The history and theory of hypnosis

In this article, I hope to de-bunk some myths surrounding hypnotherapy, in particular, that it is a new therapy or that it is a fad and to explain how it has been used for centuries to alleviate a variety of ills and problems. This has been achieved often by employing the same strategies that clinical hypnotherapists use today that date back to ancient times. 


Hypnotherapy is not magic, it is essentially an approach which employs the belief that the answer to most of the problems we encounter is contained within us in our subconscious. The subconscious is the part of our mind that never forgets, that is always listening and which is less analytical, and because of this can make associations more freely between situations and events than our conscious mind is capable of. 

There are many different beliefs and theories surrounding hypnosis, some true and some without foundation. One of these is that hypnosis is a permissive state. This is a school of thought that believes the client enters a passive powerless state to the all-powerful hypnotherapist. This is not true in my opinion, a person cannot go into trance if they do not want to nor can they come out under command but generally when they want to. The person also cannot adhere to any suggestion unless it is agreeable to them, nobody can ever be made to do anything they do not want to do.

This is why I try to ascertain a person's motivation to change and also barriers to change when conducting an assessment. The other belief which is without foundation is that historically only the weak-minded or the gullible could be hypnotised when in actual fact the process requires concentration and, in my experience, the best subjects are often very intelligent people. 

I have often worried about what people prior to their first appointment consider the hypnoidal state to be, perhaps the individual has witnessed stage hypnosis where it appears the subject has had their personality changed as they act out of character and as if completely controlled by the hypnotist. This is not clinical hypnotherapy, which, in my own experience and those of my clients, is often comparable to light sleep and a form of disassociation, however, there are different depths to trance.

Also, it is worth being aware that we can enter hypnoidal states often in our day-to-day lives, such as when watching television, daydreaming and reverie (reverie is when we may feel like we are in a daydream but still experience our waking senses). 

So what are the origins of all this? Well to most scholars' knowledge, the earliest known form of hypnosis was in ancient Egypt. In these ancient times, priests would induce sleep in people and when they were asleep chant helpful healing messages to them.

In England, in the middle ages, there was a form of healing known as The Royal Touch whereby it was believed that the reigning monarch could cure scrofula, a common affliction of the day, by touching those afflicted or by getting the individual to touch a gold medallion that the monarch had previously touched. This employed the suggestion that royalty possessed special gifts not afforded to the wider populace.

The development of the mind-body connection often used in hypnotherapy was first pondered by Paracelsus, a Swiss physician and alchemist who believed that the two were interlinked and that physicians should treat the mind and body for disorders, which is common practice today for a range of disciplines and an early form of the holistic model. Paracelsus had a medical degree but was also an alchemist and believed in gaining knowledge not just from the scholastic world but from the life experience of the people he met. 

The person who was most well-known for developing hypnosis into the more recognisable form of today was Franz Anton Mesmer, an Austrian doctor. He coined the phrase "animal magnetism" and believed that the body was filled with fluids and that magnetic force and blockages in the system could lead to illness, and he treated those he saw with magnets. 

It was however a Scot known as James Braid who lived in the 19th Century who is believed to of first coined the term hypnosis after learning about "mesmerism". He was sceptical about magnetic fluids in the body but believed that eye fixation would eventually lead to eye closure and then sleep, it was called hypnosis after the greek god Hypnos – the god of sleep. In his work Braid later concluded that amnesia and anaesthesia could be attributed to this special state. 

In more modern times, and probably the most influential in my own practice, is Milton Erickson. He was an American psychiatrist who suffered from polio and in later life, he used a wheelchair. In his approach, he used humour and confusion but he is best known for utilising whatever the client brings into the therapy room, and employing metaphor to achieve change as a means of communication with the subconscious.

In summary, I hope this has helped describe how modern clinical hypnotherapy has developed, its origins, and dispelled some misconceptions too. There cannot be many healing interventions still around practised worldwide that have their origins in pre-biblical times. It is a very non-invasive practice and is restorative due to the resting nature of trance, so if doing the same old thing has not helped or the more conventional road has not brought about the desired change, why not try the road less travelled? The likelihood is that the answer is in you. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Hypnotherapy Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Troon KA10 & Glasgow G3
Written by Iain Lawrence, (BA) Dip Hyp
Troon KA10 & Glasgow G3

My name is Iain Lawrence I am a Hypnotherapist Based in South Lanarkshire and South Ayrshire. I am a caring empathetic practitioner and I have experience of a wide range of issues from Phobias to Anxiety. I use Hypnotherapy, Emotional Freedom Therapy and NLP Neuro Linguistic Programming in my practice. I believe change happens starting small.

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