Milton H. Erickson

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Milton Hyland Erickson
Erickson college.jpg
Born5 December 1901 (1901-12-05)
Died25 March 1980 (1980-03-26) (aged 78)
Occupation Psychiatrist and psychotherapist
Spouse(s)Helen, Elizabeth

Milton Hyland Erickson (5 December 1901 – 25 March 1980) was an American psychiatrist and psychologist specializing in medical hypnosis and family therapy. He was founding president of the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis and a fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychopathological Association. He is noted for his approach to the unconscious mind as creative and solution-generating. He is also noted for influencing brief therapy, strategic family therapy, family systems therapy, solution focused brief therapy, and neuro-linguistic programming. [1]

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the largest city by population is New York City. Forty-eight states and the capital's federal district are contiguous in North America between Canada and Mexico. The State of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine official time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.

Psychiatry is the medical specialty devoted to the diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of mental disorders. These include various maladaptations related to mood, behaviour, cognition, and perceptions. See glossary of psychiatry.

Psychologist professional who evaluates, diagnoses, treats, and studies behavior and mental processes

A psychologist studies normal and abnormal mental states, cognitive, emotional, and social processes and behavior by observing, interpreting, and recording how individuals relate to one another and to their environments. To become a psychologist, a person often completes a graduate university degree in psychology, but in most jurisdictions, members of other behavioral professions can also evaluate, diagnose, treat, and study mental processes.


Personal history

Erickson was largely self-taught, and his biography was noted down by Sidney Rosen in the book My Voice Will Go With You. Erickson identified many of his earliest personal experiences as hypnotic or autohypnotic.

Erickson grew up in Lowell, Wisconsin, in a modest farming family and intended to become a farmer like his father. He was a late developer and was both dyslexic and color blind. He overcame his dyslexia and had many other inspirations via a series of spontaneous autohypnotic "flashes of light" or "creative moments", as described in the paper Autohypnotic Experiences of Milton H. Erickson. [2]

Lowell, Wisconsin Village in Wisconsin, United States

Lowell is a village in Dodge County, Wisconsin, United States, along the Beaver Dam River. The population was 340 at the 2010 census. The village is located within the Town of Lowell.

Dyslexia neurological condition, developmental or acquired

Dyslexia, also known as reading disorder, is characterized by trouble with reading despite normal intelligence. Different people are affected to varying degrees. Problems may include difficulties in spelling words, reading quickly, writing words, "sounding out" words in the head, pronouncing words when reading aloud and understanding what one reads. Often these difficulties are first noticed at school. When someone who previously could read loses their ability, it is known as alexia. The difficulties are involuntary and people with this disorder have a normal desire to learn.

At age 17, he contracted polio and was so severely paralysed that the doctors believed he would die.

He began to recall "body memories" of the muscular activity of his own body. By concentrating on th.eIn his account, by memories, he slowmusclegan to regain control of parts of his body to the point where he was eventually able to talk and use his arms. Still unable to walk, he decided to train his body further by embarking - alone - on a thousand-mile canoe trip with only a few dollars. After this grueling trip, he was able to walk with a cane. This experience may have contributed to Erickson's technique of using "ordeals" in a therapeutic context (see below).

Erickson was an avid medical student, and he was so curious about, and engaged with, psychiatry that he obtained a psychology degree while he was still studying medicine.

Much later, in his fifties, he developed post-polio syndrome, characterized by pain and muscle weakness caused by the chronic over-use of partially paralyzed muscles. The condition left him even more severely paralyzed, but, having been through the experience once before, he now had a strategy for recovering some use of his muscles which he employed again. After this second recovery, he was obliged to use a wheelchair and suffered chronic pain.

Post-polio syndrome Human disease

Post-polio syndrome is a condition that affects approximately 25 to 40 percent of people who have previously survived an acute attack of poliomyelitis, though more recent studies have shown that 80+% of polio survivors show symptoms of Post Polio Sequelae, a viral infection of the nervous system after the initial infection. Typically the symptoms appear 15 to 30 years after recovery from the original paralytic attack, at an age of 35 to 60. Symptoms include acute or increased muscular weakness, pain in the muscles, and fatigue. The same symptoms may also occur years after a nonparalytic polio (NPP) infection.

In the early 1950s, anthropologist/cyberneticist Gregory Bateson involved Erickson as a consultant as part of his extensive research on communication. The two had met earlier, after Bateson and Margaret Mead had called upon him to analyse the films Mead had made of trance states in Bali. Through Bateson, Erickson met Jay Haley, Richard Bandler and John Grinder, amongst others, and had a profound influence on them all. They went on to write several books about him.

Gregory Bateson English anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist

Gregory Bateson was an English anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician, and cyberneticist whose work intersected that of many other fields. In the 1940s, he helped extend systems theory and cybernetics to the social and behavioral sciences. He spent the last decade of his life developing a "meta-science" of epistemology to bring together the various early forms of systems theory developing in different fields of science. His writings include Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) and Mind and Nature (1979). Angels Fear was co-authored by his daughter Mary Catherine Bateson.

Margaret Mead American cultural anthropologist (1901–1978)

Margaret Mead was an American cultural anthropologist who featured frequently as an author and speaker in the mass media during the 1960s and 1970s. She earned her bachelor's degree at Barnard College in New York City and her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University. Mead served as President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1975.

Jay Haley American psychotherapist

Jay Douglas Haley was one of the founding figures of brief and family therapy in general and of the strategic model of psychotherapy, and he was one of the more accomplished teachers, clinical supervisors, and authors in these disciplines.

In 1973, Jay Haley published Uncommon Therapy, which for the first time brought Erickson and his approaches to the attention of those outside the clinical hypnosis community. Erickson's fame and reputation spread rapidly, and so many people wished to meet him that he began holding teaching seminars, which continued until his death.

Milton H. Erickson died in March 1980, aged 78, leaving four sons, four daughters, and a lasting legacy to the worlds of psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, pedagogics and communications.


Erickson is noted for his often unconventional approach to psychotherapy, as described in the book Uncommon Therapy by Jay Haley and the book Hypnotherapy: An Exploratory Casebook, by Milton H. Erickson and Ernest L. Rossi (1979, New York: Irvington Publishers, Inc.). He developed an extensive use of therapeutic metaphor and story as well as hypnosis and coined the term brief therapy for his method of addressing therapeutic change in relatively few sessions.

Beginning in the 1950s, Erickson's use of interventions influenced strategic therapy and family systems therapy of practitioners including Virginia Satir and Jay Haley. He was noted for his ability to "utilize" anything about a patient to help them change, including their beliefs, favorite words, cultural background, personal history, or even their neurotic habits.

Through conceptualizing the unconscious as highly separate from the conscious mind, with its own awareness, interests, responses, and learnings, he taught that the unconscious mind was creative, solution-generating, and often positive.

He was an important influence on neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), which was in part based upon his working methods. [3]

Trance and the unconscious mind

Erickson believed that the unconscious mind was always listening and that, whether or not the patient was in trance, suggestions could be made which would have a hypnotic influence, as long as those suggestions found resonance at the unconscious level. The patient could be aware of this or could be completely oblivious that something was happening. Erickson would see if the patient would respond to one or another kind of indirect suggestion and allow the unconscious mind to participate actively in the therapeutic process. In this way, what seemed like a normal conversation might induce a hypnotic trance, or a therapeutic change in the subject. According to Weitzenhoffer, "[Erickson's] conception of the unconscious is definitely not the one held by Freud." [4]

Erickson was an irrepressible practical joker, [5] and it was not uncommon for him to slip indirect suggestions into all kinds of situations, including in his own books, papers, lectures and seminars. [6] For example, a student arrived at one of the five-day intensive seminars he held in his home office near the end of his life. When Erickson asked why she had come, she replied frankly: "My teacher told me that I should come to see you before you died." Erickson smiled and said: "You tell him that dying is the last thing I intend to do."[ citation needed ] The group laughed at the pun. Then Erickson said, with a twinkle in his eye[ citation needed ], "Do you want to know how to avoid dying? Always wake up every morning. And do you want to know how to ensure that you will wake up every morning?", he continued, "Drink lots of liquids before you go to sleep!"[ citation needed ]

Erickson also believed that it was even appropriate for the therapist to go into trance.

I go into trances so that I will be more sensitive to the intonations and inflections of my patients' speech. And to enable me to hear better, see better.

Erickson maintained that trance is a common, everyday occurrence. For example, when waiting for buses and trains, reading or listening, or even being involved in strenuous physical exercise, it's quite normal to become immersed in the activity and go into a trance state, removed from any other irrelevant stimuli. These states are so common and familiar that most people do not consciously recognise them as hypnotic phenomena.

The same situation is in evidence in everyday life, however, whenever attention is fixated with a question or an experience of the amazing, the unusual, or anything that holds a person's interest. At such moments people experience the common everyday trance; they tend to gaze off to the right or left, depending upon which cerebral hemisphere is most dominant (Baleen, 1969) and get that faraway or blank look. Their eyes may actually close, their bodies tend to become immobile (a form of catalepsy), certain reflexes (e.g., swallowing, respiration, etc.) may be suppressed, and they seem momentarily oblivious to their surroundings until they have completed their inner search on the unconscious level for the new idea, response, or frames of reference that will restabilize their general reality orientation. We hypothesize that in everyday life consciousness is in a continual state of flux between the general reality orientation and the momentary microdynamics of trance... [7]

Because Erickson expected trance states to occur naturally and frequently, he was prepared to exploit them therapeutically, even when the patient was not present with him in the consulting room. He also discovered many techniques for increasing the likelihood that a trance state would occur. He developed both verbal and non-verbal techniques and pioneered the idea that the common experiences of wonderment, engrossment and confusion are, in fact, just kinds of trance.

Clearly, there are a great many kinds of trance. Many people are familiar with the idea of a "deep" trance, and earlier in his career Erickson was a pioneer in researching the unique and remarkable phenomena that are associated with that state, spending many hours at a time with individual test subjects, deepening the trance.

That a trance may be "light" or "deep" suggests a one-dimensional continuum of trance depth, but Erickson would often work with multiple trances in the same patient, for example, suggesting that the hypnotised patient behave "as if awake", thereby blurring the line between the hypnotic and awake state.

Erickson believed there are multiple states that may be utilized. This resonates with Charles Tart's idea (put forward in the book Waking Up) that all states of consciousness are trances and that what we call "normal" waking consciousness is just a "consensus trance". NLP also makes central use of the idea of changing state, without it explicitly being a hypnotic phenomenon.

Indirect techniques

Where classical hypnosis is authoritative and direct and often encounters resistance in the subject, Erickson's approach is permissive, accommodating and indirect. [8] For example, where a classical hypnotist might say "You are going into a trance", an Ericksonian hypnotist would be more likely to say "you can comfortably learn how to go into a trance". In this way, he provides an opportunity for the subject to accept the suggestions they are most comfortable with, at their own pace, and with an awareness of the benefits. The subject knows they are not being hustled and takes full ownership of, and participates in, their transformation. Because the induction takes place during the course of a normal conversation, Ericksonian hypnosis is often known as Covert or Conversational Hypnosis.

Erickson maintained that it was not possible consciously to instruct the unconscious mind, and that authoritarian suggestions were likely to be met with resistance. The unconscious mind responds to openings, opportunities, metaphors, symbols, and contradictions. Effective hypnotic suggestion, then, should be "artfully vague", leaving space for the subject to fill in the gaps with their own unconscious understandings - even if they do not consciously grasp what is happening. The skilled hypnotherapist constructs these gaps of meaning in a way most suited to the individual subject - in a way which is most likely to produce the desired change.

For example, the authoritative "You will stop smoking" is likely to find less leverage on the unconscious level than "You can become a non-smoker". The first is a direct command, to be obeyed or ignored (and notice that it draws attention to the act of smoking); the second is an opening, an invitation to possible lasting change, without pressure, and is less likely to raise resistance.

Richard Bandler and John Grinder identified this kind of "artful vagueness" as a central characteristic of their 'Milton Model', a systematic attempt to codify Erickson's hypnotic language patterns.

Confusion technique

In all my techniques, almost all, there is a confusion. [9]

A confused person has their conscious mind busy and occupied, and is very much inclined to draw upon unconscious learnings to make sense of things. A confused person is in a trance of their own making - and therefore goes readily into that trance without resistance. Confusion might be created by ambiguous words, complex or endless sentences, pattern interruption or a myriad of other techniques to incite transderivational searches.

Scottish surgeon James Braid, who coined the term "hypnotism", claimed that focused attention was essential for creating hypnotic trances; indeed, his thesis was that hypnosis was in essence a state of extreme focus. But it can be difficult for people racked by pain, fear or suspicion to focus on anything at all. Thus other techniques for inducing trance become important, or as Erickson explained:

... long and frequent use of the confusion technique has many times effected exceedingly rapid hypnotic inductions under unfavourable conditions such as acute pain of terminal malignant disease and in persons interested but hostile, aggressive, and resistant...

Handshake induction

Among Erickson's best-known innovations is the hypnotic handshake induction, which is a type of confusion technique. The induction is done by the hypnotist going to shake hands with the subject, then interrupting the flow of the handshake in some way, such as by grabbing the subject's wrist instead. If the handshake continues to develop in a way which is out-of-keeping with expectations, a simple, non-verbal trance is created, which may then be reinforced or utilized by the hypnotist. All these responses happen naturally and automatically without telling the subject to consciously focus on an idea.

Richard Bandler told people that Erickson had taught him this handshake technique. However, it is clear that Bandler embedded some parts in it that were, in fact, impossible for Erickson such as "gradually lessening the pressure with his right hand", which of course was impossible for Erickson since he was almost completely paralysed in his right hand. Bandler talks about this in one of his videos Creating Therapeutic Change.[ dubious ]

This induction works because shaking hands is one of the actions learned and operated as a single "chunk" of behavior; tying shoelaces is another classic example. If the behavior is diverted or frozen midway, the person literally has no mental space for this - he is stopped in the middle of unconsciously executing a behavior that hasn't got a "middle". The mind responds by suspending itself in trance until either something happens to give a new direction, or it "snaps out". A skilled hypnotist can often use that momentary confusion and suspension of normal processes to induce trance quickly and easily.

The various descriptions of Erickson's hypnotic handshake, including his own very detailed accounts, indicate that a certain amount of improvisation is involved, and that watching and acting upon the subject's responses is the key to a successful outcome.

Erickson described the routine as follows:

  • Initiation: When I begin by shaking hands, I do so normally. The "hypnotic touch" then begins when I let loose. The letting loose becomes transformed from a firm grip into a gentle touch by the thumb, a lingering drawing away of the little finger, a faint brushing of the subject's hand with the middle finger - just enough vague sensation to attract the attention. As the subject gives attention to the touch of your thumb, you shift to a touch with your little finger. As your subject's attention follows that, you shift to a touch with your middle finger and then again to the thumb.
  • This arousal of attention is merely an arousal without constituting a stimulus for a response.
  • The subject's withdrawal from the handshake is arrested by this attention arousal, which establishes a waiting set, and expectancy.
  • Then almost, but not quite simultaneously (to ensure separate neural recognition), you touch the undersurface of the hand (wrist) so gently that it barely suggests an upward push. This is followed by a similar utterly slight downward touch, and then I sever contact so gently that the subject does not know exactly when - and the subject's hand is left going neither up nor down, but cataleptic.
  • Termination: If you don't want your subject to know what you are doing, you simply distract their attention, usually by some appropriate remark, and casually terminate. Sometimes they remark, "What did you say? I got absentminded there for a moment and wasn't paying attention to anything." This is slightly distressing to the subjects and indicative of the fact that their attention was so focused and fixated on the peculiar hand stimuli that they were momentarily entranced so they did not hear what was said.
  • Utilisation: Any utilisation leads to increasing trance depth. All utilisation should proceed as a continuation of extension of the initial procedure. Much can be done nonverbally; for example, if any subjects are just looking blankly at me, I may slowly shift my gaze downward, causing them to look at their hand, which I touch and say "look at this spot.". This intensifies the trance state. Then, whether the subjects are looking at you or at their hand or just staring blankly, you can use your left hand to touch their elevated right hand from above or the side - so long as you merely give the suggestion of downward movement. Occasionally a downward nudge or push is required. If a strong push or nudge is required, check for anaesthesia. [9]

Richard Bandler was a keen proponent of the handshake induction, and developed his own variant, which is commonly taught in NLP workshops.

Any habitual pattern which is interrupted unexpectedly will cause sudden and light trance. The handshake is a particularly good pattern to interrupt because the formality of a handshake is a widely understood set of social rules. Since everyone knows that it would be impolite to comment on the quality of a handshake, regardless of how strange it may be, the subject is obliged to embark on an inner search (known as a transderivational search, a universal and compelling type of trance) to identify the meaning or purpose of the subverted pattern.


Erickson recognised that many people were intimidated by hypnosis and the therapeutic process, and took care to respect the special resistances of the individual patient. In the therapeutic process he said that "you always give the patient every opportunity to resist". Here are some more relevant quotes pertaining to resistance:

Whatever the behaviour offered by the subjects, it should be accepted and utilized to develop further responsive behaviour. Any attempt to "correct" or alter the subjects' behaviour, or to force them to do things they are not interested in, militates against trance induction and certainly deep trance experience.

If the patient can be led to accept one suggestion, they will more readily accept others. With resistant patients, it becomes necessary to find a suggestion that they can accept. Resistance is always important, and should always be respected, so if the resistance itself is encouraged, the patient is made to feel more comfortable, because they know that they are allowed to respond however they wish.

Many times, the apparently active resistance encountered in subjects is no more than an unconscious measure of testing the hypnotist's willingness to meet them halfway instead of trying to force them to act entirely in accord with his ideas.

Although the idea of working with resistance is essentially a hypnotic one, it goes beyond hypnosis and trance. In a typical example, a girl that bit her nails was told that she was cheating herself of really enjoying the nail biting. He encouraged her to let some of her nails grow a little longer before biting them, so that she really could derive the fullest pleasure from the activity. She decided to grow all of her nails long enough that she might really enjoy biting them, and then, after some days, she realised that she didn't want to bite them anyway.

Ericksonian therapy

Erickson is most famous as a hypnotherapist, but his extensive research into and experience with hypnosis led him to develop an effective therapeutic technique. Many of these techniques are not explicitly hypnotic, but they are extensions of hypnotic strategies and language patterns. Erickson recognised that resistance to trance resembles resistance to change, and developed his therapeutic approach with that awareness.

Haley identified several strategies, which appeared repeatedly in Erickson's therapeutic approach.

I usually say, "There are a number of things that you don't want me to know about, that you don't want to tell me. There are a lot of things about yourself that you don't want to discuss, therefore let's discuss those that you are willing to discuss." She has blanket permission to withhold anything and everything. But she did come to discuss things. And therefore she starts discussing this, discussing that. And it's always "Well, this is all right to talk about." And before she's finished, she has mentioned everything. And each new item - "Well, this really isn't so important that I have to withhold it. I can use the withholding permission for more important matters." Simply a hypnotic technique. To make them respond to the idea of withholding, and to respond to the idea of communicating. [10]

Some people might react to a direction by thinking "why should I?" or "You can't make me", called a polarity response because it motivates the subject to consider the polar opposite of the suggestion. The conscious mind recognizes negation in speech ("Don't do X") but according to Erickson, the unconscious mind pays more attention to the "X" than the injunction "Don't do". Erickson thus used this as the basis for suggestions that deliberately played on negation and tonally marked the important wording, to provide that whatever the client did, it was beneficial: "You don't have to go into a trance, so you can easily wonder about what you notice no faster than you feel ready to become aware that your hand is slowly rising....."

My first well-remembered intentional use of the double bind occurred in early boyhood. One winter day, with the weather below zero, my father led a calf out of the barn to the water trough. After the calf had satisfied its thirst, they turned back to the barn, but at the doorway the calf stubbornly braced its feet, and despite my father's desperate pulling on the halter, he could not budge the animal. I was outside playing in the snow and, observing the impasse, began laughing heartily. My father challenged me to pull the calf into the barn. Recognizing the situation as one of unreasoning stubborn resistance on the part of the calf, I decided to let the calf have full opportunity to resist, since that was what it apparently wished to do. Accordingly I presented the calf with a double bind by seizing it by the tail and pulling it away from the barn, while my father continued to pull it inward. The calf promptly chose to resist the weaker of the two forces and dragged me into the barn. [11]

I was returning from high school one day and a runaway horse with a bridle on sped past a group of us into a farmer's yard looking for a drink of water. The horse was perspiring heavily. And the farmer didn't recognize it so we cornered it. I hopped on the horse's back. Since it had a bridle on, I took hold of the tick rein and said, "Giddy-up." Headed for the highway, I knew the horse would turn in the right direction. I didn't know what the right direction was. And the horse trotted and galloped along. Now and then he would forget he was on the highway and start into a field. So I would pull on him a bit and call his attention to the fact the highway was where he was supposed to be. And finally, about four miles from where I had boarded him, he turned into a farm yard and the farmer said, "So that's how that critter came back. Where did you find him?" I said, "About four miles from here." "How did you know you should come here?" I said, "I didn't know. The horse knew. All I did was keep his attention on the road."

Erickson's metaphorical strategies can be compared with the teaching tales of the Sufis (those of for example the Nasreddin) and the Zen tradition of Koans, each also designed to act on the unconscious mind.

Compare this with "Prescribing the Symptom" (below).

If I send someone out of the room - for example, the mother and child - I carefully move father from his chair and put him into mother's chair. Or if I send the child out, I might put mother in the child's chair, at least temporarily. Sometimes I comment on this by saying, 'As you sit where your son was sitting, you can think more clearly about him.' Or, 'If you sit where your husband sat, maybe it will give you somewhat of his view about me'. Over a series of interviews with an entire family, I shuffle them about, so that what was originally mother's chair is now where father is sitting. The family grouping remains, and yet that family grouping is being rearranged, which is what you are after when changing a family." [12]

This may be directly compared with Fritz Perls' use of an "empty chair" as a context for imagined interactions (where the client was often invited to occupy the chair and thus take on the role of the person imagined to be sitting there); Bert Hellinger's approach, which requires the client to arrange family members (played by volunteers) in a row or pattern which matches the client's internal understanding, and then to reorganise the row; and Virginia Satir's work with tableaux and posture.

Erickson would often compliment the patient for a symptom, and would even encourage it, in very specific ways. In one amusing example, a woman whose in-laws caused her nauseous feelings in the gut every time they visited unexpectedly was "taught" to vomit spectacularly whenever the visits were especially inconvenient. Naturally the in-laws would always sympathetically help her clean up the vomit. Fairly soon, the annoying relatives started calling in advance before turning up, to see if she were "well enough" to see them.

The subject of dozens of songs, "emphasizing the positive" is a well known self-help strategy, and can be compared with "positive reformulation" in Gestalt Therapy.

INTERVIEWER: Suppose someone called you and said there was a kid, nineteen or twenty years old, who has been a very good boy, but all of a sudden this week he started walking around the neighborhood carrying a large cross. The neighbors are upset and the family's upset, and would you do something about it. How would you think about that as a problem? Some kind of bizarre behavior like that.
ERICKSON: Well, if the kid came in to see me, the first thing I would do would be to want to examine the cross. And I would want to improve it in a very minor way. As soon as I got the slightest minor change in it, the way would be open for a larger change. And pretty soon I could deal with the advantages of a different cross - he ought to have at least two. He ought to have at least three so he could make a choice each day of which one. It's pretty hard to express a psychotic pattern of behavior over an ever-increasing number of crosses. [12]

INTERVIEWER: You don't feel that exploring the past is particularly relevant? I'm always trying to get clear in my mind how much of the past I need to consider when doing brief therapy.

ERICKSON: You know, I had one patient this last July who had four or five years of psychoanalysis and got nowhere with it. And someone who knows her said, "How much attention did you give to the past?" I said, "You know, I completely forgot about that." That patient is, I think, a reasonably cured person. It was a severe washing compulsion, as much as twenty hours a day. I didn't go in to the cause or the etiology; the only searching question I asked was "When you get in the shower to scrub yourself for hours, tell me, do you start at the top of your head, or the soles of your feet, or in the middle? Do you wash from the neck down, or do you start with your feet and wash up? Or do you start with your head and wash down?"
INTERVIEWER: Why did you ask that?
ERICKSON: So that she knew I was really interested.
INTERVIEWER: So that you could join her in this?

ERICKSON: No, so that she knew I was really interested. [13]

Shocks and ordeals

Erickson is famous for pioneering indirect techniques, but his shock therapy tends to get less attention. Erickson was prepared to use psychological shocks and ordeals in order to achieve given results:

When the old gentleman asked if he could be helped for his fear of riding in an elevator, I told him I could probably scare the pants off him in another direction. He told me that nothing could be worse than his fear of an elevator.

The elevators in that particular building were operated by young girls, and I made special arrangements with one in advance. She agreed to cooperate and thought it would be fun. I went with the gentleman to the elevator. He wasn't afraid of walking into an elevator, but when it started to move it became an unbearable experience. So I chose an unbusy time and I had him walk in and out of the elevator, back in and out. Then at a point when we walked in, I told the girl to close the door and said, "Let's go up."
She went up one story and stopped in between floors. The gentleman started to yell, "What's wrong!" I said, "The elevator operator wants to kiss you." Shocked, the gentleman said, "But I'm a married man!" The girl said, "I don't mind that." She walked toward him, and he stepped back and said, "You start the elevator." So she started it. She went up to about the fourth floor and stopped it again between floors. She said, "I just have a craving for a kiss." He said, "You go about your business." He wanted that elevator moving, not standing still. She replied, "Well, let's go down and start all over again," and she began to take the elevator down. He said, "Not down, up!" since he didn't want to go through that all over again.

She started up and then stopped the elevator between floors and said, "Do you promise you'll ride down in my elevator with me when you're through work?" He said, "I'll promise anything if you promise not to kiss me." He went up in the elevator, relieved and without fear - of the elevator - and could ride one from then on. [12]


Erickson's work on hypnotism was controversial during his lifetime and has remained so to the present day. Some of his central presuppositions have been questioned by other researchers and the opaque nature of his explanations has led to a variety of competing interpretations of his approach.

A friend and colleague of Erickson, the hypnosis researcher André Weitzenhoffer, a prolific and well-respected author in the field of hypnosis himself, has extensively criticised the ideas and influence of Erickson in various writings, such as his textbook The Practice of Hypnotism. Weitzenhoffer displays a clear, and explicitly stated, bias against Ericksonian Hypnosis in his book, in favor of what he terms the semi-traditional, scientific, approach. [14]

The author Jeffrey Masson dedicated a whole sub-section of his book Against Therapy to criticism of Milton Erickson. [15] Masson questions the accuracy of Erickson's case reports. Regarding Erickson's report of a female patient who was allegedly hypnotised to have spontaneous orgasms throughout the day, Masson writes, "The whole thing is tinged with fantasy and has a feeling of unreality about it." [16]

Masson was particularly concerned by Erickson's own reports of cases in which he acted in a manner he felt might be construed as sexually inappropriate. He even goes so far as to suggest that Erickson may have obtained "sexual pleasure" from cases like the following, where he reports asking a young female client to gradually strip naked in his office, allegedly as a psychotherapeutic exercise. It is to note, however, that Mrs Erickson was present in the room. Furthermore, Erickson presents the case as illustrating the power of shock therapy against inhibitions and rigidities of character, claiming his technique has freed the patient from her incapacity to marry her fiancé.

"Now you need to know how to undress and go to bed in the presence of a man. So start undressing." Slowly, in an almost automatic fashion, she undressed. I had her show me her right breast, her left breast, her right nipple, her left nipple. Her belly button. Her genital area. Her knees. Her gluteal [buttock] regions. I asked her to point where she would like to have her husband kiss her. I had her turn around [naked]. I had her dress slowly. She dressed. I dismissed her. [16]

Masson also notes that Erickson, as a psychiatrist in the Arizona State Hospital, was an enthusiastic advocate of the use of restraints, a subject which he delivered a well-attended talk on, and frequently had patients confined by straitjackets. Masson cites various instances of Erickson's behaviour toward psychiatric patients which he considers "cruel, crude jokes". Referring to Erickson's authoritarian approach as "prison-camp therapy" and "therapist-as-boss", Masson concludes, "It is not surprising that Erickson succumbed to the opportunity to abuse his patients, as the examples quoted make clear." [17]

Self-professed "skeptical hypnotist" Alex Tsander cited Masson's concerns in his 2005 book Beyond Erickson: A Fresh Look at "The Emperor of Hypnosis", the title of which alludes to Charcot's characterisation in the previous century as "The Emperor of the Neuroses". Tsander re-evaluates a swathe of Erickson's accounts of his therapeutic approaches and lecture demonstrations in the context of scientific literature on hypnotism and his own experience in giving live demonstrations of hypnotic technique. Emphasising social-psychological perspectives, Tsander introduces an "interpretive filter" with which he re-evaluates Erickson's own accounts of his demonstrations and introduces prosaic explanations for occurrences that both Erickson and other authors tend to portray as remarkable.

Influence on others

Erickson's friend, and sometime collaborator, Andre Weitzenhoffer, a well-known hypnosis researcher himself, has repeatedly raised concerns over the nature of Erickson's legacy.

The majority of today's Ericksonians consist of individuals who have never known Erickson, even less been directly trained by him. Today, and for some time now, much of the teaching of the Ericksonian approach is and has been done by individuals who have acquired their knowledge second and third hand. [...] Some of those who did spend time with Erickson, like Jeffrey Zeig, Ernest Rossi, and William O'Hanlon have tried, I believe, to present and preserve as much as they could what they believed and have understood Erickson's thought and methods to be. They have succeeded to do so to a fair degree. Others, like Richard Bandler and John Grinder have on the other hand, offered a much adulterated, and at times fanciful, version of what they perceived Erickson as saying and doing guided by their personal theorizing. [...] Further distortions have resulted outside of the United States due to translation problems as well as for other reasons. More and more the Ericksonians have become a heterogeneous group of practitioners. [18]

One of his first students and developers of his work was Jay Haley. Other important followers include Stephen Gilligan, Jeffrey K. Zeig, Bill O'Hanlon, Michele Ritterman and Stephen R. Lankton.

Erickson was modeled (see Milton model) by Richard Bandler and John Grinder, the co-founders of Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). As a result of the success of their research Erickson contributed the foreword to their book Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D.. [19]

In the sphere of business coaching and training, he influenced the methods that behaviour training companies use in communicating with clients and training participants.[ citation needed ]

Tenshin Reb Anderson of the Zen tradition has referred to Erickson as a "Magician/Healer." [20]


Erickson was a prolific writer, often working in collaboration with others. His chief collaborator was Ernest L. Rossi.


His books include:

  • Hypnotic Realities ISBN   0-8290-0112-3 (With Ernest L. Rossi)
  • Hypnotherapy - An Exploratory Casebook ISBN   0-8290-0244-8 (With Ernest L. Rossi)
  • Experiencing Hypnosis ISBN   0-8290-0246-4 (With Ernest L. Rossi)
  • The Practical Application of Medical and Dental Hypnosis ISBN   0-87630-570-2 (with Seymour Hershman and Irving I. Secter) (out of print)
  • Time Distortion in Hypnosis ISBN   1-899836-95-0 (With Linn F. Cooper)

Clinical papers

His clinical papers have been collected into a four volume work:

  • Collected Papers on Hypnosis: Volume 1 - Nature of Hypnosis and Suggestion ISBN   0-8290-1206-0 (Ernest L. Rossi, Editor)
  • Collected Papers on Hypnosis: Volume 2 - Sensory, Perceptual and Psychophysiological Processes ISBN   0-8290-1207-9 (Ernest L. Rossi, Editor)
  • Collected Papers on Hypnosis: Volume 3 - Hypnotic Investigation of Psychodynamic Processes ISBN   0-8290-1208-7 (Ernest L. Rossi, Editor)
  • Collected Papers on Hypnosis: Volume 4 - Innovative Hypnotherapy ISBN   0-8290-1209-5 (Ernest L. Rossi, Editor)
    • note, these four volumes are sometimes made available digitally under the misleading (and erroneous) name 'Complete Works'.


Some books collecting transcriptions of his lectures and seminars:

  • My Voice Will Go With You - The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson ISBN   0-393-30135-4 (Sidney Rosen, Editor)
  • Seminars, Workshops and Lectures of Milton H. Erickson Volume 1 - Healing in Hypnosis ISBN   1-85343-405-1 (Margaret O. Ryan & Florence Sharp, Editors)
  • Seminars, Workshops and Lectures of Milton H. Erickson Volume 2 - Life Reframing in Hypnosis ISBN   0-8290-1581-7 (Florence Sharp, Editor)
  • Seminars, Workshops and Lectures of Milton H. Erickson Volume 3 - Mind-Body Communication in Hypnosis ISBN   0-8290-1805-0 (Ernest L. Rossi, Editor)
  • Seminars, Workshops and Lectures of Milton H. Erickson Volume 4 - Creative Choice in Hypnosis ISBN   1-85343-421-3 (Ernest L. Rossi & Margaret O. Ryan, Editors)

Conversations with Milton H. Erickson, M.D., edited by Jay Haley (WW Norton and Company: New York, 1999)

  • Volume I: Changing Individuals
  • Volume II: Changing Couples
  • Volume III: Changing Children and Families

Milton H. Erickson, M.D.: In His Own Voice, edited by Jay Haley and co-edited by Madeleine Richeport (WW Norton & Company: New York, 1991).

  • Sex Therapy - The Female
  • Sex Therapy - The Male
  • Problem Drinkers
  • Multiple Personalities


Other works which collect specific parts of Erickson's output:

  • The Wisdom of Milton H Erickson: The Complete Volume ISBN   1-904424-17-1 (Ronald A.Havens, Editor)
  • An Uncommon Casebook: Complete Clinical Work of Milton H.Erickson, M.D. ISBN   0-393-70101-8 (William Hudson O'Hanlon & Angela L. Hexum)


Many books have been written about Erickson and his techniques, which typically include extended citations from his papers, lectures and workshops, including:

  • Milton H. Erickson, M.D.: An American Healer (Profiles in Healing series) ISBN   0918172551 ISBN   978-0918172556 (Bradford Keeney PhD (Editor), Betty Alice Erickson MS (Editor)
  • Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H.Erickson: Volume 1 ISBN   1-55552-052-9, John Grinder & Richard Bandler
  • Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H.Erickson: Volume 2 ISBN   1-55552-053-7, John Grinder, Richard Bandler & Judith DeLozier
  • Milton H.Erickson (Key Figures in Counselling & Psychotherapy Series) ISBN   0-8039-7575-9 (Jeffrey K. Zeig & W. Michael Munion)
  • Uncommon Therapy: Psychiatric Techniques of Milton H.Erickson, M.D. by Jay Haley (WW Norton & Company: New York, 1993).
  • The Answer Within: A Clinical Framework of Ericksonian Hypnotherapy ISBN   978-1-84590-121-9 (Stephen Lankton & Carol Hicks Lankton)
  • Assembling Ericksonian Therapy ISBN   1-932462-10-4 (Stephen Lankton)
  • Phoenix: Therapeutic Patterns of Milton H.Erickson ISBN   0-916990-10-9 (David Gordon, Maribeth Meyers-Anderson)
  • Enchantment and Intervention in Family Therapy: Using Metaphors in Family Therapy ISBN   978-1-84590-083-0 (Stephen Lankton & Carol Hicks Lankton)
  • A Guide to Trance Land: A Practical Handbook of Ericksonian and Solution-Oriented Hypnosis by Bill O'Hanlon (WW Norton & Company: New York, 2009).
  • Healing the Divided Self: Clinical and Ericksonian Hypnotherapy for Dissociative Conditions by Claire Frederick and Maggie Phillips (WW Norton & Company: New York, 1995).
  • Solution-Oriented Hypnosis: An Ericksonian Approach by Bill O'Hanlon and Michael Martin (WW Norton & Company: New York, 1991).
  • Resolving Sexual Abuse: Solution-Focused Therapy and Ericksonian Hypnosis for Adult Survivors by Yvonne M. Dolan (WW Norton & Company: New York, 1991).
  • My Voice Will Go With You: The Teaching Tales of Milton H. Erickson by Sidney Rosen (WW Norton & Company: New York, 1991)
  • Taproots: Underlying Principles of Milton Erickson's Therapy and Hypnosis by Bill O'Hanlon (WW Norton & Company: New York 1981).
  • Beyond Erickson: A Fresh Look at "The Emperor of Hypnosis", Milton H. Erickson by Alex Tsander (Summitother, Bristol, 2005. ISBN   0-9550731-0-3).

See also

Related Research Articles

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Hypnosis is a human condition involving focused attention, reduced peripheral awareness, and an enhanced capacity to respond to suggestion. The term may also refer to an art, skill, or act of inducing hypnosis.

Hypnotherapy is a type of complementary and alternative medicine in which the mind is used to help with a variety of problems, such as breaking bad habits or coping with stress.

Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) is an approach to communication, personal development, and psychotherapy created by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in California, United States in the 1970s. NLP's creators claim there is a connection between neurological processes (neuro-), language (linguistic) and behavioral patterns learned through experience (programming), and that these can be changed to achieve specific goals in life. Bandler and Grinder also claim that NLP methodology can "model" the skills of exceptional people, allowing anyone to acquire those skills. They claim as well that, often in a single session, NLP can treat problems such as phobias, depression, tic disorders, psychosomatic illnesses, near-sightedness, allergy, common cold, and learning disorders.

John Thomas Grinder, Jr. is an American linguist, author, management consultant, trainer and speaker. Grinder is credited with co-creating Neuro-linguistic programming, with Richard Bandler. He is co-director of Quantum Leap Inc., a management consulting firm founded by his partner Carmen Bostic St. Clair in 1987. Grinder and Bostic St. Clair also run workshops and seminars on NLP internationally.

Richard Bandler American author and trainer in the field of self-help

Richard Wayne Bandler is an American author and trainer in the field of self-help. He is best known as the co-creator of Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), a methodology to understand and change human behavior-patterns. He also developed other systems named Design Human Engineering (DHE) and Neuro Hypnotic Repatterning (NHR).

Erotic hypnosis is the practice of hypnosis for sexual purposes. This does not include hypnotherapy nor the therapeutic application of neurolinguistic programming and similar disciplines. Although often loosely referred to as "recreational hypnosis", recreational hypnosis is a broader subject, including practices like stage hypnosis and hypnosis for the enjoyment of the practice itself.

The Nancy School was a French hypnosis-centered school of psychotherapy. The origins of the thoughts were brought about by Ambroise-Auguste Liébeault in 1866, in Nancy, France. Through his publications and therapy sessions he was able to gain the attention/support from Hippolyte Bernheim: another Nancy Doctor that further evolved Liébeault's thoughts and practices to form what is known as the Nancy School.

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Suggestion is the psychological process by which one person guides the thoughts, feelings, or behavior of another person.

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Stephen R. Lankton, MSW, DAHB is the current editor of the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis (2005–2017). He is a recipient of the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis' "Lifetime Achievement Award" and “Irving Sector Award for Advancement of the Field of Hypnosis”. as well as the Milton H. Erickson Foundation “Lifetime Achievement Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Field of Psychotherapy.”

Michele Ritterman American therapist

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  1. Gregg E. Gorton, M.D. (2005) "Milton Hyland Erickson, 1901–1980." American Journal of Psychiatry 162:1255
  2. "Autohypnotic Experiences of Milton H. Erickson'" (Milton H. Erickson and Ernest L. Rossi), The American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, July. 1977 20, 36-54, reprinted in Collected Papers Volume 1.
  3. Gorton, Gregg E (2005). Milton Hyland Erickson The American Journal of Psychiatry. Washington. Vol.162, Iss. 7; pg. 1255, 1 pgs
  4. Andre M. Weitzenhoffer (1976) Introduction/forward in Hypnotic Realities Erickson & Rossi
  5. Rosen (1982), My Voice Will Go With You, p. 211
  6. Erickson & Rossi (1981), Experiencing Hypnosis
  7. Erickson & Rossi: Two-Level Communication and the Microdynamics of Trance and Suggestion, The American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 1976 Reprinted in Collected Papers Vol.1
  8. Lankton & Lankton, The Answer Within 1983/2008, Crown Publishers
  9. 1 2 Erickson & Rossi - Hypnotic Realities
  10. Transcription of Interview with Erickson quoted in Uncommon Therapy by Jay Haley.
  11. Varieties of Double Bind Erickson & Rossi, The American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, January 1975.
    Reprinted in Collected Papers Volume 3.
  12. 1 2 3 Erickson quoted in Uncommon Therapy by Jay Haley.
  13. Interview with Erickson transcribed in Uncommon Therapy by Jay Haley.
  14. Weitzenhoffer, Andre M. (2000). The Practice of Hypnotism
  15. Masson, Jeffrey (1988). Against Therapy: Emotional Tyranny and the Myth of Psychological Healing, pp. 268-279
  16. 1 2 Masson, Jeffrey (1988). Against Therapy: Emotional Tyranny and the Myth of Psychological Healing, p. 276
  17. Masson, Jeffrey (1988). Against Therapy: Emotional Tyranny and the Myth of Psychological Healing, pp. 2278-279
  18. Weitzenhoffer, A., The Practice of Hypnotism, 2000: 592-593.
  19. Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H. Erickson, M.D.
  20. Facing Change and Realizing Peace, 7-12-2012