Book Reviews

Dr James Braid -- Father of Hypnotherapy?

The Discovery of Hypnosis
The Complete Writings of James Braid
'The Father of Hypnotherapy'
National Council for Hypnotherapy
Edited with Commentary by Donald Robertson

Many of today's hypnotherapists may be shocked by the modernity of Dr Braid's concepts of hypnotherapy. Born in Scotland in 1795, he died in 1860 leaving behind a body of work that laid the foundation for the scientific understanding of hypnotherapy.

This meticulous compilation of Braid's prolific writings allows us to not only admire the brilliant surgeon's theories but to be amazed at his anticipation of what we hitherto considered to be modern innovations such as cognitive behavioural therapy and the non-existence of the subconscious.

Braid took issue with Mesmerism, the fashionable therapy/entertainment of the 19th century. He distinguished the fantasies and fairy-tales of Mesmerism from the scientific approach he took with patients, many of whom he treated without charge.

Braid's scientific observations progressed from cautious acceptance that hypnotism relied on the physical (re-)arrangement of a subject's limbs to proving that suggestion is the key ingredient.

His intimate knowledge of physiology meant he was able to explain eye-closure and other hypnotic phenomena in medical, i.e. scientific, terms rather than in the supernatural explanations offered by the Mesmerists.

The latter used to put on what today we would call stage shows. Since, according to Braid, suggestion is the essence of hypnotism and anything you can ask a person to do in hypnosis can be equally well accomplished without formal inductions, the elaborate rituals of "hypnosis" stage shows have little to do with hypnosis and more to do with entertainment accomplished through suggestion and imitation.

I particularly enjoyed Braid's accounts of his exposure of those Mesmerists who continued to proclaim the power of magnets -- in one case he walked around the room with a powerful magnet concealed in his pocket. Of course, this had no effect on the subject whose mortification at the subsequent exposure can only be imagined.

Donald Robertson's study of Braid's work leads him to a sure-to-be-controversial conclusion: "He carried out many experiments debunking pseudoscientific placebo therapies including 'subtle energy' treatments like Mesmerism, magnets, crystals, homeopathy, etc. Ironically, these Victorian 'nostrum' (i.e. quack) remedies were the precursors of the currently popular complementary therapies [such as Reiki, EFT, TFT] with which modern hypnotherapy is frequently associated."

Braid disputed the notion of special powers being transmitted from the hypnotist to the patient. He was the first to proclaim what most of us today parrot as gospel but which an ego-driven minority still doesn't accept: that the patient puts himself into hypnosis by following instructions to focus on certain dominant ideas.

Included in this remarkable volume is an 1896 summary of Braid's work by another physician, John Milne Bramwell whose own work in hypnotizing thousands of patients mirrored Braid's transition from the emphasis on "trance" to "suggestion."

I agree with Donald Robertson that James Braid richly deserves the honorific of "Father of Hypnotherapy."