Please note, that, despite the best efforts of my mind to convince me otherwise, I recognise that nothing I say in this article is true. So if I slip up by inferring otherwise please forgive me, I’m doing my best not to be human.
As someone who isn’t a person with faith I often gaze with perplexity and astonishment at people who are. It must be a wonderful thing to be able to surrender to something greater than yourself, and to believe in the presence of that being without the need for any evidence. You’ll probably be aware of the battle currently being waged in the US, and more quietly but still strongly in the UK, between science and the theory of intelligent design – the concept that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. “I’m not about to dive into that argument, but reading about it recently made me realise that what may lie at the root of the differences between those people for whom faith is valid and those for whom it isn’t, also has a vital impact on the way we conduct therapy.
Hypnotherapy is a long way from having a unified theory; there is a plethora of approaches within it, ranging from the heavily Freudian hypnoanalysis, to past life regression as the source of all issues, to the straightforward, if very limited, script-based practitioners who ask for the name of your problem and then look it up in the index of their book of scripts.
In many respects this is no different from psychotherapy where you have Gestalt, CBT, Psychoanalysis, Primal Scream etc. Now, I might be wrong, and if I am tell me, but none of the above, with the possible exception of CBT, originate from a knowledge of how the brain creates our behaviour. Instead their theories originate from the opinions, observations and experience of individuals – albeit often very talented individuals. On the basis that all forms of therapy must have helped someone at some time it’s clear that these ‘insight-based’ approaches do tap into something valid about the nature of our human experience; but it could be argued that their reason for where to ‘tap’ on the client’s problem is wrong, even though the result of the tapping is right – a happy, intuitive accident. The flip side that no therapy works on everyone is, for me, compelling evidence that no single theory is anywhere near right yet, including my own. So I think we should follow Paul Saffo’s advice and have “strong opinions, weakly held.”
This isn’t usually what we find in hypnotherapy, where many aim to be top dogma. This leads to the very human error of mistaking what you believe to be true to actually be true – and true for all. So we get a situation where people claim their approach is based on universal laws (I think it’s safe to say that if there are any we haven’t identified them with any certainty – other than maybe Clarke Maxwell’s), that we have past lives; that we have a soul; that there is a spirit world etc etc. These beliefs get recruited into the therapist’s approach and hey presto we have the indigestible smorgasboard of belief-based approaches.
Science suggests that the brains of all of us have spent their lives building mental models to help us navigate through the world safely. These models have been forged by our experiences (which then themselves forge our experiences) and by our influences. For example, religion is a mental model that people of faith follow as a ‘truth’. What often gets me wondering is about how the religion they take to be true is nearly always the one they happen to have been born into. What a wonderful coincidence. It reminds me of how the first time I was asked about my political leanings I firmly espoused the cause of Labour – the party my parent’s voted for – without it actually fitting my worldview about most things. It was just a knee-jerk response based on an immature mental model.
Many keep these models their whole life without once examining them. I was fortunate that my time in the police gave me experiences that brought me to a point where I no longer vote at all – whoever you vote for the government always gets in. I’m not saying this is right, just that at least it’s a model I had a hand in building. Some of you will have instantly disagreed with my conclusion; many of you might have hated everything I’ve written so far, some may even stop reading it entirely. And that makes my point. Your response has nothing to do with me being right or wrong (“Oh yes it does” will shout some of your mental models), it is more to do with the distance between the mental models we use. The more divergent our models, the less easy it will be to maintain a relationship. Truly we are all living on different planets.
A belief I usually have is that people have a right to believe anything that doesn’t hurt anyone else. (I’m aware that the use of the words ‘usually’, ‘anything’ and ‘hurt’ instantly opens me to attack from people inclined to attack the semantics – you could probably do a university course investigating the meaning of each word). That belief helps me to do my best to observe other people’s mental models, and often renders them ‘interesting’ rather than threatening or wrong.
In my role as a therapist I love to hear the world my client has created, and I’ve learnt many new ways of seeing things by joining them in their model instead of insisting they come and see life through mine, but I continually find that it isn’t a natural way of being – the attraction of ‘solving’ my client’s problems with my ideas is always present. Science might have given us a clue why. In a previous editorial I reported on the discovery of mirror neurons. A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires both when an animal performs an action and when the animal observes the same action performed by another animal (especially one of the same species). Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behaviour of another animal, as though the observer were herself performing the action.
The jury is still out but they have the potential to provide a mechanism for understanding imitation learning and the simulation of other people’s behaviour. This last is of particular interest to me because we sit and listen to our client’s running simulations of their past experiences (they’re called memories) all the time – and they’re usually negative. Our mirror neurons may be firing off in response to these, so we begin to run their simulation in our own head, which will lead to a physiological and/or emotional response. It’s no different to being told a gross story by someone and feeling queasy as a result. It may well be the basis of how we ‘do’ rapport – we run their experience in us so we can calculate how best to respond to them.
Unfortunately, having our neurons fire empathetically several times a day in response to someone else’s trauma , distress or pain is a fast way to burnout. There is also another effect. In Cognitive Hypnotherapy one of the things we listen for is consequence; the unconscious calculation the client’s mind makes about the end result of a past or present action. So, for some people, failing at something causes their unconscious to do a rapid calculation of the future consequence of their failure and presents them with some form of a future-thought about it, like losing their job, the respect of their peers, the love of their family etc. That anticipated future forms the basis for present actions or inactions – ‘don’t try at things you could fail at’, ‘don’t achieve’, ‘avoid risk’ etc. The list is as endless as the clients who carry such limiting mental models.
Now here’s the crux of it. When someone tells us their problem it might be that our mirror neurons fire and we run a simulation of their issue in our heads. We will have in mind what they would like instead – “I’d like to have the nerve to go for promotion,” for example. Without even realising it our minds will (if left unhindered) treat their problem as their own and come up with our solution. In the slippery way our minds have, we’ve now blurred the border between their mental model and ours and begin to treat them as it they’re us in their situation. This is the danger point because what is it we feel compelled to do? Give them advice (i.e. tell them what we’d do if we were them), or use the technique that we’d use on ourselves for this problem, make hypnotic suggestions based on our solution to their problem – or an assumption of what their evidence for being better would be. In other words, we’re expecting them to use our mental model to get them out of their problem. The trouble is, while they’re stuck in a model, as people are when they’re emotionally connected to a situation or behaviour, they’ll tend to stick like glue to that model rather than change it. Ever wasted an evening giving sage advice to a friend who continues to persist in a damaging behaviour?
It’s why I’m evangelical about suggesting we find out everything about how they think, and what mental model is running their problem (we call it a problem pattern), and use particular forms of questioning, like the Boynian pattern, to help guide them to find ways to change or enhance their own model or create a new one.
I wanted this article to encourage you to think about what mental models inform your work as a therapist. Do you believe that your model of therapy is true, or just useful? If you’re religious, do you assume faith in your client, or give them models of help that presuppose spirituality? If you don’t have faith, do you decry those clients who do and see their faith as part of their problem? Recently I had two clients who both have a strong faith, one of whom is using it as a way of healing cancer that has been diagnosed as terminal. She is one of the most serene women I have ever met – ever, not just someone in her position. With my lack of faith should I be saying to her “Oh, you don’t want to be doing it like that!”? In my opinion, no, anymore than we should be saying, “Ah, your problem lies in a past life”, or “imagine floating with the healing properties of a dolphin” – unless your questions have revealed that their mental model holds that belief about a past life, or the qualities of dolphins. Instead I had two sessions where I felt privileged to have them share their faith and help them utilise it to achieve what they believe is possible. I hope both left without a clue as to what my own spiritual beliefs are, because they have nothing to do with their healing, theirs do.
In my mental model the skill of the therapist doesn’t lie in the clever ways their imagination conjures solutions to problems, but rather how their imagination recruits that of the client, and harnesses the beliefs inherent in their mental models so they become the instrument of their own empowerment. Of course, I’m not saying I’m right….