J.R.R. Tolkien gave us Middle Earth in his Lord of the Ring series. With apologies to Tolkien, I now present you with the Middle Mind. This term is in no sense scientific or technical, but just as Tolkien gave us a specific place in which he placed events, I hope to create a metaphorical location to help us build on our understanding of how hypnotherapy works, making more concrete an idea that many consider mysterious.
We are most familiar with the terms subconscious or unconscious to describe that place between our conscious actions and our unconscious states. Ever since Sigmund Freud defined it, our “subconscious” has become a subject of study from both the scientific and the less-than-scientific communities. Such terms, however, seem to suggest an inaccessibility or otherness that at best leaves us confused, and at worst makes us roll our eyes or feel our skin crawl.
Let us first locate the Middle Mind. Think of brain activity being a path with two somewhat familiar places at each end. At one end of the path is the mental state of deep sleep, a place we understand as a restful solitude. At the other end of the path is that state of intense, often frenetic activity in which we are wide awake and super alert. Think of this state as a form of alertness we have when we sense danger.
The Middle Mind is that place along the path centered somewhere beyond the normal alertness and light sleep. Historically, the Middle Mind has been referred to as the unconscious. Hypnotherapists tend to prefer the term subconscious for the same reason that I coined the term Middle Mind: there is a sense that an “un” conscious is a nonentity. For the same reason, I fear “sub”conscious may not move us sufficiently away from the realm of the unknown-known, where we tend to lump all things into either “I get it/see it/feel it” or “I don’t get it/it’s beyond me.” We now know that the unconscious or the subconscious is a very real place, a confirmed state of mind, every bit as real, as functional, and as identifiable as our non-thinking deep sleep and hyper-focused alertness are.
One historical stumbling block to people’s understanding of hypnotherapy is the word hypnosis itself. Derived from Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, the term hypnosis suggests being in a state of sleep. Now, with both scientific tools of measurement and with personal experiences, we know that a person who is hypnotized still has a very functioning mind, despite being very relaxed. Brain wave activity is quite different in a person sleeping from a person under hypnosis. Brain wave scans actually demonstrate that a person under hypnosis is hyper-aware of what is happening around him and is very much in control of his world.
So, if the mind is not asleep during hypnosis, isn’t the Middle Mind the same as the conscious mind? No. The Middle Mind and the conscious mind have two different functions with different operating systems, somewhat like Apple computers running differently from the operating system of a PC. The operating system of the conscious mind thinks logically and sequentially. Its programming language is quantitative and uses words and numbers. The operating system of the Middle Mind works far differently, using abstract, non-sequential thinking. The programming of the Middle Mind is accomplished with images, intuition, feelings, memories, and dreams.
Because of these very different operating systems, programming the Middle Mind cannot be accomplished using the tools of the conscious mind. The two parts do not communicate well. In a sense, parts of the conscious mind can access the Middle Mind, such as the hypnotherapist’s words, but once there, those parts are changed and manipulated by the Middle Mind.
The functions of the Middle Mind and the conscious mind are far different, as well. The conscious mind handles alert, thinking activities. When you are at work, carrying on a conversation or writing an email, you are consciously making decisions. However, your habits, drives, and instincts are all the province of the Middle Mind. These habits and drives develop quite differently from the conscious activities, and changing them is often quite difficult.
Consider our anatomy as an example of how the Middle Mind works. The portion of the brain that controls muscular activity such as balance and coordination is in the cerebellum. When everything is operating correctly, we do not need to think to balance ourselves or coordinate our motor functions. The medulla oblongata controls the functions of the heart and the lungs, but we do not need to think, “I need to breathe in now” or “I need to breathe out now.” Our body regulates these involuntary bodily responses.
Similarly, our everyday habits and drives are controlled by the Middle Mind in such a way that we are unaware of them. Problems arise, however, when the Middle Mind makes us act or feel in ways that are unhealthy or unwanted. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that in a battle between the Middle Mind and the conscious mind, the Middle Mind invariably wins. Thus, our bad habits or drives are difficult to overcome, even with the best of efforts. Step one in changing ourselves, our habits, and our drives means finding our way in to the Middle Mind. The vehicle to get there is hypnosis.