A Brief History of Modern Hypnosis

History of Hypnosis: Ancient to Modern Psychology

Some people have made an incredible contribution to hypnosis and hypnotherapy over the years. There is a rich and long history behind hypnotherapy, and I am going to mention just a few of the people who have, for various reasons, made an impact on my interest in hypnosis.

One of the early greats in this field was Scottish surgeon James Braid (1795 – 1860). Braid rescued hypnosis from, under the influence of Franz Mesmer, becoming something that fell somewhere between entertainment and pseudoscience. (We could do with another James Braid today, to dispel some of the popular myths, promoted in the entertainment industry, for example, that hypnosis makes you lose self-control). Along with contemporary physicians e.g. James Elliotson (1791 – 1868), hypnosis becomes part of mainstream medicine. Hypnosis became extremely useful as an analgesic in surgery and had other medical applications. However, with the discovery of the anesthetic chloroform – which required far less skill to administer than hypnosis – the need for hypnosis was undermined and by the 1850s became much less widely used. Elliotson, being born in Southwark and teaching in University College London (UCL) and University College Hospital (UCH), could at the time fairly be described as the best hypnotherapist in London.

Braid and others developed what is seen now as traditional hypnotic techniques, which included strategies like fixing the eyes on a bright object. Such techniques are still used today, but a great innovation in hypnosis came about in the 20th century thanks to the work of American psychiatrist and psychologist, Milton Erickson. He developed a range of more subtle techniques of hypnosis, for example, the use of analogies and indirect suggestion.

These days it is popular to combine hypnosis with cognitive behavioral techniques. Hypnotherapy has become ‘democratised’, and many practitioners of hypnosis today need no medical or academic qualifications. However there are still many people in London who are pushing the frontiers of what we know about hypnosis and the mind, such as Prof John Gruzelier at Goldsmiths University, and Dr. David Oakley at University College London, to name but two.

The history of hypnosis is very interesting and still has many mysteries, but thanks to modern brain imaging techniques we are learning increasingly that hypnosis remains an interesting phenomenon that still has, as it has done for centuries, a myriad of useful applications.

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