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Research Support for Utilizing Capacities that are Already There


C. Alexander Simpkins Ph.D.

& Annellen Simpkins Ph.D.


When trances are so elicited, they are still a result of ideas, associations, mental processes and understandings already existing and merely aroused within the subject himself. Yet too many investigators working in the field regard their activities and their intentions and desires as the effective forces, and they actually uncritically believe that their own utterances to the subject elicit, evoke, or initiate specific responses, without seeming to realize that what they say or do serves only as a means to stimulate and arouse in the subjects past learnings, understandings, and experiential acquisitions, some consciously, some unconsciously acquired. (Erickson, 1964)


Erickson proposed the idea that what we know is already present within, and that therapeutic change is actually a process of activating potentials that are already there. Erickson dramatized this point during a teaching seminar by recounting how he worked with a patient who had very little education and complained that he could not write.  By asking certain carefully phrased questions, guiding the woman to put together what she already knew, Erickson helped her to discover for herself how to write. This is how Erickson described the interaction at a seminar we attended.

Erickson asked the woman, “Do you know what a pencil is?


“And can you hold it?”

“Yes, I can.”

“Can you draw a line?”

“Yes, I can draw a line.”

Now can you draw a circle?”

“Yes I can draw a circle.”

“Can you put the line right next to the circle?

“Yes, I can.”

“Well now, you have just formed the letter b.”

And Erickson proceeded to show her that she already knew how to write the entire alphabet, freeing her from the problem.

This principle was tested in an interesting study. Subjects were given sixty paired word triads. One was from Mednick and Mednick’s Remote Associates Test (RAT) 1962 and the other triad was random, generated by placing together three words from different RAT items that were not associated. Subjects were asked to solve the triads in 8 seconds. And if they couldn’t solve either triad, they were supposed to pick which of the two triads was solvable, even if they had to guess.  Sample trial pair:

Triad A: mouth, sixteen, lines

Triad B: coin, quick, spoon

The solution is triad B: silver

The results showed that even though people couldn’t always solve the triads,  (58% solved the triads), a much larger percent, 73%, were able to pick which triads were solvable. The researchers concluded that people have a sense of coherence even before they can identify what the knowing is based on. “Even prior to its being explicitly noticed, identified, perceived, coherence seems to guide thought and action tacitly.” Bowers, 1981)

Another study looked at the effects of suggestibility and imagery of ambiguous figures (Marucci & Meo, 2000) and found that highly suggestible subjects were better at attributing meaning to ambiguous figures than low suggestible subjects. These results showed that highly suggestible persons displayed a higher ability in the attribution of meanings, and could find clearer solutions to problems with ambiguous stimuli. 

This suggestibility research also offers support for Erickson’s claim about unconscious resources that people can draw on. We can utilize the natural resources of the patient for change through suggestibility.  Often, therapeutic models assume that therapists need to teach or model something to their patients that they don’t know; but we may have more effective results when we draw out what is already there. Suggestibility, used properly, may help clients to get in touch with their resources to solve their life problem.  The actual solution behavior, modeled by the therapist, is only a mirror, secondary to the patient’s own innate or already learned potential.  To know what you don’t know is the beginning of true wisdom.



Bowers, K.S. 1984. “On being unconsciously influenced and informed.” In Bowers, K.S. & Meichenbaum, D.S. Eds. The unconscious reconsidered.  New York: John Wiley & Sons. 227-272.

Erickson, M.H. 1964. “An hypnotic technique for resistant patients: the patient, the technique and its rationale and field experiments.” Amer. J. Clin. Hyp. 1 8-32.

Marucci, F.S. & Meo, M. 2000. “Suggestibility and imagery during attribution of meaning to ambiguous figures. Pascalis, V.D., Gheorghiu, V.A, Sheehan, P.W., & Kirsch, I. Eds. Suggestion and Suggestibility: Theory and Research. Hypnosis International Monographs 4. 167-175.

Mednick, S. A. & Mednick, M.T. 1962. Examiner’s manual: Remote associates test.  Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.





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