The roots of hypnosis have likely been lost in history. There is evidence that ancient people in India, China, and Egypt utilized trance like states to induce healing. In his 1999 book Trances People Live, Dr. Stephen Wolinsky demonstrated that hypnotic phenomenon could be detected in everyday mental states, implying that human consciousness is made up of fluid, hypnotic layers that we cognitively navigate throughout each day. In this way hypnotic states are inherent in all people, and can be used as effective mediums through which the unconscious mind may be influenced. Dr. Milton Hyland Erickson (1901-1980) was a renowned American psychiatrist who specialized in hypnotherapy. His truly unique clinical applications of hypnosis changed the way hypnosis was perceived and used in modern times.
Erickson discovered hypnotherapy through very personal means. At the age of 17 he contracted polio and became severely paralyzed – doctors were expecting the worst. Over time, however, he not only regained the ability to speak and move his arms, but also the ability to walk with a cane (The Milton H. Erickson Foundation). He overcame this extreme physical adversity while lying in bed, by focusing on what he called “body memories.” It seems that by focusing his conscious attention on these pseudo-subconscious memories of motor movements, Milton Erickson was able to almost entirely restore conscious control to parts of his body he had once lost (The Milton H. Erickson Foundation). Whether or not Erickson knew why the cognitive act of focusing on these so-called “body memories” was helping him recover, it is importantly irrelevant to his personal recovery. Of course, epistemologically it would be valuable to understand the underlying mechanisms at work in such a process, if the appropriate technology were available. But in relation to his personal physical healing, I’m certain that Erickson was thankful with simply having discovered how to heal, and enjoying the use of a non-paralyzed body.
Over the course of his life Dr. Milton H. Erickson suffered greatly from his physical condition, but nonetheless graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1928 with a master’s degree in psychology and an MD. Over the course of his fifty-year career he significantly expanded the scientific literature on hypnosis and hypnotic suggestion, and became a distinguished psychiatric therapist. In 1957 Dr. Erickson co-founded and served as the inaugural president of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis. Also at this time, he established the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis and served as the editor for ten years. While working in Michigan as Director of Psychiatric Research and Training at the Wayne County Hospital, Erickson conducted interesting research on hypnotically induced color blindness and deafness, though his primary passion was in the therapeutic value and clinical application of hypnosis (The Milton H. Erickson Foundation).
Dr. Erickson always put the patient first and believed in providing the utmost care and respect. To him, this entailed developing a trusting relationship with patients and tailoring a client-specific approach. In this way, he dissented with the strict use of other clinician’s therapeutic techniques in his own practice, and other’s similar use of his own techniques. Erickson valued an interactive and acutely unique relationship with his patients through which he could directly and purposefully engage with the conscious and subconscious facets of the mind (History of Hypnosis). With that being said, there are three key elements that have been derived from Erickson’s hypnotherapeutic techniques. The first element is flexibility with patients. Dr. Erickson was known for his ability to engage in diverse forms of therapy, and this is in part what made him such a sought after clinician towards the end of his life. He sat down with patients and got to know them, and only when they were comfortable would he administer the type of therapy he thought they needed. Sometimes he would adopt a soothing, reassuring and accepting persona; other times he was more direct, authoritarian and demanding. He was always true to his own personal nature. Often times Erickson utilized non-hypnotic routes of therapy, and it is said that he only used formal hypnosis in but one fifth of his cases in practice (History of Hypnosis). The second key element is working directly with symptoms to elicit behavior change. Dr. Erickson embraced an all-inclusive perspective on patient’s problems. He viewed symptoms as not arising as isolated negative results, but as a result of repetitious interactions between behaviors, decisions, compulsions, appraisals, and responsive biological processes. An example of working directly with patient’s symptoms might be instructing an insomniac to stay awake for as long as possible. At first this may seem unintuitive, but by consciously changing (and sometimes this requires exasperating) the symptoms, the patient’s entire problematic pattern is changed and becomes malleable. This approach allowed Dr. Erickson to assist patients in disrupting their own problematic processes, and subsequently address the necessary changes that would lead to an improved quality of life (History of Hypnosis). The third and last element involved in implementing Ericksonian hypnotherapy is to engage the unconscious in any way possible. Dr. Erickson avidly believed in the unconscious mind’s ability to initiate and promote healing within an individual – be it physical or psychological. He used metaphors, stories, humor, riddles and imagination to convey hidden meanings to the unconscious in ways the patient might not even consciously understand. By inducing trance like states and making suggestions through his brand of “indirect” or “conversational” hypnosis, Erickson allowed the patient to freely interpret the meaning of their subjective experiences and worked with those interpretations to facilitate insight and recovery (History of Hypnosis).
Dr. Erickson’s use of hypnosis was revolutionary. His clinical practice conveyed an extremely advanced and nuanced understanding of the human mind that modern science continues to validate to this day. That is, there are deeply established and largely automatic cognitive, perceptual, and affective processes that are actively occurring within individual’s unconscious minds. But far more importantly, he understood the value of intelligently and creatively acting on this knowledge, and as a result pioneered effective novel approaches to activate the healing potential of the continuously intelligent and creative unconscious’ of his patients.
One phenomenon currently being investigated in contemporary psychology that I find particularly interesting and relevant to the discussion of Milton Erickson’s practices is blindsight. Blindsight is a condition wherein patients who have suffered lesions to their primary visual cortex nonetheless retain residual visual function, while simultaneously lacking conscious visual experience. Blindsight patients are able to sense changes, orient themselves in relation to, and act upon objects that are placed within the cortically blind areas of their visual field. This is because they suffered damage only to brain areas involved in conscious visual functioning. In this way, supplemental visual brain areas involved with unconscious visual functioning are left undamaged, and implicit processing still occurs at sub-conscious levels. Some blindsight patients have even trained themselves to tap into, or perhaps notice, and act upon this subconscious information in everyday situations. This is relevant to understanding Erickson’s practices because it provides a potent example of the type of very significant processing that can occur in the brain without any type of conscious acknowledgement or contribution.
Dr. Milton Erickson advanced the credibility of clinical hypnosis tremendously in the eyes of mainstream psychology during his lifetime; however he was commonly considered bohemian, unorthodox, and sometimes even untrustworthy. Admittedly, it is easy to see why Erickson’s professional contributions and clinical applications may have unsettled some in the past; hypnosis is an abstract concept that is easily misunderstood, often demonized or feared, and exceptionally difficult to measure in terms of causal physical changes – even today. It is tempting to explain away the significance of a purely functional therapy, such as hypnosis, with a lack of understanding of the underlying integrated and complex processes causing it all. However it is my opinion that this lack of understanding is not due to the absence of a possible objective explanation in the real world, but rather due to an absence of technology with the ability to capture such intricate relationships at this moment in history.
Since Erickson, the field of psychology has observed several other methods of engaging the enigmatic resources of the unconscious mind to elicit healing; some examples of which are lucid dreaming, psychedelic psychotherapy, yoga, and mindfulness meditation. Lucid dreaming was understood from at least the time of Aristotle, though Stephen LaBerge first proved it existed as a legitimate scientific phenomenon in 1980 (LaBerge, S.P.). Since then numerous studies have been published investigating both the neuroscience behind lucid dreaming, and possible clinical applications. World-renowned Alzheimer’s researcher Rudolph Tanzi, PhD., even utilizes lucid dreaming healing techniques to combat Alzheimer’s in his patients. Psychedelic therapy, on the other hand, has had a long and complicated history. After being banned by the federal government for over forty years, research slowly began to re-commence in the 1990’s. Today, psychedelic psychotherapy shows promise in treating some of the most difficult and quantitatively pronounced psychological problems in our society including addiction, depression, and anxiety (Doblin R., 2002; Matthew W. Johnson et al., 2014; Riedlinger T.J., Riedlinger J.E., 1994). Yoga and mindfulness meditation have been practiced for thousands of years in Asia in order to promote physical and psychological well being, and decrease stress (Carmody J., Baer R.A., 2008). Contemporary research on the topic has proven fruitful and mainstream medicine now promotes the practice of yoga and meditation for many people.
Similar to hypnosis, treatments involving lucid dreaming, psychedelic therapy, yoga, and meditation have all elicited reactive responses at some point in time from those who oppose their use and question their medical potential – despite substantial clinical and anecdotal evidence on the contrary. In the spirit of Dr. Milton Erickson’s extremely unique, patient-focused, and above all functional approach to therapy, academia must attempt to utilize the undeniable and currently untapped healing power of the patient’s own mind. I truly believe that developing these types of innovative approaches to healing will prove immensely valuable in inducing positive changes in the lives of real people who need it, even when the healing mechanisms are not yet fully understood. In doing so we may discover something valuable about ourselves, and alleviate suffering along the way.