(Investigator 174, 2017 May)


The history of hypnosis goes back to the days of sorcery and magic. Incense, chants, drugs and soft music were used by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks to induce sleep during which curative suggestions were given to the sufferers. Its scientific history however, did not begin until the latter half of the 18th century with Friedrich Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), a graduate of medicine in Vienna and a believer in astrology.

Termed "animal magnetism" or "mesmerism", his work was carried on by his most influential pupil, the Marquis de Puysegur (1751-1825). By 1850, the "mesmeric" movement had grown enormously on the Continent, in the United States and in Britain, and the word hypnosis was coined by the English physician, James Braid.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Joseph Bauer (1842-1925) both used hypnosis in psychotherapy, and British psychologist William McDougal (1871-1944) used hypnosis to treat soldiers suffering from "shell-shock". Charles Hull (1884-1952), a professor at the University of Wisconsin, published his classic Hypnosis and Suggestibility in 1933.

Between World Wars I and I1, there was some scientific progress made in the study of hypnosis, and a further impetus was given to its study after the 1939-1945 conflict.

In the mid-1950s, both the American and British Medical Associations formally approved its medical use.


Mesmer conceived the idea that the planets affected human beings through a form of magnetism and he began treating his patients with magnets. He later abandoned this method of treatment having decided that the true curative influence emanated from the hand and nervous system of the operator. He called this influence "animal magnetism". Puysegur's explanation of the phenomenon was similar to Mesmer's, in that he believed that "magnetised" objects could send subjects into a "magnetic sleep", and that magnetism was collectible and storable. He was convinced too, that the magnetic fluid or therapeutic energy could also be directed by the will of the operator upon the body and nervous system of the subject.

In 1813, J. P. F. Deleuze wrote of magnetism, that the important question was not "whether there is a fluid spread throughout the whole of nature, but whether there exists a modification of that fluid of which man can make himself master for the purpose of directing it in accordance with his wish".

In defining the common perception of hypnosis, Spanos and Chaves point out in Hypnosis: The Cognitive-Behavioural Perspective, that most lay people believe that it involves a trance or at least an altered state of consciousness, brought about by a repetitive verbal ritual after which the person hypnotised becomes amenable to the wishes and directions of the hypnotist.


An important consideration in inducing hypnosis is that the subject be willing, co-operative and interested. A hypnotist can then progressively, persuasively and repetitiously suggest tiredness, relaxation, eye closure and loss of interest in external stimuli. Once achieved, the subject can then function at the level of unconscious awareness.


Like the pros and cons of herbal medicine, we again tread on thin ice. On the one hand we have reports of success, on the other — scepticism.

With regard to Mesmer's basic theories, one who was not convinced was Frank Podmore, a former spiritualist turned ardent sceptic and a member of the British Society for Psychical Research, who wrote:

"the whole machinery on which the early writers relied as demonstrating the existence of a fluid-celestial, magnetic or electric, were due to the imagination of the subject, preternormally alive to the suggestion by word, look, gesture, or even unexpressed thought by the operator".

The popularity of electromagnetism as a therapeutic medium however, led to the entrepreneurial introduction of some remarkable and often bizarre inventions.

They include Dr. Perkins Patent Tractors, consisting of two dissimilar metal rods used to prod and caress magnetic impulses into the vitals of the stricken. The doctor died of yellow fever unable to save himself with his own gadgets. The Electropathic Belt, designed to give vitality to the internal organs, relax morbid contractions and renew nerve force. Dr. Scott's Electric Hairbrush, which not only cured dandruff but also "soothed the weary brain". The Patent Electric Eye Battery — an ordinary eye bath in which was immersed a small battery which it was claimed, would cure specks before the eyes and eye weakness caused by advanced years or early excesses. And in his Temple of Health, "Dr." James Graham's Electro-magnetico Celestial Bed was very popular with those who could afford it. The bed was guaranteed to ensure consummate pleasure and pregnancy for the couples who queued to pay fifty pounds a time for magnetically assisted copulation.

For those males inflicted with the curse of impotency, a live nude goddess would attend with the promise of a cure. The latter I would suggest would probably be more efficacious than the magnets.

Not all pseudoscientific or paranormal phenomena can be dismissed out of hand simply because they seem farfetched, although many of the concomitant claims need to be examined closely rather than accepting them uncritically — hypnosis is one.

In the twentieth century, hypnosis is used by serious medical practitioners and New Age hypnotherapists alike. It is the latter with which I am primarily concerned.

That hypnosis allows accurate and reliable memory retrieval is a common and fallacious belief. Hypnosis is widely used by practitioners seeking confirmation of extraordinary claims such as reincarnation, past lives and UFO abductions, yet in reality studies have shown that memories retrieved under hypnosis are even more unreliable than normal memories.

Leading questions, auto-suggestion and fabrications by both the hypnotist and the subject can contribute to creating false memories and both the subject (and especially a parapsychologist with a proclivity to believe), are convinced that the memories so retrieved are true recollections. When specific questions are put to a person under hypnosis about details of a past life or about a past event, they are under pressure to provide information of which no memory exists, in which case the gaps will be filled in with memories and fantasies from other places and times.

In recent times, the widespread and unregulated advocacy of hypnosis as a therapy to recover repressed memories has led to uncorroborated allegations being used as evidence to destroy people's lives.

Through recovered memories, adults who now believe that they were sexually abused as children have brought legal action against those who loved them most.

An internationally recognised authority on hypnosis, Martin T. Orne, (October 1979), had this to say in a paper published in The International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis:

"The courts have recognised that hypnotic testimony is not reliable as a means of ascertaining the truth ... that it is possible for a person to feign hypnosis and deceive even highly experienced hypnotist … and further, that itis possible for even deeply hypnotised subjects to wilfully lie."

Confirming this, Emest R. Hilgard, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University, sees the use of hypnotic recall as an abuse of hypnosis, first because of the role that fantasy plays for hypnotically responsive subjects and second, because abundant evidence exists that fabrication can take place under hypnosis.

Like so many other groundless beliefs, hypnosis fails to measure up to many of the claims made on its behalf. In the 1950s and 1960s, control groups were used in experiments designed to lay the ghost once and for all.

One experiment consisted of three groups. The first was given the usual hypnotic induction procedure, the second group was asked to imagine whatever was
suggested to them and a third was simply urged to do their best to respond to suggestions. While all three groups responded to suggestions for age regression, hallucination, amnesia and pain reduction, the subjects who showed up best in tests of hypnotic susceptibility were those who had been asked to pretend to be hypnotised. Furthermore, their performance could be improved with some training. In other words, what had been thought of as a genetically-endowed susceptibility was in fact a skill which could be learned. The fact is that the hypnotic subjects knew how they were supposed to behave and endeavoured to behave in the manner defined by the hypnotist and understood by them.

Post hypnotic suggestion, that is, when a subject is told that he will perform a certain action on cue after waking up, has also been shown wanting.

Thirteen subjects were told to scratch their ear when they heard the word "psychology". They all did so. The hypnotist gave the impression that the experiment was over and had an informal conversation with a colleague, in which the cue word was used. Nine of the subjects failed to respond. When told that the experiment was still in progress, seven of those nine began responding again. Later, when a confederate posing as a lost student asked for the Psychology Department, none of the subjects responded to the cue word.

In his book, The Superconscious World, Peter J. Reeven, a professional hypnotist, relates how David Marks, a New Zealand psychologist, selected three secretaries from a TV station and invited them to lunch. As their car drew up at the restaurant door, an armed robbery took place outside a garage across the road. Later, the three secretaries were questioned under hypnosis about the colour of the get-away car, a detailed description of the robbery, and the number of people involved. All three gave different answers, even to the sex of the criminals. The whole event had been staged in order to prove that hypnosis does not work in enhancing total recall.

While there have been many claims of hypnosis being used to reduce the effects of pain, medical workers worldwide have been unable to replicate successes claimed by physicians employing hypnotic analgesia.

Where thorough investigations have been carried out, hypnotic analgesia has suffered the same flaws that have ruined the claims for acupuncture analgesia; the treatment has almost always been accompanied by chemical anaesthetics, sedation or local anaesthesia.

There appears to be little consensus in law for the validity of hypnosis. In Los Angeles, it was ruled that testimony from hypnotised witnesses was not admissible. In Canada, hypnotic suggestion is allowed as a defence along with such influences as drugs and alcohol, and the American Law Institute's Model Penal Code claims that anyone following hypnotic suggestion is not acting voluntarily and therefore cannot be considered criminally liable.

Of concern to sceptics is the rash of accusations of sexual abuse levelled at members of the community in recent years by people who have sought the services of psychologists using hypnotherapy. Patients seeking treatment for depression who have been hypnotised to "recover" childhood memories are coming out of therapy claiming to be sexual abuse victims. Opponents label it the "false memory syndrome" and claim that therapists trigger the memories by asking leading questions and suggesting that the abuse happened. The results of these false accusations have had devastating results.


Dlhopolsky, J.G. 1984. "Hypnosis Memories Found Error-Prone and Pliable." Skeptical Inquirer. 8:208-209.

Dywan, J. and Bowers, K. 1983. The Use of Hypnosis to Enhance Recall. Science, 222, 184-185.

Gibbs, Andrew. 1997. The Reality of Recovered Memories. the Skeptic, Vo1.17, No.2. p.21-29. Australian Skeptics Inc.

Hilgard, E. 1977. "Hypnosis Gives Rise to Fantasy and Is Not a Truth Serum." Skeptical Inquirer. 5(3):25.

Hobson, J. and McCarley, R. 1922. "Brain as a Dream State Generator." American Journal of Psychiatry. 134,1335-1348.

Reveen. Peter J. 1987. Fantasising Under Hypnosis. Some Experimental Evidence. Skeptical Inquirer, 12(2):181-182.

Sleet, Roger. 1988. Hypnotherapy: Is it for you? Element Books, Longmead, Shaftsbury, Dorset.

Smith, M. 1983. "Hypnotic Memory Enhancement of Witnesses: Does It Work? Psychological Bulletin, 94, 387-407

Spanos. Nicholas P. 1987. Past-Life Hypnotic Regression: A Critical Review. Skeptical Inquirer, 12(2):174-180.

Venn, Jonathan. 1988. Hypnosis and Reincarnation: A Critique and Case Study. Skeptical Inquirer, 12(4):386-391.

Williams, Barry. 1994. Abuse by Whom? the Skeptic, 14(3):27-29.

From: Edwards, H. 1999 Alternative, Complementary, Holistic & Spiritual Healing, Australian Skeptics Inc