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The history of hypnosis is full of contradictions. On the one hand, a history of hypnosis is a bit like a history of breathing. Like breathing, hypnosis is an inherent and universal trait, shared and experienced by all human beings since the dawn of time. On the other hand, it’s only in the last few decades that we’ve come to realise that! Hypnosis itself hasn’t changed for millennia, but our understanding of it and our ability to control it has changed quite profoundly. The history of hypnosis, then, is really the history of this change in perception.

In the 21st century, there are still those who see hypnosis as some form of occult power. Those who believe that hypnosis can be used to perform miracles or control minds are, of course, simply sharing the consensus view that prevailed for centuries. Recorded history is full of tantalising glimpses of rituals and practices that look very much like hypnosis from a modern perspective, from the “healing passes” of the Hindu Vedas to magical texts from ancient Egypt. These practices tend to be for magical or religious purposes, such as divination or communicating with gods and spirits. It’s important to remember, however, that what we see as occultism was the scientific establishment of its day, with exactly the same purpose as modern science – curing human ills and increasing knowledge.

From a Western point of view, the decisive moment in the history of hypnosis occurred in the 18th Century (coinciding with the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason). The work of Franz Mesmer, amongst others, can be seen as both the last flourish of “occult” hypnosis and the first flourish of the “scientific” viewpoint. Mesmer was the first to propose a rational basis for the effects of hypnosis. Although we now know that his notion of “animal magnetism”, transferred from healer to patient through a mysterious etheric fluid, is hopelessly wrong, it was firmly based on scientific ideas current at the time, in particular Isaac Newton’s theories of gravitation.

Mesmer was also the first to develop a consistent method for hypnosis, which was passed on to and developed by his followers. It was still a very ritualistic practice. Mesmer himself, for instance, liked to perform mass inductions by having his patients linked together by a rope, along which his “animal magnetism” could pass. He was also fond of dressing up in a cloak and playing ethereal music on the glass harmonica whilst this was happening. The popular image of the hypnotist as a charismatic and mystical figure can be firmly dated to this time.

Inevitably, these magical trappings led to Mesmer’s downfall, and for a long time, hypnotism was a dangerous interest to have for anybody looking for a mainstream career. Nevertheless, the stubborn fact remained that hypnosis worked, and the 19th Century is characterised by individuals seeking to understand and apply its effects. Surgeons and physicians like John Elliotson and James Esdaille pioneered its use in the medical field, risking their reputation to do so, whilst researchers like James Braid began to peel away the obscuring layers of mesmerism, revealing the physical and biological truths at the heart of the phenomenon. Thanks to their persistence and efforts, by the end of the century hypnosis was accepted as a valid clinical technique, studied and applied in the great universities and hospitals of the day.

This trend continued into the 20th Century, although in some ways, hypnosis became imprisoned by its own respectability, as it became mired in endless academic debate about “state” or “non-state”. This conundrum – does hypnosis have a real, physical basis, or not? – ultimately proved to be rather sterile. Important shifts were happening elsewhere, however. First of all, the centre of hypnotic gravity moved from Europe to America, where all the most significant breakthroughs of the 20th century took place. Secondly, hypnosis became a popular phenomenon, something that was increasingly available to the layman, outside of the laboratory or clinic. At the same time, the style of hypnosis changed, from a direct instruction issued by an authoritarian figure (a legacy of the charismatic mesmerist) to a more indirect and permissive style of trance induction, based on subtly persuasive language patterns. This was largely due to the work of therapists such as Milton H. Erickson.

More importantly, perhaps, hypnosis became increasingly practical, and regarded as a useful tool for easing psychological distress and bringing about profound change in a variety of situations. This theme has continued up to the present day. Advances in neurological science and brain imaging, together with the work of British psychologists Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell who linked hypnosis to the Rapid Eye Movement (REM), have also helped to resolve the “state/non-state” debate, bringing hypnosis and hypnotic trance firmly into the realm of everyday experience. At the same time, the nature of “ordinary” consciousness is better understood as a series of trance states that we go into and out of all the time.

The history of hypnosis, then, is like the search for something that was in plain view all along, and we can now see it for what it is – a universal phenomenon that’s an inextricable part of being human. The future of hypnosis will be to fully realise the incredible potential of our natural hypnotic abilities.


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