Historical Roots of Hypnosis

Note: This entry is adapted from an article I published at PsychCentral in 2014.  I have reprinted it here to give readers a basic reference for the hypnotic altered state.  I will deal with other altered states in upcoming posts, specifically transpersonal hypnosis.

Brain Glacier

*Historical Roots of Hypnosis

The phenomenon we commonly term hypnosis refers to the half-century old animal magnetism and mesmerism. Scholars later adopted an altered state view and described ancient healing rituals in Western and eastern civilizations as forerunners of modern hypnosis. To understand hypnosis it is essential to note its relationship with demonic possession and hysteria.

Hypnosis began in ancient Egypt where it was viewed as the result of the movement of the uterus to the affected part of the body. Hysteria, by virtue, was viewed as a disorder specific to women. The ancient Greeks learned of the disorder from the Egyptians and named it hysteron. The lay meaning denoted overly emotional and frenzied behavior. During the Middle Ages the hysterical patient was treated with prayer rather than the Greek and Egyptian treatment of uterine fumigation.

The Renaissance ushered in the more colorful rationale of demon possession as the cause of hysteria. The medieval notion of using prayer as treatment likely contributed to the deeper affect of demonic cause. The 18th century Enlightenment discarded the supernatural explanations of the past and replaced them with Franz Anton Mesmer’s theory of animal magnetism. Mesmer believed an invisible magnetic fluid permeated the universe and was the cause of imbalances. Such logic led to the use of magnets as the method of treatment for disorders such as hysteria, among others. Mesmer’s theatrical performances during healing sessions yielded the term ‘mesmerism’ still in use today.

The professional resurrection of hypnosis is attributed to James Braid, a 19th century Scottish physician. Braid rejected Mesmer’s fluid theory and suggested that behaviors of ‘magnetized’ individuals were a result of neural inhibition flowing backward from the eyes to the brain, producing a sleeplike condition. Braid termed this phenomenon neurohypnosis, later shortened to hypnosis. As Braid learned more about hypnosis he realized the associated behaviors were largely dependent upon, and influenced by, ideas and expectations transferred from the hypnotist. Braid augmented his earlier theory of hypnosis and developed monoideism. Monoideism proclaimed “vivid ideas or images that remain uncontradicted in the mind of a subject lead automatically to the corresponding action” (Baruss, 2003, p. 13). Therefore, if a participant visualizes his arm moving in the air, and that image is not contradicted by conflicting imagery, then the arm will raise. The trigger here is the suggestion by the practitioner upon the participant.

Braid’s ideas about hypnosis influenced the French neurologist Jean Martin Charcot, with the exception of monoideism. Charcot believed because both hypnotizability and hysteria evidence neurological weakness; therefore, only patients with hysteria could be hypnotized. Sigmund Freud’s theory of dynamic unconscious as the source of psychopathology was largely inspired by Charcot’s work. Freud’s analytical and experimental study provided little support for “the idea that streams of awareness could operate independently with little or no interference” (Kirsch & Lynn, 1995, p.848). Freud did study with Charcot and much of his early therapeutic work focused on the use of hypnotic procedures. Freud later rejected hypnosis and the practice was temporarily banished from the popular cannon of therapeutic intervention.

Marquis de Puysegur, a pupil of Mesmer’s, discovered what would later become the hypnotic trance. Puysegur’s dislike for the even remotely macabre resulted in his failure to inform patients of the likely ‘crisis’ characteristic they might experience. Because Puysegur withheld this information, his patients experienced a sleeplike state rather than a volatile, convulsive crisis characteristic of mesmerism. As more focus was placed on the sleeplike state, referred to as artificial somnambulism, the convulsive state gradually disappeared. This phenomenon indicates the convulsive results were pre-hypnotic suggestions and not natural occurrences resulting from the state of hypnosis.

Only a few well-regarded practitioners dabbled with hypnosis, among them Clark Hull and P.C. Young. Milton Erikson, a student of Clark’s, became an innovative force in rejuvenating hypnosis to a respectable status. Erikson’s interest in hypnotic techniques helped elevate hypnosis as a transcendent methodology with extraordinary capacities for therapeutic work.

Hypnosis and Trance

Psychologists are divided on the question of whether hypnosis produces a trance-like altered state of consciousness. To complicate matters further, after nearly 200 years of inquiry into the matter there is still much controversy surrounding how hypnosis should actually be defined. The “state theorists” maintain hypnosis induces an anomalous state of consciousness, whereas the “non-state theorists” argue that hypnosis is not a distinct physiological state. Kassin (1995) holds that the effect of hypnosis largely stems from the power of social influence and not from the idea of the altered state itself. Kirsch & Lynn (1995) argue the theories of hypnosis are not succinctly dichotomized into two separate camps.

The state debate actually began when Sarbin (1950) and T.X. Barber (1969) rejected that hypnotic responses were due to an altered state of consciousness (Kirsch & Lynn, 1995). From their perspective, such behaviors are similar to other behaviors. Hypnotic reactions are a product of attitude, belief, expectancy, ability, attribution, and interpretation of the situation.

Replicated neurophysiological findings demonstrate left frontal lobe fluency but not left temporal performance during hypnosis for subjects in the high hypnotic susceptibility category. Several studies suggest hypnosis affects integrative brain functions and induces alterations or even breakdowns of communication between units and subunits within the brain that are responsible for formulating conscious experience.

The American Psychological Association, Division 30 along with other scholars, assert that a hypnotic procedure occurs when “one person (the subject) is guided by another person (the hypnotist) to respond to suggestions for changes in subjective experience, alterations in perception, sensation, emotion, thought or behavior” (Green et al., 2005, p. 262). While there are differences in technique among hypnotists one constant is explicit introductory suggestions such as eye closure.

Transpersonal Hypnotherapy

Transpersonal hypnotherapy differs from other types of hypnotherapy not specifically in method or technique, but in scope and orientation (Tart, 2008). Entering into the transpersonal realm involves specified worldviews that offer largely positive and hopeful directions (Boorstein, 2000) for its participants. Such a pursuit of the spiritual aspect of life poses problems for researchers. Essentially, such ephemeral pursuits rest outside the space-time dimension and may be intermingled in ways that escape articulation and understanding on a simplistic and logical level (Boorstein, 2000). Proponents of transpersonal psychology proclaim that meditation, holotropic breathing, and psychedelics are a few methods whereby otherworldly experiences can be achieved. Transpersonal psychotherapy, as a practice, is concerned with “the psychological processes related to the realization, or making real, of states such as “illumination,” “mystical union,” “transcendence,” and “cosmic unity” (Sutich, 1980, p. 9).

Altered states of consciousness are of great interest to transpersonalists due to their indicative contact with the spirit world, encounters with the divine, and insights into the “wider, broader, higher, and/or deeper aspects of existence” (Krippner, 2000, p. 141). Views of the transcendent aspect of human nature were first proposed by psychologists such as James, Jung, Maslow, and Assagioli (Marquis & Wilber, 2008). The distinct patterns of EEG and fMRI recordings found in advanced meditators document suprarational ego development from an objective viewpoint (Goleman, 2003). The transpersonal stance is that psychologists and psychotherapists act more fully when they acknowledge and explore the transpersonal and transcendental potentials of human development (Marquis & Wilbur, 2008). Because process and outcome research of transpersonal psychology is considered methodologically inapproachable (Marquis & Wilber, 2008), and on some counts impossible the justification comes from the necessity to draw from numerous therapeutic methods with the intent of fully considering both transpersonal and traditional scopes.

Meditation, holotropic breathing, and psychedelics may be more appropriately identified as the triggers used to initiate the resulting altered states for specified transpersonal practices. It is only by virtue of engaging in some type of precursor, or trigger activity, that many clients of transpersonal hypnotherapy seem able to suspend normal consciousness and enter into an altered hypnotic state. Stanislav Grof (2008) describes the transpersonal experience as “losing the connection with the present,” and “becoming All There Was” (p. 158). The holotropic states as described by Grof and his contemporaries are strikingly similar to the collective unconscious elucidated by Carl Jung. Some transpersonal hypnotherapists (Grof, 2006) claim to elicit experiences from past ancestral lives, and establishing a bridge between the real and the spiritual.


Barber, T. X. (1969). Hypnosis: A scientific approach. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Baruss, I. (2003). Alterations of consciousness: An empirical analysis for social scientists. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Green, J., Barabasz, A., Barrett, D., & Montgomery, G. (2005). Forging ahead: The 2003 APA Division 30 definition of hypnosis. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 53, 259-264.

Kassin, S. (1995). Psychology. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Kirsch, I., & Lynn, S. (1995). The altered state of hypnosis: Changes in the theoretical landscape. American Psychologist, 50 (10), 846-858.

Kirsch, I., & Lynn, S. (1998). Dissociation theories of hypnosis. Psychological Bulletin, 124(1), 100-115.

Sarbin, T. (1950). Contributions to role-taking theory: I. Hypnotic behavior. Psychological Review, 57, 225-270.


About Lightning Heart

Nomad. Poet. Philosopher. Teacher. View all posts by Lightning Heart

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