A Brief History of Hypnosis and What Really Happens in a Session
Winning the Golden Ticket
Back in November, I went to a mindfulness summit and there was a raffle at the end of the event. I was lazily listening when the host announced the next prize, a free hypnotism session. My ears perked up and I leaned over to Jim whispering, “Ooh, I want to win that!” As the host read off the ticket number, Jim turned to me grinning as he flipped his ticket over to me, “It’s yours!”
So with that, I scheduled my first ever hypnotherapy session. My playful expectation was of a therapist’s office stereotypically Freud-esque; or at least what I imagine it to be, replete with a chaise lounge chair and a swinging watch. And then I did the other thing I do, I researched the shit out of it, specifically its history and here is what I found (references at end).
What my imagination conjured as hypnosis was not too far off because Freud did “[rely] on hypnosis from 1887 to 1892” and wrote on the topic in his earlier works before abandoning the practice in favor of free association. But it sounds like he was pretty terrible at it. I may be conjecturing here but apparently in some cases, he would grab a patient’s head with his hand and command them, “Sleep!” (Hammond, 2013). That. Is. Hilarious.
At the time, folks were exploring and studying the conscious and unconscious layers of the mind. Prominent among them was Pierre Janet, who coined the term psychoanalysis, which Freud then popularized. Janet believed hypnosis could “create a dissociation between conscious and unconscious parts of the mind” (Hammond, 2013).
When I think of hypnotism, I imagine being lulled to another state of consciousness where one is conscious enough to speak and interact with the world, but unconscious such that the everyday filters and defenses are not there. So how did this pop concept that we all know as hypnotism develop?
The Early History
“Trance-like states” have a long history around the world as “rituals performed by shamans, healers, and priests”. From ancient Hindus to Egyptians, from “China, Africa, and pre-Columbian America” … “ancient American Indian healing rituals likewise contain hypnotic-like elements” (Hammond, 2013).
The roots of early Western hypnotism started somewhere in the 1500’s with an alchemist and successful physician born in Switzerland, named Paracelsus (Hammond, 2013). His work in the occult, astrology, and medicine included early concepts of something called “animal magnetism”, which he referred to as the “astral body — a metaphysical body and integral part of a person’s spirit” (Hammond, 2013; Chips, 2004). The health of this substance, for lack of a better word, was the root of illness but could be manipulated by and subsequently healed with magnets. (Chips, 2004).
This idea of animal magnetism was advanced in the 17th century by Scottish physician, William Maxwell (Hammond, 2013). He theorized that there existed “a universal spirit which could cause diseases when it was insufficient”, an invisible force of life that humans, animals, and plants all have. He also posited that “imagination and suggestion influenced a person’s ability to heal”, which sounds remarkably modern, i.e. placebo effect (Chips, 2004). Despite his contribution in the history of hypnosis, his Wikipedia page is extremely sparse and I was unable to find a picture of him on trusty Google.
The Middling History
It wasn’t until the 18th century when the treatment of mental illness left the domain of the “clergy to … physicians and other healers … [giving] rise to … the birth of dynamic psychiatry” (Kluft, 2018).
Around this time, magnetism was picked up by and popularized by the German doctor, Franz Mesmer (Hammond, 2013). He believed that “universal fluid … emanated from the stars and the planets … [and] the magnetic flow of the fluid … should be adjusted with magnetism” (Chips, 2004). So with magnets, Mesmer would pass over parts of the body that were diseased and actually had wildly successful results (Chips, 2004).
Subsequently he gained a large following; by some accounts, three thousand people were coming to him for treatment daily (Chips, 2004). In fact, the word “mesmerize” is etymologically linked to this guy. His techniques “seem to have been one of the first nonverbal hypnotic induction techniques” (Hammond, 2013). (According to Wikipedia, induction technique is what the hypnotist does to bring the patient into a hypnotic state.)
Unfortunately for Mesmer, he was a controversial figure. Even though his methods worked,some saw him as a theatrical, dramatic showman (think: snake oil salesman) and all of this attention also caught that of the French government’s (Hammond, 2013). They dispatched a commission that included Benjamin Franklin (as American diplomat to France) to investigate Mesmer and his supposed healing (Hammond, 2013).
The commission declared that the results were due to imagination and suggestion, and not magnetism (Hammond, 2013). Interestingly, that does not preclude its efficacy, but just that the results were not due to magnetism. The report still acknowledged the “concept of mind-body interaction” and “the therapeutic power of interpersonal influence and persuasion” (Hammond, 2013; Kluft, 2018). However, this discredited Mesmer and his theory so he moved to Switzerland and died in relative obscurity (Hammond, 2013).
Magnetism did not die with Mesmer however, but instead continued to develop into early hypnotism. This is about the time it developed into modern ideas of hypnosis.
Several practitioners of magnetism noted observations that resemble modern theories like French naturalist, J.P.F. Deleuze, who described “dissociation, visual and gustatory hallucinations, response to posthypnotic suggestions” and other characteristics of modern hypnotism (Hammond, 2013).
Portugese priest, Jose Custodio di Faria, “selected his subjects based on their ability to fall asleep easily”, a process which was recently verified and validated in its effectiveness (Hammond, 2013). He is also lauded for his recognition of the powerful placebo effect (Hammond, 2013).
Practitioners were beginning to relate to the practice more like “lucid sleep” rather than magnetism, and imagination, “relaxation, concentration, and the use of suggestion” as the mechanism rather than lodestones and magnets (Hammond, 2013).
By the 19th century, “mesmerism”, as hypnosis was called back then, was used as surgical anesthesia (Hammond, 2013). What! That’s right, literal breasts were amputated, teeth extracted, knees surgically worked on, all under the placating effects of hypnotism (Hammond, 2013). There was also work done with a cancer patient who showed successful resolution of a cancerous tumor, the first of its kind (Hammond, 2013).
Around this time is when we meet James Braid, perhaps the father of modern hypnotism. He gave the practice its new modern name, “hypnosis” from the Greek word hypnos (Hammond, 2013). He was “a major contribution in the progression of hypnosis away from the use of mesmeric passes and magnetic fluid theory, and toward an emphasis on relaxation, [and] the use of induction techniques resembling modern methods” (Hammond, 2013).
Interestingly, while hypnotism was being used in medical practices, it also featured prominently within the occult community. The culture at this time was “[interested] in dissociation and hypnosis, along with spiritualism and psychic phenomena (Kluft, 2018). It was the talk of the town among the elite and lay people. However, its presence within the occult may have inhibited its wider integration as a legitimate clinical practice (Hammond, 2013). Even in the early development of modern hypnosis, “mesmeric hospitals” sprouted up “in response to medical opposition” just so clinicians could practice (Hammond, 2013).
In spite of its controversy clinicians continued to explore the field and in the late 19th century, psychotherapist, Pierre Janet, “introduced a new theory concerning the nature of hypnosis, suggesting that it is possible to create dissociation between conscious and unconscious parts of the mind” (Hammond, 2013). Freud picked up on his work and was greatly influenced by Janet, developing many of his methods off of Janet’s work, but later abandoned hypnosis, possibly due to his ineffectiveness as a hypnotherapist (Hammond, 2013).
This is the point where psychotherapy and hypnosis became feuding models with the former rising in prominence and the latter declining (Kluft, 2018). I find this so interesting because in my non-professional opinion, they seem the perfect complements in a clinical practice. I don’t see one having any less legitimacy than the other. In fact, the power of placebo is known for its effectiveness so why not hypnosis, which is essentially the power of suggestion and imagination?
What is the basis for what we think we know and is it devoid of bias? If not, what is the bias?
Science is built on history and “while learning their profession, [scientists] often do not step back and critically examine the origins and assumptions of science” (Osowiec, 2014).
Modern science is built on a history of “Masculine Philosophy”, developed at a time when “such functions as intuitive knowing, the heart connection, feeling, imagination, receptivity, subjectivity, and relatedness were excluded from the evolving definition of science and “legitimate” ways of knowing” (Osowiec, 2014).
This has led to an extremely objective “view of science … characterized by reason, thinking, and abstraction — the intellect” that has continued to hold nearly religious-level regard in today’s world (Osowiec, 2014). It was the famous French philosopher, Descartes, who first disconnected the intellect from the body as the superior mechanism in the 17th century, a dualistic belief system that is being reconsidered in Western culture only 400 years later (Osowiec, 2014).
The challenge for hypnosis in seeking “legitimacy and esteem” is that it is trying to fit into the prevailing empirical model of science that is “hard facts” based (Osowiec, 2014). While there is “an impressive body of empirical data” on the field of hypnosis, there exists a schism when professionals and clinicians have discussions from opposing systems — one being empirical and the other more holistic (Osowiec, 2014). There seems to be a lack of “respect for other perspectives” within mainstream healthcare (Kluft, 2018).
Richard Kluft is a prominent psychiatrist who re-wrote the book, literally, on Dissociative Disorders in the DSM, the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that psychiatry uses for diagnosis. He studied both fields of hypnosis and psychotherapy for almost 5 decades and was witness to the enduring schism between the two(Kluft, 2018). Needless to say, he is an expert in both domains.
In his paper, “Reconsidering Hypnosis and Psychoanalysis: Toward Creating a Context for Understanding”, he makes a call for “[healing] the longstanding rifts between hypnosis and psychoanalysis” with “open-mindedness and incessant learning above the security and sense of rightness that often accompanies staunch allegiance to a particular model or paradigm” (Kluft, 2018). Hell yeah!
Strengthening a Weak Ego
When I called the hypnotherapist to make my appointment I hadn’t done all this research. So with my limited understanding and guns blazing, I asked if we could work on a deep childhood trauma of mine. She seemed uncomfortable and so I felt awkward, wondered if I was too much, and quickly give her an out, saying I’m open to suggestions. Her proposal was we build up the ego with some self-esteem work. Initially, I didn’t take to the suggestion, but perhaps this was just as important so I decided to trust her input as the expert.
What gave me pause at the idea of strengthening the ego was that I am actively trying to dissolve the ego with purposeful work in self development. So what is the relationship between strengthening the ego and personal development? Does ego mean something different here? Or is it because one needs to have an ego in order to dissolve it? I forgot to ask the therapist this question so I am still unclear on the answer.
However, after doing some reading on the subject I found that a “weak ego” equates to low self esteem. If I am unable to block out the negative influence of others on my sense of self that could indicate a weak ego, one that might need strengthening. This makes sense to me because I do observe that lack of boundary between others and myself through people-pleasing behavior, self-consciousness, and an externally-derived sense of self-value.
Meeting the Therapist
When I drove to the location, I noticed I was right by the Atlantic Ocean. Having arrived early, I took a detour to the rocky shore. There was a little path made through some brambles that led me from the residential suburban neighborhood to the rocky shore of the Atlantic. The air was ice cold, the sunlight serene, and the scene peaceful. I felt like the only person looking out across that particular piece of ocean.
Breathing deep, I lay down on a big boulder, felt its mineral chill and embraced it. I took some photos and thought about peeing in the brambles, but didn’t because of a few beach houses that stood adjacent to the beach. Then, I drove to the hypnotherapist’s house.
Arriving at her doorstep, one minute before our appointment, I felt satisfied. I love when I am punctual. Waiting at the door as I approached up the steps, was the therapist holding back her cute Labradoodle who jumped for joy and yipped behind the screen door. She welcomed me into what was presumably her home and led me upstairs to another room that was warmly lit. I filled out some paperwork while we chatted about hypnosis and what brought me there.
Paperwork included a client agreement, a disclaimer about hypnotherapy, and a couple of worksheets to guide our session. One worksheet asked approximately 10 Yes/No questions that was a gauge for my ability to be hypnotized. Questions like: Am I generally a trusting person? Do I meditate? Have I ever sleep talked or walked? Can I easily connect with my emotions? Apparently I am 70% hypnotizable.
The other worksheet asked about my goals for the practice, which were so stimulating to the work I’m currently doing I took a picture, which is posted below.
The Power of Suggestion and Imagination
While I filled these out, she took the opportunity to explain what hypnosis was and was not, a mini PSA against the stereotypes of hypnosis. I wouldn’t do anything while hypnotized that I wouldn’t do in conscious state. I wouldn’t lose control of myself, spill my darkest secrets, or something equally alarming. What hypnosis will do is bring me into a state of profound relaxation and calm. This was repeated a few times throughout our session — that hypnosis will bring me to a state of relaxation and calm. Got it.
Next was the Chevreul’s Pendulum Test, an exercise that “tested” my ability to be hypnotized. Basically the test had a paper placed face up on a table at waist level with the below diagram on it (see Figure 1). In my dominant hand, dangled a pendulum so that it hovered about 2–3 inches above the intersection of lines A-C and B-D. Then, I said three times, “B to D”. Curiously the pendulum swayed back and forth in the directionality of point B to D. Then I said, “Stop”. The pendulum came to a slow stop back over the intersection point. Then I did the same for the other line, A to C. Then I said, “In a circle”, three times and watched as the pendulum followed my command, swinging in a small circle until I said, “Stop”, and it stopped over the intersecting point.
This is hypnotism at work, the power of suggestion. She tells me it’s a reflection of mind-body connection and micro movements of the fingertips from neural connection.
The other exercise we did worked with the power of imagination. I stood in front of her with my feet apart for stability. Both arms were raised in front of me, the right hand in a thumbs up formation and the left hand with palm up and open. My eyes are closed and she tells me she is placing a heavy, heavy book in my hand. So heavy. And to my right thumb, a balloon is tied. It is so light and lifting my arm up, up, and UP. In this manner using descriptive language, she continued to create the experience of heaviness in my left hand and ultra-lightness in my right.
When I opened my eyes, my left hand was about 7 inches lower than my right. I was very conscious that that was the purpose of the exercise so there was definitely resistance from my end. I feigned a little awe like “Wow, that’s pretty cool”, because I do that kind of thing (against my better judgement) and then we got started with the hypnosis.
In the corner of the room opposite from where I sat upon arrival, was a giant recliner I was invited to sit in. Popping the recliner back, she placed a warm blanket over me with the instruction to leave my right hand on top of it so we could communicate if necessary. The agreed upon communication was that lifting my pointer finger would indicate “Yes”.
With another iteration that this would bring me into a state of relaxation and calm, a CD of soothing meditation music began to play and off we went. She started off with a few breathing exercises that progressively brought me “deeper and deeper”. I was not sure where we were going deeper into, but that’s where I was told to go. After some time, I was very relaxed and immersed in her voice when she counted down from 10, stating that with each number, I will be going “deeper and deeper”. Were we going deeper into the subconscious? Anyway, feeling a bit unsure but also calm-ish, I continued to roll with it.
It felt exactly like guided meditation. I let go of everything else except her voice and followed the instructions. There is no obvious difference between the process for guided meditation and hypnosis. Instead, the difference is in where you’re brought to and for what purpose.
A Divine Energy Bath
Next, she had me imagine a divine light coming from my head in any color I choose — I chose a pinkish/purple light. It bathed me in its peace, streamed down my face and the back of my head, underneath the skin, massaging beneath the scalp, down my neck and to my shoulders. She led me on an immersive experience through each body part until the divine light was bathing me in its healing, instilling a peace and calm.
When I breathed in, this divine light that melded with all the peaceful energy in the outside world was entering my body. And on my out breath, bad energy and anything that no longer served me was leaving.
My body felt like it had entered another zone. It was heavier, but not denser, like there was another layer surrounding it. Like something had created a crusty layer so if I were to move my arms, the layer would crack and crumble.
At this point, even though I started off with strong focus, I was beginning to lose concentration. I began getting anxious about my exposed face and wondered if the therapist was watching me. I wondered how I looked and whether I look relaxed. Probably not. My facial muscles were twitching. Oh god. My mouth was full of saliva. I swallowed obviously. I realized I was anxious about being anxious and reminded myself what I was there for, to experience this fully. Immerse yourself, I chided silently, and brought myself back to the present in an effort to relax. I was getting so restless in hypnosis! What was wrong with me? Shaking it off, I tried to re-focus.
My Inner Oasis
Immersed in this light, I began walking down a staircase that would bring me deeper and deeper. This seemed to be the ongoing objective — going deeper and deeper. It was annoying me that the phrase felt inconclusive. Deeper into what!!? I wanted to shout-ask. But at least this time I was descending deeper and deeper down this imagined spiral staircase. My hands slid with the banister, a smooth and polished wood, that was seemingly never-ending and just continued to wind infinitely like an M.C. Escher print. When I looked down at myself, I had on a beautiful white dress suitable for a character in a fantasy novel. I was in a surreal world.
Finally, we reached the bottom of the staircase and stepped into the most beautiful garden imaginable, a veritable oasis. It was lush, open, sparkling, full of life, and carried everything I could possibly want or need. The entire landscape was green and colorful; flowers were blooming, fruits dangled off branches heavy with juice, tall healthy trees loomed over me with their dense leaves and thickets, and water flowed here, there, and far off in the distance, gushing and twinkling as rivers and streams. All around me was the sound of birds, animals, and life in full activity. This was my Garden of Eden.
And here in this garden oasis, was my spirit guide. My created world flickered for a moment as it vacillated through a few renditions of my spirit guide like an indecisive TV viewer flipping through channels. But within seconds, it settled on the truthful one and suddenly, there next to me was my spirit guide.
Maybe my creating mind was unsure because this thing was not a “real” being. It had on what looked like a habit that a monk would wear that was a drab, brown color and made out of coarse cloth. And although it was not a human or any recognizable animal I knew, it was definitely a She. With no neck and just one large head + neck, she kind of looked like Patrick from Spongebob except the top of her head was round, not pointed and she wasn’t pink but the color of my skin. She was short, maybe only 3 feet tall, and had cute, chunky arms that I was able to glimpse just beyond the large sleeves of her robes. I felt like I was in Lord of the Rings.
My spirit guide exuded warmth and wisdom as she stared off into the horizon of the setting sun with a smile playing at her lips. Saturated in complete satisfaction, comfort, and confidence, she patiently waited while I studied her with curiosity. It felt good to be with her, like a good friend and teacher.
It was suggested that I ask my spirit guide a question if I would like so I asked her how I can move through this struggle I’ve had in connecting with the world. How could I get over the social anxiety and fears that keep me feeling trapped? There was no verbal answer from her. Instead, I felt this radiant feeling of warm Love; like a sweet perfumed hug it enveloped me gently and firmly.
At a nearby beach, there were healing waters. Large, ancient crystals of healing were embedded in the ocean floor and their powers emitted into everything that surrounded them. As soon as the therapist painted the picture, I took off running to the waters and diving into the ocean. While immersed in the healing waters, I heard her say to approach the waters and slowly walk in if I pleased. Too Late!
A school of dolphins came to play with me in the healing, sparkling waters. They’re giggling and their eyes laughed with me. This world of play and healing brought me so much joy that I began to cry. I felt a deep relaxation I’ve rarely felt in my adult life — Where everything is as it should be, and there’s no need for anything but to laugh and be happy. No worries, just me, free and naked in the ocean with life.
Then an instruction floated to my ears and I was brought back from playing. The disembodied voice told me to place my right hand somewhere on my body. I placed it over my heart and listened as the voice commanded me to hold this space with me. And if ever I need healing, I can come back here anytime, just by placing my right hand over my heart like so.
Breathing deeply, I followed the instructions that bring me back to waking life from a count of 1 to 10. I opened my eyes. It felt stark. I recounted a bit of my experience to my therapist but other than that, there was little processing and discussion. I am given a homework assignment that is the first step in self-hypnosis technique. Self-hypnosis is not what it sounds like. I imagined it to be a method by which I hypnotize myself, but instead it is a way to re-program any limiting belief systems one might have.
My homework is to repeat a “mantra” 10 times before I fall asleep for the next 7 days. “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”
As I go about the rest of my day, I feel calmer and more rested. After the session, I went to a cafe to download the experience lest I forget any details. Usually public spaces make me anxious by default, but in this case I felt acceptance and just embraced my anxiety
Post-hypnosis session, I felt calm, rested, and like I was seeing with new eyes, a different perspective on the world. I felt anxious, which is par the course for me, and yet I felt okay with my anxiety. Like there wasn’t anything wrong with me, it’s just what is right now.
The hypnosis was in total probably about an hour long. It’s always hard to tell with guided meditations. The time flies by when I’m in complete absorption with a story, a journey, an adventure
As for my thoughts, it was just one session so this is by no means a valid review of hypnotherapy. I am just grateful for the opportunity and happy to have had the experience. It was a deep guided meditation that brought me someplace. The emotions I felt were real, I cried real tears, I felt true joy, and the warmth of the embrace of Love from my spirit guide was palpable. Perhaps the places I went to and the beings I encountered there were also as real as any of these feelings. I can only surmise then that true healing took place as well. It seemed a valuable experience for people with traumatic background. The power of suggestion and imagination.
It is now three days post-session and I have continued my practice of repeating the mantra while falling asleep. The effects have been subtle but present. The traditional Annette Kim approach when experiencing “fuck-ups” is to first beat myself up over it. Nowadays, my self-talk has changed such that I no longer relate to myself in such a negative way. Instead, because I believe in my incremental, continuous, and persistent progress, I can feel myself healing and am much kinder to myself. I am confident in making strides towards improvement in my personal development.
- Chips, A.S. (2004). Clinical Hypnotherapy: a Transpersonal Approach (2nd ed.). New Delhi, India: Sterling Publishers (P) Ltd.
- Hammond, D. C. (2013). A Review of the History of Hypnosis Through the Late 19th Century, American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 56:2, 174–191, DOI: 10.1080/00029157.2013.826172
- Kluft, R. P. (2018). Reconsidering Hypnosis and Psychoanalysis: Toward Creating a Context for Understanding, American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 60:3, 201–215, DOI: 10.1080/00029157.2018.1400810
- Osowiec, D. A. (2014) Philosophy of Science and the Emerging Paradigm: Implications for Hypnosis, American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 56:3, 216–233, DOI: 10.1080/00029157.2013.858613