Despite its recent television renaissance, hypnotism has been around for thousands of years. It was originally used for medical purposes but over time it seems to have morphed into a tool for entertainment rather than esoteric reasons. However, in the 21st Century, a new breed of hypnotist has emerged, but the question is - are they entertainers or master manipulators?
The earliest examples of embryonic hypnosis can be traced back as far as Ancient Egypt. There are carvings in a temple at Thebes showing a high priest putting a man into a trance-like state using chanting and revolving a pebble on his chest. In later years, Shamans and witch doctors would place themselves into a trance before important ceremonies to give them greater awareness of the forces they were trying to contact. This would involve sitting in a darkened space, visualising the things they wanted to achieve and listening to rhythmic, tribal beats.
Often, this gave them the apparent power to defy pain, as illustrated by those religious leaders who were able to walk across hot coals or, in the cases of the Hindu swamis, lie on beds of sharply-pointed nails. In fact, most cultures have some examples of trances at work and usually at the heart of some religious practice.
From Mesmerism to Hypnosis
In the 1700s, an Austrian doctor called Franz Anton Mesmer began to use these ancient practices for another purposes. Whilst studying the phenomena of trance work, he purported the theory that there was a natural transference of energy between all living things and inanimate object - the theory of ‘animal magnetism.’ He continued his work until he was able to induce trance-like states in his subjects, sitting in front of a patient and pressing his thumbs into their hands, whilst staring fixedly into their eyes. Often he would do this for hours on end. His main aim was to cure patients of any ailments using this process. While he was never specific in any commands he may have issued, he enjoyed a spectacular success rate and was soon overwhelmed by the number of patients looking to benefit from his natural remedy.
By the 1800s, ‘mesmerism,’ as the process had become known, was used by a number of physicians. John Eliotson was reported to have conducted over 1,850 operations and amputations painlessly and without any need for anaesthetic. However, it was a Scotsman who would give hypnotism its name. The physician James Braid noted that the trance-like state achieved through mesmerism resembled a deep sleep. Consequently, he named the state after Hypnos, the Greek god of slumber.
In the early 1900s, two French doctors, August Leibault and Hippolyte Bernheim, chased the idea that hypnosis induced a state that was entirely natural for the human body. During their research they developed the idea that the subject’s expectations had a large part to play in whether or not they were able to fully achieve a trance-like state
. In addition, they found that patients in this state were much more suggestible than when they were fully conscious and could be asked to do or believe things that were usually out of character or beyond their usual pain or fear thresholds. As a result, hypnosis was about to take another turn.
From Surgery to Entertainment
With the development of effective anaesthetics, hypnosis became virtually redundant in doctors’ surgeries. However, at a time when interest in the paranormal was reaching unparalleled heights, the idea that you could manipulate someone’s will to make them perform amazing feats captured the public’s imagination. Showmen used the term with abandon, ascribing amazing illusions to the power of suggestion. In reality, the majority of these Victorian stunts had nothing to do with mesmerism or hypnosis. They were ‘smoke and mirror’ tricks involving stooges or accomplices, planted within the audience. However, the notion of hypnosis as a manipulative force was firmly ingrained in the public consciousness.
With the advent of television, hypnosis found its way to the public once more; magicians and entertainers were quick to baffle and bamboozle with displays of mental manipulation. However, as time went by, this took on a less-dignified aspect, with TV and stage hypnotists using their abilities to persuade members of the public to perform tasks that would leave them open to ridicule. By the late 1980s, hypnotism had all but vanished from the entertainment circuit, seen as a vehicle for cheap laughs and with no real merit whatsoever.
The late 1990s saw a new breed of hypnotist on the market. Professionals like Paul McKenna were no longer using their abilities to make fun of people, but to enhance people’s lives. Hypnosis quickly became a process through which you could conquer your fears, lose weight, give up smoking and even alter your general outlook. In short, hypnotism had almost returned to its roots, becoming a form of therapy rather than a vehicle for entertainment.
Counsellors and therapists soon saw the potential behind this and jumped in the bandwagon and by the early 21st Century, hypnotherapy was commonplace; a process in which a therapist would induce a light trance, making the patient open to suggestion, yet conscious of what was going on. Hypnotherapy has been used to conquer a wide range of phobias, bad habits and even behavioural disorders.
Hypnosis has even entered the business arena; Neuro Linguistic Programmers use a form of hypnosis in which the conscious mind is distracted, allowing the practitioner to communicate with the subject’s unconscious and unleash their inner potential.
However, despite its serious and practical modern applications, hypnosis will always bear the scars inflicted upon it by the stage and TV entertainers of yesteryear. True hypnotists in the 21st Century are master manipulators of the subconscious, allowing us to reprogram the less desirable aspects of our psyches. Through them, we are told we can shed our current skins and become the people we truly want to be; dynamic, confident and fulfilling our potential.
Yet, no matter how much we dress it up, there will always be a part of hypnosis that is associated with cheap laughs and ridicule, and it may be some time before hypnosis is taken truly seriously.