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Quantum leaps in the evolution of therapeutic hypnosis

By Tommy Hanchen

Contemporary psychotherapy owes a debt of gratitude to the history of hypnosis that has not been acknowledged.

In this article I have chosen three of the giants in this history to illustrate how their genius has informed what is now practiced as talking therapy.

Beginning with Franz Anton Mesmer’s work on animal magnetism in the mid to late 18th century through to James Braid’s research into states of double consciousness and fascination. This also led to the first use of the term hypnosis in the mid 19th Century. Leaping into the present and concluding with the contribution of Ernest Rossi and how he brilliantly aligns the innovations of Milton Erickson’s indirect and utilisation approach to the evolving fields of psychobiology and neuroscience.

Tommy Hanchen
Tommy Hanchen

is a United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy registrant and a founding member of the Neuro Linguistic Psychotherapy and Counselling Association.

He holds the European Certificate of Psychotherapy and is a member of the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis.

His work involves providing training,consultancy and supervision to therapists and social care workers along with private practice.
Currently working for Bereavement charities, Victim Support agencies,  Local Mind associations, drug rehabilitation agencies and supervising school based counsellors.

Also a range of trainings for statutory and health care organisations, including Risk, Handling Aggression and Violence and Emotional Intelligence.

Tom's work has taken him overseas with projects in the U.S.A, Portugal, the Czech Republic and Nigeria.

It may be that a fitting epitaph to Mesmer’s story was that he was a victim of his own success – by becoming too great a threat to the newly forming scientific and medical establishment of his time.

Mesmer studied at the Vienna medical school and published his thesis entitled  ”Physico/Medical Dissertation on the Influence of the Planets” in 1766. His education exposed him to Copernican astronomy and Newton’s work on gravitation. Richard Mead’s theory of atmospheric tides causing periodicity in physiological functioning is also a significant influence.

Mesmer went on to work in private practice as a physician in Vienna. By 1774 Mesmer had discovered animal magnetism. Originally using magnets, which he later discarded, to channel a universal fluid that connects sun, moon, planets, with human beings and a fluid that achieves therapeutic effects.


Mesmer would treat all diseases and believe that the fluid could be channelled with the patient sitting face to face with the mesmerist. In so doing he believed magnetic poles were linked and a circuit was completed.

The Mesmerist would make strokes and passes on and around the patient. At the same time giving positive suggestions of healing and health inviting the patient to imagine their wellness and lasting cure.

Later tubs referred to as baguettes were developed to assist in condensing the fluid and in working with groups of patients.

Iron rods were inserted which would be held by the patients. The group was often linked together with a rope which could also be attached to a tree that had been magnetised by Mesmer. Again with suggestions for health and healing many individuals would appear to experience crises of physical convulsions before experiencing a cure. This would be repeated around the group. As in face-to-face work, other than the initial suggestions, very little verbal interaction took place.

Franz Anton Mesmer

His work gained popularity and equally criticism. Following a much-publicised case of temporarily curing a young pianist for blindness (she happened to be sponsored by the Austrian Empress) he decided to leave Austria. Such a high profile case had unfortunately attracted much political criticism from the medical faculty in Vienna when the pianist’s blindness returned.

Mesmer had decided that he would not achieve the recognition he deserved from Austria and left for Paris in 1778. Six years later in 1784 Louis XV1 set up a Royal Commission headed up by Benjamin Franklin and including Lavoisier and Guillotine to investigate animal magnetism. This was at a time of scientific reductionism where observation and evidence of experience were more important than theories of understanding. The age of enlightenment. The Commission was looking for measurable and tangible evidence of animal magnetism. Unfortunately for Mesmer they concluded that this was not science. Although many people had got better this could not be due to scientifically proven processes or facts. However, they believed that where there were effects such as convulsions and improvements in health they were attributed to other factors.

These were specified as Imagination, which was probably the most important. The use of Touch to physically disturb the nerves and Imitation whereby individuals involuntarily mirror the process and effects.

The parallels here with what we now see as the cornerstones of contemporary psychotherapy and especially in cognitive behaviour therapies are enormous. To list a few may help the reader appreciate the origin of our understanding of what works in the different therapeutic orientations is at the very least over 200 years old.

When one considers how important the placebo effect in healing and medicine, including pharmacology, whereby some research has indicated up to 40per cent., of the efficacy of any treatment can be attributed to the expectation and belief that it will work, it is not surprising that the Franklin Commission valued imagination as the most important factor. Positive expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies are at the heart of the dominant therapeutic approaches. Whether one focuses on the client’s personal resources, as in NLP, and in solution and outcome orientated work. Also where one builds competency by looking for positive changes however small, in experience as in CBT the skill of the client in using their imagination is paramount. What can be visualised can become true.

Whole therapeutic schemas are built around the manipulation of belief systems and changing inner dialogue like REBT and again CBT.

Positive expectancy and respect for the client are often now seen as core to the qualities required of any therapist. The person centred approach with its core conditions of positive regard, empathy and genuineness is commonly seen as fundamental to any orientation.

Although physical touch in a talking therapy is appropriately boundaried and generally viewed as not that important, the healing hand exists in a huge variety of therapeutic relationships. From a mother’s kiss or caress to make it better, to the whole world of massage and medical physical manipulation. Recent innovations such as Thought Field Therapy (tapping) and ancient practices such as acupuncture claim healing through physical touch in releasing or freeing energy.

One of Freud’s students and contemporaries, Wilhelm Reich, like Mesmer, believed in some kind of energy (the orgone) that flowed through the body and ill health could be healed through physical manipulations alongside the talking cure.

Imitation, the last factor described by the Franklin Commission, explaining the positive effects reported by Mesmer’s patients, is perhaps now what we understand as mirroring and modelling.

Repeating a ritual that gives a beneficial outcome or acting as if one has already overcome difficulty can be seen as examples of this. The whole of NLP is based on imitating success and effectiveness. Anthropologists and psychologists have long understood how mirroring in human behaviour is a naturally occurring trait in all forms of learning and development. Neuroscientists have now discovered the physical basis for this in the brain.

Franz Anton Mesmer’s animal magnetism was universally discredited following the Franklin Commission and in 1779, just five years later, France would be in the grip of the French Revolution. Mesmer returned to Vienna and eventually Switzerland from where little washeard  about him.

His work and ideas were continued and developed even though they were not officially recognised. Often in underground like groups but also by recognised scientists and physicians. For example, the Marquis de Puysegur a former pupil of Mesmer’s was credited with discovering artificial somnambulism and rapport in the early 19th century.

Then in 1843 a Scottish surgeon by the name of James Braid coined the term hypnosis to describe nervous sleep and somnambulism.From Mesmerism to somnambulism to hypnosis, the circuit is complete.

Many people would say that contemporary psychotherapy has its beginnings with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in the early days of the psychoanalytic movement. However, I believe we have much to appreciate and learn from the work begun by Mesmer over two centuries ago. Perhaps within the history of the evolution and development of therapeutic hypnosis lies the unlocking of the mysteries of a unifying theory of all therapy and healing.

Mesmer attributed the effects of animal magnetism on the individual to a magnetic fluid that was channelled through special powers of the Mesmerist. James Braid’s groundbreaking research and practice changed the paradigm.

Working in Scotland and Manchester, England, for over 20 years researching the phenomenon he described variously as states of double consciousness, physiological fascination and hypnosis.
He challenged the mesmerist’s view and argued that hypnosis was a subjective phenomenon experienced by the subject who has fixated their attention and becomes receptive to dominant suggestions.

James Braid

The trance was not evidence of some paranormal external force but a subjective experience that can be induced by a practitioner. This was accomplished by assisting the subject to fixate their attention, excite their imagination through dominant suggestions and activate or deactivate specific muscle groups.

Braid also believed that subjects in trance were susceptible to imitating and responding to vocal and non-verbal cues and suggestions. He recognised that hypnotic trance states were likely to be very similar to those that were self-induced by the ancients, for example, fakirs and yogins and other mystics. 

The idea that hypnosis was the result of an external force had not disappeared and continued to draw public interest from numerous occult groups and as entertainment on the stage. One exception to this was the work of the scientist Baron von Reichenbach who, again using magnets, believed he had discovered an external force using magnets on people, which he named the Odic force.

It is not surprising that following the discoveries of gravity, magnetism and electricity people attributed hypnotic effects to some kind of invisible energy. With James Braid a completely different way of understanding was born. Whilst still remaining true to the key factors identified by the Franklin Commission in investigating Mesmer’s work, namely imagination, touch, and imitation.

Braid shifted the attention from an external power and powerful therapists to the experience of the client as part of normal human behaviour. Interestingly, according to Braid’s research 10 per cent., of his patients were able to achieve something like the somnambulistic state of deep trance whilst the majority experienced a state of reverie without losing consciousness or memory of the experience. These results would seem to have remained similar to those achieved in recent times, for example, through the administration of hypnotic suggestibility scales developed at Harvard and Stanford universities, America.

The Victorian era was noted for some amazing engineering achievements. Perhaps one of the most well known was the work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. In his own work Braid likened himself to an engineer whose role is to guide the patient in using his or her own abilities in developing trance.

Braid began to distinguish different stages of the hypnotic trance. He originally referred to this as double consciousness whereby some individuals could achieve a state of deep sleep which was accompanied by a loss of consciousness and willpower. Any sensory stimulus for example, auditory, olfactory or physical would not arouse the patient. The patient would have no memory of any stimulus being present. Then following a second lighter sleep the patient was able to recall all the stimulus activity.

He also was able to demonstrate that for many people muscles relaxed, breathing and circulation calmed. However, for others a state of catalepsy was achieved with an increase of circulation and difficult breathing.

Many of these findings would seem to reflect what we now know in the variations in our population and that it is still possible to be in a trance state while our physiological systems are active and aroused. This may have been the beginning of what we now commonly refer to as states of dissociation that occur naturally and in some cases as a means of surviving some kind of trauma and with the consequences of negative symptomatology. For example, post traumatic stress disorder. Perhaps the phobic response also has a similar symptomatology with experiences of dissociation, overactive physiological systems and a highly active imagination all with negative outcomes.

The method James Braid commonly used in assisting his patients to achieve a trance state was that of focused attention through eye fixation; his own fascination and observation of the physiological effects on the eye muscle that occurred with eye fixation are interesting. It might now seem obvious that with prolonged fixation on any object (it does not have to be the stereotypical pocket watch or spiral) that eye muscles will become tired and there will be some physical distortion often leading to a natural closing of the eyelids.

He also noticed an increase in activation once the eyelids closed. Once again we might speculate how the genesis of this observation led many years later to what we now understand as rapid eye movement sleep associated with dreaming.

Would it be too fanciful to link this with what was developed by John Grinder and Richard Bandler in their work on eye accessing cues to understand neurological activation? Or the work of Dr Shapiro in eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing with combat trauma victims.

Braid concluded that consciousness and will are dimmed during trance. Movements become instinctive and automatic with dominant suggestions in the imagination providing a tendency to movement. The notion of a suggestion producing involuntary action became known as idio-dynamic which has been developed in recent times by Cheek and Rossi with finger signalling in trance and the use of the cheruval pendulum. Arm levitation has long been used in therapeutic hypnosis as a means of trance ratification and creating a state of fascination and curiosity.

The tone of the therapist’s voice was seen by Braid as hugely important. A tone that would reflect the positive expectation of what was desired, spoken in a convincing manner. However, he also discovered that slight changes in intonation indicating more subtle changes in emotion from happiness to sadness would produce consistent responses in the patient. His use of language in exciting the imagination was rooted in assisting his patient through the use of sensory based questioning. For example, what colour? What feeling? What sound? What taste and smell?

It is now well established that the qualities of the voice and not the words themselves convey most of the emotional meaning in communication. Much of this is processed by the recipient outside of conscious awareness.

He conducted some remarkable experiments of vocal imitation where one subject could imitate perfectly the language or song of another without any knowledge of the meaning of the words or of the music, demonstrating an acute sensitivity of the auditory system.

Sensory preferences and modalities have featured greatly in the work of many different therapists including Carl Jung, Virginia Satir, and again in NLP.

Unlike the mesmerists Braid would not make passes or strokes with his patients. However, he did explore the use of touch especially on the forehead and noticed how different physical postures would regularly produce different emotional responses. In using his forefinger in gently lifting the skin of the forehead he found that this assisted in inducing a state of optimism and openness and where the reverse motion on the forehead may induce concern and worry. He noticed how lifting the head and making suggestions to open the chest would also produce optimism with the reverse being true to produce a depression.

What we now understand as physical anchoring of emotional states through touch, gesture or other movements was also used by Braid. Both in literal physical contact or by using his gaze or his own body movements to suggest the activation of certain muscle groups in his patients by their unconscious imitation.

The phenomenon of physical mirroring is now well known whether it is in the infectious yawn or the symmetrical body language of a couple in rapport.

Interestingly Braid’s use of smell with people in trance was surprisingly effective. He showed how people could recognise another individual from a crowd where they have previously, in trance, smelled a glove belonging to that person. Apart from the field of aromatherapy and our natural olfactory sensitivities which easily evoke memories and emotions the use of smell does not seem to have been widely developed in the mainstream therapeutic arena.

However, I am aware of a recent study by two Israeli psychiatrists in the use of hypnotherapeutic olfactory conditioning in helping patients with needle phobia, panic disorder and combat induced PTSD. Here the patient chooses a pleasing scent that is then associated in trance with a desired state of relaxation and competence. The patient can then reinforce this outside the clinical setting by carrying with them a small vial of the scent.

State dependent memory, learning and behaviour, is a model much written about by Ernest Rossi and others. Whereby memory learning and behaviour can be encoded under conditions of emotional arousal, novelty, stress, sex or trauma. The memory learning or behaviour can be state bound or state dependent. This can be seen in the make up of a phobia and also in memory recall where revisiting in situ or recreating in the imagination specific conditions can bring back memory learning and behaviour.

James Braid may well have been one of the first to notice this pattern in his experiments of blind sight writing in trance. Subjects would be asked to read a passage with errors in it. Then in trance they would be asked to correct the passage without being able to see. If the paper were in exactly the same position as initially then the corrections would be perfect, if the paper was moved, then not. Braid also attributed this skill to extreme muscular and tactile sensitivity in trance.

Above all James Braid provided a very pragmatic approach to the use and understanding of therapeutic hypnosis. Seeing the patient as the one has the skill and the talent and describing how it is the mind that can have power over the body.

Work on therapeutic hypnosis continued through mainstream medicine and the newly emerging field of psychology. However, with the advent of the psychoanalytic movement at the turn of the 20th century and probably as Sigmund Freud abandoned hypnosis in favour of free word association interest in therapeutic hypnosis began to wane.

Ernest Rossi

Ernest Rossi from the United States, originally trained as a psychologist and Jungian analyst. In my view he is one of the greatest living researchers, writers and practitioners in the field of therapeutic hypnosis. Well known for his time with Milton Erickson, he is certainly the individual who studied and wrote more about Erickson’s use of hypnosis than anyone else. The reader may wonder why I have chosen to write about Rossi and not Milton Erickson, the pupil and not the master as it were. My response is that without doubt Milton Erickson’s contribution was a work of genius who I believe is the key individual in the last century to have brought therapeutic hypnosis back into the mainstream.

Dr Ernest Rossi

However, so much of his work has been documented and I believe that Rossi is one of the leading people to have taken therapeutic hypnosis into the new dawn of neuroscience, psychobiology and psychotherapy.

I have had the privilege of attending several of Rossi’s workshops when he would conduct residential teaching seminars annually in Keswick, England.

During one of the first seminars I was introduced to Rossi’s work on the four stages of creative psychotherapy. A small group of therapists with a common interest in therapeutic hypnosis gathered together to learn and to practice with Ernest Rossi.

This practice involved working face to face with Rossi within the group. His approach was to guide the subject through the four stages of creative psychotherapy. The process began with Rossi inviting the subject to focus on their hands and imagine that each hand represents a different aspect or experience of the inner work that the subject wishes to undertake.

In a way the hand can sense and hold the polarity of the experience. Through gentle prompts and enquiries the subject is encouraged and supported on focusing deeply on the sensations within their hands. A trance like experience begins with Rossi observing the subject with sensitive intensity and making the most minimal of interventions by asking questions as the work and process begins to flow. In so doing the hands will often begin to move whether through conscious will or through involuntary volition. Like a quiet dance of the hands the subject can sense some arousal in their experience. Throughout, being encouraged in quiet tones to be fascinated and curious about what is happening and what might happen next.

Just by staying with their experience, speaking only when they choose to and in order to give Rossi just enough information for him to support the subject. This experience can create some insight and intuition relevant to the inner work that the subject has brought. The process draws to an end with Rossi helping the subject reintegrate their learning by focusing on the meaning and value of their insight. Rossi will also invite the subject to imagine how they might use and benefit from this in the future.

The four stages have been named as INITIATION-The gathering of information and sensing experience, INCUBATION-arousal and feeling, ILLUMINATION- insight and intuition, VERIFICATION- reintegration and thinking.

The reader might notice how Rossi has mapped Jung’s four psychological functions on to the process (sensing, feeling, intuition and thinking).

As with all creative work the process is not necessarily linear and the work ebbs and flows or yoyo’s back and forth on its path to completion. It is interesting to note how the work begins by representing in the hands the polarity of an issue. Jung and other contemporary psychotherapists especially existential psychotherapists, view all experience as relative and therefore inherently uncertain. This difference can create anxiety and conflict. Perhaps the goal of therapy is to use this difference and tension as a creative energy. I can smile and enjoy the enduring metaphor of magnetism and electricity as therapeutic energy in a polarity response.

Rossi has also described this process as allowing arousal to reach its own peak from which illumination can follow and then the subject can begin to relax. Remember the crisis as a breakthrough and turning point in Mesmer’s work.

This reminds me of how this process is mirroring the very same as we breathe. Taking in energy as oxygen arouses the body which peaks and then as we breathe out all bodily systems relax on the out breath.

Rossi compared the creative process to one natural ultradian 90-120 min cycle of activity and rest. The ultradian rhythms as opposed to the circadian rhythms of night and day are the ebbs and flow of physiological and biological bodily changes that come with work and rest.

One could stand even further back to notice a similar process in the rhythm and cycle of changing seasons. Remembering Richard Mead’s work on periodicity of tides and the moon in the 18th century and how this influenced Mesmer’s ideas.

Perhaps there is indeed a thread linking all living things through the rhythms and cycles of growth and creativity.

Wilhelm Reich, who believed he had discovered a life force which he named as orgone energy as mentioned previously, also described a process for creativity in the mid 20th century. Again with four stages remarkably similar to that presented for creative psychotherapy by Rossi. NURTURE, ENERGISE, PEAK, and RELAX.

Rossi describes the psychobiology of psychotherapy as the exploration of mind body experience, communication and healing at all levels from the cultural and psychosocial to the cellular-genetic-molecular and the quantum. For this work he has brilliantly brought together research from the disciplines of the physical and the biological nature of life itself. Rossi has likened the moments of illumination and intuition which follow from the peak or crisis of arousal in the creative process to an experience of the  numinous.

Those moments where as he describes as people having an overwhelming experience of fascination with the mysterious and tremendousness of life and the universe. The reader might reflect on how back in the 19th century James Braid talked about the psycho-physiology of fascination of  in the therapeutic trance.

For Milton Erickson’s work, who was a master and innovator in using psychological challenges in therapy, those creative moments have been described as an inner re association and reorganisation of ideas, understandings and memories that lead to healing.

If Mesmer opened the way for people to understand the power of the imagination in therapy then Braid taught us that the skill belongs with the client and Rossi is showing us how to follow the symptom to enlightenment in healing.

We are living in an age where the disciplines of knowledge whether from the arts or the sciences are converging. Perhaps one of the most exciting places where this is taking place is in the field of therapeutic hypnosis and psychotherapy. We are so close, or some would say we already have understood the physical  nature of emotional experience.

Maybe Ernest Rossi through his fascination with therapeutic hypnosis and with bringing together psychological and biological scientific knowledge has shown how the healing process works. Psychologically and biologically, the power of the mind over the body and vice versa.

Developments in genetics have challenged the old idea that as we grow old we just lose brain cells. It is now understood that with exercise and the stimulation of new experiences and learning there really is no time limit to the possibility of new genes being turned on and expressed. In therapeutic hypnosis and psychotherapy we become involved in this process as meanings and ideas are re associated and reorganised forming new neurological connections and expressing different genes. Of course, the social and physical environment in which we live will also help shape our health and who we become.

Psychotherapy and neuroscience are converging. With access to ever more specific brain imaging technology we may yet be able to physically demonstrate the effectiveness of our therapeutic interventions.

Two of the models of how the brain works and how it has evolved are of particular relevance to therapeutic hypnosis and psychotherapy.

From a lateral perspective it is understood that the brain is structured in two halves. This knowledge has been around for many years and typically the right half is associated with emotion and the left with, logic reason and language. We now know that in about the first two years of life development is happening in the right brain. It is as though nature has decreed that survival demands that humans first need to be able to recognise emotional states of safety, joy, fear and anger. Language and reason begin to be developed in the left brain from about two years. It has been said that the role of the left brain is to make sense of and help modulate the emotional experience of the right.

From a vertical perspective and in more recent times the neuroscientist Paul MacLean gave us the model of the triune brain (1985). As the brain evolves the first level is the reptilian brain responsible for arousal and autonomic functioning of basic life supporting systems. The second level that develops is the paleo mamillian brain responsible for all learning, memory and emotion. The third level is that of the neo mamillian brain our higher functions of consciousness, self awareness and connections between the two hemispheres. The reader may notice a remarkable similarity of the Id, Ego and Superego which was developed nearly a century before.

If it is nature’s intention to create healthy convergence and integration of experience then is not that what has always been the goal of therapeutic hypnosis and psychotherapy?


I am indebted to the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis and their official publication The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis. Much of the source material has been drawn from their work.

Equally I owe a debt of gratitude to Georgina Evers who hosted the wonderful workshops with Ernest Rossi for several years in Keswick, England. Such a charming and gracious host in a perfectly fitting setting.

To Ernest Rossi and for all his written work I would like to express my heartfelt thanks.  A truly wise man who for me embodies elegance and humility.

Finally none of this could have been possible without the love, steadfastness and drive of my partner Vaso and my two daughters Yolande Maria and Chloe Anna who have given me so much more than they will ever know.

©Tommy Hanchen 2009