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                                                                    Hypnosis: A Brief History and Explanation


Disclaimer: The services we render are held out to the public as non-therapeutic hypnotism, defined as the use of hypnosis to inculcate positive thinking and the capacity for self-hypnosis. Results may vary from person to person.  We do not represent our services as any form of medical, behavioral, or mental health care, and despite research to the contrary, by law we make no health claim to our services.                                       

Since the dawn of history and probably since some time before, healers have used what we now refer to as "hypnosis" and "hypnotic" techniques as a tool to heal, comfort, motivate and relax and to focus their patients' conscious attention in a way that accesses and utilizes physical and mental mechanisms that can influence and/or alter sensations, attention, perspective, blood flow, temperature, motivation, memory, urges and thoughts.

The first widely accepted "modern" use of these techniques was by Mesmer in the late 1700's, and the term "mesmerism" was coined to describe this process. Mesmer proclaimed that his process worked on the basis of vapors in the body that were redistributed by the mesmerist's animal magnetism. Mesmer's successes immediately spawned a plethora of "Mesmerists" and a great degree of public scrutiny. Mesmer and mesmerists reported successful use of mesmeric techniques in curing almost every type of disorder known at the time. This lead to an investigation by the French government. (America's Benjamin Franklin was one of the commission members.) The commission proclaimed mesmerism a fraud saying it did not function on the basis of Mesmer's theories about animal magnetism. Instead, the commission concluded, the therapeutic benefits of Mesmerism were actually due somehow to imagination.

It is not at all likely that mesmerism was able to cure at the rate its publicists claimed. It is likely that mesmerists were very successful in "curing" or aleviating a wide range of conditions. This is the finding of modern scientists and this finding is reflected in anthropological studies of early healers that used these methods before the dawn of modern science and documentation.

Though Mesmer and mesmerists and their theories about animal magnetism and magnetic vapors were declared frauds, scientists continued to study the use of techniques to relax, focus attention and then foster patients' abilities to use imagination to access otherwise inaccessible bodily processes and mental abilities. To avoid the stigma of fraud associated with the term "mesmerism," another term was coined to describe these basic techniques: "hypnotism." The term basically means "sleep-like state."

Sigmund Freud, around the turn of the century, used hypnotism in his attempts to gain understanding of his patients hidden conflicts and trauma memories but he later declared it too powerful a technique to be safely used -- mostly, it is believed, because he was attempting to utilize hypnotic techniques in a far too heavy-handed manner. There are also indications in his writings that he felt that the overall results of hypnotism seemed too much in the control of the patient and not enough in the control of the doctor. Freud didn't like the way one patient, in particular, thought she had fixed her own problems after he used hypnosis to help her. He thought he should get more credit.

Milton Erickson & hypnosis.
Modern hypnotic methods in medicine were researched, invented, discovered, developed, publicized and popularized worldwide by Dr. Milton Erickson during the middle third of the 20th century. He was fascinated and impressed by the power and potential of hypnosis. He demonstrated that a variety of simple verbal stratagems and guided imageries could be used to help patients access their own inner abilities with profound results in healing and optimizing functioning in any or all areas of their lives. Erickson promoted and popularized the use of methods that indirectly and permissively accessed subconscious processes to promote healing and functioning. "Indirectly," meant that the hypnotist did not directly suggest or direct the subject's responses. Permissive meant that the hypnotist worded suggestions permissively rather than as directives or orders. (That is, the hypnotizer doesn't say, "you eyelids are getting heavy." Instead, the hypnotizer says, "you might not notice your eyelids are getting heavy." Instead of directly telling the listener to do some specific thing, the listener is told that he or she might consider doing it, if they like. Rather than tell the subject to feel more and more relaxed, the subject is asked if he can imagine how it would feel to be more and more relaxed.) These methods allow subjects to not only feel a greater sense of personal control and free will but they also allow the listener to better understand and memorize the ways that they, themselves, are accomplishing the work of the hypnosis. And because of the listener's greater sense of control, focusing and then accessing and utilizing their own subconscious abilities is both easier and more likely to be experienced as ideally fitting with the listener's own particular needs.

Erickson also discovered, pioneered, developed and taught a wide variety of verbal strategies and other powerful techniques that electrified the fields of medicine, psychotherapy and advertising with their potential. His verbal stratagems were based on the various ways that the mind processes verbal input -- interplays between words, strategically placed pauses and clauses, redirection and misdirection, words with multiple meanings, and the special properties of negatives, questions, silences, imagery, surprise, ambiguity and confusion. He demonstrated that these techniques could provide numerous benefits, including increasing the degree of persuasion within the message and reducing the degree of resistance within the subject. He demonstrated that this could lead to fostering positive changes and emotional growth in patients, increased performance in athletes, the reduction and sometimes the elimination of physical and/or emotional pain, alteration of time sense, and teaching conscious control over usually non-conscious physiological functions.

Indirect, permissive hypnotic techniques -- guided imageries and other crafted verbal stratagems developed by Erickson, focused on altering thinking, cognitive restructuring and cognitive behavioral perspectives.

Hypnosis is now widely used now in 21st century medicine, dentistry and psychotherapy. It is used as a part of the treatment of psychiatric/- psychological disorders, the effects of incest, rape and physical abuse, allergies, anxiety and stress management, asthma, bed-wetting, depression, sports and athletic performance, excessive self-consciousness, smoking cessation, obesity and wight control, sleep disorders, Raynaud's disorder, high blood pressure, sexual dysfunctions, concentration, test anxiety, gastrointestinal disorders, surgery and anesthesiology, pain, burns, nausea and vomiting, childbirth, hemophilia.

"Consciousness" versus "unconsciousness."
The terms consciousness and unconsciousness are often used in discussions of mental processes -- especially with regard to what hypnosis does and can do. Consciousness, of course, is that part of thinking that we usually feel we are directly aware of. Consciously, we can think about our thinking. Unconsciousness does not refer to a state of zero consciousness or zero awareness. In fact, unconscious processes are pretty much always on, aware of all manner of things, and working at processing and making decisions. The unconscious -- the unconsciousness, the unconscious processes -- are mental processes that we cannot directly experience ourselves engaging in. (You may also run across the term "subconscious" in discussions of mental processes. This term was used in the past to mean something slightly different than the term "unconscious" but is now used basically interchangeably with "unconscious.")

The office complex brain. Our brains are complicated -- sort of like a tall office building with hundreds, if not thousands, of offices where there are thought processes going on in scores of offices at any given time. In the analogy of the office building, it is as if our consciousness is the penthouse or "head" office. As in any big company, though the guys in the head office might think they're in charge and that they know everything that's going on in the company -- but all the information they get at the head office (sensory info, perceptions, memories, etc.) has to come through a sorting, filtering and decision-making gambit of offices before the head office finds out about anything. Many things never come to the head office's attention. Many things are "massaged" and changed significantly before they come to the head office's attention.

This is the way our minds work. All stimuli coming in through the senses is screened by an unconscious set of processes for relevance and only that stuff that seems important is sent into consciousness (the head office). An example of that "unconscious process" would be the way some sounds wake us up in the night while others, equally as loud, do not -- because we unconsciously screen them for importance to us. Another example of the unconscious at work is when we are racking our brain to recall someone's name or where we put our keys and we just can't come up with the information and then we finally we give up (or at least the head office thinks we give up). Later, the answer pops to mind -- proving that somewhere in our mind we had continued looking for the information even though we thought we weren't thinking about it any further. Still another example of our unconscious processing is the trauma survivor who cannot rid him- or herself of thoughts of trauma. This is because offices in the unconscious keep sending memos to the head office about danger -- even though the head office wants to stop thinking about it. Or, still another example would be the alcoholic who is trying to be sober who's getting all sorts of messages from the lower offices about maybe dropping by the bar -- just to visit with friends (along with little suggestions not to worry about it, just do it). Sometimes what happens in the lower offices can really mess up one's functioning. Most times what happens makes our life function smoothly and well.

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science."
A. Einstein

Many unconscious thoughts can be inferred or deduced from our awareness and our behaviors, but many go on behind the scenes without any easy way of being aware. When we "unconsciously" decide to keep an awareness, a memory or thought out of our "consciousness," it is a complicated task to discover this -- unless perhaps later our "unconscious" lets our "consciousness" experience whatever was blocked and we can then infer what may have been unconscious before.

Unconscious thought processes pretty much filter, interpret, embellish or edit everything in our consciousness and can be both hindering and helpful of practical, productive, adaptive functioning. Unconscious mental mechanisms keep track of the time, decide what we pay attention to and what we ignore. Unconscious mental processes decide whether to think about eating or having a cigarette, whether to be remembering a trauma or not, whether to notice pain or an itch or a sensation or not. Unconscious mental processes are responsible for reactions and reactivity.

Freud believed that the "unconscious" was mostly a repository of one's dark secrets, fears and desires. However, Erickson and others expanded greatly on Freud's thinking and demonstrated that the "unconscious" is made up of all the non-conscious thinking that really makes up most of who a person is and that it is basically designed to assure positive, practical healthy functioning -- though sometimes difficulties can actually be caused rather than avoided by the ways in which our unconscious processes function..

Hypnosis, the "unconscious," psychological problems and fixes. Erickson and many others that have worked along side him and/or followed in his footsteps theorized and demonstrated that the "unconscious" -- in spite of being full of thought processes that were basically trying to be adaptive, happiness-promoting and healthy -- could also be responsible for many, if not most, non-biologically-based psychological problems. The woman, for example, whos mind has etched in sensitivities and alerts that are triggered by recognizing a certain pattern of lies in a subsequent boyfriend, is likely to experience warnings before hurts can happen and thus will tend to have less problems because of these mechanisms. On the other hand, a woman who cannot relax around anyone who likes orange juice (because her brain has warnings and sensitivities set up to alert her to danger if she sees someone drinking orange juice like a former abusive lover) has problems that may interfere with her life and do harm to relationships needlessly..

Many, if not most, psychological problems not due to a physical predisposition or disorder or damage, have coping strategies gone wrong at their core. The reason people can't just "pull themselves together" and do things better is often because their problematic ways of thinking and doing things are supported by assumptions, attitudes and agendas that lie hidden in the unconscious -- hidden but still very powerful in their influence.

A good example of this is the trauma survivor who feels anxious about relaxing. He or she believes at a conscious and/or unconscious level that relaxing is equivalent to letting down his or her guard and is thus dangerous and likely to result in further traumatization. The individual may consciously think it would be a good idea to relax and consciously try to relax but find that he or she is actually more anxious for the effort, not less. This is an adaptive response gone too far -- gone wrong. Never relaxing is not practical and even dangerous. The person who cannot relax and rejuvenate depletes his or her energy resources and begins to function less well both mentally and physically. Anyone under these circumstances would be, in fact, more vulnerable to having something bad happen because he or she cannot effectively be on guard with depleted energy.

Similarly, the alcoholic is an alcoholic because experience and possibly genetics have resulted in the learning of a very simplistic and very powerful idea that resides in an area in their unconscious that is sometimes referred to as a "pleasure center" -- that alcohol is very good for solving problems and making one feel better almost instantly. (Of course it does -- unfortunately only for a brief few minutes.)

Chronic pain is still another example of coping mechanisms doing more than they should. Pain is an information process -- like anxiety. It tells us we are in danger of being harmed. We break a leg and pain tells us to stay the heck off it. We lean on the stove and get too close to a hot burner and pain tells us to yank our hand away before major damage is done. But sometimes pain is the result of damages to nerves or other physical complications that do not constitute a danger situation. Once everything that can be done using physiological medicine is done, there sometimes remains significant recurring pain.

Erickson demonstrated that hypnosis was a wonderful vehicle for tapping into and fostering these very person-promoting thought processes and soothing away some of the more negative attitudes or ideas that can also be "unconscious." Hypnosis -- entering into a mental state of profound relaxation while focusing the consciousness on certain kinds of ideas -- somehow allows a functional connection and communication to normally unconscious thought processes. No one has discovered why or how hypnosis produces this effect but it is well documented that the hypnotic experience can produce alterations in blood flow, perceptions and a variety of brain functions that are normally considered out of the realm of "conscious" control. 

                           g. m. johnson, phd ~ clinical psychologist

Disclaimer: The services we render are held out to the public as non-therapeutic hypnotism, defined as the use of hypnosis to inculcate positive thinking and the capacity for self-hypnosis. Results may vary from person to person.  We do not represent our services as any form of medical, behavioral, or mental health care, and despite research to the contrary, by law we make no health claim to our services.