History of Hypnosis and NLP


Hypnotism as a health aid probably originated with the Hindus of India and they mention hypnotic procedures in the Hindu Vedas written around 1500 BC. Historians believe that they operated sleep temples, like the ancient Greeks and Egyptians around 500 BC, where they gave hypnotic-like inductions and suggestions to sick people to utilise a sleep-like state. In China, Wong Tai wrote about the medical use of incantations and hand passes, around 2600 BC.

There is also evidence that people practiced hypnosis in some form more widely across the Europe and Asia in theses times. There are also earlier cave paintings suggesting trance-like practices taking place at least 6,000 years ago.

The Middle Ages

Modern science evolved rapidly between the 9th and 14th centuries across the Mediterranean. This also led to a revival of the medical and philosophical knowledge from Ancient Greece, Egypt and early Eastern civilisations. This included their development of a deeper understanding of psychology and the early precursors of the use of analysis, altered states of consciousness and hypnosis to alleviate emotional sufferings.

Pietro d’Abano, a teacher of medicine, philosophy and astrology in Padua, wrote around 1250 AD that suggestion had definite effects on some mentally disturbed people. The Inquisition twice brought him to trial for these practices, but they only found him guilty after his death.

In the early 16th Century, Paracelsus, a Swiss alchemist and physician, travelled widely in Europe, Africa and Asia learning about local medical practices, before developing the use of magnets in healing. He claimed that magnetic treatment was useful “in all inflammations, influxes, and ulcerations, in diseases of the uterus and bowels, in internal as well as external diseases. Any diseased part of the body, when exposed to a magnetic force, will be cured better and more speedily than by any medicine”.

People like Valentine Greatrakes continued the use of magnets in healing sporadically over the next two centuries. In the 17th century Greatrakes was renowned as the Great Irish Stroker for his ability to heal people by laying his hands on them and passing magnets over their bodies.

The Mind-body Connection

Many traditional healers believed that the body, thoughts and emotions can influence one another. The Romans described it as “mens sana in corpore sano” or healthy mind in healthy body. But in the mid 18th century, the scientific developments of Newton and others lead to a separation of the treatment of the mind and body. The church reluctantly allowed the development of science in medicine, but retained control of the mind and spirit.

Dr Franz Anton Mesmer

In the late 18th century, Father Maximilian Hell, a Jesuit Priest from Vienna, used magnets to heal by applying steel plates to the naked body. He was also a well known astronomer and is renowned for his controversial observations of the transit of Venus. He also gave his name to Hell crater on the moon.

One of Father Hell’s students was a young medical doctor from Vienna named Franz Anton Mesmer, who went on to be the most influential figure in the development hypnosis in the 18th century. Mesmer was a charismatic and at times controversial physician. He developed a method he called animal magnetism using magnets and magnetised metal frames to perform passes over the patient to remove blockages, the causes of diseases, in the body’s magnetic forces. He also induced a trance-like state in his patients. He found that he could produce equally successful results by the prolonged passing of his hands over the patient.

Mesmer chose the name “animal magnetism” to distinguish the force in the human body from the other magnetic forces known at the time as mineral magnetism, cosmic magnetism and planetary magnetism.

He worked in Austria, Switzerland and Germany before settling in France, where, despite his many successes the medical authorities soon derided and ostracised him, even with his support from the French king.

Mesmer’s name lives on in the word “mesmerise” – to hold someone’s attention to the exclusion of anything else, so as to create a trance state, in other words to hypnotise.

Armand de Puységur was a student of Mesmer and continued to develop Mesmer’s work after the latter’s death in 1815. He discovered that spoken words and direct commands could easily induce trance and do so noticeably faster. He called this deep trance state somnambulism and described the key characteristics as
• a concentration of the patient’s senses on the therapist
• the acceptance of suggestion from the therapist
• amnesia of the events that happened in trance.

He also found that doctors could perform painless operations on patients in trance. Doctors in France developed this with Dr Recamier performing the first recorded operation in this way in 1821. In England, Dr Elliotson, Dr “Painless” Parker, who used the techniques in dentistry, and Dr James Esdaile developed this further.

Esdaile performed his first operation without anaesthetic in India and went on to perform more than 300 major operations and over a thousand minor ones using mesmerism. His results were very impressive with a mortality rate of only 5% compared to the 50% rate for other surgeons performing similar operations without hypnosis or anaesthetic.

Battlefield surgeons in the American Civil War later used extensively for battlefield surgery. The discovery of chloroform and its use as an anaesthetic largely ended the use of hypnosis in surgery. It was much faster and required less skill for the surgeon to inject a patient than to induce hypnosis.

Abbé Faria, an Indo-Portuguese priest came from India in 1814 and revived interest for animal magnetism in Paris. Unlike Mesmer, he claimed that the power of expectancy and cooperation of the patient generated the effect in the mind – in effect, autosuggestion. This later influenced Hippolyte Bernheim and Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault of the Nancy School and subsequently the techniques of Émile Coué a hundred years later.

James Braid and Hypnotism

James Braid in the early 19th Century was the pioneer of hypnosis in Britain and introduced the term hypnosis – derived from the Greek word for sleep. He initially called it neuro-hypnosis and then changed it to hypnosis, believing that sleep was involved. When he later found that it was not actual sleep, he chose monoideaism, but hypnosis became the popular term.

A Scottish eye surgeon and optometrist, Braid probably developed an interest in mesmerism by chance when he noticed a patient in his waiting room staring with glazed eyes at a lamp. Braid told him to close his eyes and go to sleep. Others say that he first witnessed hypnotism at a demonstration of animal magnetism and was not impressed; believing it to be trickery. A second demonstration convinced him when he was able to painlessly push a pin beneath a finger-nail of a mesmerised girl.

Whichever story we believe, he discovered that getting a patient to fixate upon something, such as a swinging watch, was a way of getting them into a trance. He described this as “protracted ocular fixation” that fatigued certain parts of the brain and caused the “nervous sleep” – what we now call trance. Braid wrote Neurypnology, the first book on hypnosis, in 1843.

The Nancy and Paris Schools

Two competing schools of hypnosis started up in France in the late 19th Century and both advanced the development of hypnosis significantly. In Paris, Dr Jean-Martin Charcot, a neurologist, said that hypnosis resulted only from physical or neurological stimulation. In Nancy, Dr Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault and Dr Hippolyte Bernheim held that hypnosis is a natural state available to everyone using free will – the modern day view.

Charcot endorsed hypnotism for the treatment of hysteria using his “numerical method” and led the way with the move of hypnosis from the medical doctor to the mental health profession. They first described the process of post-hypnotic suggestion in this period and great successes including major improvements in sensory acuity and memory using hypnosis. Pierre Janet, a protégé of Charcot, introduced the idea of dissociation to aid the access of skills and memory under hypnosis. This developed interest in the subconscious and eventually to reintegration therapy for dissociated personalities.

Liébeault, a physician, first described the need for cooperation between the hypnotizer and the participant – rapport in our terms. He delivered a sequence of suggestions, in a monotonous but penetrating voice, about the patient’s health, digestion, circulation, coughing and many other aspects.

Despite initial scepticism, Bernheim, a French neurologist, joined Liébeault and helped to emphasise the importance of suggestibility. Together they treated over 30,000 using hypnosis. Albert Moll, an active promoter of hypnotism in Germany around the turn of the 20th century, studied at Nancy and Sigmund Freud witnessed some of Bernheim’s experiments there.

Emile Coué and the Laws of Suggestion

Émile Coué, A French psychologist and pharmacist, introduced a method of healing and self-improvement based on optimistic conscious autosuggestion. He based his Coué method on the routine repetition of ritual autosuggestions, such as “every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better” at the beginning and the end of every day.

Coué defined the Laws of suggestion as the Law of
• Concentrated Attention – Whenever attention is concentrated on an idea over and over again, it spontaneously tends to realize itself
• Reversed Effect – The harder one tries to do something, the less chance one has of success.
• Dominant Effect – A strong emotion/suggestion tends to replace a weaker one.

Coué believed that he did not heal people, but rather facilitated their own self-healing. This concept of self-participation was the modern hypnotists’ maxim “there is no such thing as hypnosis, only self-hypnosis.” He also believed that imagination is more powerful than will. Walking across a plank on the floor seems much easier than walking on the same plank suspended between two tall buildings. He also anticipated modern research on the placebo effect – drugs are not always necessary for recovery from illness, but belief in recovery is.

Hypnosis in the 20th Century

Around the beginning of the 20th century, Sigmund Freud also studied under Charcot and Bernheim. He later discovered abreaction therapy using hypnosis with Josef Breuer back in Austria. Freud also made use of hypnosis in his early work, but he seems to have lost patience with it – probably because he was not a good hypnotist.
Freud’s abandonment of hypnosis prejudiced its wider use in psychiatry until the second half of the 20th century. For the most part, stage hypnotists like Ormond McGill kept it alive. Despite this, doctors used hypnosis treat neuroses during World War I, World War II and the Korean War. They found that the merger of hypnosis techniques with psychiatry especially useful in the treatment of what we know today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Many people consider that Clark Hull, an experimental psychologist at Yale University, began the modern study of hypnotism. His rigorous study of the phenomenon, using statistical and experimental analysis he describes in his book “Hypnosis and Suggestibility”, confirmed that hypnosis is not sleep. He rubbished many of the more extreme claims for hypnosis, but proved hypnotic anaesthesia, post-hypnotic amnesia and some of the physical possibilities for hypnosis.

After World War II, medical and psychiatric interest in hypnosis rose rapidly. Ernest Hilgard, together with Josephine Hilgard and Andre Weitzenhoffer, founded a laboratory for hypnosis research at Stanford University. Hilgard’s status as one of the world’s most distinguished psychologists helped establish hypnosis as a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry.

Dr. Weitzenhoffer was one of the most eminent scholars of hypnosis in the 20th century. His first paper, “The Production of Anti-Social Acts Under Hypnosis” in 1949 was the first of more than 100 eventual journal publications, books, and papers on the topic of hypnosis. He also worked with Ernest Hilgard in developing the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scales and the Stanford Profile Scales of Hypnotic Susceptibility, the most widely used measures of individual differences in hypnotic responsivity.

Harry Arons, a professional hypnotist, wrote Hypnosis in Criminal Investigation in 1967 about use of hypnosis in the judicial system. The book included such applications such as memory, age regression, induction techniques and confabulation. Arons also travelled the country training law enforcement agencies. His helped create national acceptance for hypnosis in the US legal community. He produced the Arons scale for the depth of trance in hypnosis – ranging from Hypnoidal to Profound Somnambulism.

Dave Elman pioneered the modern medical use of hypnosis, especially for pain release and for treating the emotional components of allergies, stuttering and obesity. Although he had no formal medical training, he trained a considerable number of physicians and psychotherapists in America, in the use of hypnotism. He encountered hypnotism as a small boy when a stage hypnotist helped his terminally ill father with pain relief.

His book “Hypnotherapy, published in 1964, is still one of the most important hypnosis reference books and Elman is especially remembered for introducing rapid inductions to the field of hypnotism. One method of induction which he introduced more than fifty years ago is still one of the favourite inductions used today.

Milton H. Erickson

Probably the most important contributor to hypnosis in the 20th century and to the acceptance of hypnotherapy, as both art and science, was the grandfather of hypnotherapy – Dr Milton H. Erikson. Dr Erikson was a psychiatrist and hypnotherapist with outstanding professional credentials and because of his solid medical background he had credibility within the medical profession.

Erickson was also hugely influential in the development of NLP by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. Along with Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir, he was one of the key people Bandler and Grinder chose to model when they started out.

Neuro Linguistic Programming – NLP

Before looking at the history of NLP, it’s important to answer the question – what exactly is NLP? There are many answers, recipes and incantations in books written by a host of authors. The best answer comes from Richard Bandler, the co-developer of NLP with John Grinder. Taking a deep breath,

“NLP is an attitude … characterised by a sense of curiosity and adventure and a desire to learn the skills to be able to find out what kinds of communication influences somebody and the kinds of things worth knowing; to look at life as a rare and unprecedented opportunity to learn.

NLP is a methodology … based on the overall operational presupposition that all behaviour has a structure and that structure can be modelled, learned, taught and changed (re-programmed). The way to know what will be useful and effective are the perceptual skills.

NLP has evolved as an innovative technology … enabling the practitioner to organise information and perceptions in ways that allow them to achieve results that were once inconceivable.”

The Presuppositions of NLP are another way of looking at it, as
1. The map is not the territory
2. There is no failure only feedback
3. Mind and body are part of the same system
4. Everyone is doing the best they can with the resources available to them
5. If it is possible for someone, it is possible for me
6. The system (person) with the most flexibility of behaviour will have the most influence on the system
7. The meaning of communication is the response it produces
8. You are in charge of your mind and therefore your results
9. All the resources we need are inherent to our own physiology.

Richard Bandler and John Grinder initially developed NLP (Neuro-linguistic Programming) out of a behavioural modelling project they ran in the early 1970’s at the University of California in Santa Cruz, 70 miles south of San Francisco. Bandler was studying philosophy, logic, computer science and mathematics and teaching Gestalt Therapy at the same time. Grinder was soon to become a professor of linguistics.

The link to hypnosis came from the advice of Gregory Bateson, Bandler’s landlord, mentor and a renowned British anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, and cyberneticist. He advised Bandler to model Milton Erickson, as we have already heard, the foremost clinical hypnotherapist of the 20th century. Bandler and Grinder were already modelling Fritz Perls the creator of Gestalt Therapy and Virginia Satir, a well known psychologist specialising in family therapy.

As the NLP movement grew, they tested their ideas and techniques on their friends and any student they could lay their hands on. The team soon expanded to include others including Robert Dilts, Judith DeLozier, Leslie Cameron, soon to become Leslie Cameron Bandler, Terry McLendon and David Gordon.

They soon developed many the techniques we know today, including anchoring, sensory acuity and calibration, reframing, representational systems, and the two Language Models – the Meta Model and the Milton Model. They also developed many other personal change techniques.

The pioneers of NLP documented these techniques in a prolific series of books through the 70’s and early 80’s, starting with the Structure of Magic volumes I and II and Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, MD Volume 1 and Volume 2. They published all of these in the first 5 years and then supplemented them with a series of transcripts of seminars conducted by Bandler and Grinder. The best known and most influential of these was Frogs into Princes published in 1979.

The NLP bandwagon continued apace during the 80’s and 90’s despite the original creators Bandler and Grinder breaking up with the ensuing legal battles. Regardless of this, NLP continues to grow and develop with Bandler and Grinder still leading the two main factions, closely followed by the Tony Robbins camp, etc. The factionalism also exists in the NLP “standards” bodies that have evolved, probably still led by Bandler’s Society of NLP (SNLP).

We are fortunate to have a broad spectrum on NLP trainers in the UK including Richard Bandler, who has teamed up Paul McKenna, the famous stage hypnotist, to deliver regular NLP courses in the UK. Richard also teaches NLP elsewhere in the world, often teaming up with the President of the SNLP, John La Valle and many others.

John Grinder has teamed up with Carmen Bostic St Clair and Michael Carroll to promote and train his New Code NLP in the UK.

Official Recognition or Hypnosis

Theologians, religious leaders and medical authorities have long expressed concern that, if not applied properly, hypnosis could deprive a person of their faculty of reason. Saint Thomas Aquinas rebuts this from the grave in his words “The loss of reason is not a sin in itself but only by reason of the act by which one is deprived of the use of reason. If the act that deprives one of his use of reason is licit in itself and is done for a just cause, there is no sin; if no just cause is present, it must be considered a venial sin.”

The Catholic Church seemed to have forgotten this by the time of the Inquisition, as Pietro d’Abano found out. However, on July 28, 1847, the Roman Curia issued a decree stating that “Having removed all misconception, foretelling of the future, explicit or implicit invocation of the devil, the use of animal magnetism (Hypnotism) is indeed merely an act of making use of physical media that are otherwise licit and hence it is not morally forbidden provided it does not tend toward an illicit end or toward anything depraved”. Pope Pius XII further endorsed this in 1956 when he stated, in his address from the Vatican on hypnosis in childbirth, that the use of hypnosis by health care professionals for diagnosis and treatment is permitted.

The British Medical Association (BMA) drafted a resolution in 1891 in favour of the use of hypnosis in medicine but did not approved it until 1955, 64 years later and 3 years after the British Government introduced the British Hypnotism Act in 1952. The Act regulates the public demonstrations of stage hypnotists for entertainment.

The BMA resolution approved the use of hypnosis in the areas of psychoneuroses and hypnoanesthesia in pain management in childbirth and surgery. The BMA now advises all physicians and medical students to receive fundamental training in hypnosis.

Skills for Health, the Government’s Sector Skills Council for the UK health industry published National Occupational Standards (NOS) for Hypnotherapy in 2002.

In the US, the American Medical Association approved a report on the medical uses of hypnosis in 1958 and encouraged research on hypnosis. However, it did point out that some aspects of hypnosis are unknown and controversial.

Two years after AMA approval, the American Psychological Association endorsed hypnosis as a branch of psychology.

Categories : Hypnosis, NLP, Self Hypnosis
Comments (4)


  1. Andrew Fogg says:

    Hi Kaal,
    Thank you for your kind comment. I’m delighted you liked the article.

  2. Hi there I’m a writer doing research on hypnotism for a character…just wanted to pass on a big thank you – really well-researched article. Loved the part ‘the imagination is more powerful than will” and the example of walking the plank.
    Great inspiration!

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