If you've been into hypnosis or NLP for long enough, you've probably heard a saying like this:
“The (unconscious) mind can’t understand things stated in the negative.”
There is a huge mythology in the field which states that the mind isn’t capable of understanding instructions or commands in the negative. In other words, it can’t understand what it means to not do something.
That’s not true, and we’ll explain why.
In this blog post and accompanying video, we’ll discuss:
- Our model of the mind and how it relates to hypnosis.
- How the unconscious mind understands and responds to suggestions.
- How to avoid suggestions that can cause undesired effects.
- How to become a master of hypnosis with principles instead of scripts.
The Mind – A Useful Model
One of NLP’s key presuppositions states that The Map Is Not The Territory. In other words, a model used to understand something doesn’t necessarily correspond with reality.
When dealing with something as complex as the human mind, it would be a waste of time to discuss all the intricacies and minute details of how it works. Especially since we don’t actually understand how the mind works.
With all the great advancements we’ve seen in the medical field over the last couple of centuries, we haven’t learned all there is to know about the body yet. And when it comes to the mind, our ignorance is much … much greater.
It’s both startling and disappointing how little we know about our own minds. About ourselves.
Attempting to accurately describe how the mind works would be like navigating through a gigantic maze in total darkness — Walking in circles, directionless. Taking guesses and blindly following pathways that mostly lead nowhere.
The only solution – the way to navigate this mysterious labyrinth – is to have a map.
It’s a smart move, right? Maybe even an obvious one. But the map is far from perfect, only containing vague directions and generic navigation instructions.
That’s when you realize not even a hundred maps would be enough to contain all the information needed to provide a complete understanding of this awesome labyrinth, such is its greatness and complexity.
That’s when a useful model comes in handy. It’s so straightforward and simple it can be drawn in just one map. And despite its simplicity, with the right mindset, it can effectively guide you through the endless maze.
A mind model isn’t supposed to be a flawless depiction of how the human brain works and processes information, but if you can just pretend they’re true enough, you’ll find out you were right most of the time.
The Conscious Mind - The Magic Number 7 (+ or - 2)
In our model, the conscious mind corresponds to everything we’re aware of at the moment.
You can probably be aware of this blog post and its words and phrases while simultaneously being aware of the temperature of where you are, but you can’t be aware of all of that, while also remembering your cell phone number, what you had for lunch last Wednesday or the sensation of your clothes touching your skin.
By directing your attention towards one thing, it automatically becomes part of your conscious awareness (or conscious mind). As for everything you’re not currently paying attention to, in addition to all other brain functions you have no control over, that’s what we call the unconscious.
We often reference German psychologist George Muller’s magic number 7, plus or minus 2. Meaning only about seven bits of information can be in your conscious awareness at any given time. Some people can hold up to nine, others, only five.
That’s just an estimate. Another useful model. Regardless of how accurate it is, the amount of information we can hold in our conscious awareness pales in comparison to the billions of information bits the unconscious mind is processing all the time.
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To answer the question in the title of this blog post, we have to establish another key difference between the conscious and unconscious minds – The unconscious is, for the lack of a better term, not as smart as the conscious mind.
The unconscious mind is magnificent in how it is able to hold so much information at once, but its ability to assess and evaluate this information is very limited.
To put it more simply, it’s the conscious mind’s job to actually think about stuff. That’s why it can’t hold too much information at once. It needs focus. With the help of the unconscious and its resources, the conscious mind is always analyzing things and making the best possible decisions.
The unconscious, however, doesn’t analyze. It doesn’t think or evaluate. It simply responds, and it does so literally. It will respond like a child to any suggestion if the conscious mind and its critical faculty don’t intervene.
How the Mind Actually Processes Negatives
Because it is so limited in how it processes information, the unconscious mind works very much like a computer program. It has to follow a series of steps when given something to think about.
In the case of negative statements, it doesn’t understand them immediately. That’s different from saying it doesn’t understand them at all.
The unconscious mind can, in fact, understand negatives, but only in relation to positives.
This means that, in order to understand what it means to not do something, the unconscious first needs to process what that something is, so then it can apply the negative to it. In NLP terms, that’s called deletion.
Let’s look at an example.
If I tell you not to think of the Statue of Liberty, your unconscious mind will automatically search for an image of the Statue of Liberty. That’s because it can only understand what it means to not think of the Statue once it’s understood what it means to actually think of it.
By the time the negative comes into play, it’s already too late. You have a clear picture of the Statue of Liberty in your mind, which you now have to delete.
So it’s not that the unconscious mind can’t understand negatives, but it can’t understand the concept of negative by itself, without something to attach it to. It needs a positive first, that can be deleted and turned into a negative.
When a Negative Becomes a Positive
So far in this blog post, we’ve established that the mind is perfectly able to understand negatives through a process called deletion, but we haven’t mentioned that deletion is partly a conscious intervention.
That means, most of the time, the critical faculty of the conscious mind is responsible for running the deletion process that turns a positive suggestion into a negative one.
That’s why, in hypnosis, where the critical faculty is mostly out of commission, we want to give our clients direct suggestions stated in the positive.
Instead of saying “you won’t feel fearful and desperate anymore”, we recommend saying “you’ll feel calm and contained”. That way, we don’t risk having a negative statement processed as a positive because it could not be deleted.
(Read: How To Craft Direct Suggestions in Hypnosis.)
But unfortunately, there are other times when the critical faculty becomes bypassed. Times when it’s not in our best interest have suggestions delivered straight to the unconscious without critical evaluation.
Strong emotion, both positive or negative, has that effect. It bypasses the critical faculty and makes you, temporarily, stupider (Watch: Fear and Suggestibility: Why Emotions Make You Stupid).
Imagine you’re arriving at your house late at night, and you miss the breaks when you’re pulling into the driveway and smash into the front of your house. Your spouse comes rushing down the stairs, looking shocked, and instead of telling him or her to stay calm, you say: “Don’t get mad”.
A very poor choice of words. Your partner was under a lot of stress and a variety of strong emotions, and their unconscious was reacting instinctively and instantaneously. By saying to not get mad at you, you actually actually made them mad.
Because the critical faculty was not not there to run the deletion process, all their unconscious mind understood from your suggestion was the part about getting mad, and so it did.
A far more serious situation would be at an emergency, when a fire starts at a building full of people. As a leader or the person in charge of the establishment, the worst thing you could say is: “Don’t panic”. You can already imagine how that suggestion would have the opposite result of what was intended.
“Stay calm” is a far better command in any of these situations.
The bottom line is: when people are under stress, or in hypnosis, always tell them what to do instead of what not to do.
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