Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tao of Psychology Part 1: Milton Erickson

 Update 11/17/2012: Added a quote and some video links.
11/18/2012: Added some pdf links!

When I first took an interest in psychology, most of what I came across was very typical of the mainstream. Label people with these diseases, categorize them as this or that "personality" and work with them to establish "healthy self-esteem" or whatever criterion a particular school might consider desirable. Failing that, there's at least one drug for every complaint a psychiatrist might make about a patient. All of that was interesting in an intellectual, scientific sort of way (although in retrospect I wouldn't call any modern psychological research "science") but in practical terms none of the popular therapies really have anything (or at least not much) to offer. They spend all their time analyzing their clients and telling them how they should live, and none of their time actually observing or interacting in a meaningful way.

Then I came across NLP and Hypnosis, which changed the way I thought about psychology forever. Both in hypnosis and NLP, the name Milton H Erickson seemed to be a common theme, so I decided to see for myself just what he was about and whether he was as great as people were saying he was. I was not disappointed.

Milton Erickson studied hypnosis and trance before hypnosis had even become an accepted field of study within psychology. Even after hypnosis became mainstream, Erickson's view of hypnosis and trance still differed considerably from the accepted norm. So too did his method of therapy, and the results he achieved were beyond anything that anyone else even thought possible.

Erickson considered trance to be a normal, everyday occurrence that virtually everyone experienced frequently without realizing it. When you space out momentarily in a conversation, that's a trance. When you're driving and start thinking about something and driving becomes an automatic task, that's a trance. When two lovers become entangled within their own bubble of reality and zone everything else out, that's a trance. He called these "common trance" to distinguish them from the more profound forms that he was able to induce purposefully, and very often he would give examples just like these to begin an induction.

Discussing Dr. Erickson's hypnotic technique in any detail would require volumes (which have already been written), so I want to focus here more on his general approach to therapy, and how it differed from most all other therapies before or since.

Dr. Erickson considered therapy to be something that the client did for himself, with the therapist only providing suggestions that the client could follow in order to accomplish his own ends. He never took the attitude that he was telling his clients what they should do, and vocalized his opinion that taking that attitude was never helpful for the client and in fact insulted their inherent capacities. Straight from the horse's mouth:
Now, too much has been written and said and done about the reeducation of the neurotic and the psychotic and the maladjusted personality. As if anybody could really tell any one person how to think and how to feel and how to react to any given situation. Everybody reacts differently, according to his own background of personal experience.

He did not view trance as a state of increased susceptibility to suggestion (in fact he found the opposite to be true in many ways), nor did he believe trance to prevent one from resisting suggestions (his experiments demonstrated otherwise). Instead he saw trance as a state of intense inner concentration in which a person could learn by direct experience. His suggestions were merely a tool to help people learn to use hypnotic phenomena to solve their inner or outer problems. The result is that people who he had helped not only got relief from the problem they came to him for, but also often learned to solve other problems for themselves, or to use hypnotic phenomena to enhance their abilities in other ways.

As an example, one of his former students suffered a blow to the head by a falling brick just days before he was scheduled to give a speech at a conference he was attending. He recounts that he was able to negate the pain of the injury so that the doctors were able to work without anesthetic, and in spite of the fact that the doctors had claimed weeks of healing time, he was able to heal quickly enough to manage to speak at the conference without trouble. His doctors could not believe that he could have healed as quickly as he did. He also noted that Erickson had never given him any specific suggestions that he should do, or be able to do any of those things.

Much of what Dr. Erickson was able to do he attributed to what he called "anticipated response". While what he meant by that could really be interpreted in three ways, the main thread between them was that he could direct his own belief in order to direct the client more effectively. In some cases this might mean speaking with deliberate uncertainty in order to cause the client to question themselves. Sometimes this meant speaking with absolute certainty (especially when giving positive suggestions) so that the client, too, will believe that something will happen. At other times, this would mean that Milton would go into a trance first (which was common) and sort of "share" in the hypnotic experience, hallucinating whatever it was that he intended the client to hallucinate, or at least giving the distinct impression that he was.

Dr. Erickson took a very "natural" approach to therapy. More often than not, he would go into a trance himself and allow his unconscious to respond to his clients in real time without needing to think about what he was doing. He always had an underlying attitude that his clients could and would achieve the change that they wanted or required. If his clients would not believe in themselves, he would believe for them (although not in an obvious or obnoxious way). This is something which I think is absolutely required for successful therapy, and sadly something which the vast majority of therapists today lack.

Unfortunately his legacy organization, the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, apparently has no requirement for reading anything he has ever written. They seem to be more focused on pushing new books by new authors, and while they seem to be capable enough at inducing trance, they completely lack the most important characteristics of Erickson's own success with actual therapy. He inspired a number of other schools of therapy, however, including brief therapy and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

In part 2 of this series, I'll talk a bit more about NLP. NLP offers a lot in the way of understanding Erickson's hypnotic techniques (but not his approach to therapy) and provides a better understanding of the mechanics of thought.

Some links:
A hypnosis demonstration with Richard Bandler. (aka Richard Bandler behaving deplorably)

"Hypnosis Without Trance" - James Tripp, uses semi-ericksonian technique.

"Hypnotherapy, an Exploratory Casebook" with Ernest Rossi (free pdf)
"Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton Erickson, Volume I" by Richard Bandler and John Grinder (free pdf)

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