Someone is invited on to the stage, where they are asked to sit down on a chair which awaits. The host who has summoned them snaps their fingers at one point and, for comic effect, declares them unable to leave their seat. The audience roars with laughter as the unfortunate guinea pig cannot remove the chair from their behind. They are stuck fast, as if with super glue. It’s hilarious. And yet we know that it’s all the fault of the host, who has done little more than suggest that, try as they might, they cannot free themselves. We accept that the person struggling is in a mild hypnotic trance. Let’s get a definition, then, of Hypnosis. On Merriam-Webster’s website we find it described as a ‘trancelike state that resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are readily accepted by the subject.’

Indeed, for the guinea pig in our example believes themselves to be positively bound to that chair. Clearly, there is some considerable power being exerted here. This is nothing less than a modern form of ancient magic, which actually has its roots in healing practices, and even underlies medieval Alchemy. Humans can be induced to do the most extraordinary things under hypnosis – even acts of cruelty and violence they would not normally commit. A subconscious ‘trigger’ (a psychological ‘cue’ released at a given moment) is all that is needed to turn ordinary, law abiding citizens into armed robbers or even assassins. Fans of ‘magician’ and smug sceptic Derren Brown will know all about this, from his prime time specials for channel 4 on UK television.

Hypnosis wasn’t named as such until about 1841, when the Scottish surgeon James Braid became interested in the phenomenon. But the real pioneering work belonged to Franz Anton Mesmer, and Positive Thinking as we know it now can be traced back to him. Mesmer thought he’d discovered a new phenomenon that would bring amazing results – a universal fluid he named animal magnetism, ‘the immediate agent of all the phenomena of nature, in which life originates, and by which it is preserved.’ In 1778 Mesmer set up his clinic and at first enjoyed a resounding success. His treatments, essentially, were the result of the patients imagination: ‘The most sensible effects are produced on the approach of Mesmer, who is said to convey the fluid by certain motions of his hands or eyes, without touching the person.’

These ideas were influenced by the fifteenth century physician and alchemist Paracelsus, for whom the essence of life was an unseen substance he called ‘mumia’. Bodily fluids, for one, contain ‘mumia’ and one may make from them a ‘microcosmic magnet’ which attracts further ‘mumia’ towards it. The magnet can then draw off diseased ‘mumia’ from a part of a patient’s body. The resemblance to Mesmer’s theory of ‘animal magnetism’ and his iron rods is unmissable.

And so Mesmer was basically drawing upon the magic of antiquity. That he was essentially a secret alchemist is shown by an 1804 anecdote involving the delightfully named Dr Egg von Ellekon. Doubtful about the effects of animal magnetism, he asked Mesmer why he always made his patients bathe in the river. The reply was that the water is exposed to the sun’s rays, but Mesmer wasn’t alluding to the river being warmed by the sun, he meant something else: ‘Dear doctor, the cause why all water which is exposed to the rays of the sun is superior to all other water is because it is magnetised.’ If this wasn’t irrational enough, he added, ‘twenty years ago I magnetised the sun.’ This is alchemical code for I have discovered the Philosopher’s Stone; or in plain English, ‘I have acquired spiritual enlightenment.’

French chemist Émile Coué (1857-1926) is the next major figure in our story of Mind Power. He ran a clinic from his home in Nancy, prior to which he’d explored the phenomenon of hypnosis with regard to effecting cures. He was convinced that the Unconscious mind always plays a vital role and was therefore approaching things from much the same position as Mesmer. Coué, when working as a pharmacist, noted that positive recommendation of a certain drug would boost its power in ways not attributable to the drug itself. Like Mesmer, he had discovered the first cardinal rule in Positive Thinking: what we believe to be true ends up being a reality.

In his book, Self-Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion from 1920, he alludes to a power which seems positively miraculous. For it is, ‘an instrument that we possess at birth, and with which we play unconsciously all our life, as a baby plays with its rattle. It is, however, a dangerous instrument; it can wound or even kill you if you handle it imprudently and unconsciously. It can on the contrary save your life when you know how to employ it consciously.’ Much the same was said about the Philosopher’s Stone by alchemists!

Coué is famous for the formula that goes: “Day by day, in every way, I’m getting better and better”, which he called Induced Autosuggestion. Its basic idea, provided by devotee C. Harry Brooks can be summed up as follows: ‘Every idea which enters the conscious mind, if it is accepted by the Unconscious, is transformed by it into a reality and forms henceforth a permanent element in our life’.¹

Hypnosis and the New Thought

Then there was the New Thought movement, in late 19th century America, previously known as ‘mind cure’ or ‘mental science’. Much of it was essentially an updating of the Christian gospel where the miracle-working power of Jesus was now the miracle-working power of the Unconscious. In other words, the capacity for healing does not depend on any external factors – we all have this power; it lies within. The New Thought was thus presented as a kind of ‘science of the mind’ – where spirituality can be analysed in scientific -sounding terms. It could even be experimented with, and a whole set of practical techniques for its usage would be developed. But this was not true science and the New Thought movement were charged with basing their ideas on mere mysticism, or even quackery. As indeed, others are today.

The earliest of the New Thought gurus, inspired by the teachings of Mesmer, was Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802–66). He came from a rather poor background, had little formal education and no training whatever in psychology. But he did have enormous reserves of curiosity, especially about the powers of the mind. His interest in hypnotism led him to the same conclusions that Coué had drawn – that the key to a cure lies in a patient’s belief. An understudy of Quimby’s, a certain Lucius, would be subject to hypnosis and then would proceed to make diagnoses on patients. Lucius noted that ‘some [patients]believe in various remedies and others believe that the spirits of the dead prescribe. ’ But Lucius added that he had no confidence in either, as ‘the principle on which they are done is the question to solve, for the disease can be cured without medicine … ’² In other words, the patient’s belief provides the cure.

One of the movement’s foremost thinkers was the brilliant William Walker Atkinson, the editor of New Thought magazine and author of more than 100 texts on the subject. One of them, Mind Power, is from 1912 and on the first page he boldly enjoins the reader: ‘I wish to invite you to the consideration of a great principle of nature – a great natural force that manifests its activities in the phenomena of Dynamic Mentation – a great something the energies of which I have called Mind Power.’ Of course, it hadn’t gone unnoticed that the powers residing in the Unconscious could be utilised in the service of personal ambitions.

Hence there was Think and Grow Rich by one Napoleon Hill in 1937, a book on acquiring wealth which refers to a ‘key’ necessary to success. ‘Truly, thoughts are things,’ wrote Hill, ‘and powerful things at that.’ Hill alludes to a certain ‘secret’ which is imbued with ‘amazing power’ and ‘if you are ready to put it to use, you will recognise this secret at least once on every chapter.’ One reads on, intrigued, to find that ‘a peculiar thing about this secret is that those who once acquire it and use it find themselves literally swept on to success.’

The ‘secret’ was not that difficult to discern. In any case, other authors were ready to make matter very plain indeed. In 1948 appeared The Magic of Believing, which referred explicitly to Hill’s ‘secret’ of success in its very title. In a similar vein was the inspirational work of stage magician Al Koran, Bring Out The Magic In Your Mind published in 1964. In it he states that he had discovered ‘a “something” that worked magic, and that “something” is Belief. The magic of Belief grants phenomenal results for all who accept it.’ But, by far, the best known figure in this movement was Norman Vincent Peale, the American Pastor who had penned The Power of Positive Thinking back in 1952. It became so popular that it remained on the best-seller list of the New York Times for over three years. (It has sold about 5 million copies.) Peale tells us: ‘Believe it is possible to solve your problem. Tremendous things happen to the believer. So believe the answer will come. It will.’

And there it might have ended … if only it were not for a spate of the hundreds of imitators we know and love today! (Mind Power and Positive Thinking even go by different names these days, like Neuro-Linguistic Programming or Cosmic Ordering. Oh, yes … and there was that book from 2008: The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne.) But to return to our subject of hypnosis, it ought to be clear that there’s a strong link between it and the Power of Positive Thinking. Hypnosis is nothing more than the ability to believe on the part of those hypnotised!  This is how all those strange powers come about -and yes, why the person thinks they cannot rise from their chair. Belief is the key!

1. The Practice of Autosuggestion, C. Harry Brooks, Dodd Mead & Co., 1922

2. Dresser, Horatio W.,  A History the New Thought Movement, New York: Thomas Crowell.