Adapted from an excerpt of Wordweaving volume 2: The Question is the Answer by Trevor Silvester.
When we’re approached by someone interested in hypnotherapy training this is the question that we have to answer most often. And it’s not surprising; the term clinical hypnotherapy is used by many hypnotherapy courses which teach very different syllabuses, and which operate from many different organising beliefs. We wanted people to be able to recognise what they’re getting from our hypnotherapy course that they couldn’t get from someone else’s, and so we called our approach Cognitive Hypnotherapy, because it borrows many of its principles from Cognitive theory, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, and uses a very different idea about the nature of hypnosis and trance than the traditional approaches that commonly fall within the labels of clinical hypnotherapy or clinical hypnosis. But, because Cognitive Hypnotherapy is a synthesis of many ideas, describing that difference isn’t easy with just a brief phase.
I could say “Cognitive Hypnotherapy is a brief approach which uses a modern understanding of trance to enable the client to let go of what restricts them, and create what would empower them.” But that doesn’t help that much, it needs more detail. So if you’re really interested in knowing what it is that makes this approach so different, read on…
Whenever I’m asked what Cognitive Hypnotherapy is I normally have to start with what it isn’t.
• It isn’t an approach that sees trance as a special state, certainly not one created by the hypnotist.
• It doesn’t believe that depth of trance is a significant factor in the success of a suggestion or technique, or that trance is necessarily a state of relaxation – some trance states are packed to the gills with fear, anxiety, panic and any others that can jam themselves in.
• It doesn’t believe that the therapist’s role is to come up with answers, only questions that guide the client to finding their own.
Let’s start with Orr’s Law (What the thinker thinks the prover proves) because it has such an important place. In many important respects the world is what we believe it to be. If our thinker thinks something is true then our prover will bring information from the background that confirms it, and leave in the background everything that contradicts it. This filtering of information is achieved by what Bandler and Grinder described as ‘universal modeling processes’, deletion, distortion and generalisation – how the mind filters information from the senses and fits it into its model of the world. I’ve suggested that these three processes correspond to the nine major trance phenomena – they are how the mind deletes, distorts and generalises. This places trance centrally in the normal spectrum of human experience. We spend much, if not most of our time in states woven from these phenomena and it is from these states that many of the patterns that form our belief systems arise.
Trance phenomena are a fundamental part of the problem pattern of the client, and a fundamental part of the solution. In many respects Cognitive Hypnotherapy involves waking the client up from the trance they’re in while they’re ‘doing’ their problem, or at least helping them create a more pleasant trance.
Much of our brain is devoted to identifying patterns of information from our surroundings. It uses our interpretation of our past experiences to give meaning to our present and to calculate the possible consequences to us in the future. I suggest that the mind uses three basic algorithms to perform these calculations: A=B (this is the same as that), C>E (cause and effect) and A=notB. In simple terms the purpose of these calculations is Freud’s pleasure principle – our unconscious seeks to move us towards pleasure and away from pain.
However, problems arise because our mind is modular, not singular. We have an executive module that we feel is our ‘self’, our authentic identity. This module lives under the illusion that it controls all of our actions and plots our course through life. It doesn’t, most of what we do is the result of unconscious processes and drives, our ‘I’ just spins a convincing story to itself (and anyone else who’ll listen) about why it’s spent its life the way it has.
The unconscious is part of this modularity, there is no single unconscious in conflict with the conscious, rather a host of ‘parts’ that perform a particular function or are triggered into action by particular circumstances. Problems are often caused by the inner conflict between these conscious and unconscious parts, or where a part is using a particular interpretation of past information that creates a limiting version of present reality. How they come to do so is explained by the tenets of Cognitive Psychology. It has two main organising themes:
1. Actions are caused by mental processes.
2. The mind is a computer.
Let’s look at both of these in turn, and if you are a technophobe, don’t panic because we are not going to mention gigabytes,googlebots or teraflops once.
1. Actions are caused by mental processes.
Psychology is the science of human behaviour. Its area is seeking why humans act the way they do. Cognitive psychology proposes that we are all psychologists, seeking to understand our actions, and the actions of others. From the earliest days we are trying to work out what’s going on and why.
As such we are creatures who seek meaning, and, just as we believe that everything that happens around us has a cause – I get wet because I walk in the rain, my dog barks because it has heard something outside – so we attribute our behaviour to our mental processes (thoughts) – ‘I got angry because I thought my girlfriend looked at someone else’, ‘I laughed because I thought someone falling over in front of me was funny’. For most people this is not news. It broadly corresponds to how ‘folk’ psychology has operated, probably for hundreds of years. What is different is the precision with which cognitive psychology describes these mental processes. It calls them computations, I tend to use the term calculations and use the idea of the three algorithms as the means by which the mind (or part of it) makes the calculation.
2. The mind is a computer.
This does not mean that the mind uses the operating principles of a computer, like the use of binary code. We know it doesn’t. Basing themselves on the work of British mathematician Alan Turing, cognitive psychologists define a computer as a set of operations for processing information.
This is an important distinction to make, because it means that the computer is software, not hardware. The essence of a computer does not lie in the materials from which it is made, but in the programs it executes. You need a machine to run it on, but you could use many different types of machine. The mind is thus a very complicated program, which they seek to describe in terms of information processing, without needing to focus on how the brain (the hardware) actually does it. In the words of Dylan Evans and Oscar Zarate,”The key to behaviour is the program, not the materials out of which the machine is made.”
From this idea we could envisage the mind as a series of programs that develop from both a genetic base and as a reaction to experience. Wolinsky would probably describe these programs as trance identities, the followers of Fritz Perls would probably call them parts. My son would probably say, “Whatever!” And he’s right. The term we use isn’t as important as the idea it conveys; that our mind is made of different programs that have different agenda’s. There is more than one ghost in the machine. Sometimes these differences cause conflict. Trance phenomena are the means by which each program/trance identity creates the illusion of reality it requires to perform its function.
We look to Evolutionary Psychology for the basis of this conflict between different programs. The premise of Evolutionary psychology is that, if cognitive psychology shows us that the mind exhibits a very complex design (there are more connections between cells in the brain than stars in the universe), whose purpose is to process different forms of information, and evolutionary biology tells us that complex designs in nature come about only by natural selection, then the design of the mind must have evolved by a process of natural selection – i.e. each part of the mind has been created by mutation, and retained because of its usefulness in solving particular problems.
None of these mutations are likely to have arisen in the last 10,000 years. The brain and mind we have is adapted to solve the physical and social problems that arise from life in a small group of hunter-gatherers on the savannah. The most important adaptive problems in this environment are thought to be:
• Avoiding predators
• Eating the right food
• Forming alliances and friendships
• Providing help to children and other relatives
• Reading other peoples minds
• Communicating with other people
• Selecting mates
All of the abilities shown above are crucial for passing on your genes. That being the case, evolution should have designed mental modules to achieve these objectives in the ancestral environment.
These modules obviously continue to have a use within the modern situation, but, bearing in mind that their purpose is processing information, if the wrong computation is made then the behaviour the module generates as a result is likely to be wrong as well. Beside each module I have put a ‘software fault’ that might be attributed to it.
• Avoiding predators – Phobia’s.
• Eating the right food – Eating disorders, weight problems.
• Forming alliances and friendships – low self-esteem, jealousy, insecurity.
• Providing help to children and other relatives – guilt.
• Reading other peoples minds – Paranoia.
• Communicating with other people – Alienation, social phobia’s.
• Selecting mates – Jealousy, insecurity.
I introduce them to you now only to get you thinking about the modular nature of the brain, and how these faults can be likened to software errors (like computer viruses). The purpose of Cognitive Hypnotherapy becomes one of de-bugging the programs that aren’t working for the client, and so enabling a greater sense of congruency in their daily lives. Each program has a pattern that contains information about context, structure, process and consequence. This is what makes up the thought the thinker has that the prover seeks to prove. Changing part of the problem pattern changes the operation of the program and may render its purpose completely redundant.
Our brain is an expensive investment by evolution – it consumes 30% of our daily calories. It doesn’t make sense that the reward of this investment would be behaviours less likely to help us survive – unhappiness isn’t hardwired. Our problems are simply mistakes based on the brains mis-calculations – usually when our computer is too young to make good ones. The young brain is only capable of a limited complexity in its calculations, labelled by the educationalist Piaget as ‘nominal processing’ – things are black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. As we mature we become capable of finer levels of rationality and understanding, but unfortunately the results of our earlier struggles to comprehend the world and keep us safe continue to provide the basis for later calculations – just like the programming errors of early versions of Windows continue to cause crashes in later versions – so problems that start as significant emotional events (SEE’s) to a juvenile generalise into debilitating adult problems. An important principle here is that the programs running these problems have a positive intention – they’re a program trying to help, just in the wrong way – remember Mrs Toothbrush from vol I? This applies with a wide range of issues, from phobias to smoking (why would we be motivated to do something that’s going to kill us unless at some level part of us thought there was a benefit?). Cognitive Hypnotherapy is constantly looking for better ways to assist the client in re-coding the programs that don’t work for them. WordweavingTM is a central part of it because it offers a model that utilises the trance phenomena that form the problem as a means of changing it.
Essentially what Cognitive Hypnotherapy seeks to do is identify what the thinker thinks that causes the problem. This is the problem pattern. We change it in any way possible with the many techniques we have available and then prime their mind using Wordweaving to link this change to a continuing movement towards their solution state – their world without their issue.