The Evolution of Hypnotherapy
A Review of a Talk by Dr. Weitzenhoffer
By Susan Lee Bady, LCSW, BCD
On March 18th, 1994, Dr. Andre M. Weitzenhoffer, noted scientist, clinician, author,
and teacher, gave a talk entitled “The Evolution of Hypnotism from de Puysegur to
Erickson" as part of NYSEPH's ongoing series on leaders in hypnotism. He presented
Erickson's contribution to hypnotism within a scientific historical perspective and
discussed various aspects of Milton Erickson's contributions to hypnosis of which
many contemporary Ericksonians are unaware.
Dr. Weitzenhoffer has a unique background from which to discuss hypnotism and
Erickson's innovative contributions. First, he is a prominent scientist as well as a
clinician. Weitzenhoffer, along with Ernest Hilgard, created the Stanford Scales of
Hypnotic Susceptibility on which much scientific research in hypnotism is based, and
conducted numerous other research projects on hypnosis. Furthermore, in contrast
to many contemporary Ericksonian leaders who knew Milton Erickson only in his later
years, Dr. Weitzenhoffer had a close personal and professional relationship with both
Erickson and his wife from 1954 to 1976, thus giving him a very broad
understanding of Erickson's work and his development.
The development of hypnotism, Dr. Weitzenhoffer said, involved a combination of
many fortuitous accidents as well as rigorous research. Many creative, innovative
persons prepared the way for Erickson's contributions. It all began accidentally in
1784 when the Marquis de Puysegur noted a sleep-Iike condition he called
somnambulism, resulting from using magnetic techniques developed by the later
discredited Mesmer. In 1841 the British surgeon James Braid saw an exhibition of
artificial somnambulism and felt something real had happened, unrelated to animal
magnetism. He produced the same state by having subjects stare at a bright object
and experimented with the phenomenon, reporting highly impressive results-such as
conducting surgery without anesthesia and curing congenital blindness and deafness.
He discovered and used arm catalepsy as a test for the presence of hypnosis long
before Erickson did. Braid understood the concept of suggestion. In fact, he
conducted research showing that suggestion, not animal magnetism, caused
Mesmer's results. Surprisingly he did not recognize its application to his own cures,
leaving that to later researchers. He did, however, coin the word "neuro-hypnotism,"
and thus defined the beginning of hypnosis.
Over the next several decades many persons explored hypnotism scientifically. For
example, Broca conducted major surgery under hypnosis that was reported in the
medical literature, and Janet developed a dissociation theory of hypnotic behavior.
In 1860 Liebault stated that all hypnotic phenomena were produced by suggestion.
Bernheim later joined him in his thinking and became a partner at his clinic in Nancy
treating people with hypnosis. In 1884 Bernheim published a book stating, among
other ideas, that all hypnotic phenomena are produced by suggestion, that
suggestion exists independently of hypnosis, and that hypnosis is a normal, not a
pathological, condition. Borrowing from earlier works the idea of ideomotor action,
he gave it a prominent position as a mechanism of suggestion. He saw this as largely
dependent on the functioning of an "inferior psychism" which is really a counterpart
of Erickson's unconscious.
By the time Erickson became interested in hypnotism, Bernheim's influence was
significant throughout Europe and the United States, Weitzenhoffer said. It seems
highly likely, he felt, that Erickson was influenced by him, especially when we
consider some of the ideas Erickson developed - for example, the separation of
trance and suggestion, the stress on ideomotor action, and the role of unconscious
processes, as had been discussed by Bernheim. Just as we call ourselves
Ericksonians, Weitzenhoffer says, Erickson could, in his early days, have been called
As mentioned, Dr. Weitzenhoffer was deeply involved with Erickson for many years.
Many Ericksonians are unaware, he said, that Erickson was once a researcher and
that he produced some outstanding research papers. One of the most significant was
his experimental production by hypnosis of the psychopathology of everyday life that
Freud had written about. In all his experience, Weitzenhoffer said, he has not known
a single Ericksonian who has read this paper, and he feels this causes a real gap in a
full appreciation of Erickson's contribution to hypnosis.
In 1958 Milton Erickson founded the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis and
stopped research in order to teach hypnosis to as many people as possible. Dr.
Weitzenhoffer was on the faculty of some of his workshops.
In those days Erickson felt it important to convince people that hypnosis was safe
and easy. As Weitzenhoffer himself witnessed, many people were afraid of the power
and responsibility of hypnosis that they connected with direct suggestions, and they
left the training. This difficulty, as well as the wide range of clinical situations
Erickson encountered working with many therapists and all of their patients,
prompted him to become even more creative than he had been before in developing
new techniques to help both the patients' problems and the therapists' anxieties.
Among his many innovations he developed the indirect suggestion to get around the
patient's resistance. Weitzenhoffer believes he may have stressed the notion of
trusting the patient's unconscious in order to relieve therapists’ fears of the power of
hypnosis and encourage them to use it comfortably.
As a scientist, Dr. Weitzenhoffer is concerned about the confusion in terminology and
concepts that pervades the behavioral sciences, including hypnotism, causing fuzzy
thinking and impeding scientific development. The current use of the word "hypnosis" to signify both the state as well anything that has to do with the state is
confusing, he feels. He prefers to use different words to distinguish the two concepts
- i.e. "hypnosis" denotes the state, and "hypnotism” describes its study, production,
He also feels it important to distinguish between Erickson as a hypnotist and Erickson
as a therapist. For example, utilization, the acceptance of whatever the patient
offers, is Erickson's most important contribution, Weitzenhoffer feels. "It has great
value, but it is important to recognize that it is a therapeutic concept, not hypnosis",
he said. Similarly, according to Weitzenhoffer, many of Erickson's other creative
contributions stem from his genius as a therapist, not as a hypnotist, and it would
help clarify matters on the scientific level to distinguish between the two. (Persons
interested in knowing more about this are referred to Dr. Weitzenhoffer's article
entitled "Ericksonian Myths" which will be published soon in the proceedings of the
Fifth International Congress on Ericksonian Approaches to Hypnosis and
Psychotherapy by Brunner/Mazel).
A final consideration was Weitzenhoffer's view of Erickson as interpreted by his
followers. Many people who studied with Erickson did not understand his actions.
They constantly pushed him to explain himself and were often frustrated by his
vague replies. At times, Weitzenhoffer said, people, including himself, felt too
frustrated and embarassed to say they didn't understand.
Although Erickson sometimes did explain his interventions" he often worked
intuitively. Weitzenhoffer feels that Milton Erickson himself did not always
understand why he did as he did. He was, however, under great pressure to give
explanations. Weitzenhoffer wondered at times if he responded vaguely just to give
closure to the questioners and to get the pressure off himself.
In Erickson's later years, as his followers were writing books with him to explain his
methods, he was physically very weak. Weitzenhoffer said he knows for a fact that
Erickson did not read his collaborators' writings closely, if at all. He wondered if he
would have agreed with many of their statements had he had the capacity to review
them. It is therefore important to remember as we read the books written in
collaboration his students that we may be learning their interpretations of Erickson's
ideas, not necessarily the ideas themselves.
Although Dr. Weitzenhoffer is now retired, he is as busy as he ever was. He recently
completed a two-volume series that interested persons may wish to read: The
Practice of Hypnotism. Volume One and Volume Two, John Wiley & Sons, 1989.
From Newsletter of the New York Society of Ericksonian Psychotherapy and Hypnosis