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Knowing Without Knowing: The Conscious / Unconscious Split

Dive into cognitive dissonance, the hidden observer, trance logic and more in this free video from our Uncommon Psychotherapy course

The real story is not always as it appears on the surface

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the human mind is our ability not to know what we know.

Or, in a less Rumsfeld-esque way, the split between our unconscious and conscious minds.

I dig into this fascinating area in this sample module from our new course Uncommon Psychotherapy, which we have just added FREE to Uncommon Practitioners TV.

(This was not an easy decision, given that I wrote a book in the process and someone recently told me they thought the course was worth $3,000!)

Uncommon Psychotherapy is the box that holds the key to our other courses. It’s the background psychology we use at a deeper level; its about simplifying psychotherapy and removing confusion and complexity.

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The course contains the general approach to therapy that we’ve come to after 20 plus years of treating clients and training practitioners and I see it really as my personal passion; 23 years in the making.

The module below is all about understanding how focus and attention works, and it includes:

  • The critical role of the ‘hidden observer’ and why it is so useful in psychotherapy. This is an amazing concept and may change the way you look at people (and yourself) forever.
  • How to use the conscious/unconscious split in therapy.
  • My client who ‘knew’ she was going to get divorced, even when she didn’t know it.
  • The study which showed that we’re unconsciously better at spotting liars than we are consciously.
  • Why this helps us understand ‘trance logic’ and human behaviour in general and what this says about free will.

To access the whole of the Uncommon Psychotherapy course, join Uncommon Practitioners TV here. If you join today, you’ll get immediate access to the course introduction video and Module 1 on using the primal needs in therapy.

The rest of the course will be released at a rate of one video per week, over a period of 25 weeks, plus you’ll have immediate access to all the other videos in UPTV, including live client sessions and technique demonstration videos. You can read more here.

Click here to join Uncommon Practitioners TV

Read the video transcript below:

Hi, and welcome to Video 2 for Module 7, which is all about understanding focus and attention.

In the first video for this module I was talking about what incredible things can be achieved through human focus and imagination. Someone who can both focus their mind inward to imagine what could be, and also have the discipline of their focus to help them, step by step, achieve what they’ve envisaged, can achieve amazing things in the world.

I also talked about how misapplication of attention can cause us difficulties, how trance states are predicated on a split in awareness – but also how fractured, scattered focus can cause people problems. And how extreme distractibility seems to be an indicator of poor mental health – and also perhaps a cause of it.

And finally, I talked about how we can help develop our clients’ observing selves to still and quieten the mind, both to help them feel better, but also to be able to think strategically and realistically about meeting their needs.

In this video I’m going to talk about the possibility that there is a mysterious other self, deep within us… sometimes known as the ‘hidden observer’. But before I start on that, I just want to tell you about some curious and amazing research I read about just recently.

Is your unconscious a better judge of character than you?

This research, conducted by psychological researcher Leanne ten Brinke, apparently found that the conscious mind can actually get in the way of knowing when someone is lying or not. Or, to put it another way, a part of you may know someone is lying even when, consciously, you believe they are telling the truth!

In a series of ingenious studies, subjects watched videos of people telling the truth or lying, and the researchers asked the subjects to say whether the people were lying or not in each case.

And the results came out just a tiny bit below 50/50 – which is what you’d expect from random guesswork and chance.

So, consciously, the subjects weren’t proving that great at picking out the liars. Or the truth-tellers, come to that!

But perhaps their unconscious minds could do better?

So then the subjects looked at videos of people lying or telling the truth about whether they’d stolen some money, and again they were asked to say who was telling the truth and who was lying, with much the same results as before.

But this time, the subjects were also shown a series of words – some associated with lying, some with truth-telling – and asked which words they would associate with the individual in the video.

And the researchers found that the number of times subjects associated deception-related words with the people who had actually been lying and honesty-related words with the people who had actually been telling the truth correlated far more strongly than could be put down to chance.

So it seems they were able to distinguish the truth-tellers from the liars more reliably than by chance… but didn’t know it. As if their conscious decisions – their beliefs about how you tell when someone is lying – just got in the way of that innate ability.

I think this is fascinating and, as we learn more about ourselves in the decades to come, may be a really interesting area of psychological research.

Anyway, I want you to bear that research in mind because, in a sense, whenever we do psychotherapy we are seeking to contact and enhance a part of the client that knows more… and sees more…

Your unconscious may have more power over your actions than you realize

It’s rather strange that when we, you know, talk about ‘focus of attention’, or ‘awareness’, we are usually referring to conscious awareness. Because the unconscious mind can also be focused. And it can perceive and have priorities quite independently of the conscious mind.

The unconscious mind can perceive and have priorities quite independently of the conscious mindClick To Tweet

And sometimes when unconscious perceptions and understandings are sort of diametrically opposed to our conscious ideas or ideals, we experience cognitive dissonance, or denial, which are quite uncomfortable states that we do our best to rationalize away as fast as we can!

This can be tested hypnotically, as when you give someone a post-hypnotic suggestion to, say, open a window on a given signal later when they’ve come out of trance.

And when they do, and you ask them why they did that, they may well display what’s known as ‘trance logic’ and tell you it was because they were hot… or they were worried thatyou were too hot… or something!

Their unconscious mind knows about the hypnotic suggestion, but their conscious mind doesn’t, so it needs to confabulate a plausible reason.

So part of them knows quite well why they have done something, and can observe that… and is working quite independently of the part that rationalizes what they’ve done with an instant plausible story.

But many people do this in everyday life! We call it rationalizing. It’s not lying, it’s just the conscious mind making sense of and forming a narrative around actions of the unconscious mind.

This doesn’t mean we don’t have free will. But it might mean – I think – that the part of us that thinks it has free will might not always be the part that does.

So our ‘Observing Self’ may be operating whether we know it or not, as though part of us knows the nature of things even when we don’t know it consciously. Or sometimes we might know something unconsciously before we know it consciously. The conscious mind may take a while to catch up… if it ever does!

Hilgard and the hidden observer

Now, the term ‘hidden observer’ that I mentioned earlier was coined by one Ernest Hilgard, an American psychologist working at Stanford University. Hilgard was particularly interested in hypnosis and the control of pain, as well as individual differences in responsiveness to standardized hypnotic inductions… which I personally think was his less interesting work.

But anyway, one day Hilgard was hypnotizing a student who was blind, as part of a demonstration of hypnosis to the rest of the class.

This student was an extremely able hypnotic subject, and Hilgard suggested that, on the count of three, the student would become deaf – and so, you know, be unable to hear anything at all.

Hilgard also suggested that the student’s hearing would be fully and immediately restored when Hilgard placed his hand on the student’s right shoulder.

So Hilgard counted up to three – which was the signal for the poor experimental subject to become deaf – and then, to test whether he really was experiencing this hypnotic deafness, an associate – without any warning – banged some wooden blocks together next to the subject’s head.

The subject didn’t respond at all to this noise, nor to anything that was said to him… and seemed to all intents and purposes to have become deaf through the hypnotic suggestion given to him by Hilgard. Then another student suggested to Hilgard that, maybe, there might be a part of the hypnotized subject that did hear these sounds. After all, there was nothing wrong with his ears.

Hilgard was immediately intrigued by this idea. And so he suggested to the subject something along the lines of:

“Although you’re hypnotically deaf… perhaps some part of you is hearing my voice and processing the information… and if there is, I’d like the index finger of your right hand to rise… as a sign that this is the case.”

And then the blind and now seemingly deaf student’s finger did rise. And then he spoke up and asked whether his hearing could be restored now, so he could know what was going on.

Hilgard further suggested to the student that the ‘hidden’ unconscious part would, on Hilgard’s signal, become conscious.

This is exactly what happened, for when Hilgard put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, the student reported exactly how many loud sounds had been made, and knew what questions the class had asked, and could repeat exactly what Hilgard had said that caused his finger to rise.

Hilgard was fascinated and began to study the workings of this phenomenon, which he termed the ‘hidden observer’.

Hilgard found that when subjects were hypnotized to not feel pain, and he asked their hidden observer to communicate with him via unconscious finger movements, also known as ‘ideomotor responses’, they communicated – from the unconscious – that they could feel the pain… even though they might be happily, to all intents and purposes, having a pain-free surgical operation.

Your hidden observer is at work even when your conscious mind isn’t

In your notes you’ll find a link to a blog where I describe how, many years ago, I treated a young woman, Sarah, who was heavily pregnant and wanted hypnotic help with the upcoming birth. She was also soon to be married to a man she told me was perfect for her, and whom she loved, and who loved her. And everything looked rosy!

I hypnotized her and age-progressed her into the future – after the arrival of the child –  and had her speak to me. And she told me that she and the baby were happy, and that the birth had been really easy and she’d felt very calm, which was good to hear. And I then age-progressed her a further three years… and she now told me that here in the future, she and her daughter Amy were so happy.

But, to my amazement, when I asked about her husband she just said, “Oh, we divorced… and, looking back, I realize we were never really right for each other.”

That really shocked me. Later, out of trance, and seemingly with no awareness of what had happened, she told me about her wedding plans and how she was off to meet her future husband after the session. I didn’t tell her what she had told me ‘from the future’ during her hypnosis.

But four or five years later I did find out they were – amicably – divorced for real.

And, you know, I really thought about that. Was it that a part of Sarah’s mind knew the true nature of things, even though her conscious mind didn’t? Had I been talking with her hidden observer?

The potential power of the hidden observer

I think the potential – the possibilities – of the hidden observer part of the observing self are really intriguing, to say the least! And it might be – certainly seems to be – that the hidden observer can be communicated with in good hypnotic subjects. But perhaps everyone has this component to consciousness. A part of you that knows more about you than you do… so to speak!

The idea of a part of us having more perception – or you might call it ‘wisdom’ – than we are currently aware of isn’t new at all, and Milton Erickson talked a great deal about ‘inner perceptiveness’ in his clients that could be contacted through trancework.

But as far as the western scientific community was concerned, this was a new idea and, as with many new ideas, there was something of a backlash against it… which is fair enough, because it can be hard to strictly prove subtle parts of consciousness which, by their very nature, are hard to pin down.

But I think we need to retain open minds on this. After all, it’s your brain and mind that manage your immune response, and repair of damaged cells – and clearly you are not conscious of any of that. So there certainly are ‘hidden’ parts to the mind’s workings.

And if people don’t feel pain on one level, but register it on another level, then that does seem compelling evidence that something… very interesting is going on.

And you can certainly ask someone in trance whether there is a part to them – or even suggest that there is a part of them – that knows more about something than they do, and can get to work on a solution… and it’s amazing what they will come up with!

Anyway, I think there’s plenty of food for thought here! I hope you’ve enjoyed this video, and I’ll see you in Module 8.

If you want to get free access to the rest of the modules in our Uncommon Psychotherapy course, you can join Uncommon Practitioners TV here.

New Ways of Seeing Ebook

FREE Reframing Book! Just subscribe to my therapy techniques newsletter below.

Download my book on reframing, "New Ways of Seeing", when you subscribe for free email updates

Click to subscribe free now

Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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