Is Hypnosis Art or Science? - History of Hypnosis Part 3

Hi, we're glad you made it to the 3rd installement or ouf History of Hypnosis 4 part series. You can find parts 1, 2 and 4 here:

Part 1: Exorcists and Magnetizers takes us back to the very beginning and first practices of hypnosis that we know of.

When you are done with part 1, please move on to Part 2: The Rise of Neuro-Hypnotism - Trance and Suggestion.

Our Part 4: Hypnosis in Modern Times Debated will discuss modern hypnosis, how it is seen by mainstreem media and what are it's challenges.

In part 3 of our History of Hypnosis series, we will discuss how modern hypnosis was farmed, and go over a heated discussion between it's practitioners.

University of Wisconsin, 1923 - Milton Erickson meets Clark Leonard Hull - Researchers vs. Artists

Image: Milton Erricson

Just three years after Emile Coue has published his magnum opus on auto-suggestion, psychology graduate students file into the classroom as their relatively young professor, Clark Leonard Hull, prepares to introduce the day's speaker, an undergraduate who has been performing experiments in hypnosis under the tutelage of professor Josef Jastrow, founder of the psychology department and previous teacher of this very same graduate seminar in hypnosis.

Jastrow has spoken highly of the undergrad, but Hull is not convinced; the two professors rarely see eye-to-eye on any topic.

Jastrow is a friend of William James and concerns himself with the inner workings of the mind. Hull is a behaviorist, a fellow of Pavlov and Watson who cares only about measurable, observable, external phenomena; thoughts and feelings mean nothing to him. He is curious to see what position the undergrad guest speaker will reflect.

"Students," Professor Hull says, "please welcome Milton Erickson."

In that meeting and successive weeks, the young man who has been forced off the farm and into college by physical illness will demonstrate hypnosis in ways no one has ever seen.

Having no formal training, he will customize each induction and even hypnotize volunteers in ways that do not resemble conventional hypnosis. In one case, he has a volunteer re-create her childhood temper tantrums by storming in and out of the room.

The professor is not pleased. Hull criticizes the young Erickson for failing to operate in a systematic way that can easily be measured and tested by science; he feels strongly that such an approach is the only way that hypnosis will ever emerge from the realm of superstition.

Erickson criticizes Hull for treating hypnosis subjects like lab equipment rather than people. Eventually, Hull asks Erickson to stop attending the seminar; Erickson is spurred to further exploration by the professor's rejection.

These two figures -- the exacting, precise researcher seeking only knowledge and the idiosyncratic, improvising artist seeking healing for his patients -- will define the two major themes in twentieth-century academic hypnosis.

The Standardized Approach to Hypnosis

In 1933, Clark Hull published a book titled Hypnosis and Suggestibility, in which he argued that hypnosis had been the slowest of all the sciences to emerge from superstition.

He blasted the researchers of the last century, stating that relying on case studies and poorly-structured experiments was a terrible way to establish scientific truth. Like Braid, he wanted to put hypnosis on a scientific footing; unlike Braid, he had embraced a rising psychological theory that would allow him to do that: behaviorism.

Before behaviorism, all psychological theories involved introspection and the rather subjective study of internal mind structures. The behavioralists, like Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner, changed all of that. They considered the mind to be an unknowable "black box," an unmeasurable construct that by its very nature could not be examined by science. Therefore, they limited their studies to measurable events -- stimulus and response.

In terms of designing scientific experiments, this approach makes sense. A researcher must minimize all the variables -- for instance, making all details of the stimulus identical -- so as to isolate and measure the response.

Hull applied this principle to hypnosis, designing standardized inductions so that he could study how hypnotic response varies from one individual to another. This is a valid way of gaining information in a laboratory, but it is not an effective method for helping clients with hypnosis.

Hull's new way of studying hypnosis was a revolutionary departure from previous methods of research, and his work still has impact today. It has led to nearly a century of researchers reading (or playing pre-recorded) hypnosis scripts that are usually both direct and authoritarian in their approach.

Another important aspect of the Standardized Approach is the use of "hypnotizability scales."

Though nineteenth-century stage hypnotists had noticed that volunteers varied in their response to suggestion and the scholars of Nancy had attempted to create a uniform scale of hypnotizability, it was Hull who made the scale a standard part of hypnosis research.

Today, the Harvard Group Scale of Hypnotic Suggestibility and the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scale are the most commonly used.

A number of modern hypnotists from the "artist" side of the community object to the notion of scales and standardized inductions.

Even Andre Weitzenhoffer, who helped Ernest and Josephine Hilgard of the Stanford Laboratory of Hypnosis Research develop the Stanford Scale, insists that scales have no place in a clinical setting, arguing that a good hypnotist develops a feel for the client and can therefore adapt, a notion which would interfere with scientific testing.

Nonetheless, many clinicians who are trained only in the Standardized Approach persist in mis-applying laboratory tools to a clinical setting.

Another fascinating concept that arose from Ernest Hilgard's work in the 1970s was the idea of the "Hidden Observer." During pain control experiments, Hilgard found that even when the conscious mind seemed unaware of any pain, there was a part of the mind that remained aware. Many hypnotists and clients find it reassuring that there is a part of the mind that "keeps watch" during deep hypnosis.

The Utilization Approach

Operating as a counterpoint to the one-size-fits-all Standardized Approach, the Utilization Approach pioneered by Milton Erickson and his followers treats every client as an individual, adapting the technique to the client rather than measuring the subjects against the technique.

No longer viewing trance as something strange that had to be induced with a formula, Erickson saw trance as a naturalistic experience that everyone engages in on a regular basis. Thus, rather than trying to force people into trance and program them for the behaviors he wanted, Erickson sought to "utilize" whatever behaviors his patients presented -- to shift them into a trance that is more useful than the harmful trance they'd been experiencing.

Unlike the Freudian view that the unconscious is a dark, scary place from which our problems arise, Erickson viewed the unconscious as a wise, powerful, and benevolent resource from which the solutions to our problems would arise.

Erickson often told stories or used ambiguous language to motivate and mobilize his patients' unconscious resources.

One such story relates that he had a patient who was too embarrassed to enter his office and talk about her problem. Instead, she drove to his driveway and sat inside her car, imagining that he came down and talked to her. After several such "sessions," she told him her problem was resolved.

In 1957, Erickson founded the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, which focuses on promoting his innovations. Now, Erickson pioneered indirect suggestion and what is sometime called the permissive or "Ericksonian" approach (as opposed to the direct, authoritarian approach favored in Standardized techniques).

However, he used all the tools at his disposal to help his patients. Nonetheless, many of his followers tend to avoid any technique that appears authoritarian. For that reason, they perpetuate Erickson's objection to entertainment hypnosis.

1970s - Richard Bandler and John Grinder Formed a New School of Thought - NLP

In the 1970s, Richard Bandler and John Grinder co-founded a school of thought called Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), in which they drew on ideas from several successful therapists and scholars, including Milton Erickson. They carefully analyzed Erickson's utterances in order to synthesize language patterns they find useful in facilitating change without a formal hypnotic induction.

Though some Ericksonians accuse them of oversimplifying or over-complicating, Bandler and Grinder's NLP patterns have become a staple in hypnosis, sales, and other fields. The idea that one could "hypnotize" conversationally gave rise to a whole industry of "covert" or even "black ops" hypnotists who often make rather extreme claims about Jedi-like powers of mind-control.

Transplanted Techniques

As the Hullian researchers and the Ericksonian artist-clinicians each continued developing within their schools of thought, a number of twentieth-century hypnosis practitioners adopted ideas and techniques that came from outside the discipline of hypnosis.


In 1901, Ivan Pavlov published his work on classical conditioning, based on his discovery that he could make dogs salivate upon command. His method, initially discovered by accident, was to ring a bell every time he fed the dogs. Of course, the presence of food would cause salivation. After enough times to associate the bell (stimulus) with the response (salivation), food was no longer necessary to cause the dogs to drool.

In hypnosis, these associations can form very quickly. In 1944, Andrew Salter published a book explaining hypnosis in Pavlovian terms followed by a book of techniques based on this concept. Today, anchoring is a standard tool in almost every practitioner's repertoire.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)

In 1915, medical doctor Edmund Jacobson posited that "an anxious mind cannot exist in a relaxed body." Based on this, he spent the next fourteen years designing a method of tensing and relaxing different muscle groups with the goal of producing a relaxed mind.

Though not originally intended to produce trance, Jacobson's method has come to be such a popular hypnotic induction that many laypeople assume that hypnosis and relaxation are the same thing.

Autogenic Training

In 1932, a German doctor named Heinrich Schultz published a method for taking conscious control of various unconscious physical processes by repeating what are essentially affirmations, such as "My hands feel warm and heavy."

Like Jacobson, Schultz did not intend to create an hypnotic induction; however, like PMR, Autogenic Training has been adopted by hypnotists as an easy and effective way to facilitate trance.

Relaxation Response

In the mid-1970s, medical doctor Herbert Benson performed extensive research on the benefits of relaxation for both physical and mental health.

The method of relaxation he used was transcendental meditation, but hypnosis practitioners quickly recognized that hypnotically-induced relaxation produced similar benefits. The rising popularity of transcendental meditation in the United States led to hypnosis being characterized as "a meditative state."


In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn began publishing research showing the efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

Like Benson, he drew on Eastern meditative practices; however, whereas transcendental meditation seeks to empty or silence the mind, mindfulness consists of accepting thoughts while detaching from them.

Increasingly, mindfulness has become the basis for a host of modern psychotherapeutic approaches. In 2011, noted hypnosis author Michael Yapko published Mindfulness and Hypnosis, which points out the striking similarities between the two methods.

Today, many hypnosis practitioners are incorporating mindfulness in their clinical work.

The Vocational Tradition

Note about terminology: During the twentieth century, academically trained hypnotists began referring to those outside the academic tradition as "lay" hypnotists, drawing a parallel to distinctions between ordained priests and non-ordained "lay" ministers.

Rejecting this pejorative term, some twenty-first century hypnotists have adopted the term "vocational" to describe themselves and their training-which, though often extensive, occurs in non-academic settings, not unlike the vocational schools of other industries, such as dental assistants, plumbers, and paralegals.

While the academic hypnotists of the twentieth century were experiencing a mostly cordial split between the researchers and the clinicians, there was a third category of hypnotists emerging: the vocational hypnotherapists.

Though the phenomenon of non-academic practitioners goes back to Mesmer's students and was certainly an issue in Braid's time, it was during the twentieth century that a number of stage hypnotists began applying their knowledge and skills toward helping people.

Perhaps the most famous of these was Dave Elman. Born David Koppelmann, young Elman was fascinated by hypnosis from an early age. His last memory of his father was that the older man was able to find relief from pain through hypnosis.

When Dave set out to seek his fortune as a teenaged Vaudeville performer, he billed himself as "The World's Youngest and Fastest Hypnotist."

After a colorful career that included national acclaim as a radio host, Dave Elman was approached in the early 1950s by a group of physicians who asked him to teach a course in medical hypnosis.

Adapting the fast induction techniques he'd developed on stage, Elman taught doctors how to fit hypnotic work into their busy schedules. He also revived and popularized the method Breuer and Freud had used over half a century earlier -- Regression to Cause.

Elman was very successful in teaching hypnosis to physicians, and in 1958, the American Medical Association issued a statement recommending that hypnotherapy become a standard part of the medical curriculum.

Sadly, this did not happen. In fact, Elman's methods would be lost had they not been taken up by vocational hypnotists, some of whom use Elman's methods nearly exclusively.

We have a special gift waiting for you - a free hypnosis mp3! Get it here and enjoy yourself!

Recommended for Further Reading - Part III:

  • American Society of Clinical Hypnosis (2013). Media Guide on ASCH. Retrieved from
  • Bandler, Richard (2008). Richard Bandler's Guide to Trance-Formation. Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc.
  • Benson, Herbert (1975). The Relaxation Response. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
  • Black, T. (2013, November 16).┬áRevisiting the satanic panic. Retrieved from
  • Brown, Peter (1991). The Hypnotic Brain: Hypnotherapy and the Social Sciences. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Chowchilla kidnapping. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  • Elman, Dave (1964). Hypnotherapy. Glendale, California: Westwood.
  • Elman, H Larry (2012). The DEI Reaches its Centennial in 2012. Henderson, NC: Dave Elman Hypnosis Institute, Inc.
  • Erickson, Milton H (1980). The Nature of Hypnosis and Suggestion. In Ernest L. Rossi (ed), The Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson on Hypnosis (Vol I). New York, NY: Irvington Publishers.
  • Forrest, Derek (2000). Hypnotism: A History. London: Penguin Books.
  • Hunter, C Roy (2013). Through the Looking Glass: American Artists of Professional Hypnosis, 1900-2012. Laceyville, PA: Alliance Publishing.
  • History of autogenic training. (2012, May 16). Retrieved from
  • Jacobson, Edmund (1934). You Must Relax. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Kabat-Zinn, Jon (1990). Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York: Delta.
  • Pintar, Judith, and Steven Jay Lynn (2008). Hypnosis: A Brief History. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Rathus, Spencer A (2002). Psychology in the New Millenium, 8th ed. New York: Thompson Learning Inc.
  • Rosen, Sidney (1991). My Voice Will Go With You. New York, NY: Norton.
  • Rosenfeld, Saul Marc (2008). A Critical History of Hypnotism: The Unauthorized Story. Self-Published.
  • Salter, Andrew (1944). What is Hypnosis: Studies in Auto and Hetero Conditioning. New York: Richard Smith.
  • Waterfield, Robin (2002). Hidden Depths: The Story of Hypnosis. London: Macmillan.
  • Watson, J. B. (1919). Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott.
  • Yapko, Michael (2003). Trancework: An Introduction to the Practice of Clinical Hypnosis, 3rd Edition. New York, NY: Brunner-Routledge.
  • Yapko, Michael (2011). Mindfulness and Hypnosis: The Power of Suggestion to Transform Experience. New York: Norton.