A New Theory of Hypnotherapy

Interview with French publication
Le Journal des Psychologues, October 1994, pg. 49-54

Updated on January 2, 2000

Ernest Lawrence Rossi, Ph.D.

1. Having worked with the outstanding pioneering psychotherapist Milton Erickson and having edited his writings would you provide us with a colorful portrait of Erickson?

Well, perhaps the most important story I can tell about Erickson is how he discovered hypnosis when at the age of 17 he lay acutely ill with polio for the first time. This was in the frontiers of Wisconsin around 1918 before there were any hospitals or modern medical understanding of the problem. Erickson reports overhearing the doctor tell his mother just outside of his bedroom that he thought the boy would be dead in the morning. The young Erickson felt so angry that anyone should tell an American mother that her son would die in the night that he was determined to stay alive to see the dawn. He weakly asked his family to rearrange the dresser with it's large mirror so that he could see from his bed the next days sunrise reflected in the mirror. He did manage to stay alive all night but when he saw the mornings sun reflected in the mirror he fell into a coma for three days and three nights. When he awoke he found he was paralyzed but he could move his eyes and his hearing was unusually acute.

Well life had to get back to normal at the farm. Every morning before breakfast they would lift him out of the bed and tie him into a rocking chair with a hole cut in the bottom, with a pot underneath so he could move his bowels while they went about the first chores of the day. Well one day as misfortune would have it, they forgot to come and untie him from the rocking chair and put him back into bed. So there he was in the middle of the room tied in the rocking chair wishing that he could look out the window and at least see what was going on in the farm. As he looked longingly at the window he suddenly realized that the rocking chair was slowly beginning to rock. How could this be he thought to himself. If my body is truly paraly how come the rocking chair is moving? Could it be he reasoned to himself that some of my muscles are still capable of movement and just by wishing is unconsciously causing the chair to rock?

Thus the young boy without knowing it of course had rediscovered the basic principle of hypnosis described as ideomotor movement by one of the fathers of hypnosis a 100 years earlier. "Ideomotor" simply means that an idea can automatically give rise to a motor movement. Erickson continued to access his sensory memories to recover most of his normal muscle movements throughout his body. He would ask himself, for example, how did my fingers hold a spoon while staring at his fingers. After a week or so of this exercise he was rewarded with a small movement in his finger. Gradually he thus acquired movements of his fingers, hands, and arms, and finally the rest of his body by reviewing real sense memories. This became one of his revolutionary contributions to the theory and technique of hypnosis. Hypnosis is really not suggestion in the sense of putting something into a persons mind or programing a person, although it can be used in that bazaar sort of way by the unscrupulous. Therapeutic hypnosis by contrast, helps a patient access their own inner creative resources for problem solving.

2. Hommes et Perspectives will soon be publishing a French translation of your book The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing, which is about the inter-dependence of the physical body, the mind, and the emotions. Would you discuss the emergence and the development of a scientific theory of the mind-body inter-relationship?

Erickson often wrote about the psycho-neuro-physiological basis of hypnosis. However when I asked him what he meant by that exactly he would just sing me the old negro spiritual song where the words go "the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone, and the ankle bone is connected to the leg bone, and the leg bone is connected to the hip bone," etc. He was in his 70's when I studied with him in the last decade of his life, so I felt, well, perhaps I got here to late. I gradually came to understand, however, what he was trying to tell me by singing that song: Everything in mind and body are connected somehow. It is the task of our generation to learn exactly how everything is connected. When I began to update his writings in the area of psychosomatic medicine I was profoundly shaken to learn that modern molecular biology did in fact enable us to trace out a complete cybrenetic loop of information flow between mind and body right down to the genetic level.

Most people, for example, still think that genes are simply the units of heredity. They are unaware that genes are also receiving messages from our psychosocial environment so that they turn on and off to help us adapt to continually changing life circumstances. This is what I call the mind-gene connection in many of my papers and books. This, I believe, is the true scientific foundation of the new science of Psychosocial Genomics (how the psychological experiences we call "mind" can modulate gene expression as well as visa versa in mind-body relationships) that can be measured in the test tube and eventually described with differential equations. In the recent 12th international congress on clinical and experimental hypnosis in Israel last year, for example, I introduced the first mathematical model of hypnosis in mind-body healing.

3. Do you believe that the concepts that you are developing about therapeutic hypnosis are revolutionizing therapeutic practice?

Well, no one could say these new concepts are revolutionizing therapeutic practice. At least not yet! They are, however, introducing new paradigms for theory and research. But, you must be careful to separate me from the revolution. The true revolutionaries were Watson and Crick who got the Nobel Prize in the early 1950's for discovering the informational basis of life in the DNA code. Most people, however, still believe that genes determine human behavior. They are not yet aware that the reverse can be true as well. That our behavior states can determine the moment by moment changes in our gene expression profiles. This is now called "Behavior state-related gene expression." The behavioral state of being awake has a gene expression profile, for example, that is very different from gene expression during sleep and dreaming. I believe that states of creativity and emotional arousal typical of optimal sessions of psychotherapy and therapeutic hypnosis will eventually be found to alter our gene expression profiles as well. I discuss much recent research and future prospects in this area in my recent books such as:

 "Dreams, Consciousness, Spirit: The Quantum Experience of Self-Reflection and Co-creation" (2000). Phoenix, Arizona: Zeig-Tucker &Theisen, Tel. 877-850-0442  www.ZeigTucker.com  

"The Psychobiology of Gene Expression: Neuroscience and Neurogenesis in Hypnosis and the Healing Arts."  W. W. Norton Professional Books, New York, Tel. 800-233-4830, www.wwnorton.com 

I am simply exploring the implications of this new informational conception of the basic nature of life on the biological as well as psychological level. Physics, psychology, and biology are now united by this common denominator of information.

One of the most interesting developments in this area is the new mathematical science of Complex Adaptive Systems, at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, where over the past decade some of the most innovative minds in all the sciences have been exploring this new informational foundation of life. Up to now psychology has been based on the various psycho-cultural environments of its leading practitioners such as Freud, Jung, etc. Psychology has been something of a step-child in science up to this time because it has not been connected with the other sciences. With the new informational basis of psychology it can become an integral part of all the sciences as well as the humanities. I explore the possibilities of using the non-linear dynamics of Complex Adaptive Systems to reformulate the foundations of hypnotherapy on a more scientific foundation in my book, The Symptom Path to Enlightenment: The New Dynamics of Self-Organization in Hypnotherapy

4. For several years you have been teaching your mind-body therapeutic approach at the Milton Erickson Institute of Paris, under the direction of D. Jean Godin. Who are the practitioners who attend your seminars and what are their responses to your mind-body approach? Additionally, to what extent do they believe that you are on the "right track?"

Well, of course, I would like to believe that the psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, social workers, etc., who attend my seminars are among the most brilliant of the new wave of the French intellectual world. We are currently exploring the radical idea that "suggestion" and so-called "programming" are not the essence of hypnotherapy. What is conventionally called "suggestion" is actually the psychobiological entrainment the healing power that takes place naturally at various phases of our mind-body rhythms. Every hour and a half, for example, we go through peaks and troughs of mental, emotional and physical activity. Every night, when we are asleep these rhythms continue so that we dream every hour and a half, and then we sink deeper into sleep where certain hormones flow, the immune system is potentiated and many healing processes take place. I believe my new approach to hypnosis and mind-body healing entrains and facilitates many of these natural healing processes. At a recent conference sponsored by du Comite National De La Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) at the Salpetriere in November 1992 I proposed the type of psychoneuroimmunological research that is now needed to explore this new model of healing on all levels from mind to gene.

To what extent do I believe I am on the "right track?" Only future research can tell. But, for the first time we have something worth researching in hypnosis and mind-body healing besides old wives tales and anecdotes. And, as I mentioned earlier, for the first time in it's 200 year history we at least can begin to speculate about what a mathematical model of hypnotherapeutic work and mind-body healing might be in terms of leading edge molecular biology and physics. In the broadest sense we may be approaching a new resolution of the classical mind-body problem: How do thoughts, emotions and stress communicate with the body and visa versa?

5. As you know, in France psychoanalysis is taught at the university, and psychoanalytic theory has dominated the practice of psychiatrists and psychotherapists, even if they are non-confirmed. Would you explain your mind-body approach vis-a-vis psychoanalysis?

In the first place, let me say that I was originally trained in Freudian psychoanalysis by the great psychosomatic specialist Franz Alexander. I later completed my training as a Jungian analyst. So I have full respect for all the major psychoanalytic traditions and methods. But, after all, psychoanalysis comes out of 19th century science and, as you say, this theory is very difficult to validate in the original terms of its creators. In my first book, Dreams and the Growth of Personality: Expanding Awareness in Psychotherapy back in 1972 (2nd Edition, Brunner Mazel, 1985), I used the classical psychoanalytic approach of free association and the analysis of the transference and resistance. However, it seemed to me that I was discovering entirely new patterns in the evolution of consciousness that Freud and Jung could never have dreamed of just a generation or two earlier. I now believe the psyche and its laws of development and growth actually change with the evolution of consciousness over the generations.The new science of mind-body healing, based as it is in the new informational world view uniting physics, psychology and biology now requires new approaches to facilitating healing and the development of consciousness.

6. My last question may irritate you. Does the mind-body connection have anything in common with the religious feelings so prevalent in American Culture? (For example, some groups pray for healing, and some even practice the laying on of hands to heal a "patient.")

This question actually goes to the heart of the matter. Recent research has shown that under stress medical students, for example, suppress their own immune system. On a molecular-genetic level it has been found that their stress inhibits the expression of their interleukin-2 messenger molecules of their immune system. These molecular messengers are the same ones that Stephen Rosenberg, M.D., Ph.D., at the National Cancer Institute, is using to fight cancer on a purely medical basis. In other words, psycho-social stress may inhibit our immune system by blocking the same molecular messenger molecules that medical science is seeking to amplify to cure cancer on a purely biological level. This is a clear example of how biological and medical science are using many of the same molecular messengers that we now realize are also modulating memory, learning, emotions and behavior. These messenger molecules make up a complex system of mindbody communication that psychology now needs to learn more about to facilitate the resolution of psychological problems associated with emotions, stress and trauma - many of the posttraumatic stress syndromes, for example.

I believe that whenever faith healing actually worked in the past, it was because hope, faith and religious passion could in some way activate these same messenger molecules. The mind-brain, the brain-body (the neuroendocrine system), and the cell-genetic level are all connected with many such families of messenger molecules that facilitate mind-body communication in health and illness. Current research at the cellular-genetic level documents that with the experience of novelty and emotional arousal on the psychological level many different genes are expressed. The hypnotherapists and faith healers of the past did not understand these specifics of molecular biology, psychoimmunology and gene expression as we are beginning to learn about them today. The new revolution that I am attempting to explore in mind-body healing integrates the best of the past and these new informational sciences that are uniting medicine and psychology at the molecular-genetic level.

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