In this essay I will explore the question of ‘What is hypnosis’ by first briefly taking a look through the ages at attempts to define hypnosis and the influence of this evolution on modern theories. I will then describe the various physical and psychological aspects of hypnosis, with a brief illustration into some of the modern brain imaging technologies allowing us to look more deeply at aspects such as suggestion and trance to help us understand the nature of hypnosis. I will finally consider the role of physical and mental relaxation in the hypnotic process and therapeutic hypnotherapy.
The ‘grandfather of hypnosis’ is probably universally thought to be an Austrian doctor called Franz Anton Mesmer (1733-1815). He believed that a cosmic fluid could be stored in inanimate objects, such as magnets, and be transferred to patients to cure them of their illnesses. Mesmer believed that the ‘cosmic fluid’, stimulated by the magnets, was directed through the patient’s body and restored energy that was required for healing. Eventually he discarded the magnets and regarded his own body as the magnet through which the fluid life force could be conducted. Hence the term ‘animal magnetism’. There was no scientific basis to his work but he had tremendous success leading to the presumption that his patients were ‘mesmerized’ into believing and expecting that they could be cured. After Mesmer’s death one of his disciples Marquis de Puysegur believed that the cosmic fluid was not of magnetic origin but electric fluid that was generated in all living things. He used trees to distribute this force to his patients through cords that hung from the branches. He noticed that some of his patients entered a deep sleep during his process. In this state they could still communicate, be lucid and responsive to the suggestions of the mesmerist. He had discovered the ‘hypnotic trance’ but not identified it as such.
In the mid 1980’s the hypnotic trance was used in London by John Elliotson to relieve pain in operations. Around the same time in India amputations were performed by James Esdaile using ‘mesmerism’ or a trance state as a sole form of anaesthetic. Mesmerism continued to provoke new theories and an English physician James Braid tried to explain mesmerism scientifically coining the term hypnosis from the Greek ‘hypnos’ meaning sleep.This was later shown to be a misleading term. Braid showed that hypnotized subjects were abnormally susceptible to impressions on the senses and that much of the cures involved were due to suggestion.
Leibault (1823-1904) and Bernheim(1837-1919) originally rivals eventually decided to collaborate and were the first to regard hypnosis as a natural state; Bernheim describing hypnosis as ‘a natural state of passive suggestibility with selective attention and reduced planning function’. The patient appeared to be influenced mentally by the hypnotist. They believed that expectation was an important factor and increased suggestibility was the result.
Freud was the first to recognise the existence of the subconscious but rejected hypnosis favouring techniques of free association and dream interpretation. The subconscious mind is responsible for all those non voluntary activities, bodily functions and for storing all those things that we have learnt allowing the conscious mind to focus on day to day activities. It can however be argued that Freud in fact never gave up using hypnosis in therapy but that he unconsciously induced an hypnotic state in his patients through this technique of free association and that it was the hypnoidal state so achieved that was responsible for the effects of his analytical process. Hypnosis waned but re-emerged in the 1930’s with the aid of Erikson and his work on indirect suggestion. Since then there has continued...