Let’s Stop Pretending We Understand the Human Mind

Brain from Pinky and the BrainHere are the rules of the therapy drinking game:

  1. Every time a therapist who isn’t a neurologist talks with confidence about the human brain, take a drink.
  2. Five minutes later, call 911, because you’ve had waaaaaay too much to drink.

Why all this brain talk? As far as I can make out, it’s because this was the kind of pseudo-scientific gibberish that was in fashion during their trainings. The brain is all medical-ish and scientific-y, and opposed, to say, the mind.

And when people run out of brain structures to blame, they might skip to something they have even less experience with: say, molecular biology. Neurotransmitters, anyone?

All of which adrenalizes my limbic system! Why? Because it violates an important rule of thumb: “The therapist is supposed to be at least as coherent as the client.”

Metaphor and Reality

Most human communication is metaphorical, and we’re all fine with that. When someone says, “I laughed my head off,” we understand. Communication is about picking the right metaphors. That goes double for therapy.

In hypnosis, in particular, metaphors add power through seeming simplicity. For example, of the interesting things about hypnosis is that everyone already knows what “going deeper” means, though hypnotists rarely explain it. All of us already know so much, and we can pick up so much just from context, that explanations are more a burden than a help. A word to the wise is sufficient.

The main thing to understand about the human mind is that we don’t really know how it works or what it’s capable of. People who say, “The mind is like a computer” are 100% wrong. There are people who know exactly how a computer works. You’d be amazed at just how simple a computer can be. The mind isn’t like that at all. So our understanding of it isn’t like that at all.

It’s like our understanding of economics. We know a lot about the economy, but there are a lot of important things we don’t know. Like when the next two recessions will happen.

But it’s amazing what we can do with our imperfect knowledge. Take therapy, for instance. Talk therapy is pretty much the same as it was before people knew much about neurotransmitters or the hippocampus. Therapy fashions come and go, but the actual things that move the ball down the field in a therapy session aren’t much different from fifty years ago.

A Up-To-Date Approach

How about hypnosis? Hypnotherapy is the granddaddy of them all: the original talk therapy — and its cousin, mesmerism, is a full century older. Still, hypnotherapy may have changed more than most over the last fifty years.

In the old days, it was all direct-suggestion hypnosis: the hypnotist would help you into as deep a state as possible, then repeat suggestions for the desired change: “You are now a non-smoker. Cigarettes hold no interest for you. You refuse to buy, light, or smoke cigarettes. You are glad you gave up smoking. From now on, you are a lifelong non-smoker.”

This tried-and-true approach has been extended through guided imagery of various kinds, plus metaphorical suggestions and story-telling, reminiscent of proverbs, fables, fairy-tales, and parables. Then there are the more interactive approaches, such as hypnotic age regression, past-life regression, and parts work.

Why these elaborations? I think it has to do with the human love of hearing a story and of having an experience. A story can be powerful even if it’s about someone else, and that goes double in hypnosis. And a story about themselves is of course powerful as well. Both act in a different way, I think, than hearing simple suggestions on a deep level.

And guided imagery, which is a hypnotic process that’s a lot like a directed dream, is powerful on yet another level. It’s something you do. Though done in the imagination, your actions and decisions matter.

Many Modalities in One

In fact, modern hypnosis contains many different approaches in every session, some of which are considered to be stand-alone therapeutic modalities in their own right:

  • Progressive relaxation (considered to be a therapy in its own right, but is just a small part of my sessions).
  • Affirmations (another phrase for direct suggestion).
  • Guided imagery (also considered to be a therapeutic technique in its own right).
  • Indirect suggestions in the form of metaphors, stories, parables (part of any therapeutic conversation).

Relatable Metaphors, Powerful Results

I don’t find the metaphor of “how the brain works” useful in hypnotherapy. Our brains are (I hope!) tucked away out of sight. I like more palpable, external, relatable metaphors. For example:

When I was taking my motorcycle riding course, the instructor pointed out that steering a motorcycle is done mostly by small shifts in our weight, not by manipulating the handlebars. This is true of bicycles as well, which is why some people can ride and steer their bikes perfectly well without ever touching the handlebars.

Our unconscious minds have a habit of trying to give us what we’re imagining, even if that’s not what we want. This can be a problem when riding. So if we see a pothole in the road and we fixate on it, imagining going straight into it, that’s what tends to happen. The instructor told us to imagine taking a path around the pothole, keeping the pothole itself in our peripheral vision, as a reference point. And of course if the pothole is unavoidable, we’d focus on getting through it with a minimum of fuss. That way, you will!

Of course, if you’re recovering from a stroke or have some other brain-specific issue, I’d use suggestions for the brain to heal the damaged parts as much as possible, and rediscover and recreate any lost capabilities rapidly, completely, and pleasantly.

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Robert Plamondon
Robert Plamondon has written three books, received over 30 U.S. patents, founded several businesses, and is an expert on free-range chickens. Robert's publishing company, Norton Creek Press, is a treasure trove of reprinted classics, including Hypnotherapy of War Neuroses, which covers treating PTSD in veterans. Robert and his wife Karen sell free-range chicken and eggs at the Corvallis farmers' markets. Robert's hypnotherapy office is in downtown Corvallis.

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