What is hypnosis? Does hypnosis exist? How and why did the concept of
1.2. The cultural
origins of the concept of hypnosis
The creation of a distinct
concept of hypnosis owes its existence mostly to a charismatic 18th century
healer named Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815).
Mesmer had a deep interest
in Paracelsan astrological principles, and the supposed direct influence
of heavenly bodies on human health, by means of what were believed by
Mesmer and others to be measurable physical forces (as opposed to the
subtle forces of later occult doctrines interpreting Mesmerism).
Mesmer first applied magnets
to patient's bodies in elaborate theatrical rituals that often resulted
in expected spasmodic muscular contractions and collapse, and often the
cure of various kinds of illness. Mesmer favored the rationalist views
of his time, taking on terms like gravitation and magnetism
to originally describe his theories of his healing work, and how the subtle
fluids within the body could be influenced by him.
Mesmerism caught on widely,
attracting followers to many spiritualist, religious, and scientific variations
of mesmerism, as well as to 'mesmerism' as a dramatic form of entertainment
for its own sake ('stage hypnosis').
It was highly influential in
a number of popular movements, some of which are still very popular today.
The clearest transition between
Mesmer's animal magnetism and modern therapeutic hypnosis was represented
by Manchester surgeon James Braid, who coined the term hypnosis
(from previous use by French researchers) in 1843. The term refers to
Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, because most forms of mesmerism at that
time involved the production of an apparently sleep-like condition.
Braid, as many scientists and
physicians before and after him, recognized in hypnosis certain legitimate
psychological phenomena of interest, but requiring much more systematic
investigation to understand. Mesmer had come to believe that it was not
physical forces via magnets but he himself that was producing the cures
he produced. Others not long after Mesmer soon began to suspect that the
human imagination played a much larger role in the process than did any
physical forces or capacities of the mesmerist. This was important, because
mesmerism went through a number of periods of great disrepute due to associations
with occultism and various kinds of blatant charlatanism.
A split arose between those
interested in hypnosis as a subject of scientific investigation and as
an adjunct to medical treatment, and those who considered it a tool for
personal or spiritual fulfillment, or for esoteric investigations of religious
or 'magical' nature. Faith healing, mind cure, and Christian Science were
all heavily influenced by hypnosis, and derived much of their impetus
in the late 19th century from the reputation of Mesmer and later mesmerists.
Various followers of the highly influential Theosophical Society and of
the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn magical fraternity found great affinity
for the magnetic theories of mesmerism, which they often interpreted in
a semi-metaphorical way rather than as literal electromagnetism.
In the early scientific study,
Braid at first thought that hypnotic induction would yield a unique condition
of the nervous system that was linked somehow to certain cures by suggestion.
He later rejected this, and other physiological explanations of hypnosis,
and emphasized "mental" factors almost exclusively. The theory of neural
inhibition has never been completely rejected as applicable, however,
though often considered insufficient by itself. Ivan Pavlov later greatly
expanded on the neural inhibition theory in his concept of the physiology
of sleep (as a progressive cortical inhibition, which turns out to be
fairly accurate - in general if not in detail).
This neurological explanation
of hypnosis was strongly rejected by Charcot, who believed that the best
hypnotic subjects were 'hysterics,' and that hypnosis was therefore a
manifestation of what was then considered the mental illness of hysteria.
His belief turned out to be wrong, and his view of hysteria as a distinct
mental illness as well, and his psychopathological view was rejected by
the end of the 19th century. Two legacies of the neurological pathological
theories of Charcot and the so-called "Paris school" of hypnosis that
have endured are cortical inhibition theory and the later development
of dissociation theory, though neither one serves as a complete theory
of hypnosis on its own.
In the early 20th century,
the foundation for most hypnotic theory was laid by the members of the
so-called "Nancy school" of hypnosis (such as Liebault and Bernheim) who
elaborated a theory of hypnotic suggestion based onideomotor action.
This theory had eventually
replaced not only the early neuropathological view, but also Braid's early
psychological theory, "monoideism," the theory that unconflicted ideas
automatically lead to actions. Ideomotor action theory says that ideas
suggested by the hypnotist lead automatically to actions, which are then
experienced by the subject as unwilled. Ideomotor action is another example
of a useful but incomplete model of hypnotic responding. The Nancy school
was perhaps most notable in their deemphasis of hypnotic ritual and their
strong emphasis on suggestion as a mundane though useful psychological
Sigmund Freud had originally
studied under Charcot and had a deep interest in hypnosis for much of
his life. In 1889, he shifted from Charcot's view to that of the Nancy
school's emphasis on suggestion rather than hysteria, believing that patients
often remembered repressed memories in a beneficial process under hypnosis.
Freud was reportedly a very poor hypnotist, being limited to a simple
authoritarian style of induction, and in 1896, he rejected hypnotic induction
ritual as unnecessary and too likely to foster unwanted amorous advances
by patients ('transference,' and the theory of hypnosis as an eroticized
dependent relationship). Freud replaced the hypnotic procedure with simply
placing his hand on the subject's forehead to help establish what he believed
was the proper social relationship of doctor in dominance over patient.
What qualified acceptance of
hypnosis in medicine that we have today is largely due to the efforts
of pioneers in the experimental study of hypnosis, starting in the 1920's
and 30's. Foremost early researchers were Clark Hull and his then student,
Milton Erickson. Hull's 1933 discussion of scientific research into hypnosis
(Hypnosis and Suggestibility) is still considered a classic.
Erickson later came to disagree
with Hull on the important issue of fundamental approach, stressing the
complex subjective inner processes operating in hypnosis, rather than
the measurable correlates and standardized procedures promoted by Hull.
Hull went on to make important contributions in learning theory, while
Erickson went on to become the name most closely associated with clinical
Milton Erickson died in 1980,
but left a legacy of often zealous followers, a number of important contributions
to the field, and several offshoot schools of applied psychology based
on his core principles of indirect strategic therapy and suggestion, and
based on hypothetical unconscious processes and indirect forms of human
communication. Examples include Jay Haley's strategic model of therapy,
the MRI Interactional model, the Erickson-Rossi hypnotic theories, Neurolinguistic
Programming (NLP), and a number of later frameworks such as that of Lankton
(1983) and Gilligan (1987). The 'Ericksonian' models deliberately blur
the traditional distinction between hypnosis and other forms of therapy,
and share this basic idea with the 'skeptical' view of hypnosis, which
we will consider in the next section.
In addition to Erickson and
Hull, modern scientific research into hypnosis is often associated with
a period of intense experimental research in the late 1950's and early
1960's by notables such as J.P Sutcliffe, T.X. Barber, M.T.Orne, E.R.
Hilgard, R.E. Shor, and T.R. Sarbin. The work of these researchers had
been particularly influential on the current scientific view of hypnosis,
especially as viewed in medicine.