Michael Mosley is one of the most useful makers of documentaries. His one on weight loss made the health benefits of fasting twice a week so compelling that Bex and I have adopted it since January. With a strong family history of diabetes it made sense, and I found that combining it with listening to one of my Slimpods has made losing 18lbs in the seven months since almost incidental; I actually enjoy the fast days. Then his documentary on exercise echoed what I’d learned from reading Tim Ferris’s book, Four Hour Body, about the benefits of High Intensity Interval Training (HiiT). Utilising those principles (and losing the weight) helped me run 10k under 50 minutes, for the first time ever, a couple of months ago. I’m getting faster as I get older, so I estimate that by the time I’m 83 I’ll be pushing for a place in the Olympics. You can see why I find any offering from Michael an event to be looked forward to, and last night didn’t disappoint.
It was about his struggle with the pessimism that has infected his life for many years – but not his whole life, he remembers himself being a very happy and carefree little boy. As with many of the clients we Cognitive Hypnotherapists deal with, this expectation of things turning out negatively had led to problems with anxiety, chronic insomnia, and a general lessening of his quality of life. Fortunately it hadn’t manifested as depression, which it often does. Interestingly, early on in the programme we saw that his pessimism was visible on a brain scan. Essentially it, like optimism, is a habit of mind. His question was, was he stuck with this habitual way of seeing the world as part of his nature, or was there anything he could do to help himself become more optimistic?
One of the many things that fascinated me was his meeting with a set of identical twins, one of whom had developed clinical depression. Scientists had analysed the DNA of both sisters and found that the depressed sister’s was different to her twin, which clearly it shouldn’t be. The conclusion they’d reached was that the depression had caused the change. It wasn’t made clear how they knew that the non-depressed twin’s DNA hadn’t changed which was why she hadn’t developed depression, but in either case it demonstrates something very exciting: that our DNA is not our destiny. Our DNA can be changed by outside influences. It suggests that a person born without a genetic disposition for depression can develop it in response to life events, and that that depression is a reflection of a change in their genes. In theory it should also mean that someone born with the genetic disposition for depression could have life experiences (like successful therapy) which would change the DNA that ‘causes’ it so they don’t experience it again. For how many other conditions could this be true?
A scientist called Bruce Lipton must be doing his ‘I told you so’ dance right now, because he’s been claiming this for years. He’s long pointed out that our DNA sits and does nothing until it receives a signal from its environment. What is becoming clear is that what is meant by environmental signals isn’t just pre-ordained chemical activity at a cellular level, but that also what happens around us every day, and how we respond to it, causes those signals to be sent. And why wouldn’t they? If our personality evolves in response to what happens to us throughout our lives, those changes would need to be ‘written’ somewhere for them to keep being expressed from day to day, otherwise who you were each morning would be quite random. It seems our DNA is a personality memory bank as well as its other functions, and our mind is involved in changing it.
From a therapy point of view, this is obviously fascinating and very exciting. People are changed by life, at the most fundamental level, so if they can change for the negative the possibility has to exist that they can also change for the positive. Are there ways to deliberately achieve this? Michael tried two methods, Cognitive Bias Modification (CBM) and Mindfulness.
With CBM he used a computer programme that showed him a series of 15 random faces on a screen, only one of which was happy, and his task was to select it. As he did so the screen was refreshed with another 15 faces and he had to find the smiley one, and this continued for 10 minutes. Research has shown that pessimists take longer to spot the happy face than optimists. The theory was that by repeating this exercise every night, it would retrain his unconscious to pick up positive information in his environment in preference to the automatic search for the negative. This lies at the heart of the difference between pessimists and optimists. Winston Churchill famously said, “A pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity, an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” The unconscious of a pessimist is sensitised to search for what could be wrong, the optimist for what could be right. In Cognitive Hypnotherapy this premise is central to our work. I have a saying, “We feed what we focus on”. I mean that the more you focus on the negatives in your life, the more you feed them, the stronger and more prevalent they become. The good news is, the same is true if you focus on the positives.
Back in the sixties a gifted mathematician called George Polya put his attention on how people reason. He was decades ahead of his time because he realised that while we can be logical, most of the decisions we make are based on unconscious, largely emotion-driven, processes. Modern science has now validated this. He developed a model called patterns of plausible inference, a number of rules-of-thumb the unconscious uses to make decisions and predictions. One of the most powerful of these is, ‘The more something happens, the more it will’. Anyone who follows the England football team will understand this only too well when it comes to penalty shoot-outs. This particular Polya pattern underpins the notion that ‘we get the future we expect’.
With our clients, me and my fellow Cog Hypers don’t accomplish the retuning of their negative expectation by getting them to use a computer programme, but by them listening to a ten minute recording we make for them to listen to each night. It contains suggestions based on these patterns of inference, within a framework of hypnotic language I developed, called Wordweaving, to nudge their unconscious from its usual sensitivity and preference for noticing the daily evidence of their problem, to noticing instead the evidence that would mean they’re getting better. The more they notice their positives, the more they will.
The second thing Michael used was mindfulness, which is a fascinating area of study, based on Buddhist principles and utilising meditation. He was taught it by an ex-monk, and was shown listening to a recording that guided him into being more mindful of the present by focusing on his body. Anxiety is a fear of something that hasn’t happened yet, but might. Sometimes it manifests as a particular dread of something, more often it generalises into a foreboding that anything bad could happen, at any moment. Pessimists, similarly, are tuned to an expectation that whatever happens today is likely to include something bad. A great deal of your brain’s capacity is involved with prediction. We seem to be the only creature on the planet who can look ahead and anticipate the future. It’s been a tremendously important part of our success as a species, but it comes with drawbacks, one of which is that we can spend far too much time worrying about things that might happen, but probably won’t. Pessimists, people who suffer from anxiety, insomnia, ‘worriers’ in general, and some people with depression, spend so much time fretting about ‘what if’ that their health suffers. This is largely because worry causes adrenalin to flow through us, which is exhausting long-term, and a tremendous drain on our immune system. That drain alone can cause depression. As a consequence of their catastrophising these people can become frozen, unable to make a decision, scared of moving forward, and increasingly unhappy.
Listening to the meditation track, it’s easy to see the similarity with what is marketed as self-hypnosis. I treat both meditation and self-hypnosis as two versions of the same phenomenon; trance. With meditation the purpose of the trance is usually the abandonment of an attachment to things, including your thoughts, so that you get better at simply being in the moment. With self-hypnosis, it’s usually the guiding of unconscious attention within the trance state for a particular purpose, like listening to something to increase your confidence, lose weight etc. With the mindfulness approach, it seems to have a foot in both camps, in that it’s the development of the skill of being present, which lessens your anxiety and catastrophising and thereby increases your optimism and sense of wellbeing. It’s good to see the East and West’s utilisation of the same mental capability harmonising, rather than being seen as two separate things.
In Cognitive Hypnotherapy, I think we go one step further. Our Wordweaving downloads guide your unconscious towards a more mindful habit, and also trains the unconscious to increasingly notice the good things in your world in order to amplify them. Through utilising trance in this way, change doesn’t become a tedious conscious pursuit, but an unconscious change of habit. We’re simply using a human capability that Buddhists have used for thousands of years to increase their wellbeing, for your more specific needs. The idea is that through trance we have a route to positively influence your unconscious, and that by being influenced it causes your way of seeing the world to change, which changes the way you feel and behave within it. And now it seems that positive cascade might go even deeper – all the way toy our DNA. You have to wonder how far this rabbit hole goes, don’t you?
The programme’s end saw Michael and his wife reporting an improvement in his level of optimism, and an improvement in his sleep, which is great because I’d like him to be happier, and keep making great programmes.
Optimism – and happiness – is largely based on the choice your unconscious is making about what you notice most. We have the tools to guide it to notice most what would make you feel best.
Here’s to happier times through developing happier habits of mind:)