Today I read with interest a mini citing of hypnotherapy as useful for overcomning a germ phobia in this article in the Telegraph.

In this article, hypnotherapist Bonita Rayner-Jones is quoted as saying:

It seems that your son has OCD, an anxiety disorder that commonly develops during adolescence. Cognitive hypnotherapy can help overcome the disorder, as it connects with the subconscious to rework patterns of thoughts and behaviours. Rationalising any ‘catastrophising thoughts can also help as they lead to anxiety and a feeling that everything is beyond your control.

It is this bit that I am particularly interested in: “it connects with the subconscious to rework patterns of thoughts and behaviours.

Any regular human being, or someone outside of the therapy field surely is likely to think “what the heck does that mean? It’s gibberish.” The media is filled with articles whereby hypnotherapists are quoted as saying very similar things. In fact, in my experience, the vast majority of  frontline hypnotherapists explain hypnosis in this way. Is it true though? Is it accurate?

It is this notion of us all supposedly having a subconscious/unconscious mind that I am writing in depth about today….

Is it actually just nonsense? Do these two minds actually exist separately from each other? Or is it, as some tend to favour as a theory, a simple metaphor to help us illustrate hypnosis in action?

First up, here are a couple of quotes from respected people in the hypnosis field:

The conscious mind is the part of the mind which thinks, feels and acts in the present . The unconscious mind is a much greater part of the mind, and normally we are quite unaware of its existence. It is the seat of all our memories, our past experiences, and indeed of all that we have ever learned. In this respect it resembles a large filing cabinet to which we can refer in order to refresh memory whenever we need to do so.

Hartland, 1971, p 13.

Because of the dual nature of the human mind (i.e. conscious and unconscious) memories and details that may have been repressed or else simply escaped detection by the conscious mind may not have escaped the unconscious mind.

Yapko, 1990, p 74.

In essence, Erickson … viewed the interspersal technique to consist of two components:
1) fixation of attention on the conscious level, followed by

2) appropriate suggestions to the unconscious.

Otani, 1990, p 41.

Erickson: Your unconscious knows how to protect you …. Your unconscious mind knows what is right and what is good. When you need protection, it will protect you.

Erickson & Rossi, 1979, p 296.

For those of us that have been followers and students of Ericksons work, the existence of an unconscious mind is essential… They often refer to the resources of the unconscious mind, and being able to rely on the unconscious mind to make changes happen… Isn’t that a bit of a cop out though? And why is it that so many people who use this metaphor think it is actually real?

From a wide variety of writings in hypnosis literature, there emerges a model of unconscious phenomena that seems to be mapped out as truth. From this school of thought, we learn that the unconscious mind is the larger part of the human mind, the other, much smaller part being the conscious mind, and assumptions are typically made that:

– The unconscious mind controls autonomic actions, those things that we do that we believe to be habitual, automatic and compulsive, as well as emotional and so on.

– The unconscious mind is a vast storehouse of memories, learning, skills and emotions too.

– The unconscious mind has great knowledge and wisdom.

– The unconscious mind processes information in a way different to the conscious mind.

– The unconscious mind communicates purposefully with the person’s conscious mind and to other individuals.

– It receives communications from the person’s conscious mind and from other individuals.

– It protects the conscious mind: that is, it acts intentionally to promote the well-being and survival of the individual.

These are common elements that are believed by proponents of the unconscious mind. Then when we come to the field of hypnosis, it goes another step forward. It is then believed that hypnosis enables us to:

– Communicate with the unconscious mind.

– Ask or direct the unconscious mind to do certain useful things.

This notion leaves me a little bit worried at times… Can there be any potential problems with this way of thinking?

There does not necessarily have to be, I mean I used this model hugely throughout many aspects of my work in the early days of my career. Yet I see it being used by many whereby the therapist believes this is the truth and teaches their client to believe the same.

Many advocates of the conscious/unconscious model and train of thought tell me that it can provide a rationale for treatment, that is, a simple metaphor to illustrate what we do in the therapy room, but they are not necessarily valid explanations of what is actually going on.

Therefore, I can understand why some think it ac­ceptable within the context of therapy to tell our clients, for example, that we are ‘implanting suggestions deep in your unconscious mind so that they work for you in the future.’ Ok, many would believe there is no real harm done here and it extends our metaphor for understanding in therapy. This is often referred to as the iceberg metaphor, whereby the conscious mind is the tip of the iceberg and the vast resource beneath the surface is the unconscious mind.

When someone says to me “Your mind is like an iceberg” – I simply say; “no it isn’t.”

It is misleading and potentially problematic (Heap & Aravind).

I no longer discuss conscious and unconscious at all – I simply explain hypnosis (to my clients) as a mindset comprising certain attitudes, expectancies and assuredness – which then becomes a learnable skill. I have Barber’s evidence and Robertson’s resources to support that along with the support of virtually the entire academic fraternity of the hypnosis field.

I recommend reading Donald Robertson’s book ‘The Discovery of Hypnosis’ containing the works of James Braid, the creator of the field of hypnosis as we know it today. He (Braid) does not refer to a subconscious mind at all when he explains hypnosis. It is just not mentioned, let alone used to explain hypnosis – this is the man who created out field!!

If you examine the depths of research in the field of hypnosis over the last century, from major contributors such as Hull and White in the 1930s and 1940s, Hilgard in the 1950s, Barber and Orne in the 1960s, those engaged in the theory wars of the 1970s such as Barber and Spanos and all the way up to the 1990s with authors such as Kirsch, Lynn, McConkey and Sheehan – none of them discussed the unconscious mind or suggest that hypnosis is a means for accessing the subconscious mind. It is not even mentioned.

Eason, A (2013) The Science of Self-Hypnosis. Awake Media Publishing.

It (the notion of a subconscious mind) just has not forged a part of academics understanding of hypnosis. Neuroscience and cognitive scientists firmly dispute the notion of dualism – that of us having a conscious and subconscious mind. EEGs. FMRIs, PET scans show us much of interest in our field, but have still not discovered any centre of consciousness.

Our students leave our courses knowing both sides of the debate and are respected enough to subsequently make their own minds up about how and if they use such a notion in their professional work. If you are dogmatically entrenched in a single perspective without knowing the full debate, then you are doing the field and your own professional hypnotherapy career an injustice.

What I think is even more problematic, is when hypnotherapists like the one I quoted right at the beginning here today say things like hypnosis ‘connects with the subconscious to rework patterns of thoughts and behaviours‘ because it tends to suppose that once you have left the therapeutic relationship, this working model of the mind is literally and universally accurate. They treat it as if this is empirical truth and that we all have two totally separate minds doing totally separate things.

That the mind is divided into these two parts, the conscious and the unconscious, is an oversimplistic and potentially very misleading idea and one that unnecessarily limits our progress in understanding human psychology and hypnosis in particular. Let me explain…

Ok, so anyone who has studied NLP and the language patterns contained therein, will know about nominalisations. A nominalisation tends to be a verb that we have turned into a noun. Someone might say they got many ‘learnings’ from the training, rather than saying they learned a great deal, for example.

We all tend to commonly say that we have thoughts, ideas, memories, images, perceptions, and so on. Like they are things we can carry around in a wheelbarrow. We say such things as ‘I have just had an excellent idea‘; ‘I had a great thought today‘; ‘I have a vivid image of this person‘; and ‘I have happy memories of my childhood‘.

In reality, what we are describing here are activities that we have engaged in. Processes that we have just done. It is more appropriate to say that we think rather than that there are things called thoughts that we have. Likewise, we imagine rather than have images. We remember rather than have things called memories. When we stop remembering, the memories do not go anywhere. They are not stored away as files are stored in a filing cabinet. Though it may seem that way when we do the process of remembering… And I have used that metaphor of the filing cabinet often in therapy.

Ok, to illustrate what I am ranting about today, take the example of a physical activity that you do regularly, such as shaking hands. Whilst you are shaking hands, you might say that you are ‘doing a handshake’. You might refer to ‘the handshake’ and describe ‘it’ in various terms: ‘a firm handshake’, ‘a wet handshake’, ‘a welcoming handshake’, ‘a meaningful handshake’, and so on. But this does not make the action of shaking hands any more real.

Once you have stopped shaking hands, you would not ask where the handshake has gone to and then start exam­ining your hands to see where it went or if it is stored there. When you later shake hands again, you would not then ask whether the same handshake has been retrieved, or if it is a different handshake, would you? (Don’t say yes to be obnoxious!)

Exactly the same reasoning should be applied to the activities of thinking, remembering, imagining, and so on. All of these are represented by neural activities that are, in an as yet unknown (and maybe ultimately unknow­able) way, associated with the conscious experiences that we call ‘having memories, thoughts, images, and so on’.

Suppose that, having decided you have done enough reading for the moment, you switch off your computer and go and do something else. However, later on, you start to think about some of the ideas that I have written about here. Surely you can only do this if there is something, some representation of this material, a memory that exists in your mind and which you retrieve, when you decide to, as you would draw a file from a filing cabinet?

We can say that this is so ‘only in a manner of speaking’, but a more accur­ate and potentially less misleading description is to say that, as you are reading this, neurobiochemical changes are occurring in your brain that enable you, in the future, to engage in the activity of recalling this material.

But do not these observable neuronal properties constitute your memory of this information? Recall again the example of shaking hands. An anatomist may perform a careful examination of a person’s arm and hand and, from its macro- and microanatomical properties, conclude that indeed the arm is designed to shake with ease. Put energy into it and it cannot fail to do the handshake process. But nowhere in the arm will the anatomist locate ‘a handshake.’ It is not a thing that exists, is it?

So what relevance does this have to the concept of the unconscious mind? In a few words… It is simply that the unconscious mind does not exist. There, I said it.

That said, hypnotherapists can work very well with this metaphor to understand and help people in distress. But it is only a metaphor, a tool that is at the disposal of hypnotherapists, to use as and when they feel it will assist their therapeutic desirable outcome. I personally do not even think it is accurate or useful, and potentially misleading and problematic to use it as a metaphor and prefer alternate explanations of what hypnosis actually is that are supported by evidence.

I tend to think it best then, to conceive of hypnosis itself as something that people do, rather than something that people are in, or under, or come out of, and so on. it still gets me having to bite my tongue when people refer to ‘going under’ when talking about hypnosis – under what exactly?

I think that is enough for today… Next week, I am going to offer up what I believe to be some really good alternatives to the notion of the unconscious mind… In the meantime, have a marvellous weekend 🙂


Erickson M H, Rossi E L 1979 Hypnotherapy: An exploratory casebook.

Hartland J 1971 Medical and dental hypnosis in its clinical applications.

Heap M and Aravind K 2002 (4th edition) Hartland’s Medical and Dental Hypnosis

Otani A 1990 Structural characteristics and thematic patterns of interspersal techniques of Milton H Erickson

Yapko M D 1990 Trancework

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1. Has lack of critical thinking held you back and/or is it still doing so now?
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