By: Morey Bernstein Viewed: 7/10/2020
Posted: 7/20/2007
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Why Isn't Hypnotism More Widely Used?

This continues the e-presentation of The Search For Bridey Murphy appendices with this essay, originally titled "Why Isn't Hypnotism More Widely Used" and subtitled "A History of Misunderstanding and Prejudice". It was written by Morey Bernstein; the additional comments are mine.

The unfortunate fact about hypnotism is that the "dangers" have been dramatically overplayed, while the benefits have either been glossed over or entirely concealed. I have read scores of articles, the headlines of which glaringly proclaim the horrors of hypnotism. Boiled down, however, these commentaries usually constitute a simple statement: Hypnotism can effect amazing cures, but maybe it's dangerous!

But just what are these dangers? The subject, far from being a helpless automaton, can break the trance whenever the suggestions are sufficiently adverse to his fundamental principles. Obviously, then, he is not nearly so much at the mercy of the operator as a person under an anesthetic.

Nobody would consider doing away with the science of medicine simply because there are each year a number of unfortunate results engendered by inaccurate diagnoses or improper treatment. Nor would anyone advocate the prohibition of surgery owing to the few cases in which lack of knowledge or skill aggravated, rather than improved, the condition of the patient. Quite the contrary. Indeed, we find a full measure of literature describing the progress, contributions, and miracles of modem medicine and surgery, just as these fields so decidedly merit. This printed material does not dwell upon and exaggerate the dangers; instead, it justifiably points up the benefits.

What Morey didn't realize is that the health industry, with its mind-bogglingly deep pockets, is able to buy good press (and, indeed, literally owns the medical journals and thus controls their content). It is also able to buy bad press for any competing treatments that result in less need for health care: Laetrile, organic foods, vitamins, and hypnosis. —Paul

Now hypnotism deserves the same break. It is time that the "scare articles" taper off and be replaced by clear-cut exposition of the truth. This wonderful science of the mind has been too long buried under superstition, misunderstanding, and neglect. Within the next few decades we may at last, there is good reason to believe, see hypnotism take its rightful place as one of the most important sciences.

At this stage, then, a logical question appears: if hypnotism is entirely safe in the right hands, and if it has such an extensive application, why is it not more widely used? Some of the answers have already suggested themselves. Now let's consider still other salient factors.

To get the proper perspective, let's survey a segment of the historical outline, The first thing that strikes us in the story of modem hypnotism is its cyclical nature; it has bobbed up and down like a yo-yo. There has been a high point of interest roughly every thirty years, followed by a decline. Time magazine (March 30, 1953), in its usual pithy style, takes a broader look at these peaks and valleys:

Hypnosis has been a hard-luck kid among medical techniques. A century ago it was just beginning to win acceptance as a pain killer when ether anesthesia was discovered, and hypnosis was discarded. It was making a comeback sixty years ago when Freud hit upon the idea of psychoanalysis, and the experts again lost interest in hypnosis. Now, the third time around, it is once again winning the support of reputable men in both the physical and psychic areas of medicine.

During all these ups and downs of hypnosis bitter battles were incessantly being waged. Franz Anton Mesmer, the grandfather of modern hypnosis, published his discoveries regarding "animal magnetism"—his name for what later was to be known as hypnosis— in 1779. As a result, he was ultimately forced out of Vienna and then out of Paris. John Elliotson, one of the most brilliant men in the history of medicine, was compelled to resign his position at London's University College Hospital because he would not give up his interest in mesmerism.

It's a matter of historical record that Elliotson cured his own polio via hypnosis! Look it up. —Paul

The Lancet, a British medical publication, summed up the feeling of Elliotson's opposition in 1846 as follows:

"Does he himself [Elliotson] treat the harlotry, which he dares to call science, with any respect?"

A young Scottish surgeon practicing in India, James Esdaile, performed three hundred major and thousands of minor operations with patients under hypnosis. Yet he was criticized by the Calcutta Medical College; medical journals refused to print accounts of his findings, and the Medical Board never even so much as acknowledged his letter on the subject.

Lafontaine, a Swiss magnetizer (hypnotist) traveling in Italy, was ordered by King Ferdinand to leave Naples unless "he made no more blind people to see nor deaf ears to hear." But Pope Pius IX was more enlightened; he commented, "Well, Monsieur Lafontaine, let us hope that, for the good of humanity, magnetism may soon he generally employed."[1] (Hypnotism was then known as magnetism.)

James Braid, who coined the word "hypnotism," offered in 1842 to read a paper on the subject before the British Medical Association. His offer was rejected and his reports of cures termed ridiculous.

A French doctor, Liebault, who was obtaining excellent results with hypnosis, was attacked as a quack by Professor Bernheim. And when one of the latter's patients was quickly cured by Liebault, it was too much for the professor! Bernheim went to investigate Liebault with the intention of exposing him once and for all. Instead, he was so astounded by what he learned that he himself promptly undertook the study of hypnosis.

In 1886 Bernheim published a book, Suggestive Therapeutics, and hypnosis reached the zenith of its glory. But now the scene was set for a man in Vienna who was to send it skidding downward once again. The man was Sigmund Freud.

In order to study hypnotism Freud visited Bernheim and Liebault at Nancy, France. Freud learned, as have all hypnotists, that not every patient can be hypnotized. He was aware, however, that there was one thing every patient could do—talk about himself. He reasoned that, via this "talking out' process, satisfactory therapeutic results could be obtained, given plenty of time, without hypnosis. And on this psychoanalysis was born.

Regarding Freud, let us not forget the fact that, whatever its other merits, psychoanalysis is a huge moneymaker. Freud himself created that. As Exiles In History puts it:

"Freud ingeniously tied the fee to results. If the fee is very low, he warned, the value of the treatment will be denigrated in the patient's eyes. Free treatment is an analytic disaster, he insisted. Without the 'corrective influence' of money, the patient is supposedly deprived of a 'useful incentive to exert himself to bring the cure to an end'.

"Only in a few areas does the modern analysis so slavishly follow Freud. The bill for the month's analysis (some $1000 at $50 an hour) is not mailed. It is presented, eyeball-to-psyche, to the patient at the end of the month. If payment is not forthcoming in time, there is an automatic reminder in the next bill. The next step is medicine's most effective collection system: the analyst injects the unpaid bill into the analytic work to find the unconscious reason for the resistance."

Self-hypnosis, of course, is free. — Paul

There has never yet been a full-scale truce in the dispute involving hypnosis, and the dissension continues even today. And out of this hodgepodge of misunderstanding, acrimony, fear, charges, and countercharges, there has emerged a genuine problem of semantics: Hypnosis has become a distasteful name. Perhaps, therefore, if hypnosis is to be fully accepted, it must make its debut under a new name.


The very word "hypnosis" is a signal for a train of prejudices in the public mind—misconceptions, absolute traditional beliefs, propaganda. There are some subjects about which we can never think clearly because we are blinded by the negative connotations called forth by certain words. In this case the mind is immediately influenced by pictures of the hocus-pocus variety: Svengali (a character from the 1894 novel Trilby); the ridiculous antics of stage performers; witchcraft and sorcery.

And, if we need still more evidence that the mass media has participated in the damning of hypnosis, note that Svengali has been made into a movie, not once, not twice, but three times—not including several silent film versions. The most recent version, starring Jody Foster, was presented on TV in 1983. When the media really wants to get a message across, it uses TV, which millions of people watch for free, rather than movies where they have to pay to get in. —Paul

With these delusions infecting the public mind, should a doctor be blamed if he shuns any association with this word? He runs the risk of arousing suspicion and damaging his own practice. And can the fault be attributed entirely to the public if this word is genuinely misunderstood? The real problem is semantic mad psychological; the old worn-out word should go!

A word like "tranceology" (the science of the trance) would be somewhat more palatable. It goes down without regurgitating the old unsavory connotations.

So the name "hypnotism" itself embodies most of the objectionable elements. It is tied up with all the old taboos, a battle-scarred background, popular misconceptions, stage demonstrations, and with fear.

In this respect, the name is also related to objections put forth by some religious sects. Their opposition is understandable in view of the general impression that the hypnotist usurps the free will of the subject, that one mind completely dominates the mind of another. Far from depriving subjects of their free will, hypnosis can actually be instrumental in "giving back" a healthy power of will to those who have become so distressed, so burdened by worry, that they have lost the ability to assert their normal will.

Considering that so many religious leaders already exert a Svengali-like influence over their followers—people like Pat Robertson, Fred Phelps and Jim Jones come to mind—you can see why they would fear any practice that actually strengthens the will. They can't tolerate the competition! —Paul

Here again misconceptions need to be eradicated through reeducation. And this new education would be much more easily ushered in behind a new name. Indeed, full enlightenment might even be impossible under the shade of the hoary scare word "hypnotism."

As far as doctors and psychologists ace concerned, there are two other obstacles in the way of their professional use of hypnosis, One concerns the fact that their medical qualifications, however imposing, have little bearing on their ability to became proficient hypnotists. The qualities essential to a skilled hypnotherapist are somewhat different from those demanded of a good doctor. In short, an excellent doctor might turn out to be a poor hypnotist. This is, to be sure, a field for specialization.

The other factor is the possibility of embarrassment. Doctors and psychologists are, after all, human beings; as such they can hardly relish the possibility of failing to make a favorable impression during the first meeting with the patient. They well know the import of the doctor-patient relationship. Until an easy, sure-fire technique is developed, the best professional hypnotherapists will be stopped cold in some cases. Understandably, a dignified doctor cannot be expected to welcome the prospect of assuring his patient, while inducing a trance, that he cannot possibly open his eyes—and then suddenly find himself looking into the patient's wide-open eyes. This is brand of embarrassment to which doctors and psychologists need not submit in their ordinary practice.

This objection, however, can be obviated to a considerable extent by avoiding all direct challenges and utilizing only positive, curative suggestions. Even so, a few patients will remain unimpressed by a light trance and may therefore lose interest. So, regardless of how this problem is approached, there is still a need for an unfailing, more effectual method of trance induction.

A further obstacle is exemplified by a personal experience. A man with a speech difficulty asked whether I would accept him as a subject. I explained that, in the first place, I was taking only those eases which were referred to me by doctors; and secondly, since I made no charges of any kind, I usually had more to do than I could manage. I suggested, however, that he see a medical hypnotist or psychologist, as he was soon to spend several months in a large city where professional therapists were available.

Almost a year later I encountered the same man, and I immediately observed that his old speech difficulty was still very much with him. "Did you ever see a medical hypnotist?" I asked.

"Well, no," he admitted. "I telephoned my doctor and asked him what about this hypnotism business and he answered in no uncertain terms, ‘Stay away from hypnotism. It's dangerous! Besides, I don't know anything about it."

Aside from the obvious fact that anyone with no knowledge has not the right to make the charge of "dangerous," it is clear that the semantic problem pops up even in the professional field. Some medical men, including those who have never even witnessed hypnosis, will unhesitatingly condemn it. And since the very first act of a layman, before submitting to hypnotherapy, often is to ask his doctor's advice on the matter, the upshot sometimes takes this pattern: Both the doctor and the patient erroneously regard hypnotism as "dangerous"; the patient never submits to hypnotherapy; the patient retains his affliction. Fortunately, though, many medical men now recognize the merits of hypnosis.

In summing up the current status of hypnosis, these points tell the story:

There are numerous complaints for which hypnosis is the ideal treatment; and in an even greater number of conditions it is a powerful adjunct to ordinary medical methods.

Already the list of what hypnosis has actually accomplished is imposing in length and equally impressive in content. It must be admitted that it was long ago forgotten that this science was supposed to be confined to functional disorders; time and again it has been applied in the field of organic disease with extraordinary results.

What may finally be achieved by hypnosis once science has turned its full attention to it can only be surmised. Even now there are indications of its potentials—such as the fish-scale disease (ichthyosis) cure, eases of organic changes, and the electrifying possibilities of age-regression work. But if the nervous system actually has the faculty for "listening" to direct suggestion, then where are the boundaries of this science?

Despite wondrous attainments, hypnosis is still forced to fight for existence.

Just as soon as a quick, universal method of inducing a trance of impressive depth is developed and the most antagonistic, unyielding subject can be rapidly and decisively hypnotized, then hypnosis will automatically become a therapeutic instrument of paramount importance.