The History of Hypnosis: from Magnets to Magnetic Resonance Imaging

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

Does Hypnosis Have a Scientific Basis? It Does Now!



Many people's only exposure to hypnosis prior to seeking hypnotherapy is through stage shows and television programmes. Honestly, I know what you might be thinking because when I began to study hypnotherapy during the first year of my psychotherapy course, I thought exactly the same!


Hypnosis is the oldest Western form of psychotherapy but it's been interlinked with these antiquated images of moustached men waving pocket watches about the place and people becoming entranced through staring into the centre of swirling black and white circles. In fact, hypnosis is a very powerful means of using our minds to control our thoughts, our feelings, and our physical behaviour.


Hypnosis is associated by many with a loss of control, clucking like a chicken, being made to bark like a dog, and other general embarrassments, but hypnotherapy is different. It is not just a party trick that’s performed by untrained individuals who only seek to entertain a crowd - the state of hypnosis measurably changes how the brain works.

Hypnosis now has a proven scientific basis with many medical and academic studies revealing the brain's ability to control and in some cases heal, both medical and psychological conditions.


So, before we talk about the scientific basis of hypnosis and the evidence base that informs my practice, lets quickly delve into the less academically rigorous history of hypnosis.


Hypnosis has been around for a very long time. Originally the practice of shamans and medicine men, many cultures throughout the ages including the Egyptians, Mayans, Native North American Indians, and Aboriginal tribes throughout Australia have used hypnosis and trance as a means of self-enlightenment and healing.


The more recent practice of hypnosis is credited to a man named Franz Anton Mesmer. A doctor of German origin, Mesmer believed that all energy within living things was controlled by an invisible cosmic fluid or 'animal magnetism' and that if this energy or 'fluid' was prevented from passing through the body, then many ailments could occur.


During the 18th century Mesmer sought to remove these 'blockages' using magnets, metal conduction rods, trees, and even himself. Indeed, the work of Mesmer was so famous, the word 'mesmerised' stems directly from his name. Mesmer and his theories, were in time debunked and he lived out his days in solitude, largely decried by medical doctors and psychologists of the time.


Thankfully things got a little less 'out there' as the nineteenth century dawned. In 1840 a British surgeon, James Braid, coined the term hypnotism, taken from the Greek god of sleep, Hypnos. Braid was the first to conduct scientific experiments into hypnosis, concluding that the relief of symptoms was not due to animal magnetism at all, rather it was due to his patients acting on the unconscious suggestions he spoke to them.


During the 1860's other British surgeons such as Dr John Elliotson and Dr James Esdaile continued to demonstrate practical uses of hypnosis within medicine. These gentlemen conducted many hundreds of successful operations purely using hypnosis and it's resulting trance state as pain relief, using no anaesthetics or ether at all. When reporting their findings in the medical journals of the time, they were met with derision and downright political incorrectness with both of them losing their standing as respected men of medicine.


The history of hypnosis then largely moves from the UK and over to France. French doctors Ambroise-Auguste Liebeault, Hippolyte Bernheim, and Jean-Martin Charcot founded schools of hypnosis and their most famous student? None other than Sigmund Freud.


Widely known as the father of psychotherapy, after studying at these schools of hypnosis, Freud became convinced that humans have powerful hidden mental processes, a theory that formed the basis of his later works.


Freud went on to support the use of hypnosis and incorporated hypnosis into his work, but he was never considered to be a great hypnotist. He preferred instead to use a technique of his own creation, free association, and his casting aside of the technique of hypnosis is largely seen as the reason why it fell out of favour with the doctors and psychologists of the day.


A French neurologist, Pierre Janet was the only one flying the flag for hypnosis during this time. He discovered the relaxing effects of hypnosis and it’s positive healing outcomes, helping to maintain mainstream interest in the subject.


As we move into the early twentieth century, the use of hypnosis in the treatment of neuroses flourished during World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. Hypnosis techniques were merged with psychiatry and it was demonstrated as being especially useful in the treatment of 'Shell Shock' or what is known more commonly today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).


In 1955 the British Medical Association (BMA) approved the use of hypnosis in the areas of psychoneuroses, hypnoanesthesia, smoking cessation, post-surgical pain, and childbirth. Ernest Hilgard, Dave Elman, and Milton Erickson - known as the father of modern hypnosis, are amongst the many famous names who continued to strive for the scientific acceptance and clinical application of hypnosis throughout the 1900's.





The clinical potential of hypnosis has steadily become more appreciated, though little was known about how it works at a physiological level.

Thankfully, much has changed with the advent of non-invasive diagnostic imaging techniques such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanning. Researchers can now actually see how hypnosis and its application during hypnotherapy affects the human brain.


fMRI scans measure brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow within the brain. When music is played to an individual undergoing an fMRI scan, blood rushes to the areas of the brain responsible for hearing and analysing sound. Researchers have also used fMRI scans to pinpoint the effects of hypnosis on vision and other forms of perception. fMRI scans of hypnotised people have shown that simply telling people they are in pain, causes the same reaction as when people really are in pain. The same regions of the brain light up and purely through post-hypnotic suggestion, the intensity of that pain can be increased, decreased, and in some cases, eliminated altogether.


Researchers at Stanford University's School of Medicine published their findings related to the neurobiology of hypnosis in 2016.

The research team scanned the brains of 57 subjects during guided hypnosis sessions, (much like the sessions you would undergo should you decide to try hypnotherapy with me) and were able to see the neural changes associated with hypnosis. The team concluded that distinct sections of the brain have altered activity and connectivity whilst someone is hypnotised.


Whilst under hypnosis there is a decrease in the area of the brain known as the dorsal anterior cingulate, part of the brain's salience network. This means that whilst under hypnosis, you are so absorbed in the process, that you're not worrying about anything else.


An increase in the connections made between two other areas of the brain, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the insula was also observed. This is known as the mind-body connection which helps the brain to process what is going on within the physical body.


The researchers also observed reduced connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the default mode network. The default mode network is active when the mind is wandering, (such as when daydreaming), and is involved in thinking about the self, the future, and remembering the past. This may represent a disconnection between someone's actions and the awareness of their actions in other words (i.e.) when you are really engaged in something, you don't really think about doing it, you just do it.


During hypnosis, this kind of disassociation between action and reflection on that action allows the person to engage in activities either suggested by the hypnotherapist, or self-suggested without devoting mental resources to being self-conscious about the activity, such as in phobia and performance enhancement work.


These findings within the field of neuroscience assist modern day hypnotherapists such as myself, to employ evidence-based practice to further enhance the benefits, the reputation of, and the efficacy of hypnotherapy.


The brain is clearly doing quite different things under hypnosis than in normal everyday life and many hundreds of other clinical trials of therapeutic hypnosis are only continuing to confirm the potential benefits of hypnotherapy.






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