Mention of the term ‘subconscious mind’ can cause an intensely negative response from some hypnotherapists and others working in the field of psychology and psychotherapy.
I find this unhelpful because often it does not stop at constructive criticism, but goes further into a dogmatic assertion that their view is correct – that there is no such thing as the subconscious mind and that any other viewpoint is ‘misguided’ or ‘fallacious’.
In my view, as a clinical hypnotherapist, this response is polarising and not useful for genuine practitioners and their clients.
As I will discuss, this polarisation and ownership of concepts is itself sometimes rooted in an (ironically) subconscious desire to benefit from controlling the language and theoretical basis of a profession’s activities.
What is the Subconscious Mind?
Usually it is expressed as the activity of the mind below the level of conscious awareness, which is traditionally viewed as the primary level at which hypnotherapy works.
Before we had arguments over ‘subconscious or no subconscious’, since the evolution of Freud’s work, we also had them over the use of the terms ‘subconscious’ and ‘unconscious’.
Much of this usually breaks down into pedantic disagreements over semantics and definitions. A lot also depends on how the question is asked. Either way, the theoretical argument usually takes place away from the real theatre of our profession – actual sessions with clients!
The Subconscious Mind as a Valid Concept
In my opinion, the mind is a function of the brain and the subconscious mind is a conceptualisation within this function.
For me, the concept’s validity is in its utility. As a shorthand for discussing the phenomenon of the mind’s ability to process information and control behaviour at a level below conscious awareness, it is excellent. It is simple but powerful, and, for me personally, is the best model we currently have.
My clients understand it, they find it both useful and empowering: so, as a practitioner, this alone provides a strong argument for its validity as a concept.
Evidence-based and Neuroscience
Another criticism of the concept of the subconscious mind is that it is not ‘evidence-based’.
As opposed to celebrating the opportunity that scientific research can bring to explaining the work that hypnotherapists do, instead it often becomes a ‘stick’ for some hypnotherapists and ‘thought leaders’ to beat each other with. “My hypnotherapy is more evidence-based than yours, nah nah, nah nah, nah,” etc.
There are also many types of evidence. Most scientific evidence starts out as anecdotal observation from the world of practice. Then a theory is formulated into a hypothesis and tested.
There is overwhelming scientific evidence that hypnosis is effective in many types of therapeutic application, but we are still in the early days of understanding or finding conclusive evidence of its mechanism. In this way hypnosis is not alone, much of the function of the mind is still a mystery that we are only just beginning to unravel.
Hypnosis itself is a perennially difficult subject to research directly because of the inherent problems of trying to create a control group. Put simply, the research group not ‘receiving the hypnosis’ could still be hypnotised!
And, contrary to what some might say, it is not the case that research from the field of neuroscience actually DISPROVES the concept of the subconscious mind either.
Some studies are less supportive, some are more supportive, for example this study on how ‘Neural reactivation links unconscious thought to decision-making performance’.
The Problem with ‘Schools of Thought’
I have heard this debate over the use of the term ‘subconscious mind’ as featuring different ‘schools of thought’.
Let’s look at that phrase for a moment – it implies that the highest standard for judging your work as a practitioner is what a ‘school’ says you should do.
But schools are not perfect, and they are not necessarily the unbiased guardians of best practice or valid theory either. A school will always have a vested interest in attracting students. One way of doing this to re-define, re-label and introduce controversy into a field.
Part of a marketing strategy will also involve providing comment and opinion on all things related to the field, often the more abrasive and attention-grabbing the better.
There is nothing wrong with this per se, but I think it crosses the line when it extends into dogma and undermining the working methods of actual practitioners who are applying the concept of the subconscious mind successfully with their clients.
The Subconscious Mind – Truth or Opinion?
I’ve before about ‘The Difference Between Truth or Opinion’ and this article reflects a similar viewpoint.
For me, there is no real argument on this issue because, as a concept, the use of the term subconscious mind will always have validity in my mind and that of many others as an opinion. If something more useful comes along, whether from scientific research or otherwise, then I will adopt that.
As a concept, the subconscious mind represents the ‘background programming’ of an individual’s mind, explaining the activities of the brain and body that do not require conscious awareness to be fulfilled. It is a concept that HELPS hundreds of clients at my clinic each year and those who attend my workshops to understand their behaviours and achieve positive change.
As a PRACTITIONER I am first and foremost interested in EFFICACY, i.e. what works for my clients. Research into the brain and the mind is beginning to explain the howbehind hypnosis and its different therapeutic applications, but we are still in the relative infancy of this exploration.
At such a time it is important to both explore theories and acknowledge efficacious practice with a mind open to different concepts, even when we may personally disagree with them.