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A Viennese physician, Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), is often credited with discovering hypnosis. For many years mesmerization was a synonym for hypnosis. But Mesmer's procedures were different from modern-day hypnosis.

Mesmer had patients sit in a wooden tub that contained metal bottles of water. Beneath the patients was a layer of iron filings and ground glass.

Mesmer covered the tub and inserted metal rods through openings to touch a patient's body. Although he did not know it, Mesmer had created a crude battery.

The resulting electric charges some­times knocked his patients unconscious or gave them seizures. Some of the patients reported miraculous cures of their aches and pains.

What did Mesmer do? How did the Marquis de Puysegur induce hypnosis?

Mesmer believed his cures were due to manipulating animal magnetism, a mysterious energy field surrounding living creatures. Other scientists investigated animal magnetism and concluded it did not exist.

Some of Mesmer's contemporaries (such as the Marquis de Puysegur) found they could induce a trance state similar to Mesmer's patients, but without Mes­mer's procedures. The Marquis de Puysegur simply suggested to people they would go to sleep, then gave instructions to fuel the imagination.

The famous English surgeon James Braid (1795-1860) also rejected Mesmer's concept of animal magnetism. Braid theorized that a hypnotic trance was triggered by fatigue of eye muscles. This was wrong, but it was an under­standable mistake.

Braid noticed that subjects staring at an object often drooped their eyelids as they entered a trance-like state. Braid labeled the phenomenon neur-hypnotism. Later the prefix neur- (related to nerves) was dropped. By the 1830s the term hypnotism replaced mesmer­ization.

What was Braid's theory?

Of the early explorers of hypnosis, the Marquis de Puysegur was closest to modern conceptions of hypnosis. He suggested that Mesmer's miracle cures were due to suggestion.

Modern researchers describe hypnosis as a state of hypersuggestibility. A hypnotized person is usually following the suggestions of a respected figure such as a healer or therapist.

The hypnotized person accepts the instructions of a hypnotist much the way a dreaming person accepts strange events in a dream. This allows the hypnotist to suggest behaviors and perceptions that otherwise would not occur.

What are typical things a person can do under hypnosis?

Classic examples of odd behaviors per­formed readily under hypnosis include taking a bite of an onion but interpreting it as an apple, feeling cold or hot on command, having a body part paralyzed, or screening out feelings of pain.

Hypnotic Induction

In the classic model proposed by Braid, hypnosis begins with an attempt to fatigue the eye muscles. The hypnotist holds a shiny object slightly above the subject's eye level.

The hypnotist intones, "You are getting very, very sleepy...your eyelids are getting heavy that you cannot hold them up." This is called sleep talk.

This can induce hypnosis (like many other induction procedures). If somebody maintains a steady gaze at an object above eye level, the eyelids do get tired, therefore the subject's experience confirms the hypnotist's suggestion: "Your eyelids are getting heavy."

The hypnotist continues with statements like, "You cannot keep your eyes open any are falling into a deep sleep..." and the subject's eyelids droop. The subject has started down the road to hypnosis by following simple suggestions.

What is a classic induction procedure introduced by Braid?

What all induction procedures have in common is a series of increasingly demanding suggestions. Early in the procedure, suggestions are simple. They are easy for ordinary people to imagine without hypnosis.

For example, the subject may be instructed to intertwine the fingers of each hand. The hypnotist then says, "You are unable to separate your hands."

Sure enough, the subject's hands feel glued together. If the hypnotist observes a subject struggling to separate hands after this suggestion, it is time to make more challenging suggestions, resulting eventually in deeper hypnosis.

What are typical steps in hypnotic induction using "sleep talk"?

Ever since Braid, sleep talk has been the most common way to induce hypnosis. Here is one version of sleep talk from The Key to Hypnotism Simplified (McBrayer, 1962).

Now just relax. Settle back in your chair. Take a deep breath. Relax your arms. Relax your legs. Relax your nerves. Relax all over. Look at the center of this disk [any object will do] I am holding in my hand.

Do not look off. Do not say anything. Keep your mind on my words. Think of nothing else. Gaze right at the center of this disk. Soon your eyes will get heavy, and you wish to close them and go to sleep.

Your eyes are getting heavy, very heavy and tired. You are getting very sleepy. Soon you will be sound asleep.

The hypnotist keeps this up while watching for signs of fluttering in the subject's eyelids. When the subject appears to be res­ponding, the hypnotist tries to deepen the trance, while testing to see if the subject is truly hypnotized.

You are now asleep. You can hear me. Go deeper asleep, deeper asleep. Take a deep breath; relax and go deeper asleep. I am going to lift up your right hand and when I drop it, you will go deeper asleep.

(Raise his right hand and release it. If it drops back into his lap like a wet rag, he is asleep. If not, he is not asleep. Proceed with more sleep talk...) (p.47)

If the subject's hand drops limply, which is hard to fake, then a slightly more demanding suggestion can be made. For example, the hypnotist might suggest the arm will stick out straight and the subject will be unable to bend it.

Gradually the suggestions are made more difficult. The subject is drawn step by step into greater compliance or willingness to follow orders.

There are many variations of sleep talk, but sleep talk is not necessary to induce hypnosis. The essential thing is that the subject be placed in a compliant state of mind, with a willingness to let go of mental control and concentrate on the suggestions of the hypnotist.

Must sleep talk be used, to induce hypnosis? What are the essentials of hypnotic induction?

A subject can be told to concentrate on a certain topic, or simply to let the imagin­ation go. The hypnotist suggests a few easily imagined changes in conscious­ness. As they come true, they confirm and strengthen the state of suggestibility.

Not everybody is easy to hypnotize. About 5-10% of people do not respond to hypnosis at all; another 10-20% can achieve a deep hypnotic state, and the majority of people fall between these two extremes.


McBrayer, J. T. (1962) The Key to Hypnotism Simplified. New York: Bell Publishing.

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