Book Reviews, Mind Management

Myelin and Mind

To play a musical instrument, it’s not enough to put your fingers in the right place. They have to arrive there at the right time. Getting to the right place is controlled by the wiring of the neurons. Right timing is controlled by myelin.

Myelin is a fatty sheathe around the axon – the part of the neuron that carries signals out from the cell body. Just as neurons form new connections as we learn, so the brain adds myelin to axons. Special cells called oligodendrocytes wrap myelin around the axons that carry the heaviest traffic. Each wrap causes the signal to move faster.

This improved speed helps us to think faster. This applies to all forms of thinking – logical deduction as well as muscle movement. That isn’t always a good thing – we’ve all heard the term “motor mouth,” somebody who talks faster than we can follow. To correct for such problems, myelin gradually decays, slowing the speed along the affected pathways. To maintain optimum performance, then, myelin must be constantly restored.

Building optimum performance is the subject of The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. The book sings the praises of myelin and the processes that refine its placement. The most heartening insight is that talent – broadly understood to be the capacity to respond rapidly and precisely – can be cultivated through proper training.

Both internal attitudes and external feedback (coaching) figure in the development, refinement, and maintenance of myelin networks. Attitudes include commitment, caring, challenge and consequences. Commitment is recognized as the belief that a life will be built around execution of our skill. Caring manifests as an emotional response to competence: irritation at failure and joy in achievement. Challenge is the restless seeking beyond current skill – to always be in pursuit of greater aptitudes. Lastly a demonstrable connection between skill and social recognition is the honey of consequence that draws others into challenge with us, giving us the stimulus to continue to improve.

Coyle sees these factors at play in many settings: sports, music and academics are highlighted. While explicitly considered only in the afterward, every example highlights the value of tension between creativity and discipline. Creativity is the goal, but can be cultivated only when the student believes that what she does makes a difference. In the proper setting, then, negative feedback becomes a positive when self-awareness (shame or guilt) is followed immediately with repetition that is rewarded with approval when competence is achieved.

From this, it is clear that mentors are critical to the development of mastery. It’s not a one-size-fits all proposition. In the early stages of talent development (what Coyle calls “ignition”), the mentor must build an emotional connection between the student and their skill. As mastery is approached, the mentor creates conditions of constant challenge. Performance is driven by practice with others of high skill, and the mentor intervenes mostly to help the competitors leap-frog past each other.

In this pursuit, myelination alone is insufficient. In a competitive setting, mastery is not repeatable, because competitors will adapt to its demonstration. This requires endless variation that can be achieved only by composing smaller elements as sequences. Part of coaching is to break skills down into chunks that can be creatively sequenced. Coyle illustrates this with a detailed breakdown of how a master coach teaches a quarterback the drop-back. The most telling proof of the principle, however, is in the failure of chess masters to recall random board configurations, where they can instantly recall actual game configurations. The chess master sees actual game configurations in “chunks” of related pieces.

While hypnotherapists are not life coaches, the insights of The Talent Code are critical to our discipline. Emotional attachment is the foundation of excellence. Hypnotic rehearsal builds myelin networks in the brain, but must be tied immediately to myelination in the rest of the body. Habits are best maintained under variations that instill challenge, and best undermined by substituting alternatives to feed higher behaviors. Recovery from loss may be facilitated by seeking actively to tie high-level networks to new contexts for expression (“chunking-down” instead of “chunking-up”).

Perhaps most importantly, however, is in managing client expectations. Learning is not life-long – it must be actively maintained, and constantly evolves as others adapt to our capabilities. In fact, that tension is critical to skill. The subconscious may resist change, but great accomplishments derive from the struggle to overcome that resistance. In some sense, the properties of the myelin system are how the brain comes to understand what is really important to us.

Basics

The Kappasinian Difference

The public considers hypnotherapy to be “woo-woo” principally because most demonstrations celebrate the dominance of the “operator.” The “subject” appears to relinquish control – something that only the frivolous or desperate would tolerate.

Graduates from the HMI College of Hypnotherapy are trained in methods that ensure clients understand and participate fully in their behavioral development. The founder, Dr. John Kappas, actually proposed California’s legal scope for hypnotherapy: “vocational and avocational self-improvement.”

For people able to set and pursue goals (i.e. – those without clinical psychological disorders), Kappasinian hypnotherapy has deep and diverse methods for addressing the entire gamut of problematic and self-limiting behaviors. Even more, clients will receive a basic, common-sense understanding of personal behavior and development. Given in non-technical language, it is an understanding that they can carry forward into the rest of their lives.

If you have been considering hypnotherapy, look for an HMI graduate in your area, or contact one of us (myself included) well-versed in phone and web sessions. You’ll not just find your behavior corrected, you’ll find yourself empowered to step confidently into a more fulfilling future.

Book Reviews

Behavior and Adaptation

Life is change. For most of history, change was transmitted only through birth. Looking at the natural world, then, Darwin and his followers upheld the survival of our genes as the compulsion that drives our every behavior. In the mental health world, Freud also flirted with that view (everything is about sex).

But humanity has subdued the natural world with our ideas. Corn, cows and cars wouldn’t exist if ideas weren’t transmissible from person to person after birth. That exchange of ideas is also an adaptive process, but it’s not Darwinian. It’s closer to the evolution proposed by Lamarck, which is thousands of times faster than Darwin’s evolution through gene transmission.

As human beings, then, we are a combination of Darwinian (sexual) impulses and Lamarckian (intellectual) impulses. Sadly, just as our relationship with the natural world is out-of-balance, the tension between genes and ideas also drives us out of balance in our relationship with the self. Our mind changes far faster than our body. Worse, improving the mind occurs through experiences that often limit the body (and visce-versa). To keep this competition under control, the mind divides into two: the conscious mind that learns and adapts to a changing world, and the subconscious mind that manages our well-being and “automatic” behaviors.

Hypnotherapy is helpful in maintaining or restoring balance between the conscious and subconscious parts of our mind. Often that means negotiating alternatives to genetically inherited behaviors – most commonly the “fight or flight” response, but also lowered mood (sadness or depression) or pain. It’s important to understand those foundations of the personality as the basis for our work.

It was this need that stimulated my interest in Randolph Nesse’s new work “Good Reasons for Bad Feelings.” Nesse is an advocate of Evolutionary Psychiatry – a discipline that holds that we can understand the cause of mental disease as imbalances or extreme cases of behaviors that ensure that our genes are passed on. Explicit in the Nesse’s framing of the issue is that those genes cause defects in our brains that predispose us to the disease.

The book considers, chapter by chapter, our major mental health problems. In each case, Nesse proposes explanations for why more primitive species would have benefited from the behavior. The fear response triggers fight or flight, which in the right balance ensures that we mate as frequently as possible. Depression pushes us to abandon unattainable goals. Altruistic behaviors imply loyalty to sexual partners that depend upon that loyalty to ensure the survival of children over the decade preceding self-sufficiency. These are all plausible explanations for why genes that code for those traits would continue to be passed on, despite making us susceptible (respectively) to irrational phobias, suicide, and sexual manipulation.

As documented in detail by Nesse (I have to admire his integrity), the defect in this proposition is that no study has been able to identify consistent genetic differences between those that suffer from mental illness and those that don’t. The doubt generated by this observation is reinforced by clinical studies that demonstrate the importance of individual life experience in determining who suffers from mental illness. Unfortunately, the administration of determinative assessments takes hours – far more than is possible in a busy clinical setting.

Of course, life experience is not predictable. As with medicine, the preventative utility of genomic markers is seductive, perhaps leading Nesse to flog a proposition that appears to have a limited future.

In specific sections of the book, the blurry boundary between genomics and culture is evident. Child rearing doesn’t require a commitment from the male – in fact some feminist authors assert that agriculture was invented by women in part because they stayed in camp to share those duties while the men went out to hunt. So Nesse’s explanation for cooperation is arguably cultural. A more direct descent from genomics might be grooming to remove pests, which is manifested even among fish.

Nesse sets his observations against the backdrop of his clinical and professional development. All are set as heroic outcomes – illustrations of clinical innovations, or transformative insights that puncture professional myopia. As a hypnotherapist, however, some of the clinical innovations seem barbaric – exposure therapy for those suffering severe phobias is one illustration. And the primacy of evolutionary psychiatry seems overblown when outcomes depend upon life experience.

Both matters are dealt with more elegantly in practices (such as hypnotherapy) that recognize the division of the mind between conscious and subconscious realms. I was surprised when I encountered psychologists that disputed that division, and Nesse is defensive in the sections in which he recognizes its importance. His hesitancy indicates that the dispute is more widely entrenched than I knew.

This is an omission that I find indefensible. The tension between biological and social imperatives explains so much regarding our behavior – and mental vulnerabilities.  Even more, those insights inform powerful therapeutic strategies that are known to be gentler and more efficacious than the alternatives described by Nesse.

To conclude, “Good Reasons for Bad Feelings” is an excellent survey of mental health issues, and in relating those pathologies to behavioral benefits, Nesse reduces the stigma that burdens sufferers. I am concerned, however, that his focus on genetics will delay recognition that the genome specifies an architecture for the brain that is vulnerable to cultural pathologies. In both the formation of synapses and the allocation of blood flow, the brain is wonderfully plastic. That faculty facilitates the spread of ideas, but also the insinuation of contradictions that manifest as pathological behavior. Evolutionary psychiatry only sets the table – it doesn’t determine the contents of life’s meal.

Basics

Hypnowars: Team Kappas vs. Erickson Camp

When choosing a hypnotherapist, clients should understand that we do not all use the same techniques. This post will compare the two most important bodies of techniques: those developed by Milton Erickson and John Kappas.

Our methods are always the same: attain depth and change thinking. As depth increases:

  • the regulatory activity of the conscious mind decreases, and
  • the elements of the subconscious mind operate more independently (they disassociate).

When the right depth is attained, behavior at that depth is changed through suggestions. These suggestions must match the expectations of the conscious mind, which must still interpret them for the subconscious mind that regulates the body and motivations.

Prior to Erickson and Kappas, many hypnotherapists worked at shallow depth and used scripted suggestions. This limited both the pool of clients and the types of behaviors that could be changed. Both Erickson and Kappas used systematic studies to create techniques that made it possible to attain any depth and address almost any behavior.

While they shared the same goals, Erickson and Kappas worked in entirely different contexts.

Milton Erickson

Erickson was a practicing psychotherapist in an academic setting. Many of his published papers recount experimental sessions where he attempted to teach the curious how to do “hypnotic work.” This “work” included (among others) catalepsy (muscle rigidity), analgesia (pain suppression), amnesia (lose memories) and age regression (revisit old memories). These skills were also important in therapeutic settings but are rarely emphasized in his reports.

Erickson’s methods are powerful but require great care. Depth cannot be created willy-nilly but must be done as a spelunker enters a cave, with markers and lights left in place to ensure that the patient can be brought out if something ugly is encountered. For this reason, the American Clinical Hypnosis Society he founded requires that all members be licensed psychologists.

Erickson’s ethics were impeccable. In his favorite paper (“Deep Hypnosis and Its Induction”) he offers the following principles.

A subject needs to be protected at all times as a personality possessed of rights, privileges, and privacies and recognized as being placed in a seemingly vulnerable position in the hypnotic situation. …

This protection should properly be given the subject in both the waking and the trance states. …

There should be a constant minimization of the role of the hypnotist and a constant enlargement of the subject’s role.

These principles came to full expression in his paper “The Burden of Responsibility in Effective Psychotherapy.” In the three cases reported, each cure was achieved as the patient slowly and laboriously explained his condition and described the behavior that would resolve it. Erickson did nothing more than suggest a powerful compulsion to do as the patient himself said.

Erickson was not followed by an intellectual heir. In part this reflected his choice of cases. Personal fondness or intellectual challenge seemed to play a large influence. When writing of patients (rather than volunteers) Erickson focused on complex cases often involving medical or psychological disorders. Many of his patients were referred to him as a “last resort” following ineffective surgical or drug treatment.

For less acute treatments, Erickson’s desire to guard the integrity of the patient’s autonomy led him to use images and metaphors familiar to them – again increasing the flavor of his therapy.

Given the diversity of his cases, it was unlikely that a formal manual of Ericksonian technique would arise. That does not mean that others have not built upon his legacy. Neural-Linguistic Programming (NLP) offers a model of information processing (although Hammond, in Hypnotic Suggestions and Metaphors, disputes its efficacy). Erickson’s use of implication in suggestions is a hallmark of a certain therapeutic style. Zeig and others focus on hypnotic disassociation as the key to effective therapy.

John Kappas

Kappas learned hypnosis at a young age, using it informally with family and friends. He polished his skills at a school for professional stage hypnotists. Although a terrible performer, Kappas was recognized for his hypnotic technique. He was picked by a pair of TV producers to represent the profession in a never-aired series.

In contrast to Erickson, Kappas was directive in his style. However, he recognized the need to utilize natural processes in allowing the mind to seek balance and health. To facilitate this, he devoted years to developing a theory of mind that – while psychologically sound – was understood by people from all walks of life.

Four pillars formed the basis of most Kappasinian therapy. The Theory of Mind was extended with Eric Erikson’s Stages of Development. The tendency of the mind to shift emotional pain to physical pain is explained in a basic theory of body syndromes. The Institute recognized the importance of dream process – both as relates to developing new behaviors and releasing obsessions and trauma.

Most importantly Kappas developed a fundamental theory of relationships (the Emotional / Physical dichotomy known here as Protector / Adventurer). While harder to explain than the Theory of Mind, E&P accounts for many of the most serious conflicts we face in our relationships, giving clients hope that they can work their way to a resolution. In this process, Kappas (as Erickson) was protective of the client’s goals and preferences, passing no moral judgment on behaviors that many would consider deviant.

We might expect that Kappas as a therapist was focused on the nuts-and-bolts of everyday living. Indeed, his recorded cases histories are dominated by commonplace issues, including fears and phobias, neurotic behavior (especially obsessive/compulsive personalities), marital disputes, and inexplicable pains, tics, and allergies.

As he aged, Kappas became more sympathetic to Erickson’s ethic, guiding the development of Cheryl O’Neil’s therapeutic imagery program. In this technique, the client constructs resources before venturing out into their subconscious landscape. The therapeutic imagery comes from the client’s own words.

From these elements, Kappas and his team at the Hypnosis Motivation Institute constructed an accredited hypnotherapy training program. Successful students have been applying those methods for fifty years.

What should be appreciated, however, is that Kappas designed a sandbox that minimized the chance that a therapist could upset the mental balance of the client. Age regression is almost never used – rather hidden trauma clears through the dream process. A limited set of therapeutic practices is employed. Recommended session length is one hour at weekly intervals.

The effect is that the client develops an understanding of their behavior and emerges with a strengthened partnership between the conscious and subconscious minds. It is that outcome that is most important to me as a therapist. Kappasinian hypnotherapy is not limited to helping the client accomplish their goals. It improves their understanding of their mind, empowering them to confront future challenges with their whole being, rather than just the part that they reason with.

And the Winner Is…

Always the Kappasinian client and the Ericksonian patient.

Neither approach is better than the other. Erickson left less in the way of organized therapeutic techniques, and those we have require greater control and discipline attained through formal psychological training. Kappas left a large and well-motivated body of techniques, constrained by models of “typical” behavior that can hinder treatment of deep psychological disorders. Ericksonian therapy has the flavor of surgery, with behaviors added or removed in various states; Kappasinian therapy tends toward overall integration of the hypnotic and waking experience under processes controlled by the client’s subconscious.

As a client seeking support, you are encouraged to understand your therapist’s approach. Appreciate that hypnosis is a tool employed in several practical styles. Don’t be afraid to explore alternatives. Your comfort with the therapeutic method is an element essential to successful change.

Basics, Mind Management

Hypnotherapy and Polyvagal Theory

In the basic Kappasinian Theory of Mind, we all need balance between adventurous (euphoria-seeking) and protective (fear-avoiding) behaviors. The goal of all therapy is to establish and maintain a healthful balance for the client. In this post, I consider how Kappasinian practices relate to Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory (described wonderfully here).

As emphasized by Porges, our bodies are designed to seek homeostasis (the restful state in which we “feed and breed”). When threatened by unfamiliar or overwhelming experiences, we drop into a simple decision-making process: should we fight (“Can I eat it?”) or flee (“Can it eat me?”). If neither of those tactics resolves the conflict, we simply freeze (conserve energy until an escape presents itself). In the animal kingdom, survivors use shaking and quivering to discharge the residual energy, restoring homeostasis.

These kinds of experiences are traumatic, and if repeated drive us into protective behaviors. On the other hand, in safe social circumstances, those same kinds of experiences can evolve as play. When playing our pretend threats are accompanied with gestures and statements that reassure our partner. The classic pet behaviors are the dog crouching on its fore-paws, or the cat gnawing on our finger in between licks. During play, both euphoria and fear are at elevated levels.

The nerve that mediates our overall physical state (the vagus nerve) has an ancient (reptilian) part that manages the freeze response, and a more recent (mammalian) part that controls excitement. As these responses involve complex coordination among all the body parts, the vagus returns ten times as much information back to the brain as it sends out.

One of the challenges in overcoming traumatic experiences is that fear suppresses our ability to exchange reassuring gestures and statements. This permanently suppresses our ability to feel euphoria, leaving us at the mercy of fear. That prevents us from restoring homeostasis, leaving us in a perpetual state of self-induced stress that damages our physical and mental well-being. If the trauma occurred early in childhood (such as a difficult birth), we may be unable to remember the circumstances, and thus release the trauma.

Porges’ solution is to deal with the problem symptomatically. Exposing the sufferer to soothing sounds, sights or sensations overcomes the blocks to reassuring stimulation. When accompanied by mindful relaxation, the mind learns to tie that reassurance to homeostasis.

The classic Kappasinian therapy for fear and anxiety builds an experience that mixes these same elements – but with the amplifying factor of hypnosis (our optimal learning state).

Therapy begins with a progressive relaxation that establishes homeostasis.

If the trauma is mild, circle therapy is used to walk the client through a remembered experience. If the fear is irrational or of unknown origin, systematic desensitization is used to command the subconscious (the true source of the reaction) to produce the emotion. Ideomotor finger raising is used to control the level of anxiety. When discomfort is visible, the client is told to lower the finger and “pass it,” directing them back into homeostasis. As the process is repeated, the mind becomes confident in its ability to control the transition, and eventually chooses homeostasis.

If the trauma is deep, these practices are preceded with sessions that build a safe haven in the subconscious landscape, ensuring that the learned skills take root in a context free from debilitating memories. For this purpose, today’s practitioners will often use therapeutic imagery, but even they will reinforce that work with a staple of Kappasinian therapy: a staircase deepener that projects a positive, confident self-image into the subconscious.

The final element of Kappasinian therapy is to suggest that the client begin to chuckle and smile as they come out of hypnosis. As the therapist smiles and speaks soothingly, this reinforces the ability to exchange reassuring signals. Of all the suggestions offered by Kappasinian therapists, this is the most playful.

Porges first articulated his polyvagal theory back in the early 1980’s and the therapeutic practices were not popularized until well into the new millennium. Hypnotherapists trained with Kappas’ methods have been performing these therapies since the sixties. Not only do those techniques have the same effect as those offered by Porges, but they are coupled to far broader strategies for overall behavior development.