Is Hypnosis Really Self-Hypnosis?

Hypnotist C, Roy Hunter

by C. Roy Hunter

Hypnosis enjoys greater public acceptance today than ever before. Yet even as we move further into the new millennium, people still debate over whether or not hypnosis is guided self-hypnosis. Perhaps some reflection on the history of the art of trance induction might give us cause to consider.

Various forms of trance were common with many primitive civilizations long before James Braid coined the word hypnosis in the 19th Century. Even today many religions use a form of group hypnosis in worship services, and guided meditations abound around the world both inside and outside the religious community. Yet even now, it’s amazing that the true nature of our art still seems like a mystery to most people ‑ as is evidenced by the fact that professionals still disagree over the exact definition of hypnosis.

The history of the art of trance induction is laced with examples of how belief, imagination, expectation and conviction are woven in throughout the ages – and how ignorance of these vital ingredients of hypnosis resulted in incorrect or questionable theories. These four trance ingredients play an important role in the hypnotic process, and demonstrate that the power is in the mind of the person experiencing various forms of hypnosis.

To properly answer the question posed by this article, let’s consider the work of Anton Mesmer. He is often considered to be the most famous name in the entire history of hypnosis, although he never knew the art by that name during his lifetime. As we review the highlights of his work, we might gain important insight regarding the hotly debated question of WHO has the power during a trance.

Franz Anton Mesmer

Anton Mesmer was born in Germany in 1734 and studied medicine in Vienna, where he became a practicing physician. As the first man ever to try to explain the trance state scientifically, Mesmer received the title of “Father of Hypnosis,” a title he shares with two other men. (Even now, we still speak of “mesmerizing” someone.)

After seeing a demonstration of magnetic cures by Father Maximilian Hell in 1774, Mesmer started experimenting with magnets. He apparently borrowed his first magnets from Father Hell. (Can you believe this priest’s last name?) Mesmer later created his theory concerning the influence of planets upon the human body, and used it for his doctoral dissertation. He believed that a general sort of magnetic fluid pervaded nature and the human body, and that this fluid must be evenly distributed throughout the body for wellness. Incorporating the use of magnets, he made “magnetic passes” at his patients, stroking the alleged magnetic field several inches from the body.

After seeing a demonstration of magnetic cures by Father Maximilian Hell in 1774, Mesmer began experimenting with magnets. He apparently borrowed his first magnets from Father Hell. (Can you imagine a priest having “Hell” as his last name?) Two years later, Mesmer wrote his Doctoral Dissertation, “De Planetarum Influxu” (The Planetorium Flux) in which he first presented his theory in written form.

Mesmer’s theory was first called “animal gravitation” and eventually became known as “animal magnetism.” His theory blended astrology and metaphysics, which only widened the credibility gap with the skeptics. Today we realize that we all have an aura – so Mesmer was closer to the truth with this theory than science realized for many decades.

Our good doctor’s first trance subject was Franzl Oesterlin, a young girl who suffered from hysteria and convulsions, and was a friend of Mesmer’s wife. The girl’s symptoms included vomiting, temporary blindness, attacks of paralysis, hallucinations, inability to pass urine, violent toothache and “other terrible symptoms,” to quote Mesmer. He tied magnets to her feet, and hung some around her neck. Mesmer wrote: “…a hot piercing pain rose along her legs from her feet and ended with an intense spasm in the upper rim of the iliac bone. Here this pain was united with an equally agonizing one which flowed from both sides of the breast, shot pains up to the head and united in the roots of the hair. The patient felt a burning sensation in all her joints. At certain parts of her body the magnetic stream seemed to be interrupted, even to become more intense. She was soon insensitive to all the magnets and cured of her attacks.” Apparently this cure was permanent.

Let’s consider what happened… Magnets at that time were new and mysterious, and some believed that they had great powers. The subject respected them and was convinced that they would produce results. Because results were expected, results were produced – but was it the subconscious that produced the results because of the expectation?

Mesmer eventually dropped the magnets, and made the presumption that he was endowed with a “divine abundance” of this magnetic energy. He magnetized many while his fame grew; and, as is easy to believe, his peers because jealous and furious and called him a quack! But he just kept right on with his work.

Unfortunately for the evolution of professional trance, Mesmer did not know that his “cures” were entirely due to his artistry of inducing a guided self-trance, helping patients actually use the power of their own subconscious minds for their cures – so his first defeat left him without a good response.

In attempting to cure a neurotic blind girl, Maria Theresa Paradies, pianist and protege of the empress, he managed to help her restore her sight but found himself unable to explain her loss of equilibrium. This angered her parents greatly, because they expected a total cure; so her father came to Mesmer’s clinic demanding that he release her immediately. (This scene was loosely portrayed in a Hollywood movie about the life of Anton Mesmer some years back.) The girl begged to stay; but her father drew his blade with his demand. She then went into convulsions and lost her sight again, never to regain it, although there was nothing physically wrong with her eyes.

Mesmer’s critics took advantage of this incident as an opportunity to use it against him, and forced him out of town. He then moved to Paris, where he invited leading scientists to witness his demonstrations, and encouraged the poorer classes to come to his clinic for treatment. After a temporary move to Belgium, he returned to Paris and bought a hotel on the Rue Montmartre. He turned away from the science of magnetizing people, and practiced his cures as an art – becoming quite a showman in the process!

His clinic itself became a showplace in Paris – where getting mesmerized became as popular as going up in hot air balloons. Mesmer developed the legendary bacquet, a round contraption approximately a foot high, with a seating capacity of about 30. Holes in the top allowed subjects to grasp iron rods and receive the “magnetic flow” and go with the flow! Mesmer put numerous bottles inside that were previously filled with the all‑important, invisible, healing “magnetic fluid” – which, of course, flowed from one of his finger tips. Our good doctor enhanced this entire scenario with music, unusual lightings, and the presence of highly suggestible subjects, so that even skeptics often found it easy to trance out into convulsions by grasping one of the iron rods. Couldn’t Hollywood make this an interesting scene in a movie?

Unfortunately for the evolution of hypnotism, Mesmer did not know that his “cures” resulted from his artistry of inducing a guided self-trance, helping patients actually use the power of their own subconscious minds for their cures. This set the stage for a major setback. The skeptics persuaded King Louis XVI to appoint a commission headed by Benjamin Franklin (my great uncle x7) to investigate Mesmer’s work.

During one of the experiments, Franklin had the good old doctor magnetize a cup of water, which my uncle later gave to a woman – along with a cup of ordinary water. Then Uncle Ben pulled the old-fashioned switch-a-roo! When the woman drank Mesmer’s water, Franklin told her that the water was ordinary, and nothing happened. She then drank from the cup of water that she believed to be magnetized, and immediately went into trance. Another experiment involved trees which had been mesmerized by the doctor. Again, the subject failed to trance out at the correct tree, but instead went into convulsions when touching the tree that he believed had been magnetized.

One does not have to be a rocket scientist to come to an accurate conclusion of what happened. Franklin stated that Mesmer was a fraud for claiming he had any power, as his cures and theatrical results were caused by imagination. Any of us could have come to the same conclusion. Put into different words, Benjamin Franklin demonstrated that the trances were self-induced because of the power of the imagination! All mesmerism was self-mesmerism – and Dr. Mesmer was only an artist! I wonder if Franklin had any idea that a day would come when an entire profession of hypnosis would rely so heavily on the conclusion he made after his scientific observations!

Had Mesmer understood who really had the power of creating trance, the entire history of hypnosis would have changed course. It’s almost tragic that even the 19th Century pioneers failed to learn from Mesmer’s mistake. Why couldn’t they make the same correct observation made by Benjamin Franklin in the late 18th Century? Unfortunately for the art of hypnotism, neither Mesmer nor the other pioneers of trance understood who has the power…and even now there are some professionals who still debate over that very issue.

Charles Tebbetts taught his students to tell every client these words at the start of every client relationship: “All hypnosis is self-hypnosis.” Perhaps that statement could be slightly modified, because someone can use a substance to put someone else into an altered state of consciousness, and/or bombard someone with sensory input that results in a subject eventually escaping into a trance state, such as when an unethical person tries to brainwash someone. My opinion is that even when the latter happens, the trance state is still created by the person who enters that state and NOT because of some mystical “power” the trance inducer wields over the subject.

Once people understand that they have the power to create their own hypnotic states, they are more empowered to resist unethical hypnosis. Years ago when I exchanged sessions with a hypnotist, she put me into a very deep state of somnambulism. Just when I felt some good work was about to take place, she told me to shave off my beard…and I immediately terminated my trance state and gave her a lecture about ethics. She never walked in my subconscious again; but this experience helped me realize how empowering it is knowing that the person in hypnosis is the one with the power. We are artists of hypnosis, or guides.

A smoker who saw me over 20 years ago also demonstrated who has the power. During his sessions with me he made no apparent progress. He declined to allow me to use regression or parts work to discover the cause of resistance…and then over a year later he returned for more sessions. When I asked him what was different, he replied: “Remember that you told me that hypnosis is really guided self-hypnosis? Well, when I felt myself going into hypnosis, I felt that it was more important to quit drinking before quitting smoking…so I modified all the suggestions you gave me, and I haven’t had a drink since. Now I’m ready to quit smoking!”

I believe that Tebbetts was right on target when he urged us to tell all our clients that hypnosis is self-hypnosis, because my own experience demonstrated how empowering that awareness is. My goal is to help people attain their ideal empowerment, and teach others to do likewise.

Roy Hunter, M.S., FAPHP, CHI,

practices hypnosis near Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest region of the USA, and trains parts work to professionals around the world. He also works part time for the Franciscan Hospice facilitating hypnosis for terminal patients, and teaches a 9-month professional hypnosis training course based on the teachings of Charles Tebbetts. Roy is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Order of Braid (NGH) for lifetime achievement in the hypnosis profession. Roy also was awarded an honorary PhD from St. John’s University for lifetime achievement in hypnosis.


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