A History of Hypnosis

The origins of modern hypnosis began over two centuries ago in Switzerland. In Klosters, in the east of Switzerland, not far from the Austrian border, lived a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Father Gassner, who discovered in 1770 that he possessed the power to heal and began practicing faith cures.

Hundreds of afflicted men and women, "possessed of devils" according to the previous belief system of witchcraft, came to Klosters to be healed. Father Gassner, dressed in black robes, would make his appearance before groups of them and hold up a crucifix, which he lowered to touch each of them in turn.


One day a young German physician appeared among those waiting to be healed. He suffered from nothing but a lively curiosity, this Franz Anton Mesmer.

Mesmer studied medicine in Vienna, which in those days was considered the medical center of the world. His family lived in borderline poverty in a small town near Lake Constance. From early records of life that still exist, psychic investigators conclude that Mesmer was something of a dilettante, it was quite some time before he settled down to just one subject. First he attended a theological seminary but never graduated. Later he took a degree as Doctor of Philosophy and began to study law. Records show that he was granted a medical degree, but never was interested enough in traditional medicine to practice it.

Mesmer heard stories of Father Gassner's healing powers and came to Klosters to witness the healings himself. As he observed he was very impressed. He concluded that some unknown force was at work and immediately started work on a theory to explain the cures. The body, he surmised, must have two poles, like a magnet, and must, like a magnet, be emitting an invisible magnetic "fluid." According to Mesmer, disease was due to some interruption or maladjustment in the flow of this "fluid," and it therefore be cured by correcting the flow.

Mesmer came to the conclusion that only certain people had this gift of being able to control the flow of this mysterious "fluid" and these practitioners had the power to make the fluid flow from themselves into the patient. Furthermore, this could be accomplished indirectly. For example, it could be done by 'magnetizing' almost any object, such as a bottle of water. The magnetized objects would then presumably pass on the 'fluid" to anyone who touched them.

Pursuing this line of thought further, Mesmer discovered that it was important that there should exist a close interest in and sympathy for each other between the physician and the patient. This he described as rapport, French for "harmony" or "connection." This term is still in use in psychoanalytic circles, and describes the relationship in which the doctor has the interest and cooperation of his patient.

Mesmer had many early successes putting his theories and carried out many demonstrations of healing. He became a celebrity among the wealthy and was a frequent visitor at the local castles and mansions. His popularity grew, and because most medical men could find no logical basis for his cures, his envious colleagues had the Viennese Medical Council expose him as a fraud. In 1778 Mesmer left Vienna for the more liberal environment of Paris. There he soon established himself and became the talk of the town. The wealthy aristocrats of Paris paid Mesmer large fees; yet it is a matter of record that he treated hundreds of poor peasants for free.

Mesmer used an apparatus which he called a bacquet. The bacquet was an oak tub filled with iron filings and broken glass. Protruding from the wooden top were dozens of bottles with the necks pointing in the direction of the patients. Placed inside the bottles were many iron rods whose purpose, according to Mesmer's theories, was to spray magnetic rays on the subject. These bottles were filled with supposedly magnetic water.

The assembled patients gathered round the baquet, each holding the hand of the patient on either side, the whole party forming a kind of "magnetic ring." Ethereal soft music would play and the lights dimmed. Some of the patients would start singing during these strange seances. Inevitably, a few patients experienced spasms or a "crisis" after which they would emerge from the experience feeling improved in health. Occasionally young aristocratic women would return for the pleasure of the experience even though they no longer had any medical condition to treat.

Despite widespread skepticism of Mesmer's methods, he was certainly the first person to draw the attention of the world to the important fact that mental treatment can have a direct bearing on illness of the body, and that the proper use of mesmerism, or hypnosis, can have immense benefit to psychic investigators.

Mesmer attracted a circle of disciples who believed in his theories and studied their application under his instruction. One of these disciples was Count de Puyseguer, who developed Mesmer's art and began practicing at Soissons, France.

Early Medical Hypnosis in England

In 1841 James Braid, an English physician, examined a patient who had been mesmerized. He recognized the psychological nature of the patient's condition and coined the words "hypnosis" and "hypnotism" (from the Greek word hupnos, meaning "sleep"). It was Braid who started the first scientific studies of hypnosis as a psychological condition of great scientific importance.

Breuer and Freud

Among the most important European medical practitioners of the nineteenth century who made use of hypnosis were Charot, of France, Breuer, and Freud, of Austria.

Breuer was a prominent Viennese doctor who worked for some time in close partnership with Freud, but it was not long before Freud's over-assertive manner led to clashes.

One of Breuer's more intriguing case histories concerned a woman patient that he had under observation from 1880 to 1882. She had a hysterical deafness and loss of memory. She had been taking care of her sick father.

Breuer noticed that occasionally she would shake off her memory loss, and at other times she seemed bewildered. Each time he found her in this state of confusion he hypnotized her and insisted she tell him what she had been thinking. Today this approach is known as hypno-analysis, or psychoanalysis carried out under hypnosis. In this manner Breuer was able to overcome the psychic mechanisms that prevented her from realizing what was upsetting her.

Under hypnosis it became apparent that her deep attachment to her father was the reason for her hysteria. While nursing him during his illness she had been under great stress. Most of her thoughts were sexual in nature and concerned a physical desire for her father. Once she gave open expression to her desires while under hypnosis she immediately began to get better.

Freud, in talking over this case with Breuer, was inspired with the idea that symptoms in hysterical patients were caused by something that happened in their early lives. Freud tried hypnosis for some time but was not very proficient at it. The next approach he tried after hypnosis was to extract subconscious thoughts from his patients by persuading them to reach further and further back into their past memories, in other words, the process of psychoanalysis.

The problem with psychoanalysis was that it usually lasted over many months, or even years. The first World War brought with it thousands of cases of traumatic neurosis in soldiers and Freud declared that if psychotherapy was to be really useful it would have to be used along with hypnosis.