by Tim Brunson, PhD
In March 2009 I published Debunking the Subconscious Mind Fallacy. My seemingly heretical comments resulted in immediate requests for permission for redistribution of the article in newsletters circulated in North America and Europe. Additionally, a few of my close friends and highly respected colleagues have responded by writing rebuttals – some of which have appeared on this blog and in our weekly newsletter. Nevertheless, despite the notoriety, my ideas will continue to meet resistance and need further exposure if they are to move from relative obscurity and attain the level of debate warranted. Indeed, I still read and hear prominent medical, psychological, and hypnotherapy authorities touting the miraculous power of the subconscious mind without having any clue as to where the concept originated or realizing that it is totally bereft of any scientific rationale. This article is meant to continue exposing my conclusions, to clarify my original thoughts, and to at least partially assuage some of the misgivings of my detractors.
The Western origins of the concept of the subconscious mind appear to have come from two German philosophers, who lived in approximately the same timeframe. The first, Friedrich von Schiller (1759 – 1805), set forth the notion that mankind has both a formal drive and a sensuous drive. His comments come very close to describing both the popular conscious/subconscious division, as well as my contention that people may have a relatively cognitive orientation versus a limbic one. The second was the German Idealist Friedrich von Schelling (1775 – 1854), who gave us the idea that there is both a conscious or objective principle as well as an unconscious or subjective one – which, by the way, he often equated as evil. If I am correct, the latter of the two men is normally given credit for coining the term unconscious -- although Christopher Riegel, another German philosopher, is often believed to have invented the term unconscious mind. Nevertheless, the concept is largely a construct of Western philosophical thought, which was later popularized by Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), who used it to explain his theory of psychoanalysis.
The word subconscious was coined by the French psychologist Pierre Janet (1859 – 1947), who used the term loosely to mean the same as Freud's unconscious – although the latter condemned the use of Janet's term as he preferred his own. Freud thought the word was "incorrect and misleading." This is one of the very few times that I totally agree with the Austrian doctor.
Unfortunately, the word subconscious has effectively wormed its way into medical and psychotherapeutic lexicons and has even become part of New Age and self-help mantras. In some ways – especially to medical practitioners – the term has become largely synonymous with the phrase "all in the mind", which symbolizes a gap in allopathic training. That is, if you can't understand a pathology, it must be due to the patient's subconscious mind. On the other hand, psychologists and hypnotherapists (and self-help gurus) have insisted that the subconscious mind is a wonderful, all-knowing inner power that if left to its own design will cure all that ails us. Unfortunately, those that maintain that have no idea that von Schelling warned us of the evils of the subconscious mind.
During my initial training as a clinical hypnotherapist, I was informed that the subconscious mind was a vast storehouse of unlimited capacity. It was said that the client's presenting problems are due to faulty programming within that mystical ether. It was my role to clean out the rubbish and install new programming. Then there were those that told me that all I had to do was to use suggestions and imagery to prod this miraculous hidden mind and that its innate wisdom would then adjust to a homeostatic state of total wellness. It was their view that I could practice my profession with only vague and erroneous understandings as to why my methods worked. Frankly, those who continue to do this will always face a challenge becoming accepted in the wider health care arena.
These two views of the subconscious mind – views that are taught to just about every certified hypnotherapist and most psychotherapists – are in direct conflict. The same unlimited, but below conscious awareness, mind that is connected to maladies such as schizophrenia, rheumatoid arthritis, smoking, and cancer is the same entity that is supposed to miraculously – when absolutely trusted – resolve all of our problems. This conundrum is why I often question Erickson's naturalistic approach to hypnosis.
My efforts to legitimize the clinical applications of hypnosis as a scientifically sound system of (or contribution to) healing started me on the journey that has led me to strongly believe that the present usage of the term is unsupported and fails to describe the phenomena to which it relates. My review of thousands of research citations involving the use of hypnosis for medical or psychological care has left me with the conclusion that it produces favorable results – even when poorly applied – and does so regardless of the researchers' professed inability to explain why. Disturbingly, these same researchers continue to recklessly throw around the subconscious mind term with absolutely no explanation as to its neurological or physiological basis. While I welcome the results of their efforts, it appears that the underlying premise of these strictly controlled, peer-reviewed scientific studies is little more than an unfounded superstition.
So, where does this leave us? If the concept of the subconscious mind is inaccurate – and by default that of the unconscious mind is as well – then how do we account for experience of other-than-conscious awareness phenomena. It is not its existence that is in question. Rather, I question its nature and therefore how we relate to it as individuals and as clinicians. Despite the fact that the 18th century German philosophers were very insightful, our traditional view has been beset with near-mystical misconceptions and is bereft of any scientific methodology.
My conclusions emanate from a wide range of disparate fields. One on hand, I have been influenced by the German philosophers previously mentioned and by many aspects of Buddhist philosophy (e.g. Nagarjuna's Madhyamika Prasangaka school of thought). On the other, my exploration of mind/body integrative ideas together with many of the recent discussions and findings regarding histology, quantum physics, relativity, epigentics, and even artificial intelligence have presented me with some rather unique conclusions. From this I have developed my pattern and transformation theories, which are the cornerstones of Advanced Neuro-Noetic HypnosisTM.
Central to this is the realization that that our neurophysiology is made up of components such as cells, organs, systems, and networks. In turn, these components can be considered to be patterns or integral parts of patterns. Each of these components and patterns possesses awareness and reacts to its environment. This infers that they are imbued with a form of intelligence -- meaning that they possess the attributes of a mind. Therefore, rather than relying upon a simplistic conscious/subconscious bifurcation, the acceptance of a very complex and integral system of collective consciousnesses presents us with a more rational, scientific, and operational approach.
When looked at this way, what we realize is that the neurophysiologic entity that we call a body is actually a collection of intelligences or minds. Each has a resistance to change and a tendency to adapt when necessary. The top level or aggregate awareness is what we often refer to as our conscious mind. This is largely a factor of our neocortical brain. A gross simplification could state that there is another classification regarding the more limbically-oriented minds that make up a bulk of our physiology. However, it is erroneous to summarize this as one subconscious entity. Rather, it is a very complex system of intelligent components and patterns that interact, entrain, and adapt. It is by accepting and addressing their interdependence and power that the clinician can understand the true nature of pathologies, health, and the potential for causing transformations through the use of selective interventions. To ignore this and embrace the popular sophomoric and superstitious view is to limit the abilities of the practitioner and to have our clients and patients never realize their true potentials.
The International Hypnosis Research Institute is a member supported project involving integrative health care specialists from around the world. We provide information and educational resources to clinicians. Dr. Brunson is the author of over 150 self-help and clinical CD's and MP3's.