A person in hypnosis is not “asleep”; they are often more aware of what is taking place than normal. Almost anybody can be hypnotized, though some have a greater aptitude for it.
Hypnosis was used as back as in ancient Egypt, and has been found in South East Asia, and the Pacific island cultures. The hypnotic state is described in Greek and Roman writings. The advent of Christianity marked the decline in its use as it was denounced as witchcraft. Ironicly, it was a Roman Catholic priest, Father Gassner, who in the late 1700s renewed public interest by using hypnotic inductions as a means of “casting out devils”.
Around the same time Anton Mesmer began to theorize about “animal magnetism”, and the use of this phenomenon for medical purposes. He believed that Gassner was magnetizing his clients with the metal crucifix which he held. Mesmer attracted a lot of attention in France, and was later investigated by the French government and denounced as a fraud. It was left to James Braid to investigate further in 1841, and he was responsible for renaming mesmerism as hypnosis, from the Greek word “hypno” meaning sleep, later trying to rename it mono-idealism, as he recognized it was not sleep but a concentration of the mind upon one channel of communication.
But the words hypnosis and hypnotism had caught on, and change was impossible. Many more people after Braid developed theories about hypnosis and used it in the medical world. Perhaps the best-known exponent is a surgeon called Esdaile, who performed many serious operations painlessly using only hypnosis as an anaesthetic; some three hundred of these are carefully recorded. This method might well have continued had it not been for the discovery of chloroform and ether as chemical alternatives. Hypnosis as an anesthetic is seen somewhat of a resurgence in popularity is recent times, especially in the US.
What then is hypnosis? It is a state of deep relaxation combined with a state of heightened awareness. It can be best described as similar to that state between sleep and wakefulness when you are aware of your surroundings but unwilling to move. Its characteristics are a heightened susceptibility to beneficial suggestion(smoking tastes terrible!…. you CAN remember those exam questions!) and a much improved memory with access to “forgotten” or repressed memories stored in the unconscious mind.
In itself, the hypnotic state is very pleasant, but nothing more than that. It is very similar to the mental states achieved during meditation and yoga. It is what the therapist and patient do whilst the patient is in this state that makes it therapy.