Hypnosis, the Subconscious, and Changing Your Life: Interview with Dr. Mike Dow
In conversation with Kindred Spirit Editor Claire Gillman, Dr. Mike Dow discusses his latest book, Your Subconscious Brain Can Change Your Life.
Claire Gillman: Following on from the success of Chicken Soup for the Soul and the Brain Fog Fix, your latest book looks at the subconscious and what it can do for us. You devote quite a lot of space in the new book to telling us just exactly how your subconscious has your back—which is quite a new concept because many of us blame our destructive behaviours on the subconscious. Do you think, in the past, the subconscious has been wrongly maligned?
Dr. Mike Dow: I do, I do. And what’s really interesting, when we look at the history of psychotherapy back in the era of Freud, the subconscious was something that stored these suppressed urges that we should’ve been ashamed of. Hypnosis has been used for hundreds of years, and old-school hypnosis was very directive. So, [raises one hand] here’s the doctor. I’m the doctor. You’re the patient [places the other hand below the first] and you’re down here. I’m going to tell you “Sleep,” and I’m going to tell you what you need to do. This creates the message that our subconscious doesn’t know what it’s doing. Then there’s this shift that I really believe in: when given the right tools, when we activate our own subconscious, our subconscious actually has our back. I know you’ve read some of those examples in the book. When you’re driving home on the freeway, even though your mind is busy thinking about something, your subconscious takes the wheel and gets you home safely.
CG: And it can be scary when these things happen, can’t it?
MD: You have the moment of “Oh my goodness! How did I get home?” And it is a little bit frightening. Even as children—this is a slightly horrific example, but I think it really shows that the subconscious is always there to take care of us. If a child has to endure horrific abuse, what happens is that the subconscious learns, “Oh, my gosh! This is too awful. I’d better go somewhere else inside my own mind. I’d better leave my own body and go somewhere else,” which is what happens in many cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. Of course I work with patients who are healing from that, but I think there are so many examples that the subconscious is there. Our subconscious has our back. It’s sort of like that moment when you’re looking for a name all day. You can’t consciously remember it but then it pops up hours later.
If you could take these general, non-specific, non-intentional efforts of the subconscious and learn how to intentionally activate the subconscious—instead of just letting the subconscious do what it does at night when it dreams—what if you could actually channel it and give it a specific goal? I think that when a lot of people think of hypnosis, they think of quitting smoking and weight loss. But the subconscious can do so much more than that. It could help you to find your spiritual self and to forgive others. Because of the way it lights up different brain structures, it’s really connected to your body. It’s better than prescription medications for certain conditions like irritable bowel syndrome. So, I just love this. The language that you’ll hear in the book is very permissive. I’m not telling you what to do. I am merely helping you to explore what the subconscious could do for you because your subconscious actually knows better than I do.
“…at a very basic level, hypnosis is really just shifting your body from a state of fight-or-flight into one of rest-and-digest.”
CG: That’s really quite interesting because, firstly, you touch on all the things it can do. And we do just tend to think it’s for weight loss and stopping smoking. And yet, the subtitle of the book is that it’s going to overcome problems…
MD: …and obstacles…
CG: …and attain goals and heal the body, which are quite bold claims, aren’t they? You say that we can purposely tap into the subconscious. In the past, it’s always been somebody who’s an experienced doctor or a psychiatrist, and the individual has no control. But you’re giving power to the reader to do this. That’s quite controversial, isn’t it, scientifically, that we can purposefully tap into our own subconscious?
MD: It is, a bit. It’s sort of new-school versus old-school. I’m very new-school here. I believe that, when given the right tools, if I count down from five to one, and I tell you that your subconscious is going to help you to see one change or one memory that you really need to see to help you understand what you’re going through, and then I say, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1…” Well, I’m always perplexed and amazed by some of the things that people say that they all of a sudden saw, or heard, or came to realise. I think it is a little bit controversial. But I think it represents a new model of care. I saw this quote yesterday and loved it—it says that patients all carry their own doctor inside them. If you get in a car accident and you’re unconscious, then yes, far more directive care is needed. But in so many situations in our lives when it comes to these complex, person-centered struggles or ambitions—whether they’re psychological, physical or spiritual—that we all have this doctor inside ourselves. After all, isn’t the body’s natural state, when given the right tools, one of healing?
I was talking to this very famous doctor who I hypnotised for the first time. And he was perplexed. He had never been hypnotised, and his specialty isn’t in the world of hypnosis or psychology at all. I told him that, at a very basic level, hypnosis is really just shifting your body from a state of fight-or-flight into one of rest-and-digest. And when the body is in a rest-and-digest or parasympathetic nervous system-dominant state, we see that that is when the immune system functions at its peak. You bring the activation in your brain and body down, and the body can then naturally do what it does. The Department of Psychiatry at Ohio State University did a study with medical students there. One group learned hypnosis, the other did not. They found that if they practiced hypnosis, these stressed-out medical students actually had stronger immune systems as measured and evidenced by blood work. So, I think that’s really concrete evidence that, wow, this is doing something pretty incredible.
CG: You have these subconscious visualisation techniques that you use. Can you tell us a little bit about those and how you developed these techniques?
MD: I think the science is really fascinating. We know that, on some level, hypnosis is really Jedi-mind-tricking the brain into thinking that it’s doing something—which is really quite wonderful. In the brain scans that are on the inside cover of the book—that’s my brain on my own self-hypnosis protocol—we see on the EEG that the front of my brain is sort of washed in theta; these slow, dreamy brain waves that are sort of the signature brain wave of the subconscious, and of hypnosis. But then something really interesting is happening back in the occipital lobe of my own brain. We see very fast beta brain waves. Now, that’s interesting because if you were to see a video of me, what I was doing, I kind of looked like this, [closes eyes and slumps forward] I was drooling. I looked like I was sort of halfway between being asleep and awake. I knew that I was awake but to somebody looking at me, it might look like I was passed out. So it’s interesting that there are fast beta brain waves in the occipital lobe. That means that my brain thought that it was seeing. It is very active. My brain thought that it was actually seeing whatever it is that I was dreaming up.
“…when you use hypnosis before the imagination exercise, your brain lights up as if you really are being burned by something you’re holding in your hand.”
In that particular hypnosis script I was taking myself into a very happy memory. I was seeing it, I was smelling it, I was tasting it. And my brain thought that I was there. Now, why is that helpful? Well, if you have a phobia, one of the things that holds you back is that first time that you get on a plane, or hold a cat, or get onstage to speak in front of people. That’s always the hardest. But if you’ve already done it, it’s exponentially less hard, isn’t it? There are a lot of things you can see. You can see your next baby steps.
My last Chicken Soup for the Soul was all about cognitive behavioural therapy, how to take these very logical steps. I believe CBT is a very left hemisphere-oriented therapy. And it works. So, I combine it in this book. I start with cognitive behavioural tools and then fire up the subconscious which, we see in EEG studies, is using primarily the right hemisphere, the mystical, creative hemisphere of your brain. There’s this other really fascinating study where they had two groups of subjects imagine as vividly as they could that their hand was being burned by something they were holding. And then, in another group, they used hypnosis to get them into a very deep trance, and then did the same thing. They scanned the subjects’ brains and what they found is that if you imagine something in a conscious way, you can see a little bit of activation. But the magical thing is that when you use hypnosis before the imagination exercise, your brain lights up as if you really are being burned by something you’re holding in your hand.
It’s very different. Visualisation with the power of the subconscious is a very deep technique that goes much further than just you and I sitting here and saying, “Okay, I’m going to imagine me flying in a plane.” I guess I get some images. But when you use the subconscious to do the same thing, the experience is visceral. You can see it. It’s like you’re there. It’s like you’re taking a time machine, you’re traveling through time and space and doing whatever you want to do. You can go backwards in time, forwards in time. So, it really is quite magical in that way.
CG: So, is the strength of this the combination of CBT (the left-hand side of the brain) and the subconscious (the right-hand side of the brain)? You’re basically using what we have access to at the moment; is that the power of this?
MD: It is… My 7-step process is called a subconscious visualisation technique. In step one, I have you look at the cognitive behavioural-based thought patterns—so, permanence, polarised thinking, paralysis by analysis, pessimistic thinking—looking at the conscious thought patterns. This is sort of CBT 101. Then I have you identify them, so you consciously know what’s holding you back. Then in step two I have you activate the subconscious brain with my method, called the 3-12-7 technique. It takes you very, very deep. And then, we can actually get under the thought patterns to see what’s causing them. I’ve treated so many patients who walk around because of what they’ve been through in their life. I’ll never forget a woman who said, “Because of the two losses I’ve suffered, I just walk around every day with this feeling of when the next shoe is going to drop.” That is really the essence of a pessimistic thought pattern, where you’re always looking for the catastrophic worst case scenario. In her case, she had to heal some of the losses that were leading to these negative thought patterns.
I think if we can synergistically use all of the tools we have, we’re better than saying, “Oh, only my tool works.” In a lot of the studies—for example looking at people who used CBT for weight loss—that was effective, but in studies where they use CBT and then added hypnosis, the subjects lost twice as much weight as the subjects who were using CBT by themselves. So, I’m using this synergistic approach, combining the best of two wonderful tools, CBT and hypnosis, to really help people achieve some incredible results.
“We’re returning to these practices that view the body as always being balanced, where there’s these different energies or systems that are all interconnected.”
CG: It’s quite interesting from the spiritual perspective. Mind-body medicine is kind of a relatively new concept in medical terms now.
CG: And yet, in essence, isn’t this what has been at the root of more holistic, traditional healing systems like Ayurveda and things like that, where we have a holistic approach and look at mind-body connections? Are we being able to just understand what we’ve known for many, many millennia?
MD: Absolutely, absolutely. We’re returning to these practices that view the body as always being balanced, where there’s these different energies or systems that are all interconnected. I think in the Western world we have really separated them. We have targeted prescription medications for this goal, or this goal. And really, hypnosis is, I believe, the ultimate mind-body medicine partly because of the way it affects the insula in the brain—which is why the subconscious brain can affect the body so much just by imagining things. For example, if you’re somebody with IBS or constipation, one image that you can use with the subconscious is that your body is a slide, like a water slide. You see things moving. And it might sound a little out there, but that image that you use in your mind affects your body. And all of a sudden, those symptoms are resolved.
Going back to that car accident… symptom-based Western medicine is very helpful if you’ve just been in a horrific car accident. But generally speaking, what does symptom-based Western medicine do to your mind, to your subconscious? If you come in and you’re seeing a practitioner and they’re saying, “Tell me, rate your pain on a scale of 1 to 10,” your brain is then looking for the places in your body that are in pain. The brain has this phenomenon called selective attention where it’s sort of seek-and-you-shall-find. If you’re looking for pain, you will find pain. If you’re looking for comfort… So many of the audio tracks that come with my books you hear my voice saying, “I wonder where in your body you feel the most cool,” or the most comfortable, or the most carefree. And then, your mind is saying, “Oh! Oh, yes. There! That feels rather nice.” And then I have you spread that sensation throughout mind and body. So it’s really, in many ways, doing mind-and-body as one word, as one entity. And it’s using these mind-body techniques to really create this phenomenal healing.
CG: In the exercise that I did, I really noticed that you give people options. It’s not didactic or prescriptive, it’s “you may,” or “I suggest.” That actually is quite unusual in the field that you’re working in—and very effective. There is still a residual fear about hypnosis and the subconscious and that you’re going to be led into something against your wishes. But the whole message of your book is that the subconscious has got your back, and it’s going to help you. Can you allay our fears about the subconscious and why we should trust it?
MD: I think a lot of the fears come from people who are practicing this old-school hypnosis. In the United States a couple of decades ago, there was what we call the memory wars. All of these people were having memories of satanic child abuse and things like that because that’s what the people who were interviewing them thought. It was the leading—I don’t lead. I am very open. I’m not directive. If you have somebody who’s grilling you, who’s concerned for your well-being and for children everywhere, and they said, “So, I wonder if you’ll find any satanic child abuse?” because the subconscious is so suggestible, sometimes the mind can actually generate whatever it is that is suggested to it. That is part of the reason why I don’t really suggest anything. I leave things open. And it’s always positive. It’s always, “You may feel healing. You may find comfort here. I don’t know what you’ll find.” The default of the subconscious is positive. But I think because of the history there’s this residual fear—you know, Las Vegas where people are very directed and told to bark like dogs… There’s no barking. There’s no directive except to notice and invite your attention to the places in your body where you can heal yourself.
Any of these fears, people can really feel relieved that they’re not going to be brainwashed. They’re not going to bark like dogs. The magical theta brain wave of hypnosis can help you to do all sorts of things. It can help you to find forgotten memories. It can help you to press the delete button in your brain. If you have memories that you find that are negative, if you like, you can go back and delete them in the part of the brain that stores emotionally-charged images and memories. Even if you do find something that’s really not pleasant, you can actually change that. A lot of times, it was always there. Anything that was down in the subconscious is now being brought up to a conscious level. People find that when they resolve it with the tools that I give them, their conscious life changes and they didn’t realise that something that was functioning at a subconscious level was actually affecting the way they are in relationships today. They had no idea that it was something stored in the subconscious that was affecting that conscious behaviour.
Your Subconscious Brain Can Change Your Life by Dr. Mike Dow is available from March 12th in the UK.
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