Monthly Archives: December 2011

Conscious Unconscious in Hypnotherapy – Nigel Hetherington

When I am working as the Newcastle Hypnotherapist or in delivering NLP and Hypnotherapy training I often use the terms conscious and unconscious. Neither of these terms refers to any tangible objects; they are both after all just concepts. How these terms are framed or explained will tend to induce very different meanings and so, very different potential effects.

Conscious can simply mean that which we are aware of in any given moment or experience. Unconscious can mean all and everything that that we are not currently aware of and is currently unknown or permanently transcendent of perception; yet is a veritable store house of resources and knowledge with a universal ability to include, differentiate and expand.

World famous Hypnotherapist Milton Erickson is said to have introduced the terms conscious and unconscious ( mind ) into the very general language of the hypnotherapist. The terms unconscious and conscious were made popular in the last century first by Freud then Freud’s student Carl Jung. All three of these people had very different meanings and understandings of their respective terminology. These terms today refer to both the psychological and physiological and to a very great extent integrate the old idea of a differentiated mind and body.

From a psychological perspective the conscious and unconscious may be explained as declarative and non-declarative memory. Declarative memory is our explicit or known memory that we have the abilities to access. This kind of memory is made up of our experiences and our factual / conceptual memory. Process or non-declarative memory is our unconscious ‘how to’ do, routines like motor skills for walking, eating or moving our hands to manipulate an object. This kind of ‘unconscious memory’ may also explain how the excessively drunken socialite somehow manages to get home well after they lose the power to talk coherently and often even walk. Some would liken this to the part of the brain that we all share with the common Newcastle homing pigeon.

In hypnotherapy or any change process, we can decide what we want to change consciously, for example some problem behaviour like over eating, and go into utilise unconscious resources, experience and process to attend to the how without knowing specifically how. So this is making use of the skills, coping mechanisms, resources and learned behaviours available to an individual at an other than conscious level to accomplish some movement towards change. This may be a point of consternations for some because if the ‘how’ is unconscious then how can it be utilised?

Tens of thousands of years ago in the Bronze age and later in the Iron age, the skilled craftsmen who created weapons, tools and artefacts from Bronze and Iron did not understand consciously the metallurgical properties of the material they moulded, hardened and crafter yet they did make and create. Similarly it is not necessary to know how the body heals or how we learn to affect and augment these natural processes. Similarly consciously you can choose to pick up an apple, it is your unconscious sensory-motor system that co-ordinates the movement. In hypnosis arm levitation is an unconscious process just the same as at home or the cinema your arm might stop mid-task as the screen and story temporarily capture all your attention. It is an honest unconscious response when your sense of humour activates and you laugh out loud.

A neuro-physiological perspective of the term unconscious can refer to the ‘how’ all of the biological, neurological and electrochemical processes of the body operate. The processes of neuronal firing, digesting food, healing an ailment or beating our heart are processes that are unconscious. Using both attention and intention certain unconscious processes can be influenced. For example breathing is largely an unconscious response yet we can breathe in consciously too.

Our life is an accumulation of experience both our own and our vicarious collections. We can’t always know what we are learning never mind how we are learning in any given experience. It is likely that over time, looking back we will gain deeper and broader understandings of our experiences, changing and expanding the meanings and uncovering more of our knowledge as conscious access or even personal revelations based on our ongoing unconscious processes.

What I can consider more important than too specific definitions is the functional ways in which these terms may be employed. These terms can be used to invite attentional splits, to offer ways to focus attentions and so open and develop new mental and neurological maps. To offer certain hope and possibilities of self directed change. To frame workable and intelligible experiences that can establish new experiences and promote well-being.

Finally as a commencement remark, there really is no requirement to get caught up in some tight, overly intellectualised debate of the terminology and what it means and simply experiencing the utility of the terms and … can be enough to notice your clients making up their own mind and bodily experiences as you can too. And to encourage the invitation of the creation of distinctions and associations and the … After all it can be and it is useful to say ‘you have a conscious mind and an unconscious mind, you have conscious body process and unconscious body process … in psychological understanding the mind … outside the body the body … outside the mind in physiological understanding … ’.