That Hypnosis Never Meant Sleep

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It is a common misconception that hypnotism involves a state resembling unconsciousness or sleep.  This can be partly attributed to the fact that the word “hypnotism” derives from hypnos, the Greek word for sleep.  However, few people realise that the word “hypnotism” is actually an abbreviation for the longer term “neuro-hypnotism”, meaning sleep of the nervous system, as opposed to normal sleep.  It was coined around 1841 by James Braid, the Scottish surgeon who many authorities consider to be the founder of hypnotherapy.  Braid simply meant that many hypnotic subjects would become physically relaxed and engrossed in a single idea to the exclusion of distraction.  Indeed, according to its founder, hypnotism was better characterised as a state of conscious concentration rather than unconsciousness.  Braid soon came to regret his use of the term “hypnotism” because of the misconceptions it encouraged, even during his own lifetime.  In Hypnotic Therapeutics (1853), Braid writes,

It is of great importance that it should be clearly understood by patients, that it is by no means generally requisite that they should lapse into the state of unconsciousness in order to ensure the salutary effects of the nervous sleep.  Many imagine, that unless they become torpid and insensible, no beneficial effect can ensue.  This is a complete misapprehension, for the happy results of innumerable cases treated with the greatest success by hypnotism, clearly prove, that cases which had resisted all ordinary treatment by the exhibition of medicines and external applications, have readily yielded to the impression made on the nervous system by this peculiar influence, even when they were perfectly conscious of all that was done, and could remember, after awaking, every circumstance that had happened during the nervous sleep.  This was strikingly verified in my own case, when I cured myself of a violent rheumatic attack by throwing myself into the nervous sleep [i.e., into self-hypnosis] for eight or nine minutes, from which I was aroused perfectly free from pain, although I had been perfectly conscious all the while.

Although some subjects entered a state of mind in which they experienced amnesia for the process, which the earlier Mesmerists had termed “artificial somnambulism”, Braid elsewhere makes it clear that only 5-10% of his subjects experienced this response to hypnotism.  As Braid implies, the whole notion of self-hypnosis conflicts with the assumption that hypnosis involves unconsciousness or sleep because one cannot very well be both asleep and consciously directing one’s own autosuggestions at the same time.  Self-hypnosis requires some degree of conscious concentration, or at least relaxed attention.

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