“Don’t Think of a Blue Elephant!”: How the Brain Processes a Negative

Don't think of a blue elephant! Whoops, too late.If I tell you, “Don’t think of a blue elephant,” what happens? You think of a blue elephant, of course! (If you don’t, check your pulse. You may be dead.)

What’s up with that? The conventional answer is, “The brain can’t process a negative.” But if the brain can’t process a negative, phrases that contain a negative (like “the brain can’t process a negative”) can’t be processed by the brain. But  they can. The brain understands perfectly well what “don’t think about a blue elephant” means. The task is clear. The cause of the failure is somewhere else.

Language and the Imagination

The issue is that, to understand what someone is saying, your unconscious mind, you imagination, puts the words together into things it understands, out of its library of remembered and imagined things—events, images, sounds, thoughts, sensations, and so on. That means that, to know what you’re not supposed to think about, your mind has to understand what the words “blue elephant” mean, which is quite hard to do unless you imagine elephant and color it blue. By which time, of course, it’s too late! Continue Reading...

Making Magical Thinking Work for You

Flying_carpetAn article of mine, Practical Uses of Magical Thinking, was just published in the Oregon Counseling Association’s Spring 2016 newsletter. Check it out!

I’m not a counselor, but the Oregon Counseling Association casts a wide net, welcoming non-counselor practitioners or anyone else with an interest in the topic.

As a hypnotherapist, I see lots of people who could just as easily see a counselor, but have chosen for one reason or another to give hypnosis a try.

I chose “magical thinking” as a topic because it’s a focus of hypnotherapy but is somewhat skimped in more traditional therapy. With magical thinking, we, in effect, ignore the daunting and distracting difficulties of getting from point A to point B, take a magic carpet ride to B, and spend enough time there that it becomes familiar. If we like what we see, the problem is half-solved already. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and that single step is more likely to happen if you’re clear about your destination.  Continue Reading...

11 Ways We Distort Our Thinking

distorted-thinking-checklistI stumbled across this list of eleven fallacies and distortions at Surrender Works and couldn’t resist reposting it (with some fairly heavy editing).

This is an interesting checklist because it’s different from the classical list of false arguments, such as a priori conclusions, ad hominem arguments, etc., which many of us encountered in school.

Noticing Your Own Distorted Thinking (aka Cognitive Errors)

Mark Twain defined Man as “the rationalizing animal.” And, boy, are we good at it! Since we’re good at it, our rationalizations usually live up to our reasonably high standards. When we resort to fallacies, it’s a sign that something’s not right. Ideally, we’ll notice this before anyone else does, and take action.

As a hypnotist, I have a lot of respect for the power of the unconscious mind, and when the unconscious mind is pulling in a different direction from the conscious mind, it tends to win. Rationalizations are a sign that the conscious mind has little idea what’s going on, and is making up excuses to fill in the gaps. The lights are on, but nobody’s home. That’s a warning sign. Continue Reading...

How to do Therapy: A Gumby Show Example [Video]

This clip from the Gumby Show episode “The Rodeo King. Pokey acquires the delusion that he is his favorite TV character, Buster Bronc, and Prickle — “that’s Doctor Prickle” — shows the attitude of any good therapist by immediately trying something else when his first attempt doesn’t work. In the clip:

  • Pokey tries modifying the patient’s environment first.
  • When that doesn’t work, he switches to hypnosis.
  • When this, too, fails, he “prescribes the symptom.”

This brief clip from a children’s TV show in 1957 demonstrates a can-do attitude and a flexibility of method that is not always found in today’s therapists!

But we all knew that Gumby was special.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Do This

A man came in to see me to stop smoking, and after the first session, he reported, “It didn’t work. As soon as I left the building, I wanted to see if I could still smoke, so I lit up a cigarette. And I still could.”

He would have agreed that an alcoholic client probably shouldn’t keep a hip flask on his person at all times, and a sex addict shouldn’t leave a hypnosis session escorted by a couple of hookers! That would be silly. There’s a difference between falling off the wagon and jumping off.

Fortunately, most people already know this, so a smoking cessation client isn’t surprised when asked to bring in any remaining cigarettes so we can dispose of them. Hypnosis adds the power of suggestion to your existing powers of willpower and resolution, and it can do this quickly, but not so quickly that it’s wise to douse ourselves in steak sauce and walk into the lion’s den! Continue Reading...