Ernest Rossi on Mind-Body Therapy

Ernest Rossi on Mind-Body Therapy

by Rebecca Aponte
Ernest Rossi reflects on his personal journey from psychoanalyst to hypnotherapist and explores new frontier of mind and body research.
Filed Under: Body-Oriented, Ernest Rossi


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Breakthroughs in Mind-Body Research

Rebecca Aponte: As students of psychology and psychotherapy, we think and read and talk a lot about the mind—perception and memory, identity, and cognition. Can you convince me that it's important in psychotherapy to think about the body?
Ernest Rossi: You say you want me to talk about the importance of the body? Wow. About time somebody asked. Well, ours is a fantastic generation. We've discovered what the mind-body connection is really all about. This comes from the middle 1990's—neuroscience found that experiences of novelty, enrichment, exercise, both mental and physical, turn on activity-dependent gene expression, and that turns on brain plasticity, modulates the immune system, and activates stem cells throughout the body. And we've just completed a study, published last year for the first time—we used DNA microarrays to evaluate therapeutic hypnosis in psychotherapy. For the first time, we've established that therapeutic hypnosis in psychotherapy does change gene expression—specifically activity-dependent or experience-dependent gene expression.
RA: What are DNA microarrays?
ER: DNA microarrays are a new genomic technique of measuring in a single test with a few drops of blood (or other body fluids) all the genes that are being expressed in a moment of time. Our Italian-American team was the first to use DNA microarrays to determine a "molecular-genomic signature" (something like a genetic fingerprint) of therapeutic hypnosis. Other researchers have also used DNA microarrays and found that meditation, music, and Qi Gong can also turn on experience-dependent gene expression.

PTSD also turns on gene expression; we are now exploring which therapeutic techniques are most effective in turning off the genes that are turned on by PTSD as well as other psychiatric diagnostic categories like anxiety, depression, and so forth. The most exciting aspect of this research that relates psychological states to experience-dependent gene expression is that it bridges the so-called "Cartesian gap" between mind and body! I believe DNA microarray research together with innovative bioinformatic software is a new way of defining and identifying any psychological state - including creative states associated with live, here-and-now experiences of art, beauty, and truth. A variety of my books and papers that discuss this new neuroscience worldview can be found on my website at

for the first time in our generation we're seeing the whole connection—mind, thoughts, feelings.
for the first time in our generation we're seeing the whole connection—mind, thoughts, feelings. Excitement turns on our genes in our brain and our body and immune system. Those genes make proteins, and in the brain, those proteins make new synaptic connections, turn on stem cells, and create new neural networks, which now create new thoughts. So we've got the complete circle. The Cartesian gap between mind and body no longer exists.

Humble Beginnings

RA: It's so interesting to see you light up like that when you talk about it. Of course, our readers won't be able to see that unless they've seen you on a video—but what is it that makes you light up about it like that?
ER: Well, I'm just a little guy. My father immigrated to this country in '06, never went beyond the eighth grade; same with my mother. As a child, I was fascinated with chemistry—wine. My father's Italian. He'd make wine in the cellar. He'd crush the grapes and then he'd make a ferment. The fumes were so strong I'd go down there, get drunk, and almost fall down the stairs. "What is that?" I wanted to know.

My father used to have these little bottles of flavoring for wines and liquor. He also made and sold veterinary medicines the farmers loved. We had shelves all around our cellar, stocked with drugs and mysterious balms and pharmaceuticals. So as a little boy my first toys were those empty little bottles. I'd fill them with water and I'd try to make colors. But my parents indentured me to the local shoe repairman. At seven I went to work after school everyday, learning how to become a shoe repairman. But it got boring after a while.
RA: Yeah, I can imagine.
ER: On the way home from school, I would pass this little library. I'd go in and start browsing in the books. I fell in love with fairy tales, myths, until one day I finished all the books in the children's section, and I was terribly sad. Then I idly noticed in another section of books—they were adult books, they weren't for me—but one of them had little lightning bolt on the back binding, and I said, "Ah, must be a fairy tale book." I picked it up: Electricity for Young Boys. I opened it up and it was a little book about Tesla coils, electricity, and how to make sparks come out of magnets—for young boys to make experiments. So to make a long story short, I did all those experiments.
I was a little physicist. I made little radios. I used my tips from my shoeshine to buy my first chemistry set.
I was a little physicist. I made little radios. I used my tips from my shoeshine to buy my first chemistry set. In the eighth grade I was so proficient that on the last day of school, we'd all lined up ready to file in for graduation, and just to celebrate with great exuberance, I set off one of my homemade bombs. It went, Boom! Kids went flying, dogs jumped around. The teachers expelled me the last day of school.
RA: The last day of eighth grade you were expelled?
ER: I had perfect attendance for eight years. The last day of school they expelled me. My mother had to go in and see the principal.
RA: So then what happened?
ER: Well, I was never a very great student academically because I spoke Italian, you know—we came from an impoverished home. But nonetheless, I continued my library readings so that by the time I went to high school downtown... That's another nice story. Let me tell you the story.

All the kids would take the buses downtown where the big school was. It was on Main Street in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The bus stopped, all the kids rolled out, and now our archetypal situation manifested itself. All the smart kids who were planning to go to college went up the hill to Central High. All the dumb kids destined for trade school went down the street to an industrial area where there was a trade school for industrial workers, for kids like me. Well, I was enrolled to go to the trade school, but as luck would have it, I was in love with Beverly Slavsky. She didn't know it, of course. My first day, she rushed out in her beautiful flouncing skirts with all her friends and jabbering, and they started walking up to high school.
RA: And away from you.
ER: I started to look across Main Street where I had to cross to go down, and I took one long, lingering look, and I saw her with her flouncing skirts and happy faces. I said, "Damn it," and I just followed her. I followed her right up to high school. She didn't know me from Adam.

I followed what the kids did—they went to the auditorium where they had to go toward their names. When it came to me they said, "We don't have your name here." I said, "You don't have my name here? Oh, I guess there must be some mistake, huh?" And they said, "Oh, yes, there must be an error. Well, let me take down your name, Ernest." And that's all I heard of it.

So I registered in regular high school. My parents didn't know it.
All hell broke out three months later when the first report card came out. "You're going to high school! You're not going to trade school! What are you, crazy?"
All hell broke out three months later when the first report card came out. "You're going to high school! You're not going to trade school! What are you, crazy?" How was I going to earn a living? But I stuck. I eventually did date Beverly the last year of high school.

RA: So the story has something of a happy ending.
ER: Yeah. We went for a bike ride. But the unhappy part is I was so shy, all I could talk to her about is how I wished I had a dog and stuff like that.

A Secret Weapon

ER: In high school I was still working for the shoe repairman, but by this time my tastes had become more academic. I discovered in the libraries all about fairy tales, electricity and chemistry, so I was a little genius making my chemistry. I didn't always make bombs. I made radios and electric vacuum tubes. I was a real little protégé. I didn't know it—I thought it was just natural. But I would go to the library for these technical books on electricity and eventually mathematics. And I discovered yoga. Boy, what a story that is.

So now I was maybe twelve or thirteen. And I was reading all of these yoga books and I felt I was dumb, especially compared to Beverly Slavsky. I wasn't really so dumb—I was like a C student—but she was more than just pretty skirts. I saw one day next to the yoga books—it must have been the philosophy section—a book by Immanuel Kant,The Critique of Pure Reason. I thought, "That book is going to teach me how to reason." So I picked up The Critique of Pure Reason, not knowing who Immanuel Kant was. And I began studying that book. It was very hard to read, and you know how dense the Germanic prose is, especially in translation. So for years through high school I was just a mediocre student, but I was reading Immanuel Kant and then many of the classics in physics and early mathematics. None of it applied to my school, though, so I never got good grades.

By this time I also had a newspaper route, so I had to get up at four o' clock in the morning, fighting the snow in Connecticut. It was terrible. And what I would do is I would get up and sit in a lotus posture in my bed. I'd read about the experiments of the yogis, how they did mind-body things, miracles. And by this time I was in love with Janet Tallcouch. I went to my mother one day as she was stirring the soup. I said, "What color are my eyes, Ma?" I knew Janet would look into my eyes, and I couldn't tell what color my eyes were. "Your eyes? Your eyes are shit-brown," and she shrugged. Completely crushed, I went to the mirror. My god, how did I not notice that they were shit-brown! It was worse with the black spots, and there were even green spots—really terrible. So I continued my meditation. Then it occurred to me in my yogic meditations that maybe I could change the color of my eyes so Janet, when she looked at me, would fall in love with me. So I looked at my eyes: "Well, the green is nice. What if I could change my eyes from shit-brown to green? There already is a little green there." So I decided that I would sit in my yoga posture at four o' clock in the morning, just before I had to go out to deliver papers, and say, "Green eyes, green eyes, Ernie has green eyes." And I did that every morning, I don't know for how long—maybe half a year or so. But like kids will, you forget about it.
RA: Right. So eventually this accumulation of knowledge and the discovery of yoga opened your eyes to the mind-body connection?
ER: I really believed all those miracles of yogis. This was the beginning of my interest in higher consciousness.

Meanwhile, graduation time came, and there was no chance for me to go to college—I was a C student. But nonetheless, as luck would have it, my parents went to Italy for a visit for the first time in their lives, just around graduation time. So to make a long story short, I asked my grandfather to loan me 25 dollars so I could take the college entrance exam. He said, "You, Jack?" He called me Jack—it was short for jackass. It was my childhood name.

"Yeah, I want to take them."

"What the heck." So they loaned me the 25 dollars, I took the exam, and I did so well. What happened was that on the exam they had reading comprehension. Soon we hit those paragraphs where you have to read, then check off A, B, C, or D. It was a miracle: all those paragraphs I studied in Immanuel Kant, there they were! I didn't bother reading the paragraph. I just looked at the answers, and well, check, check. Looked to the next one—check, check. I went through the whole section, just rapidly clicking off the answers without even reading. I thought, "Oh my god, this is crazy." And I'd go back and I started to read some of them, but yeah, it was all correct, so I put that aside and I went on to the next thing. So I really had a secret cheat sheet.

So I got a scholarship to college. And that started a pattern. By the time I got to college I'd done all my studying in chemistry. I went to pharmacy school. I hardly had to go to take the exams because I already knew all that stuff.

But we have to get back to the yoga. So now I was in college for the first time, in a fraternity. In fraternities the first thing they do is set you up on blind dates with the sorority. I really never had a date except for Beverly Slavsky and that bike ride. So I have a date with a lovely young thing. We meet, and she's in beautiful flouncing skirts, and she's kind of short, and she looks up at me. "Oh, Ernest. What beautiful green eyes you have." Green eyes! I hadn't looked at my eyes since the shit...
RA: You had completely forgotten about the green eyes.
ER: Forgot it. After the date, I went and looked at my eyes, and they are kind of green.
RA: Yes.
ER: I think a little greener than yours, as a matter of fact.
RA: I think so.
ER: Now, did I change my eye color? I don't know. It might have been a natural thing. My father had brown eyes, my mother had blue—who knows.

Introduction to Mental Chemistry

ER: But you asked a question—how did I get interested in body and mind?
RA: Right.
ER: You see, I went to pharmacy school. And there I was clearly outstanding, and so now I got scholarships to go to graduate school. And there again I was pretty good, but I was neurotic—I still wasn't dating girls. So one day while I was working in the pharmacy department to earn some money,
a fellow graduate student in psychology gave me Freud'sInterpretation of Dreams. And that book completely knocked me out cold.
a fellow graduate student in psychology gave me Freud'sInterpretation of Dreams. And that book completely knocked me out cold. I saw suddenly, this was mental chemistry. I loved all that. My first book turned out to be about dreams too.

I immediately decided to switch into psychology, and of course in psychology they welcomed me with open arms—I was a scholarship student, and had all this good physical chemistry background. So that's how it continued. I got my first degree in psychology, then my PhD. I landed a U.S. public health postdoctoral with Franz Alexander, this famous psychoanalyst out here on the West Coast, so I studied with him two years. And of course he was a profound gentlemanly scholar.

Now that I'd got my postdoctoral done, I had my first proper office in the Berkeley hills, and one of my first clients was this elderly schoolteacher. What was his problem? Sexual impotence. So I worked with his dreams, and by this time I was writing my own dream book, and he thought I was very clever. After a couple sessions, he was improving. And he'd walk out of the office, and he'd wink at me. I thought, What the hell's happening that he would wink at me? So I asked him the next day, "What is all this winking at me as you leave?" And he tells me, "Oh, I know what you're doing. You pretend to be interested in my dreams but you're using hypnosis on me, aren't you?" I never said hypnosis. In short, he had Haley's early book on selected pages of Milton H. Erickson. He loaned it to me. He said, "You pretend to be interested in my dreams, but as I talk about my dreams I get sleepy, and you're hypnotizing me. That's how you're curing my impotence, and it's working."
RA: Were you working with the body back then too, or was this strictly talk therapy?
ER: No, I was just working with dreams. I was trained as a Freudian analyst. While I was getting my PhD in the daytime, I secretly went to a psychoanalytic institute at night. Of course, you can't tell that to the academic people—they'dfire you! But my client gave me that book, the selected papers of Erickson. I took it home, and it was a weekend and I began reading it. Actually, this is a different one but this is my own copy [pulls book off of bookshelf]. I bought this when it was new. You'll see notes on just about...
RA: Oh my god. It's tattered!
ER: Look, can I find a page where there aren't notes? Let me see how enamored I was of Milton H. Erickson, making these notes...
RA: What was it about hypnosis? Is there something about it that speaks to that mind-body connection?
ER: Exactly. I was so taken up with this that I read it all. I had a wife and two lovely little girls at this time. I read it all that Friday night. Saturday, I still was buried in the book. My wife went out with the kids to the park. She came back and said, "You're still reading that?!" I said, "Yes, yes, yes, I've got to finish this." I read all Saturday night. Sunday came around—I was still reading the book. My wife was beginning to think this was crazy. Finally, Sunday night, I was lying in bed next to my beautiful, lovely wife, and I was still reading the book. I wanted to put the book down, so I said, "Okay, I just want to finish this paragraph." Finally I felt a pain in my stomach, and I just dropped off to sleep. Next day I had a hot poker in my stomach.

A couple days later I went to a doctor. He said, "What are you doing, Ernest? Stop whatever you're doing. You're giving yourself an ulcer." Now I had an ulcer. I needed a cure for my ulcer. Who could I call? Milton H. Erickson.

So I called Erickson. He said, "Well, sure, you can see me." I told him I'd written a book. He said, "Okay, you mail me the book." So within a couple weeks I drove eight hours from California to Milton's office in Phoenix, and he began working with me. We had about four or five sessions like that. But on the drives there and back, I would start to write papers in my mind, because every time I left Erickson's office, I went into my car and wrote down everything I thought he said and what the hypnosis was.

Finally, he looked at me quizzically one day.
He was this gnarled little man in purple robes and paralyzed, mostly. Finally he wagged his head. "You aren't a real patient, are you?" He found me out.
He was this gnarled little man in purple robes and paralyzed, mostly. Finally he wagged his head. "You aren't a real patient, are you?" He found me out. So I said, "Aw, yeah, when I go out I write down everything you say. And I drive home and I'm starting to write papers in my mind with you, Dr. Erickson." He wanted to know what those papers were, so I explained. I really had about four or five in my mind. He said, "Okay. I want you to write those papers. But I want you to remember one thing. On those papers, I will be the senior author and you will be the junior author, because I am your senior, you know!" You think of Milton H. Erickson, the lovely old man. But he had a little bite to him.
RA: Oh, yes. I've heard stories. Now when you had those initial sessions with him, was he talking about dreams with you?
ER: No, he just did hypnosis. And there came this day when he had this conversation. All this time my first book, Dreams and the Growth of Personality, was sitting between us. Erickson had this little office, about eight by eight. So he's sitting here, I'm sitting there, and this book was right on the corner of the desk, right between us. We went through four or five sessions with that book just being there, closed. I knew it was my book, but he never said anything, I never said anything, until finally, one day when I was walking out the door, I looked back at him shyly, and I felt now I had license. "Oh, by the way, my book's there. Did you look at it, Dr. Erickson?"

He turned, slowly looked at the book, as if he'd never seen it before. "Oh." He looked at me. By this time I had the door half open, just about to step out. He looked up at me. "Well, it's kind of elementary, isn't it?"
RA: Ouch.
ER: Bang! I closed the door. I didn't mean to bang it. I just banged the damn thing. Went home and I started writing the papers. But you know, he's a master of one-upmanship—rousing that expectation having that book right there, until I finally have to ask him, and then he's in the up position.
RA: Of course.
ER: And then, "It's rather elementary." I thought it was the latest thing since Freud, obviously. But "kind of elementary."

Novelty, Numinosum and Neurogenesis

RA: Shifting gears a little bit to the present, I read something recently that you wrote about dreams and constructed memory.
ER: Yes, I got a prize for that.
RA: Excellent. Can you explain what constructed memory means?
ER: Yes. The classic theory of memory, of course, is that memory is to recall the past. This is the basis of psychoanalysis: as you recall the past, you hit upon sources of stressful memories, you go into catharsis, cry and weep, and that catharsis leads to healing. Same thing with hypnosis. All the classic books of Pierre Janet, the 1880's classic, all case histories of how therapeutic hypnosis is used to access memory, you get those early troublesome memories, and, ah... suddenly their symptoms disappear! And I had some success with that, working the psychoanalytic mode. I also shifted later and became a Jungian analyst, where there's more of a focus on consciousness. But it wasn't until the 1990's that neuroscientists created a new theory, which I talk about in that paper. The new theory is that,
although the very word "memory" means from the past, really these functions of memory, from an evolutionary perspective, are actually tools, resources that evolution selected for to help you create dreams, and in the dreams you create a better future.
although the very word "memory" means from the past, really these functions of memory, from an evolutionary perspective, are actually tools, resources that evolution selected for to help you create dreams, and in the dreams you create a better future.
RA: So it's using memories of things that have actually happened, but applying them to novel situations in a dream?
ER: Yes. In the 1970's I wrote a couple papers on dreams. I proposed the theory that dreams are tapping our RNA and they're making the proteins that lead to new structures of the mind. That idea was floating around someplace. Neuroscientists were discovering that when they give a rat a rich environment, the brain's actually heavier. Why? Because it has more proteins, and proteins are the heaviest part of the body. So there was the idea that RNA was somehow related to neural activity. So in that first paper I proposed half a dozen lines of things that could really investigate this hypothesis. It wasn't until 20 years later—1995, 96, 97—that neuroscientists actually established that enriching life experiences turn on genes in our brain and those genes make the proteins for the new neural networks for presumably new levels of consciousness.
RA: Can constructed memories act as enriching life experiences in such a way that they activate the genes that lead to new neural pathways in the brain—in the way that neuroscientists now understand waking events to do?
ER: I certainly believe this will be true. But no one has tested this possibility yet, as far as I am aware.
RA: Now, for therapists who don't have a strong science background like you do, how can they harness that?
ER: That's what I'm working on day and night. Most of my books—for example, The Psychobiology of Gene Expression, orA Discourse with our Genes—really, these are terrible titles. Most psychotherapists don't pick it up because it looks like biology. But it's not biology—it's the connection between psychology and biology, and now psychology and gene expression.

The important thing to recognize is that this innovative bioinformatic field of research with DNA microarrays, which I now call "psychosocial genomics,"is helping us break out of the limitations of the cognitive-behavioral worldview that has dominated psychology and psychotherapy over the past generation. Every time a client enters your consulting room and sits within arm's length of you—that simple act of behavior and positive expectation turns on your mirror neurons, experience-dependent gene expression, and the possibility of creative brain plasticity.
If you have an interesting session that engages your client's sense of wonder, novelty, fascination, enrichment etc.—what I call the "Novelty-Numinosum-Neurogenesis Effect"—that actually evokes heightened consciousness and neural activation to facilitate brain plasticity.
If you have an interesting session that engages your client's sense of wonder, novelty, fascination, enrichment etc.—what I call the "Novelty-Numinosum-Neurogenesis Effect"—that actually evokes heightened consciousness and neural activation to facilitate brain plasticity. We no longer presume to "analyze" and "interpret" or "suggest" things to our clients! That's really an impossible task. How could even the wisest therapist hope to accomplish that—with billions of neurons and synaptic connections changing every microsecond within our clients? Rather, psychotherapists help people access their sense of awe and wonder to heighten their consciousness and neurons to evoke "experience-dependent gene expression and brain plasticity" so people can provide themselves with the kind of self-care and self-direction that only they are sensitive enough to perceive and modulate appropriately with their own behavioral self-prescriptions. This is rather a different point of view of what psychology and psychotherapy is all about, is it not?
RA: And this is the very mind-body connection that's always fascinated me.
ER: So finally we found the truth, the real signs of mind-body connection. But you see, I'm still governed by the primacy of molecules, so I'm very proud of my books. The Psychobiology of Gene Expression—wow, what profound ideas!
RA: The names might scare away the biologists and the psychologists.
ER: It falls between the cracks and gets lost.
RA: Right.
ER: So this is why I'm so enthusiastic. I'm that little kid who studied this way back with yoga, you know, when he was 12, 13, and then again as I became a young man in my late twenties and thirties. So I've done a lot of original thinking in this area. My books are very highly respected, but they're not exactly bestsellers, because psychologists still think of me... Well, they don't think of me!

There's an article, "Art, Beauty and Truth," where I talk about how experiences of art, beauty and truth are turning on gene expression, brain plasticity, and new levels of consciousness. Evolution has selected for states of consciousness that are very aware of any change in environment, because that has survival value. Someone like Richard Dawkins, a neo-Freudian, talks about sexual selection, the mechanism of evolution in which a female bird, for example, finds males with a little bit of color in their tail attractive because that color detail means it's a healthy male and it's going to have better babies and so forth. So females will select more and more of males that have those tails, and this evolves into the peacocks.

So sexual selection is one of the dominant modern theories of evolution. But what I'm formulating is consciousness selection, and it has the basis in this new neuroscience that says evolution has a survival mechanism, and that's being sensitive to any changes in your environment, because it could be dangerous or it could be good food and so forth. This is the "Novelty-Numinosum-Neurogenesis effect." Anything that's novel turns on your genes, fixes your attention, and gives you a certain emotion, and that's what Jung called the numinosum. This is where my background as a Jungian analyst comes in.

The numinosum was invented by German theologian Rudolf Allers. He studied all the religions of humankind: was there any common denominator in the experiences of Christ, and Moses, Buddha, Mohamed? He found, yes, they all had a big experience: Buddha with the waking up in this meditation and realizing the universe and I are one; Moses going up to the mountain and getting the tablets of God, a symbol of consciousness. So Rudolf Allers said, "What is the numinosum? It's the experience of fascination, mysteriousness, and tremendousness." All the major religions of humankind were founded by someone who had, if we rely on historical documents, a big experience of this fascinating, tremendous and mysterious. Well, in my mind, fascination, tremendousness, and mysteriousness are very similar to novelty, enrichment, and exercise. So I put them together. In the humanities they called it art and beauty that fixes our attention—a witness and fixation of attention, but a heightening of consciousness.
Anything that heightens consciousness turns on gene expression and brain plasticity and new neural networks and therefore consciousness.
Anything that heightens consciousness turns on gene expression and brain plasticity and new neural networks and therefore consciousness.

And this is what I try to write about in my books, but I'm always trying to bring the evidence, and half the evidence is in biology and half is in the humanities—Jung, visions, the spiritual. Even today, I just wrote a chapter of a prolegomenon to the philosophy of evolution. A bunch of philosophers in India are writing this book. I give them workshops, they hear about me, so they invite me to make a contribution, and my contribution is: what does neuroscience have to offer philosophy?—a new view of what the human condition is. So in that paper, which will be out later this year, I hope, I lay out this theory of art, truth, and beauty. From the humanities to numinosum, from all the spiritual humanistic literature to the neuroscientists' novelty, excitement, enrichment, activity—they're all one, I'm saying. So this is how I integrate all of the humanities and sciences.

RA: That's great. There's a current trend right now where therapists are starting to use the language of the brain and biology, referring to the limbic system and so forth. Maybe some of these therapists don't have a great fundamental knowledge in science...
ER: They're still using neuroscience, and neuroscience merges into genomics and the new field that I've created called psychosocial genomics. So most psychologists think that they're doing great with neuroscience. That is wonderful. But there's still this other level, the genomic level. They're interested in neurons. Well, how do you get new neurons? I had a stroke—I've had an experience of it. Your neurons die. When there is any injury to cells in a tissue, those cells send out emergency messenger molecules that signal neighboring stem cells to turn on gene expression that will generate the new proteins that are needed for the stem cell to differentiate, that is, mature into new cells that will replace the injured and dying cells. This is how normal wound healing and rehabilitation take place in the brain and body.

Of particular interest to psychotherapists is that the new neurons that develop in response to brain trauma and stress require about four weeks to evolve from stem cells in the hippocampus of the human brain where memory and learning are encoded. It then takes another three or four months for these new neurons to become fully functional. That's just about the time required for "brief psychotherapy!" Recent neuroscience research demonstrated that these new neurons encode the most refined nuances of new learning. I hypothesize that the new consciousness and ineffable states of being are also encoded by these sensitive young neurons. They are the source of all original art, beauty, and truth!

A New Theory of Art and Beauty

RA: It's interesting that you mention that the things that we love—art and beauty and truth—we're naturally drawn to.
ER: Yes, why do we love them? Evolution has selected art, truth and beauty, anything that heightens our consciousness, I mean,
even a bird will pick up a bright-colored stone hoping to attract a female bird. Anything bright that sparkles turns on your senses.
even a bird will pick up a bright-colored stone hoping to attract a female bird. Anything bright that sparkles turns on your senses. So this is a new theory of art and beauty—it's a new theory of aesthetics. What do the arts and sciences have in common? You have all these talking heads, "Oh, art is just like the sciences." Now they're saying, "What they have in common is a sense of wonder." Wonder motivates the scientists just as it does the humanistics. It is wonder of the transcendent god that is really the most sophisticated. Nobody believes there's a god in heaven, but they believe in a transcendent god. And how do we know but because we have a sense of wonder that goes beyond our experience, our empirical experience. And so once again they're trying to keep these fields separate.

I'm saying, "Dumbbell, the sense of wonder is like fascination—it turns on the genes that makes new neural networks. And as it makes these new neurons, it pours out young hormones, making you feel good." So evolution has selected for a sense of wonder, and yet the very ultra-conservative, not too well educated, I'm afraid, or religious would say, "The wonder goes beyond science. And that's the spirit and soul." Give me a break!
RA: Do you suggest that exposing ourselves to new experiences is a way to keep our brains young and to maximize our neurological regenerative capacities? Is this something you would advocate for the general population?
ER: Yes, and for the general population there is a new industry of computerized games of skill to choose from. I also see this as the essential function of the psychotherapist. We optimize experience-dependent gene expression and brain plasticity by facilitating novel and numinous states of heightened consciousness and creativity that actually keep us young with the new neurons such interesting experiences tend to evoke. This is what I do! I'm always searching for the most numinous and fascinating experiences my clients have in dreams and fantasies as well as real life. How can I encourage people to have the courage (and good sense) to go with their bliss—whatever their growing edge may be? That is always the central question and focus of my creative approaches to psychotherapy.
RA: Now, in the way that we're naturally drawn to art—we don't know what it's doing for us, but we're drawn anyway.
ER: Yes, exactly—because it's intriguing, it's novel, it's different. It leaves you with a profound "I don't know. What is this, what is this, what is this?" And your focusing, and that "What is it? What is this?"—that's turning on gene plasticity and new neural networks.

An Exercise in Curiosity

RA: Since most therapists don't have the background that you have in hypnosis and chemistry, is there a way that they're still getting to the right end without knowing it?
ER: Yeah, I think so. With hypnosis, there's a sense of wonder, for example. The very concept of the unconscious—it's mysterious, it's strange. The whole theory of archetypes and so forth. Study mythology and you get the underlying patterns of human behavior, and you'll see all the metaphors. Certain Jungian analysts, for example, are still in the thirteenth century: "Alchemy, alchemy, alchemy." They don't know there's a new alchemy called DNA today. But I'm developing what I call the activity--or experience--dependent exercises for hypnotic induction, only I don't call it hypnotic induction unless the person believes that nonsense.

But I will say, for example, "Look at those hands almost as if you've never seen them before." Just that simple thing starts to pull for a dissociation. "Look at my hands almost as if I've never..." starts stimulating a sense of wonder—the beginning of the four-stage creative process. Leonardo da Vinci called it curiosity. The mother of science is data collection—you've got to collect data. But it's the "I don't know" that leads to wonder and those first two stages. And when you start wondering, inevitably in every creative process, you hit the middle stage or stage two: despair. See, smoke is coming out of his head. His brain is overheated. He has activity-dependent gene expression that's being turned on by this "I don't know." He doesn't know how to do it. But the very "I don't know" starts the mind wondering, and he actually gets pink in the face until that stimulates the neurons stimulating the different connections, until, "Ah!" Stage three: he gets a new idea. He drops his pencil. Every artist, every scientist talks about their creative process. They always talk about the struggle. Have you ever seen a movie where there wasn't a problem in the beginning? All love songs, what are they about? All operas? There's always a problem. Lovers can't get together. So this is the common feature of curiosity: "I don't know—how am I going to solve this problem?" So this is a hook. Every day we go through this process. You're asking me questions, you're trying to learn something, right?
RA: Right.
ER: You get the new idea, and then, "Ah." It's like magic. "Why didn't I think of this before? It's so simple!" That's what I'm saying: it's so simple.
RA: You call that stage "verification." Is that your cerebral cortex verifying what your body knows?
ER: Yes. You have to go in and do the experiments, you have to verify the equation, write the musical.
RA: Right. That makes me wonder—as someone who focuses on the mind and body the way you do, if you teach a client how to look inside and feel curious about themselves, how do you help them integrate it to their life?
ER: I've got what I call the creative psychosocial genomic healing experience. I've actually got a scale so that I can teach it to other therapists. It's what I tried to show you with the hands. The typical thing is: What's your problem? You don't even have to tell me what your problem is, okay? Just look at those hands and tell me, which hand seems a little warmer or cooler? Lighter or heavier? And people start actually getting the sense. And then I move on to: Which hand would be more like your mother? Which would be more like your father? Now, no hand is really your mother or your father, yet most people will say, "Well, this would be my mother. Yeah, this would be my father." Then I go on: Which hand is more like you as you are here today, and which is more like you as a child? Can you tell me that right now?
RA: Yes. This one is more like me. And my left is more like me as a child.
ER: Of course, you're having a hallucination. But yet I do believe for processes in your brain that you're projecting into your hands. So we get the brain, the mind, out into observable behavior. And now I can ask a whole series of questions of how that child and the adult are going to get together for a mutual benefit. But you see, already, was this a hypnotic induction I've done on you? You said, "This is the child and this is me." That is it. It works that quickly.

So we can say, "Oh, Rossi's turned into a Gestalt therapist." Yeah, I worked with Fritz Perls, but instead of putting the mother out in the chair, I put it in your hands. Or if not your hands—I got some people who have crippled hands, so I said, "Are you more in your head or your heart? Which is more like you today, your head or your heart? Which is the child?" So you see, I can take different parts of the body. The value of using the body instead of out-there projection like Fritz did is that you immediately get sensory feedback from your hands. And this is what our research has shown—these processes turn off immune system dysfunction, tend to turn off molecular oxidation at the genomic level, and tend to turn on stem cell activity for healing.

And we have practical techniques. These are the techniques that we used for that study. So we published the first DNA study showing that these psychological techniques, this little simple thing you're doing, is affecting you at the genomic level. That's the new exciting thing.

The Opposite

RA: Is there any type of client that this wouldn't work for?
ER: Yes. Some people just don't get it, like the Marlboro man. You know what I mean? The ones don't know how to introspect. I've had men come in here, beautiful types, and they put out their hands, and I can see immediately they don't. I say the things that I say to you and they stare at their hands. They stare up at me. They look down. They're waiting for lightning to strike. What happened to you? It took you less than a minute. They don't have your sensitivity. You've got wonderful introspective powers. Did you know that?
RA: I did know that.
ER: A lot of people, actors, most people in the humanities—you're into literature, you're into writing, you're a journalist or a psychologist. We have good mirror neurons, not only for picking up on the outside, but what's going on inside.
RA: Are there specific challenges with this technique if you're working with trauma?
ER: Trauma are my best clients because whatever the trauma is, I can say, "Which hand would be the hand that's experiencing the trauma?" And they say, "Oh, this one." I say, "Good. Continue experiencing. Now, what do you experience in the other hand that's the opposite of the trauma? You don't even have to tell me."
What's the opposite of every trauma? It's got to be inner resources that can heal the trauma.
What's the opposite of every trauma? It's got to be inner resources that can heal the trauma. You don't ask them, "What are the inner resources?" They're going to say, "Yes, yes, I've got them." You just say something simple like, "What's the opposite? If you're feeling your anxiety here, what do you feel in your other hand?"

I can give you an anecdote about how I learned this process maybe 30 years ago. I was working in Malibu at the time. Your classic teensy-weeny little bitty sweet secretary comes in, a first-time client. And what's her problem? "Oh, stress, doctor. Stress, stress." Stress at her job, how terrible her boss is, this that and the other thing. I don't want to admit this, I wouldn't admit it in public—but this particular afternoon, it's getting late, around four o' clock, I'm tired so I'm losing my verbal fluency. So I say, "Can you put your stress in one hand?" And she starts, like you, only she takes her time and I see her sitting back in the couch and I think, "Wow, she's really taking it seriously." So seriously I start becoming interested now. So finally she says, "This hand, Doctor." And I say, "Okay, now, in the other hand... " I'm looking for the word like relaxation or calm, the opposite of the stress, only I'm tired and I stumble. "You know, the opposite of your stress. What's the opposite of your stress you put in the other hand?" I'd never said it that way before.
RA: Open-ended like that?
ER: I always told the patient what to feel here in the second hand, which is what I thought was the opposite. But here, by accident, I happen to say "the opposite." And now I see her look, almost with a hypnotic stare, from her stressed hand to her other hand. And I see her eyes widen, her jaw dropping. At this time I realize she's falling into a trance. And I say, "That's right. Really continuing to receive that as your eyes are getting droopy, continue..." And to make a long story short, finally, both hands go down and she starts to curl up on the couch in a very sweet way. And there's a pillow there and she tucks herself in, and she goes on just quietly in her inner trance. I say nothing until, after about 20, 30, maybe even 40 minutes, she comes to and she looks at me. And I look at her. And suddenly I'm realizing, this is no teeny-weeny little secretary. Actually, I wouldn't want to say it, but this is quite an attractive woman I'm looking at. Well, of course, with the relaxation her face changes her voice. Her pupils are dilated. I just noticed she was very lovely.

As she comes out, she says, "Oh, Doctor, thank you. That's so wonderful. I've never felt so wonderful in all my life." And I pick up my book and am going to start setting up for the next appointment, but before I can ever ask her for the check or anything, she picks up her pocketbook, she opens it, she pulls out her checkbook, says, "Doctor, what is your fee? I'm going to tell all my friends about you. I didn't know psychotherapy could work so wonderfully in just one session." I give her my fee. She writes out the check, hands it to me, and I notice she isn't a bent, fearful secretary. Now she stands—she really is a lovely woman—and she starts walking to the door. I'm thinking she's this lovely creature that's going to leave my life forever. And so just as she's going out the door, I finally am able to say, "Oh, by the way, what was it that was the opposite of the stress?" And she says, "Oh, Doctor, it was wonderful." She looks back. "It was sex, doctor. That was the opposite. Thank you so much." And she closed the door and was out of my life forever. And there I learned, the therapist should not project.

To go back to your question on trauma—what's the main problem in working with traumatized patients?
The big debate in the literature: "Aren't you going to retraumatize your patient when you have them reactivate the memories?" No, I've never retraumatized the patient. Why? Because I never have a person go into the trauma.
The big debate in the literature: "Aren't you going to retraumatize your patient when you have them reactivate the memories?" No, I've never retraumatized the patient. Why? Because I never have a person go into the trauma. As soon as they say, "The trauma's here," before they go any further, I say, "Now, what's in your other hand that's the opposite?" It's going to be invariably something positive even though I don't know what it is. So you see, the typical therapist makes this mistake of just going into the traumatic side, reliving it, and they think reliving it just like Freud's catharsis—and there's some truth to it, it does work pretty good sometimes—but yes, people can get stuck in stage two. They keep reliving. They never jump to stage three.
RA: Right.
ER: But my clients are always in the safety basket of a positive something. It's only part of their mind. The other part of their mind is in their resources and how to deal with it. They go through a psychodrama. Sometimes they don't have to talk about it. So it's a nonverbal psychodrama where they resolve their own problem in their own way. A trauma's coded here, the resources are here, and with this process in projection they're putting together the traumatized part of their brain with the inner resources, even though I don't know what they are.

And they don't know. But they come out with unique solutions. So this is how I can resolve a person's problem without programming, without so-called suggestion.
RA: The traditional hypnotherapy, right?
ER: Yeah. I don't have to use that. It works for 5 or 10 percent of the population wonderfully. But what about the other 95 percent?
RA: Right.
ER: Well, I'm not saying all subjects will do this process, but 80, 90 percent. And those that don't, there's a solution for that. What's the solution? You have to work with them in a group. You give the same instructions to everyone in the group and have everybody go through the process. And then when they're done: "Does anyone want to share? How far did you get in the creative process?" Well, the people who have talent like you will immediately want to say something. They don't have to go into personal detailsAll this work can be done privately. I ask the magic question: "Anything that was surprising, unusual for you?" Because that will pull for stage three. And so they come to surprising, unusual solutions.
RA: So you look for the surprise.
ER: Yes. And now these people who are the untalented will see people all around them coming out with their very simple stories. They do the process again, and now they've learned how to do it.

So psychosocial learning. I don't consider myself a group therapist, but I acknowledge that, yes, the best way to learn these creative processes is in a group where the slow learners can immediately pick up that it's nothing mysterious.

Lighting the Lamps of Human Consciousness

RA: So to wrap up, your work has spanned over 40 years. What do you wish you knew 40 years ago? What would you tell yourself 40 years ago in your career?
ER: The same thing as Joseph Campbell: Follow your own passion. And what was your passion since you were a kid? The mysteriousness of chemistry, transformation—and that became, with the yogis, mental transformation; with the philosophers, philosophical transformation. So now I'm doing the ultimate transformation: I'm learning how mind can impact our gene expression to change our proteins, make new neural networks, immune system—the mind can generate gene expression and brain plasticity. So this is the true alchemy.

But for your question, when I was going to psychoanalytic school, the big word was the unconscious. Catherine interviewed me in a video format, and it was mostly a spontaneous interview like we're having. The title isTherapeutic Hypnosis in Psychotherapy: The New Neuroscience Paradigm. And now we added a subtitle because the very last thing I say in this video is, "In other words, this is what we do: we light and we brighten the lamps of human consciousness." I made up this phrase spontaneously, but it's very satisfying to me. I made it up right in the moment when we made this video. Why is this? Well, that's what the young kid was doing who was trying to—"Green eyes, Ernie has green eyes." And it was under the impulse of love, beauty.
RA: Art.
ER: The divine. Here's another part of the anecdote. I was always falling in love with girls, especially in high school. I can remember, back to fifth grade, a series of girls. I remember all their names. What did they all have in common? You've got to remember, I'm a dirty—not an immigrant, but like an immigrant. Dyes were on my hands. The little girls, when they played checkers or Monopoly, they didn't want me to play with them because my hands were always so dirty. Imagine going into your teens with this. But the common denominator before I knew I was smart, myself, was the girls I fell in love were not just the prettiest but they were always the smartest. Just because her father owned the best jewelry store in town, that wasn't why I was casting sidelong glances at this girl in sixth grade or something, but it was because she was the smartest. And that also motivated me to start taking school seriously. Of course, I was already doing it with my private reading.
But love, beauty was my path to truth, science, all these things.
But love, beauty was my path to truth, science, all these things.
RA: That's fascinating. Well, again, I so appreciate you taking the time today to talk with me. Thank you.
ER: You're very welcome, it's been really quite a pleasure.

Copyright © 2009 All rights reserved. Published December 2009.
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Ernest Rossi Ernest L. Rossi, PhD is an internationally renowned therapist, teacher and pioneer in the psychobiology of mind-body healing. He is the Science Editor of Psychological Perspectives and the author, co-author and editor of more than 20 professional books in the areas of psychotherapy, dreams, psychobiology and therapeutic hypnosis, including Dreams, Consciousness, Spirit, Mind-Body Therapy: Methods of Ideodynamic Healing in Hypnosis, and the bestselling The Twenty-Minute Break: Using the New Science of Ultradian Rhythms.

Rebecca Aponte Rebecca Aponte was the Operations Manager for from 2008-2012. She then left California for graduate school, earning a PhD in Psychology from Colorado State University - an experience that only deepened her appreciation for the experience she was exposed to during her time with Rebecca now works for the California Department of State Hospitals.

CE credits: 2

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe the link between novel experiences and mental health
  • Describe the relationship between awe and healing
  • Describe the mind-body connection as it relates to mental health

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here