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On the one hand, a history of hypnosis is a bit like a history of breathing.
Recorded history is full of tantalising glimpses of rituals and practices that look very much like hypnosis from a modern perspective, from the “healing passes” of the Hindu Vedas to magical texts from ancient Egypt.Mesmer was the first to propose a rational basis for the effects of hypnosis.Although we now know that his notion of “animal magnetism”, transferred from healer to patient through a mysterious etheric fluid, is hopelessly wrong, it was firmly based on scientific ideas current at the time, in particular Isaac Newton’s theories of gravitation.At the same time, the nature of “ordinary” consciousness is better understood as a series of trance states that we go into and out of all the time.The history of hypnosis, then, is like the search for something that was in plain view all along, and we can now see it for what it is – a universal phenomenon that’s an inextricable part of being human.The history of hypnosis, then, is really the history of this change in perception.
In the 21st century, there are still those who see hypnosis as some form of occult power.
At the same time, the style of hypnosis changed, from a direct instruction issued by an authoritarian figure (a legacy of the charismatic mesmerist) to a more indirect and permissive style of trance induction, based on subtly persuasive language patterns.
This was largely due to the work of therapists such as Milton H. More importantly, perhaps, hypnosis became increasingly practical, and regarded as a useful tool for easing psychological distress and bringing about profound change in a variety of situations. Advances in neurological science and brain imaging, together with the work of British psychologists Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell who linked hypnosis to the Rapid Eye Movement (REM), have also helped to resolve the “state/non-state” debate, bringing hypnosis and hypnotic trance firmly into the realm of everyday experience.
On the other hand, it’s only in the last few decades that we’ve come to realise that!
Hypnosis itself hasn’t changed for millennia, but our understanding of it and our ability to control it has changed quite profoundly.
Thanks to their persistence and efforts, by the end of the century hypnosis was accepted as a valid clinical technique, studied and applied in the great universities and hospitals of the day.