The History of Hypnotherapy

The practice of hypnotherapy has always carried a certain mystery and mystique, probably linked to its origins in occultism and spiritualism and its continued modern usage as part of magic shows and illusion for entertainment. As part of a long line of practitioners using hypnosis for medical and therapeutic purposes, however, I am conscious of the importance of understanding how the practice was both born and developed over the years. The practice of hypnotherapy carries a history which runs parallel to and converges with the history and development of other psychological therapies such as talking therapies. The study and practice of hypnotherapy is inextricably linked to that of modern psychotherapy, although its origins can perhaps be traced back further.

References to hypnosis and hypnotism can be found as far back as the 11th century AD, when the Persian physician Avicenna referred to a state called al-Wahm al-Amil, which one could induce in others to allow them to accept certain ideas or concepts. In post-classical Nigeria, in the state of Borgu, a technique similar to hypnosis was used to influence and bamboozle enemy tribes in battle. Similar techniques continued to be carried out up until the 18th century, mostly including passing magnets over the subject’s body, and using this magnetism to produce a trance and induce certain effects. The practice became linked to exorcism, with incantations being used alongside the magnets to remove evil spirits apparently causing disease in patients.

Franz Anton Mesmer

Although references to the occult practice of hypnosis can be found as far back as Ancient Egyptian, Chinese, Greek and Roman text; the earliest practitioner of hypnotherapy is most often considered to be the Austrian physician and showman Franz Anton Mesmer in the 18th century. Influenced by Isaac Newton’s work on gravitational force, Mesmer believed that the tidal forces presented by the planets affected the human body through a force which he termed ‘animal magnetism’.  Mesmer believed that this magnetism could be harnessed for medical purposes. Mesmer used his special technique (later termed mesmerism- giving rise to the modern term mesmerised) to cure patients of various maladies such as blindness and paralysis. Although his theories were largely discounted by the medical community of the time, and Mesmer was eventually labelled a charlatan, the fact remained that he had developed a technique of inducing a trance in his patients with the potential to produce therapeutic effects.  

From Franz Anton Mesmer to James Braid

Despite its controversial nature, Mesmer’s form of treatment continued to be used by practitioners, though with little consensus on how the practice of mesmerism really worked.

In the mid-19th century, the Scottish physician James Braid sought to shed some light on the process. Braid’s imagination was ignited during a performance by the mesmerist Charles Lafontaine during which Braid perceived that the hypnotised subjects were truly unable to open their eyes. After seeing this, James Braid became obsessed with researching and seeking to understand the phenomenon of mesmerism. He felt sure that the function of the eyes played a key part in creating the mysterious trance he had seen on stage.

A famous story tells of how he arrived at his surgery one day to find a patient who had been waiting for him for some time, fixated on the flame of an oil lamp in his waiting room. As a result, he began to consider the importance of ocular fixation in the process of mesmerism, which he eventually re-termed neuro-hypnotism (and later, hypnotism) named after the Greek god of sleep, Hypnos.

Despite originally likening the hypnotic state to sleep, however, James Braid soon discovered that sleep and hypnosis were not really alike at all. He carried out experiments and studies, identified the key features of the hypnotic trance state, and worked to persuade the medical profession that this technique was one worth studying and perpetuating. He used it to treat sufferers of paralysis, sensory impairments and chronic pain, among many other conditions. Perhaps most importantly, Braid uncovered the essential nature of hypnosis which he believed was not, as Franz Mesmer would have it, a result of magnetism and the interplay between astrological and animal forces; but a psychological process, inducing certain effects in the body.

The Influence of Sigmund Freud

In the 1880s, Austrian physician and father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud discovered hypnosis while on a trip to France, where several practitioners had begun to study the technique in some detail. Freud was interested in the psychological potential of hypnosis to help patients rediscover memories which may have become blocked or buried, and thus to facilitate his process of treating neurotic disorders (a large part of which, by his techniques, involved bringing the unconscious into consciousness). Eventually, Freud rejected hypnosis in favour of other techniques such as free association and dream interpretation, largely because he found these easier and quicker to carry out. However some branches of the psychological and psychoanalytic tradition carried on using hypnotherapy, for example for the treatment of trauma sufferers and patients with post traumatic stress disorder (including, most notably, soldiers returning from World War I and World War II). Freud’s interest in hypnosis, although short-lived, served the function of bringing hypnotherapy into the world of mainstream psychological treatment.

Throughout its history, it had mainly been used for the treatment of physical ailments, but as understanding of psychology and mental illness slowly grew among the medical community, it was clear that hypnotherapy had an extremely useful part to play in this field.

Hypnotherapy in the 20th Century

Notably, the psychological application of hypnotherapy was studied and taught throughout the 20th century on a seminal course at the University of Wisconsin headed by professor of psychology Joseph Jastrow. Jastrow had founded this course based on his interest in the medical potential of hypnosis and its possible applications in the world of psychology. It was here that an important debate broke out in the communities that were studying and seeking to understand hypnotherapy. This debate, headed by one of Jastrow’s students Clark Hull, has been termed state/non-state, relating to the question of whether or not a hypnotised patient is placed in a certain unusual state of consciousness, or whether hypnosis is simply one of many everyday phenomena which we pass through regularly without realising. Eventually, Hull took over the running of the university course, and continued Jastrow’s research. Although Hull did not practice hypnotherapy himself, he was fascinated to discover how this form of therapy functioned and what its practical applications could be.  


In the late 20th century, advances in brain imaging and a new understanding of how the brain worked allowed a far deeper understanding of hypnosis. A study at Stanford University proved that perception can be affected by suggestions made when a subject is in a hypnotic trance state. Psychologists Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrell carried out some research which linked hypnosis to the rapid eye movement stage of the sleep cycle, whilst therapist Stephen Wolinsky proved that both sides of the state/non-state debate held some truth- that a hypnotic trance was a specific mental state, but one that is actually a commonplace and natural part of day-to-day life.

There was one particular practitioner in the 20th century, however, who revolutionised the practice and application of hypnosis and who has left perhaps the most lasting stamp on the history of hypnotherapy. In certain ways, I owe much of my own technique and practice to the work and research of this practitioner, which were both inspiring and hugely influential. This practitioner’s name was Milton H. Erickson. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin (the same school where famous researchers Jastrow and Hull carried out their work), his story is an inspirational one, rooted in his personal history of illness and adversity.

Milton H. Erickson & Ericksonian Hypnotherapy

As a 17 year old boy, Erickson was struck with a debilitating case of polio which left him unable to move or even speak. His recovery was slow and painstaking. To help himself recover, he drew on memories of body movements and muscular activities from before his illness. Recalling ‘muscle memory’ in this way is said to have played a huge part in his recovery, and over time, he eventually became able to walk again. Whilst confined to his bed for long periods, he is also said to have become extremely aware of the importance of non-verbal communication; carefully observing the way those around him used physical and tonal cues to express meaning in addition to- or sometimes even in conflict with- words. This understanding of the importance of non-verbal communication and sometimes extremely subtle cues played a huge part in Erickson’s future practice as a psychologist and hypnotherapist. This gave rise to the modern technique which we now call suggestion, where such cues are used to make suggestions to the unconscious mind of a subject. At the University of Wisconsin, and later during his professional work around the US, he conducted research on hypnosis and suggestion and whilst practising, continued to build a deeper knowledge and understanding of hypnotherapy that hugely informed modern practice.  

Erickson was revolutionary in his approach in many ways. He believed, for instance, that trust and rapport were essential elements of the therapeutic relationship conducive to providing effective hypnotherapy, whilst  throughout history practitioners had previously favoured a more hierarchical approach, with the therapist in the role of the charismatic master, issuing commands to a passive and receptive patient. He was also extremely flexible in his technique, adapting his methods for each individual patient in order to provide a treatment that was tailored and client-led. This novel way of treating clients became a part of the zeitgeist in the psychotherapeutic world, and it is not unlikely that Erickson’s ideas were further reaching in their influence than just the world of hypnotherapy.  


Some of his methods were extremely unorthodox, and almost unrecognisable from what one might expect to see in a hypnotherapist’s office. One famous example tells of a stroke victim who was paralysed and unable to speak. Erickson hurled verbal abuse at the patient and induced such anger in him that he stood up and marched out of the treatment room, shouting back at him in fury!

Like Freud, Erickson’s work focussed on finding solutions within the unconscious mind, however unlike Freud, he believed that elements in the unconscious in the here and now could be equally as useful as memories from childhood. To this end, Erickson used hypnosis to deal directly with the symptoms of any presenting disorder and sometimes used the symptoms themselves to find the cure. He introduced ideas into his patients’ unconscious minds using various creative methods such as stories, riddles and jokes; each enfolding a helpful message to the unconscious which could work to counteract issues or symptoms.  

Much of modern day hypnotherapy training is based on Erickson’s ideas and methodologies, although the most important element of his work was arguably his ability to provide a tailored and flexible approach to his patients, and by that tack, copying his work exactly betrays his overall message and methodology. Modern practitioners are encouraged to take inspiration from his creativity and imagination rather than his exact techniques and processes.  

Like many other modern day practitioners, I practice Ericksonian hypnotherapy, with a particular emphasis on accessing memories that clients have formed in their first six years of life (often called the pre-operational period). I am proud to be part of a long line of practitioners, all of whom have had so much to offer to this extremely rich and nuanced profession. Hypnotherapy has come so far from its history as the strange and mysterious force it was once considered to be- in which practitioners used magnets and apparent mystical forces to induce trances in their subjects. As our understanding of the human mind grows, as will our knowledge of this unique form of therapy, and equally I believe hypnotherapy itself will allow us a continued insight into psychological phenomena and the human mind.

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