The Beginnings of Hypnosis

Tim Langhorn – Hypnotherapist in Bath – Explores the beginnings of hypnosis and the practice of hypnotherapy as we know it today

The history of hypnosis

Many are aware of how hypnotherapy can help with a habit such as smoking or nail-biting. How it can help lower stress or anxiety. It is widely known that hypnotherapy also helps release unwanted fears or phobias. But not many people know the origins of this form of therapeutic help.

Blog hypnosis by Tim Langhorn - Hypnotherapist, Counsellor, Life Coach & Children's Therapist in Bath BA23QU

Well, hypnosis has been around a very long time, 242 years give or take. In the year 1775 the German physician, Franz Mesmer, investigated an effect called animal magnetism (aka mesmerism), what he believed to be an invisible force which all living animals and mammals possessed.

To get this in some kind of context as to how long ago this was, these are some of the events happening in that year:

  • King George III was on the throne of Great Britain
  • The American war of independence begins
  • Jane Austin the English novelist was born
  • Captain James Cook was still exploring the world
  • In London, William Turner, the painter was born
  • The Royal Crescent in Bath was finally completed after eight years

So, Mr Mesmer had this idea that this animal magnetism could have physical effects, which would lead to healing of the organism. This being the healing of physical damage or disease. This healing involving the repair of living tissue or the organs of the body. He was persistent in his beliefs and tried many times to achieve scientific recognition for his work, but without success.

Come to think of it, we also have held onto the word mesmerism. Named after the man who came up with the original idea. To be mesmerised by something was the beginnings, of what we now call, ‘an altered state of consciousness’. In this state we are so engrossed in an activity or event in our mind, that we are for that moment in time, engaged so deeply and so focussed, that we exclude all other things around us.

The founding father of hypnosis

Franz Mesmer may well have got the hypnotic ball rolling, but it wasn’t Mesmer that named it, hypnosis. That was down to a Scottish surgeon James Braid. It was he who adopted the term hypnosis in 1841. James Braid defined hypnotism as ‘a state of focussed attention upon a single idea or mental image’.

Following a public performance of animal magnetism by a travelling demonstrator of mesmerism, Charles Lafontaine, James Braid had observed the effects of this unusual phenomenon and thought there must be something in it. Braid was one of a number of medics invited to get up close to the subject who had been mesmerised by Lafontaine. He concluded that they were indeed, in some form of physical state, which was quite different to the norm. James attended another two demonstrations from Lafontaine before he decided to carry out some experiments of his own.

James Braid did in fact experiment with ‘self-hypnotisation’, what we nowadays call self-hypnosis. He was without doubt, that he had discovered a natural psycho-physiological process. He gave his first public lecture in Manchester, England in November 1841. He was able to demonstrate successfully that he could replicate the effects of Lafontaine, without the need for any physical intervention on his part with the subject. And so, hypnosis was born.

Again to get some perspective on the timeline for this, some events happening in the year 1841 were:

  • Queen Victoria, age 22, had been on the throne four years
  • David Livingstone ‘I presume’ arrives in Africa, for his first posting
  • French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born
  • Thomas Cook arranges his first excursion. A return rail journey from Leicester to Loughborough carrying 500 passengers a distance of 12 miles, for one shilling (5p in today’s money)
  • The population of London, was 1.58million (2017 est. over 8.5m). And less than two-thirds of its inhabitants born there. New arrivals came from as far afield as India, China, Poland, France and Italy. Hmm! Immigration not a new thing then Brexiteers

The meaning of hypnosis

Braid himself was keen to clarify ‘that although the Greek word hypnos means “sleep”, hypnosis was essentially a state of conscious attention. This being virtually opposite of the sleep we take in our beds at night’.

In his book Magic, Witchcraft, Animal Magnetism, etc. (1852), James Braid defined hypnotism ‘as a state of focused attention upon a single idea or mental image’.  And continued; ‘The hypnotic sleep, therefore, is the very antithesis or opposite mental and physical condition to that which precedes and accompanies common sleep; for the latter arises from a diffusive state of mind, or complete loss of power of fixing the attention, with suspension of voluntary power’.

The modern day dictionary (least the one I read), describes the word ‘Hypnosis’ as ‘a state of human consciousness involving focused attention and reduced peripheral awareness and an enhanced capacity to respond to suggestion’. The word origin of ‘hypno-‘ is from Greek ‘hupnos’ meaning ‘sleep’ . Then added to that you have -osis suffix (via Latin from Greek -ōsis, verbal noun ending) denoting a process or condition.

Well I do hope that dictionary definition is clear to everyone? If you think that is a bit much you should try reading about Quantum Mechanics.

The use of  the hypnotic experience

The psychologist and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud used hypnotherapy with his patients, around 1885. Yes, the father of psychoanalysis himself. And that’s well over 125 years ago. Yet hypnosis is still surrounded by a certain amount of mysticism and myth. Many people I meet at my consulting room in Bath, have little or no experience with hypnosis. That is apart from what they have seen on the telly. A few have seen the helpful side from people like Paul McKenna. But most have just watched the stage hypnotist and his “look into  my eyes, not around the eyes” tomfoolery.

So the mysticism and myth is promoted, in part, by the work of the stage hypnotist. This conjures up thoughts of people running around a stage acting like a frenzied chicken. Well this use of hypnosis is for entertainment and ridicule and is not what hypnotherapy is about. Far from it. The problem being that this is often the only thing people know about hypnosis. So many people attending the hypnotherapists consulting room for the first time are, not surprisingly, quite anxious about what may occur in any future session.

So, let me reassure those out there who are tainted by myth and mysticism. The stage hypnotist gives the impression that they are all powerful over your will and you will do as they command. This is in fact, not the case. Sorry to break your bubble of belief in hypnotists, but you are always still in control of what you do, and only go along with their suggestions because you’re game for a laugh. When you experience hypnosis with a qualified hypnotherapist, you are also still in control.  However, you go along with their suggestions, because you know that these suggestions are the pathways to the changes that will help you achieve your goals, safely.

When it comes down to it the hypnotic state is a natural phenomenon. It is what we call ‘an altered state of consciousness’. When you read a book or daydream. When you focus that thought to the exclusion of all else to the point where the rest of world carries on in the distance. You are, for that moment, distancing yourself from conscious reality and conscious interference. There you have it. That’s what we call an altered state of consciousness. That’s the hypnotic state. As natural as breathing. Or thinking.


Hypnotherapy exploits that calm, relaxed and focussed state of mind, in such a way as to bring about positive change. Hypnotists however, those people in the entertainment industry, use it to get people to make fools of themselves. I have always said there are two things I have in common with a hypnotist:

  1. We both use hypnosis
  2. We both need willing participants

But that’s as far as it goes. Otherwise, we are not at all alike with the way we use hypnosis. They use it for fooling around and getting an audience to laugh at other people’s expense. I use it to help people deal with emotional, behavioural, habitual and psychological symptoms or issues. Everything the hypnotist does has no useful purpose for the people they manipulate. Every I do is done with a positive intent to help, support and steer people into a direction whereby they will manage their lives in a more constructive and positive way.

Tim Langhorn Hypnotherapist in Bath, helping you to help yourself…

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