The technique of hypnosis has been known and used for centuries – it was practised in ancient Greece and Egypt and even earlier in ancient India. The term itself comes from Hypnos, the Greek God of Sleep, and was first used in 1842 by James Braid, an English surgeon.
The eighteenth century’s Franz Anton Mesmer is often referred to as an early exponent of hypnosis. Mesmer believed he was using a mysterious force he called ‘animal magnetism’ to heal his patients. His techniques included the laying on of hands and staring fixedly in the eyes. Animal magnetism became popular in Europe with magnetized patients, or ‘somnambules’ as they were referred to, reporting that they felt no pain during surgery. In 1818 D Valenski, a surgeon and professor of physiology at the Imperial Academy of St Petersburg, described Mesmer’s animal magnetism as the most important physical discovery in several centuries.
Side effects of Mesmer’s techniques often included ‘higher phenomena’ such as clairvoyance, telepathy and other psi phenomena. Mesmer had little interest in these higher phenomena, preferring to focus on the healing. However, other ‘mesmerists’ began to investigate them and to exhibit them in public.
In the 1840s medical practitioner James Braid set out to expose animal magnetism as fraud. However, when he used the technique on his own patients with great success he was forced to revise his opinions. Braid noticed how similar the trance state and sleep were, and coined the term ‘hypnotism’ to describe it. The name has remained even though hypnosis is actually a very natural state of mind that never involves sleep. Individuals do not even lose consciousness. Braid also discovered that Mesmer’s techniques of fixed stares and waving or laying on of hands were not needed. Patients could enter a state of hypnosis by staring at a light or by suggestion alone.
Until chloroform was developed in 1848 hypnosis was frequently used to relieve the pain and discomfort of illness and surgery. Interest revived in the later nineteenth century when American and English psychical research societies began investigating the psi phenomena associated with it, and when its potential as a therapeutic tool in medicine was once again recognized.
From the 1940s onwards research has shown that hypnosis can enhance performance in psi games, especially if positive suggestions are made that it can. It has also been shown that hypnosis can help enhance memory and learning and form part of a treatment plan for psychological disorders and behaviour modification. Hypnosis is often used by mediums to communicate with spirits and is the preferred method for past-life recall.
Individual response to hypnosis can vary enormously. It is thought that the majority of the population – around 85 per cent – can be hypnotized, although only a small percentage can achieve deep trance. Several steps seem essential to achieving an altered state. These include deep relaxation, concentration, turning inwards, focusing on specific sounds, words or images and choosing to change one’s conscious state. There also appear to be three major stages of hypnosis: light, in which the individual feels lethargic but aware of what is going on around them; cataleptic, in which the muscles become tense; and somnambulistic, which is a state of deep trance where the subject can be manipulated by the suggestions of the hypnotist and experience psi phenomena.
Contrary to popular belief hypnosis cannot be used to force people to do things against their will. In a sense hypnosis is like a guided meditation. The individual passes through a series of steps to go deeper into the unconscious, but actually hears every word during the process. Hypnosis is achieved when the brain waves slow down and the individual reaches such an intense level of concentration that he or she blocks out any interference or distraction to his or her focus. During this state of intense concentration certain innate abilities are heightened, including imagination, memory and suggestibility. All these abilities are linked to the intuitive part of the brain, which explains why hypnosis is considered a powerful tool by psychics and those seeking intuitive insight.