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Reflections on Milton Erickson

At the age of 17, Erickson was stricken with polio.

Milton Erickson, M.D., is most well known for his brilliance in the art of medical hypnosis. His ability to heal his patients by accessing their unconscious mind with the use of trance has inspired many generations of therapists.

Equal to his wisdom as a psychotherapist—and even an important contributing factor to it—was Erickson's remarkable courage in the face of personal tragedy. At the age of 17, Erickson was stricken by polio. One evening, after visiting Erickson at his bedside, his doctor told Erickson's mother that her son was entirely paralyzed by polio and would not live until morning. Overhearing this, Erickson asked his mother to arrange a mirror so that he could see the sunset. If he was going to die, said Erickson, at least he would enjoy the beauty of a last sunset. Defying his doctor's prediction, Erickson went on to live for another half-century, dying in 1980.

Erickson's doctors also predicted that he would never walk. Erickson resisted this prediction as well. After his first year in college, he spent his summer vacation taking a thousand-mile river trip. When he started out on the trip, he did not have enough strength in his legs to pull his canoe out of the water, and he could swim only a few feet. On the river, he had to fish and forage for his food since he had few supplies and only $2.32 in cash. With his considerable interpersonal skills—his ability to "read" people—Erickson had no trouble getting fishermen and other travelers to give him the food he could not get on his own.

By the end of that summer, Erickson had traveled over 1,000 miles. He could swim a mile and carry his own canoe. Later in his life, Erickson needed a wheelchair to get around. But that was only after many years of walking with his own strength and proving his doctors wrong.

Erickson believed that solutions to human problems lie within the person, in the unconscious mind. This is his famous theory of "utilization." Therapy, in Erickson's view, merely allows the person to become aware of the strengths and resources within himself—very much like what Erickson himself experienced in his struggle with polio. But he was unique in his belief that the unconscious mind was a source of strength and healing.

Freud and the Post-Freudian mode of thought that dominated medicine when Erickson attended medical school believed that the unconscious or subconscious mind was a place of dark drives and hostilities that had to be brought to light and tamed by the ego. The therapist's role included interpreting these dark motivations to the patient so he would gain insight and presumably change ways of behaving and interacting that were making him unhappy.

In contrast, Erickson believed that a person's unconscious was a positive force that could help in the healing process. Through hypnosis, he believed, the therapist could harness the healing power of the patient's unconscious. The role of the therapist was not to give the patient insight but to utilize his unconscious to give him a new interpersonal experience that would lead to change. Conscious insight did not, in Erickson's view, lead to a person's changing his behavior. He found that "speaking" to a person's unconscious, on the other hand, was very effective in producing change.

During his polio attacks, Erickson had to lie in bed for weeks and months. During these times, he became very aware of muscle movements, skin tones, and subtle inflections of voice. These experiences with subtle aspects of appearance served him well later when he used hypnosis with his patients. He was very aware of these aspects of the patient and found that he could utilize them in the healing process.

Erickson was fascinated by unconscious thought processes and even believed that there was always unconscious communication between people in which one person's subconscious mind "talks" to another person's subconscious. In the therapy room, he noticed that communication was always on two levels. While the therapist attends to the patient's conscious verbal communication, he also notices the patient's body movement, posture, and vocal intonations—what we today would call "body language."

Erickson believed that these unconscious modes of communication between therapist and client played an even more important role in healing than conscious communication. In my own experience, noticing where the patient chooses to sit (close to the therapist or across the room), the patient's facial expressions when his eyes take on a little more light, and so forth, are communications that are equally important as what the patient communicates verbally with his conscious mind.