The Birth of Hypnosis

This series of posts (The Birth of Hypnosis) will be focused on the early history of hypnosis and the possible precursors to it. I will start by discussing possible mentions of hypnosis in ancient cultures, I will then discuss pre-19th century Magnetism and Mesmerism then discuss James Braid, father of modern hypnotism, in some detail.

This series of posts is a work in progress; more information will be added and revisions made as I revisit these posts to enhance them in years to come. I will omit most of the sources, but if you want to fact check something and are unable to locate the source of info please contact me.

Hypnosis as we know it today evolved out of skepticism to earlier works of Magnetism, Mesmerism and artificial Somnambulism. However, it seems that hypnotic techniques have been used by many ancient cultures from India to the Americas and even in Hawaii. The oldest recorded history of the use of such techniques dates back to ancient India.

Hypnotism vs. Magnetism

The history of modern hypnosis is thought of to have started in the eighteenth century by Mesmer who devised a defined technique for inducing trance. For accuracy’s sake, please note that any use of the term “hypnotism” before the year 1841 is speculative since the term hypnotism (and later “hypnosis”) and their definitions did not exist prior.

James Braid was the first to use the term “hypnotism” in 1841. Thus, previous techniques such as sleep temples, Mesmerism, Animal Magnetism, and Artificial Somnambulism are generally considered precursors to hypnosis as we know it today.

Ancient Hypnosis & Sleep Temples

It can be argued that hypnosis was present in all ancient cultures and in religious ceremonies that were practiced by them. The use of drums, chanting, smoke, dance and other ceremonial techniques lead many into some form of trance. Shamans, medicine men and wise women used methods, all similar in that they induced trance.
The oldest recorded history of the use of hypnosis techniques dates back to ancient India where these techniques were used as tools for health and wellbeing by Hindus who took sick individuals to what was known back then as “Sleep Temples” to remove evil and be cured. At the Sleep Temples, rituals representing hypnotic inductions were used to place individuals in a sleep-like state.

Archeologists have unearthed evidence that similar Sleep Temples were present in ancient Egypt and Greece. In Egypt, these were considered “dream incubators” where people would seek guidance. Several techniques were utilized to induce dreams; these dreams were interpreted and as a result herbs, therapies or rites were prescribed. Even though these were called Sleep Temples; we know now that hypnosis is different from sleep.

The Bible, Ibn Sina & Hippocrates

There are a few instances in the Bible that seem to mention hypnosis. The Old Testament states how “the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam” (Genesis 2:21) other recorded instances include 1 Samuel 26:12, Job 4:13, 33:15 and Acts 10:10.

The earliest recorded distinction between sleep and hypnosis was made by a Persian psychologist and physician known as Avicenna (or Ibn Sina in Farsi / Persian) (980-1037). Avicenna who spent many hours with “common” people in the taverns, published a book in 1027 titled The Book of Healing, in it he referred to hypnosis as Al-Wahm Al-Amil which roughly translates to the pleasant dreamy imagination. He stated that one could create conditions in another person so that this person accepts the reality of hypnosis.

Modern medicine is often referred to have started with the Greek physician Hippocrates. What is not as well-known is that Hippocrates had said:

The affliction suffered by the body, the soul sees quite well with the eyes shut.

When many Greeks became Roman slaves, the knowledge was passed on to the Roman Empire. When Christianity became the dominant religion, all that occurred before was coined witchcraft or of the devil forcing these practices underground, including what we now know as hypnosis.

Hypnosis In Europe

In Europe, in an effort to heal sickness, healers utilized magnets and Mesmerism.

The first documented physician to have used magnets in Europe was the Swiss physician Paracelsus (1493-1541). Paracelsus believed that humans were affected by magnetism from the stars and magnets. He passed magnets (lodestones) over his patients’ bodies. It is documented that his patients believed they were healed.

Van Helmont (1577 – 1644) a Flemish chemist, physiologist, and physician, took a similar stance as Paracelsus and proposed that each person radiated “Animal Magnetism” that influenced the mind and body of others.

Another documented mention of Magnetism was of an Irishman, Valentine Greatrakes (1628-1666), who was known as “the Great Irish Stroker” exactly for his ability to heal people by laying his hands on them and passing Magnets over their bodies.

Fienus & Wright On Emotions & Imagination

Dr. Thomas Fienus (1567-1631), an early physician and Professor of Medicine at the University of Louvain from 1593 – 1631, published his De viribus imaginationis in 1608. He recognized two methods of which a person’s imagination could be triggered. The first from within a person, the other was through the influence of someone else (an operator). He found that if a patient’s imagination was triggered by a doctor that patient’s illness can be healed due to the patient’s imagination and his or her belief in the healing powers of the physician (operator).

Fienus said,

The emotions are greatly alterative with respect to the body. Therefore, through them the imagination is able to transform the body.

Thomas Wright wrote his treatise The Passions of the Mind (1601) where he suggested that passions are “movements of the soul that cause alteration of the bodily humours.” He also made the comment that “passions engender humors and humors breed passions”. Wright knew that a patient’s rapport with their physician was of great importance to the healing process, that emotions such as hope and pleasure improved healing.

Thomas Fienus believed that imagination was able to transform the body, he made a detailed comment when he said the following:

The imagination acts on the body through the appetitive power or by means of the emotions… wherein he says that the soul and the imagination are unable to transform bodies per se but only by means of the appetite, the emotions and the motions of the humors and spirits, which indeed are moved by the appetite itself … The imagination is fitted by nature to move the appetite and excite the emotions, as is obvious, since by thinking happy things we rejoice, by thinking of sad things we fear and are sad, and all emotions follow previous thought. But the emotions are greatly alterative with respect to the body. Therefore, through them the imagination is able to transform the body … the appetite excites the motive power, and through the emotions the humors and spirits are borne upwards, downwards, within and without … Since the imagination produces change by means of emotions and the emotions produce change by means of natural movement of the heart and by means of the movement of the humors and spirits, the imagination does also.

It is clear that both Fienus and Wright were of the belief that emotions were active causal agents of bodily change. That passion (or emotion) moves the heart, humours and spirits within the body. They had the same position that psychological experiences of imagination could lead to exterior somatic consequences.

Gassner & Maximilian Hell

Johann Joseph Gassner
An early record of Mesmerism was that of Johann Joseph Gassner (1727-1779) who was one of many Catholic priests who believed that disease was caused by evil spirits and could be exorcised by incantations and prayer.

Father Maximilian Hell
Around the year 1771, Magnets were documented to have been used by a Jesuit priest named Maximilian Hell (1720-1792) who lived in Vienna. Magnets were used by applying steel plates to the naked body

Mesmer & Mesmerism

Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer

franz_anton_mesmer-wise-hypnosisAround 1770, a physician from Austria, Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), investigated an effect that he coined “Animal Magnetism” (as in the Magnetism of living beings), later to be called “Mesmerism”.

Legend has it that Mesmer was a student of Father Hell and obtained his first magnets from him. It is well accepted that Mesmer acknowledged the healing work Father Hell. *21. In 1774 Mesmer for the first time had witnessed Animal Magnetism when he watched Father Hell apply Magnets to the bodies of persons suffering from various ailments. An early medical influence of his may have been the fifteenth-century book by physician Dr. Thomas Fienus.

Mesmer developed his own theory and experiments; he would wave a magnet at a person; many would believe they were cured. Mesmer was limited by the size of magnet, so he rubbed a stick and concluded that the stick was now magnetized. He could use the stick to point at a crowed of people. Soon after, he discovered that he didn’t really need the stick and attributed the healing ability to an “Animal Magnetism”.

Mesmer became a popular person in France especially within the French aristocracy for his use of Magnetism to cure illness. Mesmer’s popularity was wide enough that on March 1784 the king of France Louis XVI appointed a Royal Commission to investigate Mesmer’s claims. This commission included well-known individuals such as the chemist Lavoisier who recognized and discovered Oxygen and Hydrogen, Benjamin Franklin one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America and Joseph Ignace Guillotin who was a French physician that opposed the death penalty and proposed a machine that beheads painlessly.

Dr. d’Eslon & the Royal Commission

This Royal Comission could be the first placebo controlled experiment in the history of healing. This experiment was put together by Benjamin Franklin in which his Mesmer’s disciple Dr d’Eslon Magnetized a tree and it was shown that a blindfolded patient showed as much response to a non Magnetized (or non-prepared) tree as to one that had been Magnetized. Mesmer himself refused to cooperate with this investigation. As a result of this experiment, the Board of Inquiry commission declared that Mesmerism worked by the action of the imagination.

Mesmer retired to Switzerland in obscurity where he died in 1815. Even though Magnetism was forgotten during the French Revolution, Mesmerism and Magnetic therapies remained fairly known in history; even today some Magnetic therapies remain popular as a form of alternative medicine.

The concept of Mesmerism introduced the idea that people, and the social order at large, were “suggested” and thus could be changed or over turned. It is worth noting, that many of the first Mesmerists were also signatories to the first declarations proclaiming the French revolution in 1789.

Marquis de Puysegur

puysegur1-204x300Marquis de Puységur (1751–1825), a French aristocrat from one of the most illustrious families of the French nobility was another student of Mesmer. Puységur learned about Mesmerism from his brother Antoine-Hyacinthe, the Count of Chastenet. After hypnotising a 23-year-old peasant Victor Race. Race was easily hypnotized by Puységur who siplayed a sleeping trance not seen before within Mesmerism.

Puységur was able to identify the difference between this sleeping trance and natural sleep-walking (Somnambulism) he named it “artificial Somnambulism”. Nowadays this state of mind is what we call hypnosis.

Puységur is now remembered as one of the pre-scientific founders of hypnotism.  Followers of Puységur called themselves “Experimentalists” and believed in the Swiss physician Paracelsus’s and Mesmer’s magnetic fluidism theory.

Puységur became a very successful hypnotherapist, well known in France and other countries. In 1785, while teaching a course on Animal Magnetism Puységur concluded with these illuminating words:

I believe in the existence within myself of a power.
From this belief derives my will to exert it.
The entire doctrine of Animal Magnetism is contained in the two words: Believe and Want.
I believe that I have the power to set into action the vital principle of my fellow-men;
I want to make use of it; this is all my science and all my means.
Believe and want, Sirs, and you will do as much as I.

Marquis de Puységu

The practice of “Animal Magnetism” was altered by Puységur when he focused his attention on what happened to people while in trance (Magnetic Somnambulism). He observed that when a subject was under trance his/her symptoms and behavior could be influenced by what the Magnetizer (operator) said. It was common to ask the subject to establish his/her own diagnosis, form his/her treatment, and predict the development of this treatment, even predict recovery.


Abbé Faria

In the early 19th century, after his appointment as a professor of Philosophy at the University of France at Nîmes, a Goan Catholic monk called José Custódio de Faria brought “Animal Magnetism” back to the public attention in Paris when he introduced oriental hypnosis to Parisians. Abbé Faria was born in the state of Goa in Portuguese India; in 1813 realizing that Animal Magnetism was gaining importance returned to Paris and gave exhibitions in 1814 and 1815 without manipulations or the use of Mesmer’s techniques.

Unlike Mesmer, Abbé Faria claimed that hypnosis was generated from within the mind by the power of suggestion or expectancy and cooperation of the patient, not the operator.

Abbé Faria pioneered the scientific study of hypnotism. He was one of the first to depart from the theory of the “magnetic fluid” and emphasized suggestion and demonstrated the existence of “autosuggestion”. He changed the terminology of Mesmer and changed the focus from the magnetizer (i.e the operator or “the concentrator”) to the “concentration” of the patient. He said that nothing comes from the magnetizer; that everything comes from the subject and takes place in the subject’s imagination (i.e. generated from within the mind). This may be related to an Indian concept called Shambavopaya; The Indian method of hypnosis used by following commands and having expectancy. The theory of Abbe Faria is now known as Fariism.

Later, Abbé Faria’s approach and theory was significantly extended by the clinical and theoretical work of Hippolyte Bernheim and Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault (1864-1904), the founder of the Nancy School. It is worth mentioning that Faria’s approach and the Nancy School contributed significantly to the later development of “autosuggestion” by Émile Coué (1922) and “autogenic training” by Johannes Heinrich Schultz (1932).

Faria wrote and published Da Causa do Sono Lúcido no Estudo da Natureza do Homem which translates to “On the cause of Lucid Sleep in the Study of Nature of Man”, in 1819. He was then accused of being a charlatan.  He retired as chaplain to an obscure religious establishment and died of a stroke in Paris in 1819.

Recamier & Reichenbach

Dr. Récamier

In 1821, Récamier was the first physician known to have used something a method of hypnosis as anesthesia while he operated on patients. That state of mind was known as Mesmeric coma.

Carl Reichenbach

Carl Reichenbach, a notable chemist, geologist, metallurgist, naturalist, industrialist and philosopher experimented aiming to find a scientific validity to Mesmeric energy. He dedicated himself in his late years to research a field of energy combining electricity, Magnetism and heat that emanates from all living things and he called it “the Odic force”.

Reichenbach’s conclusions were rejected by the scientific community. James Braid published an influential book attacking Reichenbach’s views as pseudoscientific entitled The Power of the Mind over the Body (1846). Even though they Reichenbach’s views were dismissed they did play a role in undermining Mesmer’s claims of mind control.

Dr. James Esdaile

In the 1840s and 1850s, Before the development of chemical anesthetics, Dr. James Esdaile (1805-1859), a University of Edinburgh trained medical doctor documented 345 major operations that he performed using “Mesmeric sleep” as the sole anesthetic in British India.

Esdaile did not follow the techniques that Mesmer used. Esdaile procedure was as follows:

“Esdaile’s method was to make the patient lie down in dark room, wearing only a loin cloth, and [Esdaile would] repeatedly pass the hands in the shape of claws, slowly over the [patient’s] body, within one inch of the surface, from the back of the head to the pit of the stomach, breathing gently on the head and eyes all the time [and] he seems to have sat behind the patient, leaning over him almost head to head and to have laid his right hand for extended periods on the pit of the stomach.”

Esdaile hired native Indian boys that would spend 2-8 hours a day with each patient in a darkened room following his technique.  Esdaile gained a wide reputation among the European and indigenous communities for painless surgery, especially in cases of the scrotal tumors. 

According to James Braid, in a report on Esdaile and the use of Mesmerism in the Indian hospital in September 1846 only 30% of Esdaile’s clients actually exhibited “no signs of pain during their operations.”  In general, Braid’s report was favorable of Esdaile’s technique. However, Braid expressed reservations about Esdaile’s claims of supernatural powers. He stated:

“In theory I entirely differ from Dr. Esdaile. He is a Mesmerist – that is, he believes in the transmission of some peculiar occult influence from the operator to the patient, as the cause of the subsequent phenomena.”

Dr. John Elliotson

Dr. John Elliotson (1791-1868), an English surgeon, professor of medicine at the University College and an inventor (he invented the stethoscope), reported in 1834 numerous painless surgical operations that had been performed using Mesmerism. In 1842 John Elliotson, founded a hospital for the use of hypnosis in surgical operations. Despite his success in establishing that major operations could be undertaken under anesthesia induced by hypnotic suggestion, and despite a government commission attesting to this, the negative connotation in the medical world of the practice of Mesmerism resulted in Elliotson’s work being ignored and he had to face prejudice.

In 1843 Elliotson published a journal, The Zoist, in which he presented a number of amputations performed under hypnosis without pain

Charles Lafontaine

Charles Lafontaine (1803 – 1892) an early Swiss mesmerist that lived in Geneva published a journal Le magnétiseur. He was a failed actor but a successful (and wealthy) traveling mesmerist (or animal magnetiser as it was known then).

James Braid & The Early 19th Century

james-braid-wise-hypnotherapyIt is worth noting that any use of the term “hypnotism” before 1841 is speculative since James Braid was the first to use that term in 1841. Braid adopted the term hypnotism to emphasize the state of the subject, rather than the techniques applied by the operator. Braid’s technique was a subject-centered approach, unlike the operator-centered Mesmerism, Animal Magnetism or the induction of artificial somnabulism.

In November 1841, James Braid, a Scottish surgeon and physician, observed demonstrations given by the traveling French Mesmerist Charles Lafontaine. He became interested in Mesmerism and examined the subjects Mesmerized b Lafontaine. Braid concluded that these subjects where in a different physical state.

Upon reflection, Braid reached a conclusion that what he was observing was a natural psychophysiological mechanism. He followed by delivering a series of five public lectures in Manchester that commenced on 27 November 1841.

In 1843, Braid published a book, largely considered the first book ever written on ­hypnotism, titled Neurypnology.  Later, he was informed of reports concerning the practices of various Oriental meditation techniques. Braid’s interest in meditation developed more concretely after he was introduced to an ancient Persian text called Dabistan-i Mazahib which translates to the “School of Religions” that describes a wide variety of Oriental religious practices. He excitedly stated,

 “Last May [1843], a gentleman residing in Edinburgh, personally unknown to me, who had long resided in India, favoured me with a letter expressing his approbation of the views which I had published on the nature and causes of hypnotic and Mesmeric phenomena. In corroboration of my views, he referred to what he had previously witnessed in oriental regions, and recommended me to look into the “Dabistan,” a book lately published, for additional proof to the same effect. On much recommendation I immediately sent for a copy of the “Dabistan”, in which I found many statements corroborative of the fact, that the eastern saints are all self-hypnotisers, adopting means essentially the same as those which I had recommended for similar purposes.”

Braid published a series of articles entitled Magic, Mesmerism, Hypnotism, etc., Historically & Physiologically Considered. In these articles, he discussed the early history of hypnosis, or to be more accurate the historical precursors that lead to hypnosis as known in his time. He drew analogies between his own practice of hypnotism and various forms of Hindu yoga meditation and other ancient spiritual practices. Despite that, Braid disputed all religious interpretations given to such phenomena.

Braid used Oriental meditation as an example and proof that the effects of hypnotism could be produced in solitude, without the presence of an operator (or Magnetizer). As a result he saw meditation and yoga as the historical precursors to hypnosis. He clearly stated that point of view in his book The Power of the Mind over the Body when he said that “there is no need for an exoteric influence to produce the phenomena of Mesmerism.”

Braid further explained,

 “Inasmuch as patients can throw themselves into the nervous sleep, and manifest all the usual phenomena of Mesmerism, through their own unaided efforts, as I have so repeatedly proved by causing them to maintain a steady fixed gaze at any point, concentrating their whole mental energies on the idea of the object looked at; or that the same may arise by the patient looking at the point of his own finger, or as the Magi of Persia and Yogi of India have practised for the last 2,400 years, for religious purposes, throwing themselves into their ecstatic trances by each maintaining a steady fixed gaze at the tip of his own nose; it is obvious that there is no need for an exoteric influence to produce the phenomena of Mesmerism. […] The great object in all these processes is to induce a habit of abstraction or concentration of attention, in which the subject is entirely absorbed with one idea, or train of ideas, whilst he is unconscious of, or indifferently conscious to, every other object, purpose, or action.”

It is worth noting that Braid’s hypnotism was significantly different from Lafontaine’s mesmerism. Braid quite intensely opposed the views of the Mesmerists, especially the claim that the effects of Mesmerism came from an invisible force (Animal Magnetism). Braid also opposed all claim that Mesmerised subjects developed paranormal abilities such as ESP.

Braid’s skepticism of the force of Animal Magnetism and ESP stemmed from his adoption of the philosophical school of Scottish Common Sense Realism thus he explained the Mesmeric phenomena with common laws of psychology and physiology. For instance, Braid explained a trance caused by a Mesmerist to be a physiological process resulting from the prolonged fixation on a bright moving object, or any object of fixation for that matter. He speculated that prolonged fixation of ones sight (eyes) caused fatigue to certain parts of the brain causing a trance, this is what he called a “nervous sleep”.

As a result of Braid’s analysis of Mesmerism on the basis scientifically well-established laws of psychology and physiology Braid is considered by many as being the first true hypnotist and the first genuine “hypnotherapist” (in contrast to Mesmerists and other Magnetists that preceded him). Hence, Braid is considered the “Father of Modern Hypnotism.”

After Braid’s death in 1860, interest in hypnotism temporarily decreased and gradually moved out of Britain and into France, where research began to grow, reaching its peak around the 1880s with the work of Hippolyte Bernheim and Jean-Martin Charcot.