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hypnotism (hĭpˈnətĭzəm) [Gr.,=putting to sleep], to induce an altered state of consciousness characterized by deep relaxation and heightened suggestibility. The term was originally coined by James Braid in 1842 to describe a phenomenon previously known as animal magnetism or mesmerism (see Mesmer, Friedrich Anton). Superficially resembling sleep, it is generally induced by the monotonous repetition of words and gestures while the subject is completely relaxed. Although almost everyone can be hypnotized, individuals vary greatly in susceptibility. The hypnotic state is characterized by heightened suggestibility and represents an altered state of consciousness as recent research has shown electrical changes occur in brain activity when a person is hypnotized. Ernest Hilgard's neodissociation theory (1977) has been influential in the explanation of hypnosis. Hilgard's theory asserts that several distinct states of consciousness can be present during hypnosis, such that certain actions may become dissociated from the conscious mind. In the late 19th cent., it was used by a number of medical practitioners, who found that individuals susceptible to hysteria are highly suggestible and can be put into deep hypnosis, sometimes leading to a cure. Sigmund Freud used the method in psychoanalysis. In recent years, hypnosis has been widely used by practitioners as an aid in medical practice and psychotherapy. Hypnosis is also used in some criminal investigations, to help defendants to recall events they might otherwise not remember.


See E. Hilgard and J. Hilgard, Hypnosis in the Relief of Pain (1984); D. Waxman et al., ed., Modern Trends in Hypnosis (1984).

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A hypnotist at work, using a watch to lull his subject into a hypnotic state. Orlando/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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The Fox Family cottage in Hydesville, New York where sisters Margaretta and Kate lived when they began to communicate with spirit in 1848. The cottage was bought and moved to Lily Dale, New York by Benjamin Bartlett in 1916. Courtesy Fortean Picture Library.


(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Hypnotism, or hypnosis—from the Greek hypnos, meaning “sleep”—may occur spontaneously or may be induced by a trained hypnotist. A very large percentage of people are capable of being hypnotized. Shepard defines hypnotism as, “A peculiar state of cerebral dissociation distinguished by certain marked symptoms, the most prominent and invariable of which is a highly increased suggestibility in the subject.” The Encyclopedia Britannica says it is “applied to a unique, complex form of unusual but normal behavior which can probably be induced in all normal persons under suitable conditions … functioning at this special level of awareness is characterized by a state of receptiveness and responsiveness in which inner experiential learnings and understandings can be accorded values comparable with or even the same as those ordinarily given only by external reality stimuli.”

Edmunds (Hypnotism and Psychic Phenomena, 1961) makes the point that, “Despite the vast amount of enquiry and research that has been made and the numerous works on the subject that have been published, the true nature of hypnosis is still very much a mystery.” Yet hypnosis is almost as old as civilization itself. It was known to the shamans of primitive tribes, to priests and magicians of ancient civilizations such as Chaldea, Egypt, Greece, India, Persia, and Rome. It was used for both religious and therapeutic purposes. The Egyptian Ebers papyrus, dating from ca. 1500 BCE, describes the “laying-on of hands” treatment for disease and a bas relief from an ancient tomb at Thebes shows a priest seemingly in the act of hypnotizing a subject.

Modern hypnotism is a development of the early Mesmerism, introduced in 1772 by Count Friedrich (Franz) Anton Mesmer (1734–1815), a Viennese physician. Mesmer expounded the principles of “Animal Magnetism,” which then became known as Mesmerism. It was a system of healing based on the belief that a disturbance of equilibrium of a “universal fluid” causes disease in human beings. A magnetic readjustment of this invisible fluid would cure disease. In carrying out his therapies, Mesmer induced a hypnotic state without even being aware that he had done so. It was his pupil the Marquis Armand de Puysegur, who actually discovered the hypnotic trance. He termed it “artificial somnambulism.” It was not until 1841 that a Manchester, England, physician named Dr. James Braid became interested in the subject and in 1843, coined the terms “hypnotism” and “hypnosis.” In 1892, a British Medical Association committee unanimously accepted hypnotism as a genuine, valuable, therapeutic tool. After that not much progress was made until World War I when there was recognition of the re-educative possibilities of hypnotism, especially with the treating of shell shock. Further advances came with World War II, helping free the subject from many of the misconceptions, fears, and superstitions that had hampered its scientific investigation and acceptance.

In 1882, the Society for Psychical Research was established with the purpose of scientifically investigating “that large group of debatable phenomena designated by such terms as mesmeric, psychical, and spiritualistic.” Among the founding members were such people as Sir William Barrett, Edmund Gurney, William James, Professor Henry Sidwick, Frederick W. H. Myers, and Frank Podmore. Several of these, along with many of the early Spiritualists, had a great interest in Mesmerism. Another scientist with such an interest was Sigmund Freud, though he later abandoned hypnosis and concentrated on his own method of psychoanalysis.

Hypnotism has come to be used as a tool toward the development of clairvoyance and other mediumship phenomena. By using self-hypnosis, it is possible to bring about a suitable trance condition that will aid in bringing out latent mediumistic abilities. From working with self-hypnosis, a fledgling medium can then move on to spontaneous trance induction.


Arons, Harry: New Master Course in Hypnotism, The. Irvington: Power Publishers, 1961
Arons, Harry & M. F. H. Bubeck: Handbook of Professional Hypnosis. Irvington: Power Publishers, 1971
Edmunds, Simeon: Hypnotism and Psychic Phenomena. North Hollywood: Wilshire, 1961
Encyclopedia Britannica. Chicago: William Benton, 1964
Estabrooks, G. H.: Hypnotism. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1934, rev. ed. 1957
Kuhn, Lesley and Salvatore Russo: Modern Hypnosis. New York: Psychological Library, 1947
Shepard, Leslie A: Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology. New York: Avon Books, 1978
The Spirit Book © 2006 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


The practice or study of inducing hypnosis.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. the scientific study and practice of hypnosis
2. the process of inducing hypnosis
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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