How did guided imagery become such an accepted part of mental health therapy? Its success and acceptance is thanks to the research into hypnosis conducted since the 18th century. Hypnosis is actually the precursor to guided imagery and guided meditation and these forms of therapy have a great deal in common. In fact, they’re identical in many ways and some people call guided imagery self-hypnosis. To learn more about this difference, visit this page. This two-part feature will explore the rich history of hypnosis and how it made its way into modern mental health therapy.

Hypnosis has been used as a therapeutic tool for thousands of years and its use can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians and other civilizations who used it for healing. One of the earliest known references comes from a Persian doctor and psychologist named Avicenna, who actually made the distinction between the state of hypnosis and sleep, referring to hypnosis as al-Wahm al-Amil in The Book of Healing.

The Work of Dr. Mesmer

Franz MesmerHypnosis didn’t come to the West until the late 18th century when an Austrian physician named Dr. Franz Mesmer began to look into an effect he referred to as mesmerism. Mesmer believed that the very air contained a quasi-magnetic field and the “cosmic fluid,” as he called it, could be stored in an inanimate object like a magnet and then transferred to a patient to cure a wide range of illnesses.

Mesmer is often considered the one responsible for the poor reputation that still clings to hypnosis therapy with his claims of curing patients of “hysterical” conditions, paralysis and blindness with a belief that illnesses were caused by low levels of animal magnetism. He also had a great taste for theater and his career was plagued with controversy, eventually bringing his findings into dispute.

King Louis XVI was not taken with Mesmer’s flamboyance and personality and commissioned the French Academy of Sciences to investigate his claims. The members of the board included many prominent minds of the time such as Dr. Joseph Guillotin, Paris mayor Jean Bailly and Benjamin Franklin. The tests were conducted at Franklin’s residence in Passy due to his poor health. Mesmer sent his associate Dr. Deslon to the proceedings in an attempt to distance himself and Deslon tried to demonstrate to the board how animal magnetism worked to cure patients. Ultimately, the commission issued a public report concluding that animal magnetism was not based on scientific evidence and supposed cures could be attributed to either a regular remission of the illness or a type of self-delusion.

The Development of Hypnosis Therapy During the 19th Century

At the beginning of the 19th century, hypnotists were viewed mostly as quacks and it certainly wasn’t viewed as real science, or medicine for that matter. By the end of the century, it made its way into hospitals and universities thanks to physicians who continued to explore the ideas presented by Mesmer because they found that it was actually an effective treatment.

By Mesmer’s passing in 1815, he had gained a devoted group of followers who were considered either fluidists, or those who still believed in the idea of animal magnetism being transferred through the air, and animists, who wanted a psychological explanation for the effects. Over time, the concept of animal magnetism disappeared and the research around hypnosis began to focus on belief and suggestion.

A physician named Alexandre Bertrand (1795-1831) began giving lectures on mesmerism and conducting his own experiments with an audience. Hénin de Cuvillers and Joseph Philippe Francois Deleuze conducted a major experiment in 1826 that finally convinced the Academy of Medicine to take a second look at mesmerism and a report published only 5 years later actually acknowledged the results it could product.


Charcot with Hysterical WomanEventually, two schools of mesmerism emerged in France. One school developed around Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893), who served as the Director of Medicine at a women’s asylum and spent years studying female “hysteria.” He believed that hypnosis was directly related to hysteria as he believed hysteria symptoms perfectly matched 3 stages of hypnosis he identified: catalepsy, lethargy and somnambulism. He concluded that hypnosis was basically another type of hysteria and therefore an abnormality.

The second school was based on the work of Hippolyte Bernheim (1840-1919), a medical professor at the University of Nancy. His argument was hypnosis was a normal trait of human beings and proved this by demonstrating that men were indeed just as susceptible to suggestion as women.

Dr. Braid’s Hypnosis Research

James BairdA Scottish surgeon named Dr. James Braid was the first to develop a scientific explanation for mesmerism and actually coined the term hypnosis, based on the Greek work “hypnos,” or sleep. Braid did not believe that magnetism induced the state of hypnosis and found that people could enter a trance state simply by fixing their sight on a bright object using a practiced known as protracted ocular fixation. He also learned how to put patients into a trance-like state through verbal cues to aid in healing. Braid researched meditation and Oriental methods of wellness to develop his process of hypnosis. His work focused only on results based on medicine and science and rejected any spiritual connection with the practice.

Braid used hypnotism to treat a variety of health problems, including a man who lived with limited mobility for years after a spinal injury. Braid used hypnosis to alleviate his chronic pain, allowing the man to return to work after four years of suffering. He also worked extensively with stroke victims and patients who suffered from paralysis, sensory impairment and severe headaches and kept records of cases in which hypnosis had no effect.

He also identified important features of the trance state, including increased sensory awareness and the ability to control autonomic bodily processes like heart rate. He had greatest success with psychological conditions and went on to write the first book on hypnosis in 1843 called Neurypnology.

His focus on the scientific aspect of hypnosis and its ability to serve as a true treatment option for patients with a wide variety of ailments earned him the nickname “Father of Hypnosis” and paved the way for more modern uses of the treatment in mental health therapy.


In the next post we’ll go examine how Dr. Freud became interested in hypnotherapy and how hypnosis broke into the 20th century and eventually developed into guided imagery.

Like this? Tell the world!