Search

Articles & Essays

Jack has written more than 500 articles and essays for The Atlantic, Scientific American Mind, Wired, American Heritage, The History Channel Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, and many other publications.

Read his articles and essays here.

Jack El-Hai's Books
  • The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
    The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness
  • Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
    Non-Stop: A Turbulent History of Northwest Airlines
  • Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
    Lost Minnesota: Stories of Vanished Places
  • The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
    The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII
Follow Jack on Twitter

Sunday
Sep232012

Hypnotism and Its Past

[In earlier posts that you'll find here and here, I've written about my fascination with hypnotism and my interviews and encounters with hypnotists of various types. In this post, I continue the series by scratching the surface of hypnotism's history and looking at its popular portrayal.]

For centuries, hypnotism has suffered from an image problem. The pleasant experience of surrenduring to the thrall of a book, movie, or religious experience — all similar states of consciousness — is nothing like the popular conception of hypnotism, as promulgated by novels and other forms of entertainment.Actor Lumsden Hare as the scheming hypnotist in Svengali, a 1931 film adaptation of Trilby

In George DuMaurier’s Trilby, a much-filmed nineteenth-century novel about a man’s control over a concert singer, the hypnotist Svengali makes a spectacular first appearance. He was

a tall bony individual of any age between thirty and forty-five, of Jewish aspect, well featured but sinister. He was very shabby and dirty, and wore a red beret and a large velveteen cloak, with a big metal clasp at the collar. His thick, heavy, languid, lusterless black hair fell down behind his ears to his shoulders, in that musician-like way that is so offensive to the normal Englishman. He had bold, brilliant black eyes, with long heavy lids, a thin, sallow face, and a beard of burnt-up black, which grew almost from his under eyelids; and over it his moustache, a shade lighter, fell in two long spiral twists. He went by the name of Svengali, and spoke fluent French with a German accent and humorous German twists and idioms, and his voice was very thin and mean and harsh, and often broke into a disagreeable falsetto.

Like Svengali’s technique, the hypnotic induction methods of many fictional characters are exercises in power, unpleasant for the hypnotized person. They demonstrate the irresistible domination of the hypnotist.

Domination was not a motivation of the early hypnotists, including mothers of millennia past who sang and rocked their crying babies back and forth to comfort them. In the eighteenth century, Anton Mesmer, a Viennese physician, moved magnets over the bodies of prone patients. Mesmer postulated that a fluid called animal magnetism regulates human health, and that his magnets beneficially manipulated this life-giving energy. Mesmer’s treatment frequently brought patients to fits of high-pitched emotion, followed by a faint. Later, Armand-Marie-Jacques de Chastenet, one of Mesmer’s students, discovered that he could guide the thoughts and actions of his patients through mere suggestion, without magnets, and he sometimes made patients dance jerkily in their chairs.

The English surgeon James Braid, who coined the word “neurohypnotism,” meaning nervous sleep, typically treated patients by holding a lit candle before and above their line of sight. He would then suddenly thrust his other hand from the candle to patient’s eyes, producing a trance. Braid frequently made patients’ limbs rise and stiffen by passing a key over them. He was the first to hypothesize that hypnotic responses arise from mental suggestions that produce physical responses. 

Sigmund Freud was a failure as a hypnotist, but not so other serious investigators of the twentieth century. Milton Erickson, M.D., an American who melded hypnotherapy with psychotherapy, freed his patients to follow their own inclinations while in hypnosis, and Morey Bernstein, an amateur hypnotist, worked closely with Virginia Tighe in Pubelo, Colorado, to carry her back to a supposed past life as an Irishwoman named Bridey Murphy. (Above is a hypnotism scene from the 1956 film The Search for Bridey Murphy.)

In 1976, hypnotist William Kroger helped Ed Ray, a part-time school bus driver in Chowchilla, California, remember the license plate number of the vehicle used by kidnapers who commandeered his bus full of schoolchildren and hid them in a moving van buried in a rock quarry. The captors’ arrest soon followed. 

Therapeutic hypnotism has come a long way in recent decades, but its popular image unfortunately remains mired in the past.


PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (3)

It's unfortunate that the past of therapeutic hypnotism is still haunting it and preventing many people from seeking help that they may desperately need. Hopefully the future will be brighter for hypnotherapy.
July 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHypnotism Dude
Hmm, hypnotism seems pretty interesting. I've been trying to find ways to overcome my smoking habit and someone suggested hypnosis. I thought I'd look more into it and have found a good amount of resources. I find that fascinating that Sigmund Freud failed at it. It's just funny to me that the father of modern psychology wouldn't be able to put people to sleep very well.
March 4, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDavey Hiltz
Davey, Freud has put plenty of people to sleep, but hypnotism is not sleep. It's a fully conscious state of relaxed awareness. I've heard of many people who have found that it helped in quitting smoking, and I hope you'll try it.
March 6, 2015 | Registered CommenterJack El-Hai

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.
« Lou Gehrig, ALS, and the Patient Records Controversy | Main | H.G. Wells Meets Josef Stalin »