Debunking the Subconscious Mind Fallacy

Just a few years ago several of my colleagues and I were enthralled as Robert Otto gave us his normally charismatic pep talk concerning the wonderful powers of the “subconscious mind.” As a well-trained and experienced advocate of hypnotherapy, he was faithfully following a tradition rooted in the works of Sigmund Freud and further expounded by other greats such as Ormond McGill, Milton H. Erickson, and David Elman. Nevertheless, I am proposing the heretical stance that our profession’s fascination with the concept of the “subconscious mind” has retarded the acceptance of hypnosis and hypnotherapy as valid for clinical applications. This well-traveled path may have turned into a rut which we must transcend.

In order to understand my view on this, one must delve into the semantics of the words consciousness and mind. Consciousness implies not only thinking, sensations, perceptions, moods, emotions, and dreams, but also self-awareness. So, for phenomena to be “sub”, “un” or “pre” conscious, one or more of those elements — especially awareness — needs to be missing. This implies that as a minimum that for a subconscious to exist there needs to be some aspect of our human mental or physical system that fails to meet the “self awareness” test. However, at each reductionist level of the human system of organisms a level of self awareness exists. As the histology professor Bruce Lipton, PhD, so clearly states, even our cells are acutely aware of its environment. Therefore, despite an occasional distraction, we are comprised of an aggregate community of self-aware (conscious) systems which work in harmony – and communicate with each other on a regular and continuous basis. In my relentless pursuit for the holy grail of the subconscious mind, I have yet to find any part of the human entity that is truly subconscious. I fully realize that thinking and dreaming is normally attributed to humans and other creatures with more developed frontal lobes. However, this alone does not justify the overstated obsession concerning the existence of subconscious.

Then let’s look at the concept of the mind. This is where our humanness seems to emerge. The mind is an aspect of our consciousness, but with a twist. It implies strongly that we have the capability to participate in thought, perception, memory, emotion, will, and imagination. While all living systems have consciousness – as I just defined it in the previous paragraph – only certain intelligent systems truly have the attributes of the mind. The ability to use the mind to create or organize data and phenomena into new concepts or ideas is unique to the level of intellect which seems to correlate with the size and function of a developed frontal lobe.

Am I merely splitting hairs to be point of silliness? I think not. Our insistence on believing in the concept of a wonderful entity which exists below the conscious level belies the point that we are made up of a very intricate system of self-aware and communicative components. Nor does it accept that they are organized into harmonized patterns coexisting for a mutually beneficial purpose of our continued existence. By respecting the nature of these neuro-physiological systems – and getting away from the almost new age mysticism surrounding the fallacious concept of a subconscious mind – we begin to understand the power of selective thinking, which is at the center of the core concepts of what has been called suggestive therapeutics, selective thinking, and hypnosis.

Every aspect of the neuro-physiological system is organized into patterns of behavior which reflect both their self-aware nature and their abilities to effectively communicate internally and externally. For instance, just think about the relationship between the hypothalamus and the anterior and posterior portions of the pituitary gland. The flow of “release hormones” into the blood stream triggers sympathetic or parasympathetic autonomic reactions. If the hormones released are organ specific, the organ will provide feedback in the form of inhibitory hormones which signal the hypothalamus and pituitary gland that a further hormonal release is no longer needed.

These reactions, which also involve peptides and electrical signals, may also be triggered by thoughts and imagination (or anticipation). An example of this will occur when a woman sees a child nursing or even thinks of the situation, the hypothalamus releases sufficient estrogen to create either a production of milk or at least a feeling of heaviness in the female mammary glands. Please note that the neuro-physiological systems of the human mind and body will react to both realities and fantasies.

My conclusion here is that every thought, idea, or concept has a corresponding biochemical and bioelectric pattern. Thoughts, ideas, and concepts are creatures of the frontal lobe centered mind rather than some mislabeled “subconscious mind” system. The intra and inter neuro-physiology patterns are developed and programmed with one key requirement. That is self-preservation. (Note this means preservation of the patterns, not necessarily the organism. This is why we too often have the tendency of doing dumb things despite a higher awareness that the organism – meaning us – is at risk. Just think of addictive behavior which we know will result in our early demise.) Our innate and adaptive immune system and what Darold Treffert MD has coined as the “tyranny of our left brain” exists for the purpose of protecting these collective of patterns. When these patterns become dysfunctional because of a defective reaction to injury, disease, or “thought viruses”, then interventions such as surgery, pharmacology, energy medicine/psychology, or psychotherapy (to include hypnosis) are warranted.

This means that every dysfunctional situation is one in which the emergence of a pattern threatens the existence of a higher level of the collective, then the intervention must circumvent the self-preservation function so that the underlying patterns can be altered. Rephrasing this differently, you may wish to say that we need to “get out of our own way” if we are to change. Indeed, to treat addictions and even physiological situations such as cancer, the individual or clinician must find ways to get past resistance so that the intervention can have a chance. David Elman said this very appropriately. He said that we must bypass the critical factor so that we can engage in selective thinking. Dr. Milton H. Erickson talked about splitting and linking.

Therefore, I look at something as simple as a smoking addition as a manifestation of a neuro-physiological pattern which the subject’s self-preservation obsession will actively fight to hold on to. This pattern is manifested by biochemical and bioelectric responses which can be detected by kinesthetic awareness or modern medical technologies. There is a self-aware – which is one reason why change is resisted – and communicative dimension to these systems. The subject or clinician will be most successful by initially employing techniques which nullify or bypass the natural pattern-preserving tendencies of these conscious (not subconscious) systems. Then by installing new functional patterns dysfunctional ones are crowded out and wither away. Merely to remove a system without replacing it with a new stronger one, is an invitation for the later recurrence of the dysfunctional system/pattern.

I know that my ideas are contrary to the conventional (and erroneous) wisdom of the medical and hypnotherapy communities. However, if rather than looking at the reactive components of non-intellectual systems as a vast repository of reactive behaviors you look at them as conscious (self-aware and communicative) entities, then you can begin to respect the power of a clinician as dysfunctional patterns are virtually excised and replaced by new functional ones. It is in the conscious attributes of these systems that the power of the intervention lies. Unfortunately, the term ” subconscious mind ” is an outdated oxymoron which leaves hypnosis in the realm of mysticism and pseudo-science rather than a scientifically verifiable concept worthy of mainstream discussion. The future of hypnotherapy (and allopathic medicine) will not be found not in the fallacious “power of the subconscious mind” but in the “power of the conscious mind” to direct and direct the mental and physical manifestations of human existence.