The History of Hypnosis

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

James Braid

James BraidJames Braid (1795-1860) is a major figure in the history of hypnotism, so much so that he is often regarded as the “Father of Hypnosis”. Indeed, it could be argued that hypnosis as we know it today didn’t exist before Braid. He removed hypnosis from the occult shadows of mesmerism, through his insights into the nature of trance and by coining the word “hypnosis” itself.

Braid was born in Kinross, Scotland, and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. His interest in mesmerism was awakened on the night of November 13th, 1841, when he saw a performance in Manchester by the mesmerist Charles Lafontaine. Lafontaine was a true theatrical artiste, a prototype Svengali with a piercing gaze and a long black beard, whose act involved the use of mesmerism to make his subjects impervious to pain. He dramatically demonstrated this by shocking them with a live battery, or by burning them with candles, apparently without ill effect.

Braid was a skeptic, and went along to have his prejudices confirmed, “fully inclined” as he put it, “to join in with those who considered the whole to be a system of collusion or delusion, or of excited imagination” (1) . However, something must have piqued his interest, since he returned to the theatre to watch another performance six days later, and witnessed something which he felt to be genuine – the inability of the mesmerised subjects to open their eyes.

Intrigued by this, Braid began to research eye-fixation, conducting experiments with friends, family, servants and even patients. An opportunity for experimentation famously presented itself when he arrived late for an appointment and discovered his patient staring in rapt fascination at the flickering flames of an oil lamp. Braid concluded that eye fixation or attention was the key to mesmerism – a demonstrable physical explanation, completely independent of “magnetism”, the “will of the mesmerist” or “universal fluid”.

Braid also dismissed the notion that trance was achieved through the lengthy ritual of hand gestures and passes current at the time. He was able to induce trance by having his subjects focus their attention on a variety of illuminated objects, such as candle flames or small mirrors, held at different distances from the face. This produced exhaustion in the eyelids, which would spontaneously close.

At first, Braid identified this phenomenon with sleep. Since he was keen to avoid any taint of mesmerism (a potentially career-threatening association in the intellectual climate of the time), he needed a new word to describe his discovery. His first suggestion was neurypnology,(“nervous sleep”), which was the title of his book on the subject. Continuing with the sleep theme, he subsequently favoured “neuro-hypnotism”, from Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, before dropping the prefix altogether. Of course, it was the shortened version which stuck.

An ironic coda to this is that Braid swiftly discovered that hypnosis had very little to do with sleep! As a result, he tried to popularize the term “monoideism”, meaning a fixation of attention. Although this more accurately describes the process of trance induction, it was too late. Hypnosis had already entered the language.

Braid’s reputation firmly rests upon his experiments and studies, which established hypnosis as a subject for scientific research and persuaded the medical establishment that it was a valid clinical technique. In that sense, he can be thought of as the first “hypnotherapist”.

Neurypnology contains descriptions of twenty-five cases. Braid used hypnotism to successfully treat a wide variety of conditions, such as that of a 45 year old man who had suffered four years of limited mobility in his upper body following a spinal injury. Braid used hypnosis to alleviate pain in the spinal cord and arms, and after two months of daily treatment, the man was able to return to work. Braid also worked with stroke victims, cases of paralysis and chronic rheumatoid conditions, as well as headaches, skin complaints and sensory impairment. It’s also a testament to his humility and professionalism that he included examples of cases where hypnosis didn’t work.

Braid identified many key features of the trance state itself, such as the greater sensory awareness that subjects display. He estimated, for instance, that hearing in the trance state is about twelve times more acute than in everyday consciousness, since the ticking of a watch that could not be heard more than three feet away was audible from thirty-five feet when the subject was in trance. This was an important finding, distinguishing hypnotic trance from ordinary sleep. He also observed that autonomic bodily processes, such as heart rate and blood circulation, can be controlled to a remarkable degree whilst in trance.

Inevitably, some of Braid’s notions are of their time, such as his belief that hypnosis should only be used by medical professionals. Nevertheless, these observations from the middle of the nineteenth century are the bedrock of modern hypnosis, and Braid is justly celebrated by such organisations as the James Braid Society, a UK social and discussion group for those who work with hypnosis. Beyond the word itself, Braid bequeathed an understanding of what hypnosis actually is – a psychological phenomena rooted in a physiological process. This understanding is behind all the developments and achievements in hypnosis throughout the twentieth century and beyond.

(1) James Braid Neurypnology, 1843