A leading neurologist of his day and head of the neurological clinic at the famous Saltpetiere in Paris, used hypnosis to treat hysterics. He concluded that hypnosis was an induced seizure when his hysteric patients showed epileptic-like symptoms when they were in a trance.

Hippolyte Bernheim (1837-1919)

A professor of medicine at the University of Nancy regarded hypnosis as a special form of sleeping where the subject’s attention is focused upon the suggestions made by the hypnotist. He, therefore, emphasized the psychological nature of the process of hypnosis.

Emile Coue (1857- 1926):

French psychologist and pharmacist, has been called the Father of Applied Conditioning who introduced a method of psychotherapy, healing, and self-improvement based on autosuggestion (self-hypnosis). He did not follow traditional approaches of hypnosis instead he practiced autosuggestion claiming that ‘There is no such thing as hypnosis, only self-hypnosis.’ He says that Autosuggestion is an instrument that we possess at birth, and in this instrument, or rather in this force, resides a marvellous and incalculable power. It is a self-induced technique, states by repeating words or images as self-suggestion to the subconscious mind, one can change their thoughts, feelings, and behaviour.

Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939):

Austrian neurologist and founder of Psychoanalysis. In his pre psychoanalytic period, Freud studied hypnosis and initiated his practice but couldn’t get his patients into trance effectively. Hence, he left his hypnosis practice, but Freud wrote that he “abandoned hypnosis only to rediscover suggestion in the shape of transference”. He also discovered unconsciousness through observation of hypnosis. As sleep is an altered state of unconscious as hypnosis he focused more on dreams and their meanings and introduced Psychoanalysis. Most of his techniques in psychoanalysis has relevance to hypnosis.

Carl Jung (1875-1961): 

A student and colleague of Freud’s, rejected Freud’s psychoanalytical approach and developed his own interests. He developed the concept of the collective unconscious and archetypes. Though he did not actively use hypnosis he encouraged his patients to use active imagination to change old memories. He often used the concept of the inner guide, in the healing work. He believed that the inner mind could be accessed through tools like the I Ching and astrology.

Clark L. Hull (1884-1952):

By the 1920s, hypnosis became the focus of experimental investigation by psychologists like Clark L. Hull, who demystified hypnosis saying that it was essentially a normal part of human nature (1933). The important factor was the subject’s imagination – some people were more responsive or suggestible’ than others to hypnosis.

Milton Ericson (1901-1980):

American psychiatrist and psychologist specializing in medical hypnosis and family therapy. He was founding president of the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis. He introduced his different unique approach in hypnosis known as Erickson/Ericksonian hypnotherapy based on indirect suggestions. The standard process of hypnosis is therapist issuing standardized instructions to a passive patient, where Ericksonian hypnosis focused on interactive therapeutic relationship and purposeful engagement of the inner resources and experiential life of the client. He looked at hypnosis as ‘a favourable climate in which to learn’ and advised trusting the unconscious, for ‘it knows more than you do’.

Dave Elman (1900-1967):

He was inspired by his father who was dying from cancer, received healing and relief from pain through hypnosis enabled him to play with Dave one last time.  In his period, he was called as “The World’s Youngest and Fastest Hypnotist” because his research in hypnosis discover various means of hypnotizing subjects in less than a minute. Later he realized that hypnotic induction can be useful in medicine. Then he started training, He taught hypnotherapy to more anaesthesiologists, physicians, dentists, psychiatrists, and therapists, than any instructor in modern times. The Dave Elman Hypnosis Institute has been formed in the tribute of him.

Dr. John G. Kappas (1925-2002):

He developed “Theory of Mind” where he explained how our minds work and why hypnosis is possible. The style of hypnosis known as Kappasinian Hypnosis is named after him. He is the author of several books on the subject of hypnosis and its applications. He also founded the Hypnosis Motivation Institute (HMI).

Ormond McGill (1913 – 2005)

He was the “Dean of American Hypnotists”, and practised stage hypnosis and hypnotherapy both. He was also interested in meditation and mysticism, also about the various and numerous religious mysteries for which he travelled to India and published a book called ‘Hypnotism and Mysticism in India’. He wrote over 25 books on hypnosis. He was unique in this respect as he gained the reputation for being able to put people into trance and transform their lives in a very short period of time,

Richard Bandler, John Grinder

In 1970, developed neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), theory of inter-personal influence and self-help. Believed that, if an individual can understand how another person have accomplished a task, the process can be copied and communicated to others so that others too can accomplish the task. Though NLP itself is not usually considered a branch of hypnotism, but many hypnotherapists employ NLP.


Support for the teaching of the therapeutic use of hypnosis in medicine finally came in 1955 from the British Medical Association, who was closely followed in 1958 by the American Medical Association. Today, an International Society of hypnosis coordinates and assesses standards and practices of professional hypnotists across the world. hypnosis is currently used in dentistry, medicine, and psychology and has proved helpful if used alongside more conventional treatments and therapies.

It has received a ‘bad press’ of late, mainly due to the unscrupulous practices of some stage hypnotists, but its professional use in treating both physical and mental disorders continues to thrive. Now it is generally seen as a form of ‘relaxation’, and it is possible to teach individuals how to hypnotize themselves (via progressive relaxation techniques). It is widely used in the treatment of addictions (e.g. in aiding smoking cessation), but should always be conducted by a professional in a controlled setting.

Misuse of hypnosis can have dire consequences and maybe especially harmful in the treatment of people who were sexually abused as children (as is the case in False Memory Syndrome). Care should always be taken when hypnosis is to be employed and patients should be ‘brought out’ of the hypnotic trance before they leave the clinic. Historically, the use of ‘trances’ is much older than Mesmers’ findings but it was the Austrian physician who first brought the process to the attention of the medical community.

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