Is Your Greatest Liability also Your Greatest Asset?

What happens if you ask a child to look into an empty box and just pretend that something is there? In an interesting series of experiments, some children were asked to pretend that a puppy dog was in the box. As part of the experiment, the researcher was called out of the room, after which the children would often sneak a second peak at the puppy, some would even stick a hand in the box to check it out. Then there was a second group of children who were asked to pretend that a monster was in the box. These poor kids sat paralyzed in the chair, some cried, some even fled the room. The conclusion of the research was that children have difficulty separating pretense from reality. But what about adults?

As a thought experiment, imagine walking across a 6” wide plank that is lying on the ground. No problem. Now imagine walking across the same plank 20 stories up in the air. There is a big difference, but why? The person who developed this thought experiment was Émile Coué, a French apothecary, hypnotist, and discoverer of what is now known as the “placebo effect.”  According to Coué, “…every time the WILL and the IMAGINATION come in conflict, not only can we not do that which we wish, but we do precisely the contrary.” (Coué, 1923: 63). The more a person imagines falling, the more difficult it becomes to stay balanced. Similarly, the more a person imagines that he will forget to remember something important, the more likely that he or she will forget. The more a person imagines failing at dating, the more difficult it is to get someone to ask you out. The list of ways in which a person can become his own worst enemy is endless. Of course, most of this is driven by fear, and whenever fear begins to dominate the imagination, problems with basic functioning begin to occur. Even something as simple as breathing, or swallowing food, can become horribly impaired by imagining the worst.

One person who certainly appreciated that power of imagination was Charles Dickens. Most are familiar with how Dickens used the concept of imagination to transform unforgettable characters such as Ebenezer Scrooge,  “I have but to swallow this, and be for the rest of my days persecuted by a legion of goblins, all of my own creation. Humbug, I tell you; humbug!’‘ But what is lesser known is how intentional Dickens was in mesmerizing his readers. As a student of John Elliotson, Dickens practiced the art of “magnetizing” or hypnotizing subjects. By 1841, he demonstrated his considerable ability in both public and private arenas.

Dickens must have known that magnets were not needed for magnetizing subjects because, 50 years prior, King Louis XIV assembled the world’s most accomplished academicians, which included Benjamin Franklin, the chemist Lavoisier, and the physician Guillotine, to determine the validity of “animal magnetism.” The conclusion of the Royal Commission was, “…The imagination of sick people has unquestionably a very frequent and large share in the cure of their diseases…Hope is an essential constituent of human life; the man that yields us one contributes to restore to us the other.”  This event would later come to be known as the world’s first documented psychology experiment.  To this day, research continues to support the finding that hypnosis achieves its results by means of hope and positive expectation. Authors such Irving Kirsch  and myself have written books explaining how suggestive therapeutics create hope and thereby achieve extraordinary outcomes. Equally fascinating, new research shows that the structure of the brain can be physically altered by imagining the performance of specific activities, such as playing piano.

As a funny coincidence, just tonight at an Asian-fusion cafe,  I got a fortune cookie with the following message, “Your imagination is important in the next month. Act on your good ideas.  This is sage advice, but absolute foolishness to limit it to a single month.

When a person comes to my office troubled by nightmares, the first thing I do is offer hope, “There is a solution for this problem!” Then the reoccurring nightmare is abolished with a single set of instructions, “Go to sleep tonight no longer fearful of this nightmare. When it occurs, you will have a great opportunity to use this cure. You are likely to awaken from your nightmare at the moment when the most awful thing that could happen is happening. While still awake, start to daydream a positive ending for your dream. If someone precious has died, then imagine a way to bring him back to life. If someone is chasing you, imagine that you run directly into the arms of a loving and powerful ally. Allow yourself to drift back into sleep with your new, more pleasurable outcomes, circulating through your mind.” This technique is not so different from solution focused therapy and the use of the miracle question, “Imagine what would be different about you or your life if you awoke to find that during the night a miracle had occurred and your greatest problems had been resolved!” This is the intentional use of imagination.

So the next time you find yourself feeling fearful of what might happen, set aside some time to meditate, pray, or spend time talking with an optimistic friend about all the good that is yet to come. Take a lesson from Ebenezer Scrooge and dream the life that you want to live.

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