Exploring the History of Covert Hypnosis: From Mesmerism to Now

Delving into the shadows of the mind, the history of covert hypnosis is as fascinating as it is mysterious. This psychological technique, which operates on the fringes of consciousness, has been both celebrated and vilified throughout its existence. It’s a story that weaves through the tapestry of human history, touching on the realms of magic, medicine, and even espionage.

From ancient civilizations to modern-day boardrooms, covert hypnosis has been employed in various guises, evolving with the times yet always retaining its enigmatic core. It’s a testament to the power of suggestion and the human psyche’s vulnerability to influence. As we embark on this journey through time, we’ll uncover the origins of covert hypnosis, its development, and the pivotal moments that have defined its controversial legacy.

The Origins of Covert Hypnosis

Tracing the origins of covert hypnosis leads back to ancient civilizations, where priests and shamans wielded influence over the populace through rituals and words believed to carry mystical power. These early practitioners, using techniques akin to what is now recognized as covert hypnosis, harnessed the power of suggestion to heal, divine, and control events within their communities.

The term “hypnosis” itself was coined in the 18th century, but the roots of covert hypnosis extend far beyond this point. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks practiced forms of hypnosis in their sleep temples and healing sanctuaries, respectively. Visitors would be led into a state of trance with the aim of curing ailments or receiving divine visions. However, the methods employed often relied on the subtle influence and persuasive language that operated beneath the conscious awareness of the individuals, a key aspect of covert hypnosis.

In the Middle Ages, the art of persuasion took on darker connotations, with accusations of witchcraft and sorcery often involving claims of mind control and manipulation. These historical events underscore the fears and suspicions that covert hypnotic techniques can engender.

The Renaissance brought a renewed interest in the human psyche, with scholars and magicians exploring the power of suggestion. Figures like Giambattista Della Porta and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa delved into the mysteries of the mind, using their understanding to entertain and influence at royal courts. Their work laid the groundwork for the more formalized study of psychology and hypnosis that would emerge later.

It was in the 18th century, however, that covert hypnosis began to take the form by which it is recognized today. Franz Anton Mesmer, a German physician, developed a theory of animal magnetism, or mesmerism, which argued for the existence of a natural energetic transference between all living things. Mesmer believed that he could manipulate this force to cure illnesses, often using a technique that involved patients being unaware of the specific methods he employed—relying instead on his authoritative presence and suggestion to induce a trance-like state. Critics of Mesmer’s time, and even modern scholars, recognize his practices as a form of covert hypnosis.

Key Figures in the Development of Covert Hypnosis

Exploring the trajectory of covert hypnosis unveils notable individuals whose contributions have been pivotal in shaping its evolution. From mesmerists to psychologists, each figure brought unique insights and methods, furthering the technique’s application and understanding.

Franz Anton Mesmer

Franz Anton Mesmer stands as a foundational figure in the history of covert hypnosis. In the 18th century, Mesmer introduced mesmerism, which he believed was a magnetic fluid in the body that could be manipulated to heal. His technique involved creating a trance-like state through powerful suggestions, laying the groundwork for what would become known as covert hypnosis. Mesmer’s influence persisted, demonstrating the potential of suggestion without the subjects’ conscious realization.

James Braid

Following Mesmer, James Braid, a Scottish surgeon, significantly advanced the field in the 19th century by coining the term “hypnosis.” Braid initially thought that hypnosis was a form of sleep, but later revised his view, recognizing its psychological nature. He emphasized that hypnosis could be induced through focused attention and was among the first to suggest its therapeutic potential, marking a key moment in the acceptance of covert hypnosis.

Sigmund Freud

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, explored the use of hypnosis as a means of accessing the unconscious mind. Although Freud eventually shifted his focus to psychoanalytic methods, his early work with hypnotic techniques contributed to the broader recognition of covert hypnosis as a tool for psychological exploration and therapy.

Milton H. Erickson

Milton H. Erickson, a psychiatrist and psychologist, revolutionized covert hypnosis in the 20th century. Erickson developed a new approach that utilized indirect suggestions and storytelling to induce trance and facilitate change. His methods emphasized the importance of the therapeutic relationship and adapting techniques to the individual, which significantly influenced modern hypnotic practices. Erickson’s work demonstrated the subtle art of covert hypnosis, where the subject might not even be aware that they are being hypnotized.

Major Milestones in Covert Hypnosis

Tracing the arc of covert hypnosis reveals a fascinating journey marked by several major milestones. Each of these milestones has significantly contributed to its development and current understanding.

Discovery of Mesmerism

Franz Anton Mesmer introduced mesmerism in the 18th century, laying the foundational stone for covert hypnosis. Mesmer’s belief in animal magnetism and its healing powers underscored the importance of suggestibility without the subject’s conscious effort, a cornerstone of covert hypnosis practices today.

Coining of “Hypnosis”

In the 19th century, James Braid, a Scottish surgeon, recognized the psychological aspect of mesmerism, distinguishing it from its mystical origins. He coined the term “hypnosis,” drawing from the Greek word for sleep, “hypnos,” thereby distancing the practice from mesmerism and aligning it with scientific exploration.

Freud’s Exploration of the Unconscious

Sigmund Freud’s work at the turn of the 20th century with hypnosis as a tool for exploring the unconscious mind marked another significant milestone. Though Freud later moved away from hypnosis in favor of psychoanalysis, his early work contributed to the acceptance and integration of covert hypnosis into the exploration of the human psyche.

Erickson’s Indirect Approach

Milton H. Erickson revolutionized covert hypnosis by introducing an indirect approach in the 20th century. His techniques of using storytelling, metaphor, and ambiguity to induce trance states without explicit instruction or awareness paved the way for modern covert hypnosis practices. Erickson’s work demonstrated the power of indirect suggestion and the importance of the therapeutic relationship in effecting change, principles that remain central to covert hypnosis today.

Adoption in Behavioral Therapy

The integration of covert hypnosis techniques into behavioral therapy represents a more recent milestone. By utilizing these techniques to alter perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors at a subconscious level, therapists could achieve significant therapeutic outcomes. This milestone illustrates the acceptance and application of covert hypnosis within the context of traditional psychological treatment methods.

Expansion into Everyday Applications

Lastly, the expansion of covert hypnosis beyond the therapeutic setting into areas such as marketing, sales, and personal development illustrates its versatility and the growing interest in its potential. Techniques derived from covert hypnosis principles are now commonly employed in various industries to influence behavior and decision-making processes subtly.

The Science Behind Covert Hypnosis

The science of covert hypnosis delves into the intricacies of the human mind, revealing how suggestibility operates without the conscious awareness of the subject. This subsection explores the psychological and neurological foundations that make covert hypnosis possible, building on the historical context provided in the previous summary.

Psychological Foundations

Covert hypnosis relies heavily on psychological principles, particularly those related to attention, perception, and suggestibility. These principles explain how individuals can be guided to adopt behaviors, attitudes, or beliefs indirectly, without direct instruction or awareness. Key components include:

  • Attentional Bias: This concept explains how individuals’ focus can be directed toward specific stimuli or ideas, making them more susceptible to suggestions aligned with these focal points.
  • Cognitive Load: Manipulating cognitive load affects how much conscious effort an individual can dedicate to analyzing suggestions, increasing susceptibility when cognitive resources are strained.
  • Social Influence: The human tendency to comply with perceived authority or align with societal norms plays a critical role in covert hypnosis, where suggestions often mimic authoritative advice or common beliefs.

Neurological Aspects

At the neurological level, covert hypnosis engages brain regions associated with attention and the processing of narratives. Studies utilizing neuroimaging techniques, such as fMRI, have begun to unravel these connections. Findings indicate the involvement of:

  • Prefrontal Cortex: This area, associated with decision-making and attention, becomes particularly active, indicating its role in focusing attention and processing hypnotic suggestions.
  • Temporal Lobes: Involved in language comprehension and emotional association, these regions support the story-based approach often used in covert hypnosis to bypass critical analysis.
  • Limbic System: Regulating emotions and memory, the limbic system’s activation suggests that emotional engagement is crucial for the effectiveness of hypnotic suggestions.
  • Dissociated Control Theory: Proposes that hypnosis results from a division of conscious awareness, allowing suggestions to influence behavior without conscious processing.
  • Socio-Cognitive Theory: Emphasizes the role of social and cognitive expectations in the hypnotic process, suggesting that individuals’ beliefs about hypnosis and their roles influence their responses to hypnotic suggestions.
  • Neodissociation Theory: Introduces the idea of multiple streams of consciousness, with one stream responding to the

Modern Applications of Covert Hypnosis

Transitioning from the scientific foundations and theories behind covert hypnosis, the focus shifts to its practical applications in various fields today. Covert hypnosis has permeated numerous aspects of daily life and professional domains, illustrating its effectiveness and utility beyond the traditional therapeutic context.

Marketing and Advertising

In the realm of marketing and advertising, covert hypnosis plays a pivotal role in influencing consumer behavior. Techniques such as embedded commands and suggestion loops are commonly used in commercials and print ads to guide potential customers towards making a purchase. For example, a visually appealing advertisement may subtly include the phrase “imagine yourself using this product” to create a mental image of ownership and satisfaction, thereby increasing the likelihood of a purchase.


Similarly, sales professionals employ covert hypnosis to build rapport with clients and persuade them more effectively. Through the strategic use of language patterns and mirror-matching body language, salespeople can create a sense of trust and agreement. This approach helps in presenting products or services in a way that resonates with the client’s desires and pain points, ultimately facilitating smoother transactions.

Negotiation and Leadership

In negotiation and leadership, covert hypnosis aids individuals in steering discussions and decision-making processes favorably. Leaders often use hypnotic language patterns to inspire and motivate their teams, fostering a cohesive and productive work environment. Moreover, negotiators leverage these techniques to gain an upper hand by eliciting cooperation and compromise from the opposing party without overt persuasion.

Therapy and Counseling

The therapeutic domain continues to benefit significantly from covert hypnosis, especially in treating phobias, anxiety, and addiction. Therapists integrate hypnotic language into casual conversation to encourage relaxation and openness in clients, making it easier to access and resolve unconscious conflicts. This method has proved especially beneficial in cases where traditional therapy faces resistance or has limited impact.

Personal Development

Covert hypnosis also finds application in personal development, assisting individuals in overcoming self-imposed limitations and enhancing performance. Through self-hypnosis or guided sessions, people can embed positive affirmations and goals into their subconscious, leading to significant improvements in confidence, productivity, and overall well-being.


Entertainers, particularly mentalists and magicians, harness covert hypnosis to astound and engage their audiences. By influencing spectators’ perceptions and decisions subtly, they create astonishing illusions of mind-reading and prediction. These performances not only entertain but also demonstrate the potent influence of covert hypnosis in shaping reality.


The journey through the history of covert hypnosis reveals its profound impact across multiple domains. From its roots in mesmerism to its application in contemporary fields, it’s clear that this technique has evolved significantly. The exploration of its scientific, psychological, and neurological underpinnings has deepened our understanding, allowing for its strategic use in enhancing communication, therapy, and personal growth. As we’ve seen, covert hypnosis transcends its therapeutic origins, offering valuable tools for improving effectiveness in marketing, leadership, and even entertainment. Its versatility and influence in shaping perceptions and outcomes underscore its enduring relevance in our daily lives.

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