Talking about hypnosis and the brain

In getting ready for my next series of weight control classes at Whatcom Community College, which starts next Monday, April 9, I decided to revise the handout I use to introduce participants to hypnosis.  When we—meaning hypnotists and hypnotherapists—talk about hypnosis, we usually talk in terms of the conscious mind and the subconscious (or unconscious) mind, borrowing the language from the practice of psychotherapy that originated with Freud.

By the way, Freud learned hypnosis from Charcot, a French neurologist.  Early in his career, he used hypnosis (without the use of suggestion) to elicit information from his patients; apparently his success with this method was the basis for his pursuing the “talking cure,” what came to be known as psychoanalysis.

We use the language because it works well to describe what we experience in hypnosis: the conscious mind quiet, the body at rest—and remarkable insights that can emerge from that quiet state.  So we go on to talk about hypnosis this way:

Hypnosis allows us to work within our subconscious mind, to explore and release negative thought patterns, to overcome habits, behaviors, symptoms—the subconscious is in charge of these things.

Your conscious mind is your logical, reasoning mind—that’s its job: logic and reason. It’s not the logical mind that keeps us in old habits that we’d like to change. If it were, all we’d have to do to make significant changes is change our minds—and we all know that’s just not how our minds work.

I’ve mentioned before that I love the analogy of the rider and the elephant that Jonathan Haidt uses in his book The Happiness Hypothesis.  He says,

I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

I think we can all relate to that.  We’ve all had those experiences: reaching for the dessert we don’t really want, or failing to follow through on something we think—we know—we ought to do.

It seems clear that some of these problems are related to the way our brain has evolved, from the first basic hindbrain/midbrain/forebrain (brain stem and sensory organs), then the development of the limbic system, including the hypothalamus (basic drives and motivations), the hippocampus (memory), and the amygdala (emotional learning and responding). And finally, another newcomer, the neo-cortex, a layer over the limbic system.  The neo-cortex is all about mental processing—thinking, planning, decision-making.  So the evolutionary progress is from the “involuntary” processes to the realm of will.  (I put involuntary in quotes because in hypnosis we can influence those involuntary functions.)

I think it’s interesting to see that science is beginning to shed some light on how these regions of the brain communicate.  I recently heard an interview with Daniel Seigal, who is working on the premise that the communication between these areas of the brain is essential to healthy functioning of the individual, and ultimately between individuals.

He says,

For the brain, integration means that separated areas with their unique functions, in the skull and throughout the body, become linked to each other through synaptic connections. These integrated linkages enable more intricate functions to emerge—such as insight, empathy, intuition, and morality. A result of integration is kindness, resilience, and health. Terms for these three forms of integration are a coherent mind, empathic relationships, and an integrated brain.

He goes on to reflect on the new knowledge that “awareness can shape the connections in the brain toward integration,” and the ways that interpersonal relationships shape our brains throughout our lives.  He says, “we can actively ‘inspire each other to rewire’ our internal and interpersonal lives.”  And he does mean rewire—he’s talking about our ability to build new synaptic connections within the brain, reshaping our thinking, our awareness—our reality.

I’m inspired!  And I believe the new research is revealing some of the mechanisms that underlie the power of hypnosis to make connections between what we’ve called conscious and subconscious parts of our minds, and our selves.

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