Blog post

The history of hypnosis

Yasuhiro Kotera, Academic Lead for Counselling at the University of Derby Online Learning discusses the history of hypnosis and how it works to help people.

By Yasuhiro Kotera - 3 January 2018

The history of hypnosis dates back to the late 18th century when Franz Mesmer, a German physician, developed mesmerism, his beliefs about the balance of magnetic power in our body, using animal magnetism.

The concept of animal magnetism was rejected a decade later as it had no scientific basis. However, many clinicians were fascinated by the fact that Mesmer did cure many symptoms of patients. One of the most notable clinicians that followed Mesmer was a Scottish ophthalmologist, James Braid, who coined the word ‘hypnosis’. It originated from the Greek word for ‘sleep’. Modern science later proved hypnosis was not related to sleep but one thing hypnosis and sleep have in common is the enhancement of our external focus.

In the mid-19th century, Austrian physician, Josef Breuer’s work got attention for his treatment of Anna. O for hysteria. Breuer used suggestive hypnosis to trigger Anna’s childhood emotions, which resulted in the reduction of her symptoms.

A good colleague of Breuer was Sigmund Freud. Through hypnosis work, Freud discovered our unconscious process, which was a significant finding especially in psychoanalysis. Although Freud attempted to use hypnosis, it was free association that he invested in which clients talk freely and the clinician analyses their deep psychology. Later, in the mid-20th century, Melanie Kline, the leading developer of the object relation theory, reported that Freud became too authoritative in hypnosis, which hindered his hypnosis results.

The most prominent figure in modern hypnosis is American psychiatrist, Milton Erickson, who was a master of using language creatively in order to communicate with patients’ unconscious. What was unique in his approach was that he was not interested in identifying the cause of the symptoms, like many other clinicians back then, instead his focus was on helping patients release their symptoms by stopping the defence functions. He made outstanding clinical successes, and his methods were called Ericksonian hypnosis, which was strongly embedded in other contemporary approaches such as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

In the late 20th century, the American Psychological Association established the Division 30 Society of Psychological Hypnosis. Since then, the science of hypnosis has been developed rigorously.

The agreement

What I would like to highlight in the practice of hypnosis is that it happens on an agreement between a clinician and patient. Many people have the misconception that a clinician can make their patients do whatever they want to do, but that is impossible. Some people may argue that in stage hypnosis, a hypnotist makes the volunteered participants do funny things, but this would also only be done with their full agreement.

People who volunteer for stage hypnosis tend to have a desire to get attention or entertain people. The hypnotist’s suggestions to fulfil their desire are easily attained, which is why they can be asked to perform silly tasks, such as becoming a chicken or dancing funnily on request.

Similarly, in clinical hypnosis, suggestions were used to meet client’s desires. For example, if a client wants to enhance their self-esteem, suggestions could include the words that can enhance it. Or if a client wants to feel more confident, suggestions could include the words that can give them more confidence or words associated with their previous good performance. In order to maximise the effects of suggestions, induction is necessary, and often this is done via relaxation. The more relaxed you are, the more power the words can have.

The power of language

Speaking from my own experience of hypnosis, I cannot help but notice the power of language. The language we use significantly affects the way feel, yet not many people know what kind of words make themselves feel good, relaxed, and so on. The language we use shapes our experience. For example, my studies have found that reframing is one of the most useful skills among licenced career consultants. They reported that how their clients label their personalities or situations significantly affects their career attitudes and successes.

In NLP, what I am specialised in, the importance of language is emphasised, as you can see it in the title. The first step is to notice what kind of language you are using when you are happy, relaxed, stressed etc. You may want to write those down, so that you can see those from an outsider perspective. Then you can think about what you may want to change to enhance or reduce the effects.

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About the author

Yasu Kotera smiling, sitting at a table in front of tea cups and a jug of water.

Yasuhiro Kotera
Former Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Psychology

Dr Kotera's teaching primarily focused on mental health and research modules including supervision at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.