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Early Hypnotic Research Roots

C. Alexander Simpkins Ph.D. & Annellen Simpkins Ph.D.


Returning to the Root, we get the essence.

(Zen Saying)


As modern professionals, we pride ourselves on our state-of-the-art research methods.  But when we look back in the history of hypnosis research, we find some of the foundations for our modern understandings.

One of the largest hypnosis studies ever done took place in the late nineteenth century. Most of the hypnosis researchers of the period around the world collaborated together to gather statistics on hypnotic susceptibility.  They published the results as ÒThe First International Statistics of Susceptibility to Hypnosis in 1892.Ó  (Bramwell  1903)    The data was based on 8705 hypnotized subjects from fifteen different countries.  Each participating hypnotist kept track of his results with trance  phenomena and induction, and then these statistics were correlated together.  Some of the participants are well known, such as Liebeault, Bramwell,  Forel, and Bernheim.

Hilgard combined the statistics reported by Bramwell (1903) along with two other large studies  Loewenfeld (1901) and Schmidkunz ( 1894) done at this time for a total of 19, 534 subjects.  (Hilgard 1965, 75) He compiled the following results from these studies: nine percent were unresponsive, twenty-nine percent produced light trances, thirty-six percent showed moderate trances and twenty-six percent went into a deep, somnambulistic trance. These findings clearly indicated that most of the population is responsive to hypnosis, with more than half being able to produce moderate to deep trances with corresponding phenomena.

The nineteenth century researchers also recorded factors that influenced this responsiveness.  They noted no influence of nationality across many different countries.  For example, some of the researchers had expected that the French would be more susceptible than other nationalities, but subjects in Sweden, Germany, England, Scotland, India, and South Australia were not different from the French in their trance abilities.  All participating nations had comparable results.

The misconception regarding differences between men and women was also corrected.  At first the researches believed in the old-fashioned stereotype that women were the Ôweaker sex,Ó and therefore expected them to be more susceptible. Of course they found no such distinction: men and women were equally hypnotizable.  For example, Liebeault found that soldiers and sailors, who were usually male, were just as easily hypnotized as his female subjects. 

Intelligent, imaginative subjects were more capable with hypnosis than duller, unimaginative ones. People who were mentally passive with poor concentration abilities were not as easily hypnotized as subjects who could direct their attention at will. This distinction helped further to dispel the myth that hypnosis was for the weak-minded.

The researchers did find different susceptibilities at different ages.  Children were more readily able to respond than adults.  Most children between the ages of three to fifteen years could readily experience trance phenomena.  Once of adult age, responsiveness remained fairly steady up to sixty-three years, when susceptibility dropped slightly.

Another interesting finding was subjects who firmly believed that they would be hypnotized did not respond any more strongly than those who were skeptical.  These results helped to dispel the assumption that faith was a necessary component.  For example, Forel found that people who laughed at the process and considered hypnotized people imposters were often quickly hypnotized without realizing what was happening, a finding which Erickson corroborated many times over!

The sheer magnitude of these early hypnosis studies lends credibility to the findings. However, there were serious problems in the research methods.  Even though the nineteenth century researchers collected large numbers of observations of hypnotic phenomenon, they lacked standardization in their induction methods. The same hypnotic technique meant different things to different hypnotists.  For example, one researcher gave suggestions forcefully as a command while another offered suggestions gently as a subtle inference.  Some made suggestions strictly verbally while other used nonverbal means of suggestion such as touching the subject. We now know that keeping all the independent variables constant gives more reliable results.

These early hypnosis studies show that hypnotic phenomena are not just a product of a particular theory or approach to hypnosis.  Hypnotic effects occurred in a majority of subjects no matter what method was used, just as Erickson often taught. Clearly the phenomena of hypnosis are robust. These nineteenth century researchers gave us an early form of a macro-study. From such enduring roots, modern hypnosis research has evolved and flourished.


Bramwell, J. Milne. 1903. Hypnotism: Its History, Practice, and Theory. London: Grant Richards.

Hilgard, Ernest L.  1965. Hypnotic Susceptibility. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.






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