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Hypnosis is the altered state of consciousness brought on by a hypnotist using various techniques (staring at an object, verbal commands, etc.). The English physician James Braid, in his Neurhypnology (1843), popularized, or may even have coined, the word "hypnotism." "Hypnosis" appears to have come into use later.

Braid sought to replace unscientific ideas and practices with a scientific conception of a "peculiar state of the nervous system induced by a fixed and abstracted attention of the mental and visual eye." He also hoped to do away with what magnetizers called "rapport." In the mid-nineteenth century, the English physiologist William Carpenter provided scientific support for "Braidism" by making hypnosis the paradigm of the reflexive and automatic activity that he called "unconscious cerebration." Introduced to the topic by the young physiologist Charles Richet, Jean Martin Charcot experimented with hypnosis on hysterical patients in his clinic starting in 1878, basing himself on Braid's and especially Carpenter's neurological approach. In 1882, in an article that was noted by the Académie des Sciences, he identified a pathology unique to hysterics, the "grand hypnotism" characterized by three specific nervous states (catalepsy, lethargy, and somnambulism).

Starting in 1860 in Nancy, where he had set up a "clinic," Ambroise Liebeault also made use of hypnotism, employing methods established by J.-P. Durand de Gros, one of the proponents of Braidism in France. He paid special attention to Braid's experiments with suggestion, using hypnotic suggestion for therapeutic purposes, unlike Charcot, whose practice was almost purely experimental. Hippolyte Bernheim went even further and treated hypnosis as a particular type of suggestion. He also popularized the term "psychotherapy," which he borrowed from the Briton Hack Tuke, and practiced psychotherapy by means of suggestion with and without hypnotism. After 1884 two opposing schools of hypnosis developed around Charcot and Bernheim. In Paris, the emphasis was on the idea of a pathological nervous state; in Nancy, on that of a link or psychological influence that was not necessarily pathological.

Nonetheless, although they often took their cue from a particular school, some practitioners and researchers tried to look beyond prevailing theoretical and therapeutic dogmas. The psychotherapist could thus refuse merely to issue commands, and attempt through hypnosis, to discover memories forgotten during waking life that could be at the root of neurotic symptoms (see the case of Pierre Marie in L'Automatisme psychologique by Pierre Janet, 1889). Several stories of cures associated with the return of forgotten memories were published at the end of the nineteenth century.

In discussions of hypnotic suggestion the question of "rapport" was again raised. Joseph Delboeuf introduced the idea of reciprocal suggestion. Pierre Janet and Alfred Binet spoke of "electivity," of "somnambulant passion" and "experimental love." Additionally, there was interest in the psychology of hypnotic states of consciousness. These were described in terms of dissociation (Janet) or hypnoid states (Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer). Finally, contrary to the dominant medical view at the time, the idea arose that the unconscious was not only reflexological but psychological. Experiments with post-hypnotic suggestion, in which a subject, while awake, obeys an order given during a hypnosis that he has apparently forgotten, seemed to the philosopher Henri Bergson to prove the existence of unconscious ideas and a psychological unconscious. Freud the psychoanalyst undoubtedly emerged from this plethora of research and debate: 1885-1886 (Paris), 1889 (Nancy), and 1895 (publication of the Studies on Hysteria).

Hypnosis refers both to a state of consciousness (or unconsciousness) and to a relationship. True to the legacy of Charcot and Bernheim, present-day proponents of hypnology are still divided into "statists" and "relationists." Some points of view, especially within the relationist school, draw on psychoanalysis, while others seek to reinstate hypnotism as part of an anti-psychoanalytic tendency. For hypnosis, like animal magnetism before it, does not refer only to a state or to a relationship. Since the nineteenth century it has become a magical word with strong negative or positive connotations and as many staunch advocates as militant opponents—a tireless vector of fascination and stigma.

The practice, phenomenology, and theory of hypnosis have evolved, of course, since the time of James Braid, and hypnosis can now be seen as a largely cultural phenomenon. All the same, some questions, contradictory and probably unanswerable, seem to remain after more than a century. Is the hypnotic state akin to sleep and dreaming, or to wakefulness and lucidity? Does it imply an unconscious dispossession, or is it a form of playacting? And is "hypnosis" a functional concept that can explain certain phenomenon, or a word that precipitates the very state it is supposed to account for?

Jacques Lacan

irst we need to see what Lacan is excluding in talking about knowledge: He is not talking about the state of mind in which knowledge is acquired, that is, the different possible states of consciousness (etats de la connaissance), such as states of enthusiasm (en-theos, having the god within, as in the case of Socrates and his daemon), the state of samadbi in Buddhism (a state of “deep contemplation” of an object in which the subject/object distinction is at first preserved and then, at a later stage, all distinctions are absorbed or abolished), or the Erlebnis (experience) of using hallucinogens. According to Lacan, Hegel says that while these states may be objects of experience, they are not epistemogenic (E 795). It is not because one is in a certain state of mind or receptivity that knowledge can be produced. Lacan characterizes the attempt to investigate the unconscious in such states or via hypnosis (or even in the hypnoid states characteristic of some forms of hysteria) as a form of “rape” (ravissement), or taking by force. He situates the subject not on the basis of some experience or state of consciousness but on the basis of a logic that “is already operative in the unconscious” (E 796).

See Also


See also: Alienation; Anna O., case of; Autosuggestion; Bernheim, Hippolyte; Cäcilie M., case of; Cathartic method; Charcot, Jean Martin; Chertok, Léon (Tchertok, Lejb); Cinema and psychoanalysis; "Confusion of Tongues between Adults and the Child"; Congrès international de l'hypnotisme expérimental et scientifique, Premier; Cure; Delboeuf, Joseph Rémi Léopold; Emmy von N., case of; Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis; Freud's Self-analysis; Freud, the Secret Passion; Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego; Hypnoid states; Janet Pierre; Liebault Ambroise Auguste; "Lines of Advance in Psycho-Analytic Therapy"; Look, gaze; Masochism; Negative hallucination; Psychoanalytic treatment; Psychotherapy; Relaxation psychotherapy; Repression, lifting of; Resistance; Self-consciousness; Studies on Hysteria; Suggestion; Trance; Qu'est-ce que la suggestion? (What is suggestion?).