The Weird History of Hypnosis Through the Ages

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The Weird History Of Hypnosis Through The Ages

The world can be a very odd place. Diving into the history of hypnosis is a wild ride that's as strange as it is fascinating. From tree magnetizers to testicular surgeons, this saga has it all. It all began in the 1700s.

In that time, lots of hypnotists (some very weird) have come and gone, and techniques have improved immensely, changing hypnosis from a mystical art into the genuine science that it is today.

Let’s begin, shall we?

Mesmerism: Where it all began

Enter Franz Anton Mesmer, the rockstar of early hypnotism, though he probably wouldn't know anything about modern-day hypnosis. Mesmer had people convinced that magnetic currents (yep, you read that right) could cure all illnesses.

Picture this: patients jammed around a vessel of about a foot and a half high which was called a "baquet", holding onto metal rods to receive the so-called animal magnetism. A mysterious force contained in all living beings that could be manipulated to cure diseases.

Then Mesmer comes into the room. Imagine a dude in a robe and turban, waving a magic wand, while glass harmonica tunes set the vibe. As soon as he touched them with his wand, people would twitch, spasm, convulse, and sometimes… get better.

Some people would actually get well after Mesmer’s treatment, even though there was no evidence that these alleged magnetic currents actually existed. Mesmer would even magnetize trees, and the people who would come and touch the tree showed the same reactions as the people who received the treatment around the baquet. Except, the same thing happened even when they unknowingly touched the wrong tree.

It’s very likely, if not certain, that the belief and expectation of Mesmer’s patients is what caused them to get better. He was great at setting the right expectations, and his patients believed they were getting cured, and the cure happened because of it.

At a time when doctors killed more people than they healed, Mesmer’s method was practically a scientific breakthrough. It wasn’t genuine, of course, but it couldn’t kill anyone, unlike bloodletting and other ludicrous techniques that were used at the time. Despite this, Mesmer's legacy was not exactly scientific. He was discredited and died in obscurity. But his work paved the way for the development of a much more effective method.

The Oddballs and Innovators

James Esdaile

James Esdaile, British army surgeon, brought Mesmerism to Calcutta, India, where he performed over 300 pain-free surgeries using animal magnetism.

The now-called “Esdaile state” took hours to achieve, but the results were astonishing. He was able to cut out ingrown toenails by the roots and remove 80-pound testicular tumors (as weird as that sounds) with no pain and very little bleeding, and greatly reduce the mortality rate from surgery due to shock and infection. This was primitive hypnotism, proving pain could be removed with the power of suggestion.

A century later, Dave Elman would re-discover the Esdaile state, as well as a shortcut that can get people in this state in a matter of minutes. Click here to learn the Dave Elman induction.

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John Elliottson

In the bustling heart of early to mid-1880s London, Elliottson, a renowned medical doctor, found himself captivated by the enigmatic allure of mesmerism. His fascination wasn't just a passing whim; it bordered on obsession, driving him to conduct a series of bizarre experiments.

Elliottson's experiments were flamboyant, theatrical, and, by all accounts, utterly mesmerizing. He believed that mesmerism held the key to unlocking mysteries of the human body and mind that traditional medicine had yet to even contemplate. But it was his encounter with the Okey sisters that truly tipped the scales from scientific inquiry into outright spectacle.

The Okey sisters, two young women who claimed to possess psychic powers, became central figures in Elliottson's experiments. They performed feats that left spectators spellbound, suggesting a supernatural explanation. Elliottson, with his reputation on the line, championed their abilities as proof of mesmerism's legitimacy. He wanted to believe, perhaps too desperately, that their performances were genuine.

However, the sisters' eventual admission of deceit turned the tables dramatically. The revelation that their "psychic powers'' were nothing more than clever tricks left Elliottson's credibility in ruins. Elliottson's stubborn belief in the sisters' authenticity, even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, made him a pariah among his peers.

Elliotson’s story is a cautionary tale about the dangers of letting belief override evidence, a lesson that resonates just as strongly today.

James Braid

James Braid, born in Manchester, England, marked a pivotal shift from mysticism to a more scientific understanding of hypnotic states.

Braid discovered hypnosis watching a demonstration performed by the mesmerist Lafontaine. Unlike many of his predecessors, Braid approached the phenomenon of mesmerism with a healthy dose of skepticism and a keen scientific mind. As an ophthalmologist, Braid was very good at calibrating the external trance indicators (ETIs) around the eyes. He believed that it was eye fixation, not magnetic currents, that caused trance.

He conducted experiments involving eye-fixation, asking subjects to stare at a small object like a candle or a lantern. To his amazement, he found that many subjects entered a trance state, which he initially believed was due to the strain on the eyes. However, Braid soon understood that it was not the eye strain itself, but the intense concentration and the narrowing of focus that led to this altered state.

Perhaps Braid's most enduring legacy was the idea that a single dominating thought could lead to a hypnotic trance, which he called “monoideism”. Thankfully, the term itself never caught on (it's a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?), but the underlying principle remains a cornerstone of hypnotic theory.

Despite James Braid's significant contributions to the field, he's often wrongfully credited with coining the term "hypnotism". In reality, Etienne Felix D’Henin de Cuvillers, a French aristocrat and scholar, had already introduced the term in French more than two decades before Braid began his work.

Furthermore, inducing trance through eye fixation wasn't an innovation of Braid's either. This method traces back to the work of Abbé Faria, a Portuguese priest, who in 1815 demonstrated in Paris that hypnosis could be induced through concentration and suggestion. Faria is a major character in the historical fiction adventure novel The Count of Monte Cristo.

Freud and Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud, a name synonymous with psychoanalysis, had an unexpectedly rocky relationship with hypnosis, illustrating how even the giants of psychology can stumble on their journey. Freud's foray into hypnotism was not just a footnote in his illustrious career; it was a pivotal chapter that ultimately led him down the path to developing psychoanalysis. But it wasn't a smooth ride.

In the late 19th century, Freud initially saw hypnosis as a valuable tool for treating hysteria and other psychological disorders. However, Freud's own experiences with hypnosis were fraught with difficulties. Unlike his colleague, Josef Breuer, who exhibited a knack for the technique, Freud struggled to hypnotize his patients effectively. His attempts were often clumsy, and his frustration with his lack of success led him to seek alternative methods.

Breuer was instrumental in shaping Freud's early thoughts on the unconscious mind.  His work demonstrated the therapeutic potential uncovering and addressing the root causes of mental distress, a concept that would become a cornerstone of psychoanalysis.

Freud's exploration of hypnotism coincided with his controversial experiments with cocaine as a therapeutic agent. While he championed its benefits, including its use as an analgesic, his enthusiasm overlooked the drug's addictive potential and adverse effects. This misjudgment, along with the infamous incident of his dentures falling out during sessions, painted a picture of Freud as a figure struggling to find his footing.

With psychoanalysis, Freud effectively turned the mind into an endless maze, ensuring patients would keep coming back, session after session, year after year. It's almost as if he discovered the mental equivalent of a subscription model before Netflix made it cool. So, hats off to Freud, who, in his quest to cure us of our neuroses, ensured that the only thing more infinite than our unconscious minds was our therapy bills.

Milton H. Erickson - The Greatest Hypnotist of All Time

Milton H. Erickson, in our opinion, the greatest hypnotist of all time, revolutionized the way we understand and use hypnosis. His story is not just a testament to the power of the human mind but also a vivid illustration of overcoming personal adversity. Erickson's journey through paralysis caused by polio shaped his understanding of the unconscious mind and the therapeutic potential of hypnosis. His unique perspective, honed through personal struggle and professional exploration, led to the development of a range of techniques that profoundly altered the landscape of hypnotherapy.

A Master of Communication

Erickson's approach to hypnosis was radically different from the authoritarian, directive methods that dominated the field at his time. He viewed each patient as a unique individual, requiring a tailored approach that aligned with their unconscious landscape. Erickson believed in the power of indirect suggestion—using stories, metaphors, and seemingly casual conversation to facilitate change. This method, now known as Ericksonian hypnosis, allowed patients to explore their own solutions within the therapeutic context, often without being aware that they were being guided to change.

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The Power of the Unconscious

Erickson's work underscored the profound influence of the unconscious mind in driving behavior and facilitating healing. He was a master at utilizing a person's own internal resources and strengths to foster change, whether it was overcoming phobias, breaking habits, or resolving deep-seated psychological issues. His techniques were groundbreaking, demonstrating that the therapist's role is not necessarily to direct change, but also to create a context in which change can occur naturally and spontaneously.

Erickson’s work showed that hypnosis could be seamlessly integrated into a therapeutic conversation, making the process more natural and less intimidating for patients. His handshake induction, a technique where Erickson would initiate a trance with a simple handshake, became legendary, showcasing his skill in inducing hypnotic states gently and elegantly.

His strategies have permeated various therapeutic models, especially in the field of neurolinguistic programming (NLP). His emphasis on the strategic use of language, the power of storytelling, and the utilization of an individual's existing internal resources have enriched therapeutic practices and provided a foundation for numerous modern therapeutic techniques.

Erickson's era marked a profound shift in the understanding and application of hypnosis, from a mysterious and often misunderstood art to a powerful tool for personal transformation and healing. The Mike Mandel Hypnosis Academy, among other schools, carries on Erickson's tradition, teaching his methods to new audiences and ensuring that his innovative approaches to change and healing remain alive and accessible.

The Hypnotic Legacy Continues

We've ventured through a landscape dotted with eccentric minds and improbable discoveries. Franz Anton Mesmer's magnetic antics to Milton H. Erickson's conversational genius, the history of hypnosis is both strange and enlightening. But what does this wild ride tell us? That innovation often comes wrapped in the cloak of the unconventional, and breakthroughs frequently emerge from the most unexpected places.

And then there's us, the hypnotists of today, standing on the shoulders of these giants. We're part of a lineage that values the power of suggestion and the depth of the unconscious mind. As we look back on the strange and storied past of our field, we do so with a touch of amusement. For in the end, it's the oddities and outliers who often pave the way for progress.

The history of hypnosis teaches us to seek extraordinary in the ordinary, and always keep our sense of humor about us. And if you're curious to explore the modern applications of this fascinating field, the Mike Mandel Hypnosis Academy (MMHA) awaits. 

Join us at MMHA, where we equip you with the tools to make a real difference, armed with the knowledge of the past and the innovations of the present. Explore our video courses, live classes, and resources designed to empower you, whether you're beginning your journey or looking to deepen your expertise.

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"I absolutely love the online course. It completely changed my life and consulting career. The information is the best I've ever seen. You guys are incredible at what you do. I love the course so much."

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