- We often rely on our subconscious to take on tasks for us.
- The subconscious rarely takes physical control of awake individuals without their conscious acquiescence.
- The subconscious may cause a dissociative state as a protective action.
For example, we can see the subconscious in action when...:
- We drive to a familiar destination and allow the subconscious to focus on the driving, while consciously we may be thinking about something else, such as plans for later in the day.
- People can walk without the need to think about each individual step, as the subconscious controls the mechanics of walking.
- We play sports “in the zone” in which everything seems to flow effortlessly because the subconscious is directing our plays with little conscious effort.
- People can play a musical instrument intuitively, as the movement of their muscles is emanating from a subconscious level, and it seems as if they can observe themselves making the music.
- People report they were able to accomplish acts that they hadn’t realized they could do, such as lifting a heavy object in an emergency, without a memory of how the acts were performed.
However, on only rare occasions have I become aware of situations in which the subconscious took over physical control of patients while they were awake, without their conscious acquiescence. Two such memorable instances involving college students are described in this post.
“Matthew” (not his real name) was an 18-year-old with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I had worked with him since he was 13. Matthew would develop severe anxiety when he did not engage in compulsive behavior such as touching particular objects such as the wall when he entered a room. Also, he would become anxious if he could not follow through on obsessive thoughts such as the need to repeatedly count to 10 before he could get out of bed in the morning. Matthew would engage in such compulsive or obsessive behaviors for hours daily.
With hypnosis, Matthew learned to calm his OCD behavior and anxiety. He was especially enamored by interactions with his subconscious through which he learned that a part of him was calm. His subconscious helped him to modify his OCD to an extent that it was easier for him to function.
For example, he was able to greatly decrease the amount of time he spent performing rituals. Most importantly, interactions with his subconscious helped Matthew feel better about himself. He felt much more confident in himself when he learned that his subconscious was very wise and could provide him with a lot of insights about himself and the world around him.
Following graduation from high school, Matthew attended a community college. He lived in the dormitory, which was the first time in his life that he had been on his own. He took general studies courses, and played on the soccer team. His dream was to become a professional soccer player.
Matthew had some difficulties adjusting to dorm life and exposure to many people. This was a big change, as he had attended a small high school. He had always avoided illicit substances because he had been taught that he should avoid these in order to remain healthy. This was important to him given his focus on wanting to become a professional athlete. However, access to alcohol and drugs in the dorms tempted him greatly.
His new friends influenced Matthew to smoke weed, as they assured him that this would be a very pleasurable experience and not be harmful. Because of the peer pressure and his curiosity, Matthew began experimenting. As occurs with some people, smoking marijuana caused him to experience increased anxiety. He decided to use hypnosis to calm himself in those instances.
One morning, upon awakening after smoking weed and using hypnosis, Matthew found a tear-stained note that he believed his subconscious wrote to him during the previous evening on the back of an envelope:
How This Stops Is: I told him he needs to tell this to his Mom, since he is going to be a Professional Soccer Player. Stay away from John [the person who was pressuring him to smoke]. The Cry [presumably the tear stains on the envelope] is how you know I’m here.
Matthew was affected profoundly by the note. He called his parents and confessed what he had done. When he told me what had occurred, I congratulated him for his subconscious abilities, and for his bravery in following through on what he was told to do. We discussed how he can withstand peer pressure.
Reinforcing what his subconscious had told him, I said, “As long as you remember who you are and your goals, you will be able to resist and stop using drugs. You know that you are an amazing person because of your great soccer-playing ability, and the great insight and wisdom to which you have access through your subconscious. You know you have overcome many difficult obstacles, and that you have the ability to continue doing so for the rest of your life. With this knowledge, it can be crystal clear to you that you should not follow your friends when they are telling you to do things that would be hurtful to your goals.”
Over the subsequent four years of follow-up, Matthew reported he no longer was tempted to use drugs.
Anger About Antisemitism
“Aaron” (not his real name) was another 18-year-old I was treating for anxiety and associated anger. He had learned how to control his emotions through the use of positive self-talk, (e.g., “I can be calmer,” or “I want to understand better what the other person is feeling.”).
Much of Aaron’s anger and anxiety arose from his fears of persecution. Although he was adopted, Aaron very much identified with his adoptive parents’ Jewish heritage. He told me that his mother had told him about the Holocaust. “She said to me that I should write ‘Never again’ into my heart,” he explained. “If I feel that the Jewish people are threatened, my job is to fight the threat.” From my perspective as Aaron’s physician, the instruction to write a declaration onto one’s heart clearly was hypnotic, and thus could take root deeply.
As a result of Aaron’s strong feelings about facing up to antisemitic threats, he got into several fights at school when his peers made remarks that he felt were antisemitic. Some of the comments indeed were overtly bigoted, but in other instances, Aaron’s heightened sensitivity about the issue caused him to get into altercations over apparently innocuous remarks.
We had several discussions about how Aaron might modify his aggressive behavior.
“Never again doesn’t mean that you need to respond violently,” I suggested. “I wonder how you can use other means in order to protect the Jewish people?”
“Did you know that when you confront someone they tend to fight back?” I told him on another occasion. “Remember this axiom: Confrontation leads to resistance. So, what do you think you can do besides fight? Maybe you can work at understanding the feelings of those who are antisemitic? Where did they get their ideas? Why do they express them? If you can understand how they think, you may be able to help change their minds."
“Sometimes, I have found that directing loving-kindness thoughts toward your enemy can help change their behavior. For example, you could think: ‘May you be healthy, may you be well, may you be happy, may your life be easy.’ With this approach, your attitude toward your enemy might change, your enemy could feel better, and then behave differently.”
Through our work, Aaron learned to transform his deep need to defend the Jewish people from a violent to a more nuanced, peaceful approach.
Nonetheless, one evening he got into an extremely heated in-person argument with a friend who had said something that set Aaron off. When he saw me the following week, Aaron said that he could not remember much of the argument. He said that all he remembered clearly was finding himself in his bed the following morning. He still had his clothes on, which was unusual for him.
Aaron asked his subconscious what had happened. His subconscious told him, “You became too upset. I took you off-line, and led you to bed so you could cool off.”
Another example of the subconscious taking over without conscious acquiescence, while patients are awake, may be when patients develop functional neurological disorders (also known as conversion disorders). These can lead to the sudden onset of psychogenic neurological symptoms such as blindness, deafness, non-epileptic seizures, or paralysis.
In both reported cases in this post, it appears that the patients benefited from a dissociative state that may have been initiated at a subconscious level. Neither patient reported any further episodes of dissociation.
The subconscious actions described in the cases were consistent with the idea that one of the roles of the subconscious is to act protectively.
Mlodinow, Leonard. 2013. “Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior.” New York, NY: Vintage Books.
More information about hypnosis and its use for interactions with the subconscious is available in the 2021 book "Changing Children’s Lives with Hypnosis: A Journey to the Center," by Ran D. Anbar. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.