cognitive priming

Is There A Bustle In Your Hedgerow? Maybe You Should Be Alarmed

What Is Cognitive Priming & Why Is It So Important?

Take Me To Your Leader

Wikipedia defines priming as an implicit memory effect in which exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus.

Now, that’s a technical definition of a specific kind of priming.

The Basic Idea Is That We Introduce Something To A Person’s Mind That Influences Them Later

Think hypnotic suggestion–or reframing from NLP. That’s the basic idea, right? We seek to influence people–whether it’s to stop a bad habit or start a good one. We might help someone feel better about themselves or turn down the level of pain from an illness. In all those cases, we’re introducing something to their mind that influences them later.

It’s Raining Cats & Dogs: Examples Of Basic Priming

In psychology, priming is often associated with memory. For instance, If I write the sentence, “The frog lay on the log in the bog, barely seen through the fog,” and then ask you to quickly think of an animal that people might keep as a pet, you’d likely say “Dog.”

Why? because all those words rhyme with dog and the rhymes activate that part of your mind–making thinking of “dog” easier, quicker and more convenient.

If I write, “The scientist woke up, yawned, took a good long stretch, drank his milk and sat down to play with the string theory ideas he’d been working on,” and then asked you to think of an animal that people might keep as a pet, you’d be more likely to say “Cat.”

Why? Because yawning, stretching, drinking milk and playing with string in combination are more likely associated with a cat.

Derren Brown Controls Minds

Here’s an example of priming that gets a lot of people to think of a specific card. When it works, it can seem like telepathy. In other words, it gets some people to attach a meaning (ESP) that isn’t there.

Pay attention now.

It’s not going to work every time of course. People have different associations, are paying attention to different things and may have different things on their mind. But the tendency will be there.

Our Beliefs Prime Us

When we help someone create a belief, we prime them across a wide range of contexts. We see what we believe and if we create a belief in someone, it controls what they sense. Beliefs can make you see, hear and feel things that aren’t actually there. They can make you think patterns exist when they really don’t exist.

For instance, if your mother told you you were clumsy a few dozen times when you were young, you might build that as a belief. It then would become easier for you to find examples of being clumsy. When you tripped, you might connect it to that belief and see it as proof that mom was right. Now it’s a pattern–regardless of whether you trip more than average or not.

If you hadn’t been primed that way, you might simply think, “I tripped.”

More Positive Priming

Of course, we can prime the other way ’round too. I read a quote the other day, “Failure is an inevitable part of creating success.” (Andrea Hess)

I’d just had a friend disappoint me deeply. I began to see that ‘failure’ as part of the process of defining more clearly who I wanted to do business with. It was part of my road to being more successful–on my terms!

But Here’s What Chaps My Hide…

There’s a hypnotherapy instructor who has been priming in what I believe is an extremely harmful fashion. Here’s the story as I heard it (second-hand).

She did a demonstration in front of the group with a young woman. Let’s call her “Jane.” Jane said she wanted to work on a couple of issues and the hypnosis instructor almost immediately came to the conclusion that the problems were caused by demonic possession or “entity attachments.” She then did a quick process to get the demon or attachment out and then Jane went back to her place in the class.

The instructor then went on to explain that most of people’s problems were caused by demonic possession, entity attachments or alien abductions.

Well, a friend of mine happened to talk to Jane. Jane asked her, “Do you really think I’m possessed by demons?”

That’s priming. If she buys in to that story, whenever she feels a conflict, has a problem in life or simply can’t break a habit on her own, she may think she’s possessed by a demon or was abducted by aliens or has some sort of evil, or at least non-benign spiritual attachment.

I doubt that’s a healthy outlook too have.

Now That’s Negative Priming!

I personally don’t believe in spirit possession or alien abduction but regardless of whether or not you do, it’s not wise to make it up and theorize that most of our problems are due to those factors!

Just in case you think you can’t be fooled by this type of nonsense, we all can be. When primed, we can all sense things that aren’t actually there. It gives you a good idea of how these things get started.

I Guarantee You’ll Hear Something That’s Not There

Here’s a remarkable example. I guarantee you, by the end 2 minutes in to the video (that’s all you’ll need to watch), you’ll be hearing things that aren’t there.

Listen carefully to what you hear as the song is being played backward. Then again while being primed.

What To Do?

Back to the woman who’s teaching spirit possession and entity attachment as the basis for most of our problems. What do you think I should do about it, if anything? Personally, I don’t see myself as the arbiter of all things hypnosis. Surely, I’m wrong about something :-). I also believe strongly in the right of people to believe what they want, think what they want and have any set of religious beliefs (or lack of religious beliefs) they want, as long as they don’t impose them on me.

On the other hand, I think harm is being done to innocent people by teaching them hypnosis in this way.

Suggestions? What do you think?



About The Author:

Keith Livingston is the main instructor for Hypnosis 101. Keith has been studying hypnosis since he was a boy and doing hypnosis & NLP training since 1997.

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  1. I couldn’t tell you what to do, Keith, but I agree you shouldn’t feel obligated to remain quiet about it.

    A couple of years ago I was at a gathering of local (to us both) hypnotherapists and the hypno-friendly, and two women told my niece and I with great enthusiasm that that week their hypnotherapy certification course–taught by another woman sitting nearby–was all about working with spirit guides. My niece said, “Do you mean your teacher is teaching you about spirit guides in addition to your certification?” No, they said, learning about spirit guides was part of their certification as hypnotherapists. The teacher chimed into the conversation and confirmed this.

    I didn’t say anything–I just sat there and blinked and found an excuse to change seats. If someone wants to believe in spirit guides, I’ll defend their right to do so even though I do not. But I also believe that to teach people that this belief is necessary to being a hypnotherapist is either reprehensible or ignorant, and if I can have all that and a pony, I’d vote for both. I wonder if there’s any chance we’re speaking of the same person? If not, perhaps there’s an epidemic of stupid right here in the Emerald City.

    Oh, was that my outside voice…?

    1. Bridget,
      I appreciate your thoughts.
      I don’t know the ultimate truth about the way the universe operates, to be sure. I just don’t understand why, in the hypnosis profession–a profession where everyone ought to know that hypnosis makes it easier for people to make stuff up and have it seem believable, the default position seems to be this…

      “If I can think about it or it comes to me or I dream it while I’m in hypnosis, it’s true. If you doubt me, you are close minded.”

      I have a different position.

      1) If a phenomenon was ever performed as an act in vaudeville, it probably is being accomplished in a similar way now.
      2) If an act can be accomplished by any person without supernatural powers, that’s probably how it’s being done by a person who claims supernatural powers.
      3) Just because we don’t understand everything about something, doesn’t mean it must necessarily be due to a supernatural power.
      4) Robert Plant is the only singer I can think of who can sign off key and still sound great.


  2. I agree with you that you should not consider it your responsibility to be the judge and jury of all things hypnosis but on the other hand, as the quote goes “All that is required for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing.” I believe that psychological problems and hypnotherapy can all be explained with good science. I don’t believe in spirits or the paranormal, but even if they do exist they are not required to explain why people get mental problems and why hypnotherapy can cure them. Anybody that is bringing spirits and possession in to the mix is dragging our profession back into the dark ages and likely to bring the profession into disrepute.
    How can we be taken seriously by the medical profession if we are claiming that psychological distress is caused by spirit demons?
    If I made such claims in Ireland then I would, quite rightly, be thrown out of my professional organisation (Institute of Clinical Hypnotherapy and Psychotherapy). I think that this woman should also be ejected from what every professional organisation she belongs to before she does too much harm.

  3. “I do not know what course others may may take, but for myself”, I will try not to impose my will upon others until I have perfected myself. (That should occur any day now.) Until then: She may be right. After all, one of us is. “I once decided to take up the one true religion. Until I found hundreds of them.”

    1. I don’t think I’ll try to impose my will even after I’ve perfected myself, lol. But there are a lot of actions in between not doing anything and attempting to impose will.

  4. I agree with you, what “Jane” presented was untrue, pure bull. But the point I was attempting to make, as lightly as possible, is that there are multiple beliefs. Some, perhaps all, all incorrect. I never cease to be amazed at what people believe (especially in an election year).
    And, as you know, much better than I, some people have a much easier time dealing with the supernatural than the factual. Each of us has an opportunity to make our own choice and we have a right to be wrong. (Perhaps a right I’m exercising it now.) And, isn’t NLP about results. If we choose to follow bad advice, that is out right And, well, it is an election year and about half of us will be wrong and a lot of people will be worshiping whatever deity they choose this Saturday, Sunday, and whatever other day they choose and we can’t all believe different things and all be right.
    In America each person has a right to expound any belief they choose and the people attending her session have a right to believe what she presents or not. Even if it’s bull. It’s up to them to make their own choice.
    Of course I could be wrong.

    1. I agree with you very much Fred. I believe people should have the right to choose their beliefs and (for the most part) treatments they may seek out. And here in America, people are supposed to have the right to speak their mind (again, within limits). That includes hate groups, morons, right and left wingers–you name it. And I personally support that right, whether I agree with the person or group speaking or not. And I have the right to speak out in opposition or agreement or say nothing at all.

      But I wasn’t asking if “Jane” should have the right to go to this class, or type of session. And of course, “Jane” had the right to leave at any time. But “Jane” was looking to this instructor as an authority figure in the field. What I’m thinking is that, in the public interest, shouldn’t we, as a profession/group say or do something? Shouldn’t we at least provide people who are interested with some alternate information? “Hey folks, I don’t do spirit guides and I don’t believe in demonic possession and I don’t believe the majority of people’s problems are a result of alien abductions. If you believe in that stuff and want that kind of therapy, you should probably go to someone who does. If you want solution-oriented, practically-based hypnotherapy, come my way.”

      I for one, think hypnosis would be taken much more seriously by the mainstream if so many practitioners weren’t of the alien abduction/spirit guide ilk. But as I mentioned, I’m not the judge and jury on what stays and what goes. Nor do I want to be. But that’s a separate issue than whether or not I speak up or do something in addition to speaking up.

  5. Keith,

    I’m a hypnotherapist, and I do spirit-releasement therapy when necessary. Sometimes it comes up during age-regression or parts-therapy work. (Check out Edith Fiore’s Unquiet Dead, William Baldwin’s books, and Shakuntala Modi’s books if you haven’t already.)

    With that said, I never, never, NEVER would suggest to a client that they may have attached entities. That would be leading the client; and, depending on the client’s belief system, could be damaging to rapport. But when it comes up and we do the releasement, the client usually feels a positive emotional shift. If they have questions after the session about what happened, I will answer according to their belief system. It is possible to understand entities as negative parts or aspects of the personality that need to be healed and removed. Anyone can accept that as an explanation–and it doesn’t freak anyone out.

    As to the woman in question, I have done a lot of spirit releasements over the years and, while entities may contribute to a client’s issues, they always have been just a part of the overall problem. They tend to exacerbate any negative belief systems that already exist in the client. It is a terrible distortion and misconception to attribute all of our misguided beliefs, misperceptions, and bad mental habits to attachments. So if you feel called to say something to her, I would. Maybe point out that you and other hypnotherapists have helped millions of people without doing any spirit releasement, and yet your clients are still helped and empowered. By advertising her beliefs in this way–as an authority figure–she is potentially making people feel afraid and disempowered, and that is hideously and grotesquely unethical, if not immoral.

    1. Richard,
      Well put. Though you and I may disagree about spirit possession, I believe we agree that neither of us should force our belief systems on our clients.
      Thanks for contributing.

  6. I think it is rather a cop-out for a hypnotist to blame issues on a demonic possession or alien abduction and is of no actual service to the client. It is an easy and fast way to explain away the situation, rather than offer assistance. I think these spiritual beliefs are entirely separate from practicing hypnosis. I also think expressing such thoughts do more harm than good for clients.

  7. You have a lengthy but read worthy article. I was battling with my thoughts regarding your post but your followers have taken them off my brain and posted them here. Richard’s comment encapsulated my thoughts:)

  8. Keith,

    There are people with personal issues and beliefs. When that person is an instructor in any field, even Hypnosis, the power position can cause a lot of damage. When such things do come up, you have no choice except to expose the situation, as it isn’t in keeping with the professionalism that any helping profession is based… to do no harm.

    Regardless of any of our personal belief systems, it’s important that professionalism and not attribution remain the driver of our work. The focus should always be on our client’s needs and interests and on their best interest and not the promotion of our personal schtick.

    Just my opinion,


  9. I certainly agree with you that this instructor of hypnosis is doing her students harm by teaching them such nonsense about the cause of issues. I also agree with you that she has every right to believe whatever she does and I suppose the people who listen to her and believe the same arenon their path to realizing the actual truth about cause and effect. I understand how frustrating it can be to see seemingly harmful stuff going on and feeling helpless to stop it. I trust you will always do in the moment what you feel is yours to do to support humans and Life. I think you are very wonderful and awesome

    1. Thanks for the comment, Claudia.
      If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from Facebook, it’ that the deluge of unclear thinking is massive.
      Only a protracted effort by whole societies would stem the tide, and I don’t see that happening.

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