The History of Hypnosis

An overview of the decisive moments in the history of hypnosis!

Hypnosis in the 20th Century and Beyond

After the breakthroughs of the 19th century, when hypnosis was freed from its mesmerist trappings and accepted as a mainstream medical technique, its story for the first part of the 20th century can seem rather dull. Hypnosis became a closed-off, academic pursuit, dominated by arcane debates. Nevertheless, as the century progressed, major shifts occurred. One of the most important shifts was geographical, as American researchers and institutions rose to prominence over their European counterparts.

From the early years of the 20th until the 1950s, hypnosis was more or less confined to the laboratory and the classroom. Joseph Jastrow (1863-1944) ran a long-running course at the University of Wisconsin on the medical uses of hypnosis. Although he is often overshadowed by the success of his student, Clark Leonard Hull, Jastrow is an important figure in the rise of popular psychology. After his retirement from the academic circuit, he published many books and hosted radio shows on psychological topics (as well as designing optical illusions). His work helped to make genuine psychological and hypnotic concepts available to a lay audience. At that time, most people, if they’d thought about it at all, would have thought about hypnosis as the sort of mythical mind-control beloved of popular novelists and Hollywood moviemakers.

Clark Hull (1884-1952) took over Jastrow’s course, and in 1933 released a landmark text. Hypnosis and Suggestibility is the first major book to compile the results of laboratory experiments in hypnosis, and the first to apply the techniques and standards of modern experimental psychology. Previous researchers had tended to use their own patients as subjects, which could distort their findings. Charcot, for instance, worked exclusively with hysterical patients, and therefore came to the conclusion that hypnosis was a form of hysteria.

Hull also kickstarted the “state/non-state” debate, which dominated academic discussion of hypnosis for much of the 20th century, and to some extent, still does. Simply put, proponents of the “state” theory argue that hypnotic trance is a special state of consciousness, distinct from the everyday. “Non-state” theorists believe the opposite – that there is no “special” state of consciousness associated with trance, and that all hypnotic phenomena can be accounted for by “everyday” psychological mechanisms, such as suggestibility.

Hull was a scientist and an academic, and not a hypnotherapist by any definition of the word. His main priority was the scientific study of hypnosis in laboratory conditions, and he passionately opposed anything that interfered with that – “the dominant motive throughout the entire history of hypnotism has been clinical, that of curing human ills. A worse method for the establishment of scientific principles of highly elusive phenomena could hardly have been devised.” (1)

For many, of course, “curing human ills” is precisely what hypnosis is all about. From the 1960s onwards, this emphasis on the more practical and clinical applications of hypnosis has come to dominate, although this doesn’t exclude academic research, of course (and indeed, there has been such an explosion of research since the 1960s that it’s been referred to as a “golden age”).

An important figure in the development of practical hypnosis is Dave Elman (1900-1967), a vaudeville performer from North Dakota, often billed as “The World’s Youngest and Fastest Hypnotist”. Elman, who’d been fascinated by hypnosis since a very early age, adapted the rapid induction techniques used by stage hypnotists for therapeutic purposes, teaching them to doctors and physicians and eventually publishing a book, Hypnotherapy (1964), which is regarded as a classic in the field.

The Elman induction, which is based on eye closure (just as James Braid discovered a century before), achieves trance in minutes, sometimes seconds, freeing up the hypnotist to concentrate on therapeutic work. It also represents a move away from the more directive, “you are feeling sleepy” style of hypnosis, where subjects were basically told to go into trance by the authoritarian figure of the hypnotist.

This can be seen as part of a broader movement, as hypnosis moved beyond the classroom and the medical profession and became more democratic. The work of practitioners such as Joseph Jastrow in the US, and Émile Coué in Europe, saw hypnosis become part of the self-help movement. As a pharmacologist, Coué (1857-1926) observed that patients tended to respond better to medication when he emphasized its efficiency. From this he developed the concept of autosuggestion – the idea that unconscious responses can be consciously modified, through the imagination. He is best remembered for the phrase “every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”. Coué’s ideas influenced the rise in popularity of self-hypnosis.

In the latter half of the 20th Century, hypnosis expanded its horizons and moved into new territory. Our understanding of the trance state has been refined, so much so that the state/non-state debate, which preoccupied academic minds for generations, has come to seem rather outmoded. Advances in brain imaging technology, and the work of therapists like Stephen Wolinsky and psychologists like Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell, have shown, in effect, that both sides were right.

Brain imaging scans have shown that hypnotic suggestions do have an effect on perception. A study conducted at Stanford University showed that the colour processing areas of the brain were activated when subjects received a hypnotic suggestion that the black-and-white photo they were looking at was in colour (2). Griffin and Tyrrell explicitly linked hypnotic trance to the REM state, in their monograph Hypnosis and Trance States; A New Psychobiological Explanation (1999). At the same time, Wolinsky demonstrated that the so-called “Deep Trance Phenomena” can all be detected in everyday waking consciousness – in other words, “normal” consciousness is made up of layers of hypnotic trance that we move into and out of all day long. Hypnosis does produce a distinct state of mind – but it’s a perfectly ordinary and natural one that’s part of everyday consciousness (3).

The 20th Century, then, saw hypnosis move out of the clinic and into the laboratory – and back out again with a vengeance. It’s become a popular and accessible phenomenon, marked by the growth of hypnotherapy as a profession. Fast, practical, non-authoritarian hypnosis, very definitely aimed at “curing human ills”, is readily available in most towns and cities, at least in the West. The fact that this is so is largely down to one man – Milton H. Erickson.

Clark L. Hull, Hypnotism in Scientific Perspective, Scientific Monthly 29 No. 2 (1929)

2 Hypnotic Visual Illusion Alters Color Processing In The Brain, American Journal of Psychiatry, 157, 2000

3 S. Wolinsky Trances People Live 1991