Dr. Erickson’s Personality and Life

Written by Jay Haley in 1967 – during Erickson’s life

Milton H Erickson 60 Caine

MILTON H. ERICKSON, M.D., is generally acknowledged to be the world’s leading practitioner of medical hypnosis. His writings on hypnosis are the authoritative word on techniques of inducing trance, experimental work exploring the possibilities and limits of the hypnotic experience, and investigations of the nature of the relationship between hypnotist and subject. Perhaps less well known is the fact that Dr. Erickson has a unique approach to psychotherapy which represents a major innovation in therapeutic technique, For many years he has been developing effective and practical methods of treatment which may or may not involve the formal induction of trance. Those who think of him largely as a hypnotherapist might be surprised that he lists himself in the telephone directory as psychiatrist and family counselor. The reader who dips here and there in this volume will find that the title of an article does not always indicate what sort of extraordinary therapeutic operation is described. For example, an article called “Hypnotherapy of Two Psychosomatic Dental Problems” contains a case in which a young lady is taught to squirt water at a young man through a gap in her teeth! In “The Identification of a Secure Reality,” a mother is required literally to sit for eight hours upon her troublesome son. For Dr. Erickson, these were the essential cores of two successful therapeutic procedures.

Milton Erickson GraduationDr. Erickson is both a psychiatrist and a psychologist, having received his medical degree and his master’s degree in psychology simultaneously. Consequently he is a Fellow of both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association. In addition, he is a Fellow of the American Psychopathological Association, and he is an honorary member of numerous societies of medical hypnosis in Europe, Latin America and Asia. He was the founding president of the American Society for Clinical Hypnosis as well as the founder and editor of that society’s professional journal. His professional life since 1950 has included both a busy private practice in Phoenix, Arizona, and constant traveling to offer seminars in hypnosis and lectures both in the United States and many foreign countries.

A Young Milton EricksonBorn in Aurum, Nevada, a town which has since disappeared, Dr. Erickson is one of the few people who traveled east in a covered wagon when his family settled on a farm in Wisconsin. His interest in hypnosis came about when he was an undergraduate student in psychology at the University of Wisconsin and observed a demonstration of hypnosis by Clark L. Hull. Impressed by what he had seen, Erickson invited Hull’s subject up to his room and hypnotized him himself. From that time on he taught himself to be a hypnotist by using as subjects anyone who would hold still for him, including his fellow students, friends, and his family when he returned to his father’s farm for summer vacation. In the Fall of the next year he took part in a seminar in hypnosis from Hull which was largely devoted to examining Erickson’s experiences hypnotizing people during the summer and his experimental work in the laboratory. By his third year of college, Erickson had hypnotized several hundred people, he had carried on quite a number of experiments, and he had demonstrated hypnosis for the faculty of the medical school and the psychology department as well as the staff of Mendota State Hospital.

Milton Erickson Hypnotizes

After receiving his medical degree at the Colorado General Hospital and completing his internship and a special period of training at the Colorado Psychopathic Hospital, Erickson accepted the position of junior psychiatrist at Rhode Island State Hospital. A few months later, in April, 1930, he joined the staff of the Research Service at the Worcester State Hospital and rapidly rose from junior, senior to Chief Psychiatrist on the Research Service.

Erickson at the Worcester Hospital

Erickson at Worcester State Hospital

Four years later, he went to Eloise, Michigan, as Director of Psychiatric Research, and Training at Wayne County General Hospital and Infirmary. In addition, he became an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Wayne State University College of Medicine as well as a full professor in the Graduate School there. Briefly, he was concurrently a Visiting Professor of Clinical Psychology at Michigan State University in East Lansing. He did his most extensive experimentation with hypnosis at Eloise and found ideas from hypnosis particularly useful in the training of psychiatric residents. When training psychiatrists, as well as medical students, Dr. Erickson put great emphasis upon learning how to observe a patient, and he believes that training as hypnotist increases that ability. His own extraordinary powers of observation are legendary.

Milton Erickson CrutchesRemarking that physical limitations made him more observant, he says, “I had a polio attack when 17 years old and I lay in bed without a sense of body awareness. I couldn’t even tell the position of my arms or legs in bed. So I spent hours trying to locate my hand or my foot or my toes by a sense of feeling, and I became, acutely aware of what movements were. Later, when I went into medicine, I learned the nature of muscles. I used that knowledge to develop an adequate use of the muscles polio had left me and to limp with the least possible strain; this took me ten years. I also became extremely aware of physical movements and this has been exceedingly useful. People use those little telltale movements, those, adjustive movements that are so revealing if one can notice them. So much of our communication is in our bodily movements, not in our speech. I’ve found that I can recognize a good piano player not by the noises he makes, but by the ways his fingers touch the keys. The sure touch, the delicate touch, the forceful touch that is so accurate. Proper playing involves such exquisite physical movement.”

Dr. Erickson cannot recognize a good piano player by the noise he makes because he is tone deaf. This, too, he defines as an asset in his work. “So much is communicated by the way a person speaks,” he says. “My tone deafness has forced me to pay attention to inflections in the voice. This means I’m less distracted by the content of what people say. Many patterns of behavior are reflected in the way a person says something rather than in what he says.”

Dr. Erickson is also color blind, and this too became an asset when he experimented with producing color blindness with hypnosis. Experimenter bias was avoided. To this writer, one of the more extraordinary scenes in research is reported in “The Hypnotic Induction of Hallucinatory Color Vision Followed by Pseudo Negative After-Images.” Experimental subjects in trance were shown white sheets of paper and they hallucinated colors upon them. Then they were immediately shown white sheets of paper and hallucinated the after-image, this being the complementary color. Holding up the white sheets was Dr. Erickson who could not visualize the colors whether awake or in trance. (The one color he can enjoy is purple. Although it might not always be an appropriate color, he manages to surround himself with it whenever he can. He wears purple ties and sport shirts, his pajamas are purple, and the bathroom in his house has purple walls.)

Milton Erickson Color Purple

Dr. Erickson likes to describe therapy as a way of helping patients extend their limits and he has spent his own life doing that. In 1919 when he was stricken with polio he was informed that he would never again be able to walk. After spending many hours concentrating on achieving a flicker of movement in the muscles of his legs, he was up on crutches within a year. He even managed to obtain and hold a sitting-down job in a cannery to help finance his way into the University of Wisconsin. After his first year at the university, he was advised by his physician to spend his summer vacation getting a great deal of exercise in the sunshine without using his legs.

Milton Erickson CanoeDeciding that a canoe trip would provide the appropriate exercise, Erickson set out in June in a 17-foot canoe, wearing a bathing suit, a pair of overalls, and a knotted handkerchief on his head for a hat. He did not have the strength in his legs to pull his canoe out of the water and he could swim only a few feet. His supplies for his summer’s voyage consisted of a small sack of beans, another of rice, and a few cooking utensils. His wealth for the purchase of more supplies consisted of $2.32. With these provisions, he spent from June until September traveling through the lakes of Madison, down the Yahara river, down the Rock river, into the Mississippi and on down to a few miles above St. Louis, then back up the Illinois river, through the Hennepin Canal to the Rock river and so to Madison. He foraged for his food along the way by eating what fish he could catch, finding edible plants on the river banks when he camped at night, and harvesting crops from the Mississippi. These crops consisted of the bushels of peelings the cooks on the river steamers threw overboard. Among them, there were always a few whole potatoes or apples thrown out by mistake. By the end of the summer, he had traveled a distance of 1,200 miles with almost no supplies or money, without sufficient strength in his legs to carry his canoe over the dams which blocked his way, and so physically weak when he began that he could hardly paddle a few miles downstream without getting overtired.

Milton Erickson Canoe 2The journey was even more complicated for Erickson than it would have been for anyone else. He was the kind of young man who refused to ask assistance of anyone. That is, he refused to ask directly, but he enjoyed arranging the situation so that people would “spontaneously” do things for him. In telling about his canoe trip, he said, “I would paddle within hailing distance of a fishing boat. Since I tanned very deeply and wore that knotted handkerchief on my head, the fishermen would get curious and hail me to ask a few questions. I would tell them I was a pre-med student at the University of Wisconsin canoeing for my health. They would ask how the fishing was, I would reply that the day was yet young. Invariably they gave me fish at the end of the conversation, though I never asked for any. Usually they tried to give me catfish, but I always refused them. Catfish were much too expensive and they were making their livings fishing. When I refused the catfish they would give me double or three times the amount of Mississippi perch.”

Although he could not carry his canoe over a dam, Dr. Erickson would never ask for assistance. He says, “I would shinny up one of the poles that are always around dams. Soon people would gather and look up curiously at me sitting up there reading a German book I brought with me in preparation for my medical studies. Finally someone would ask me what on earth I was doing up on that pole. I would look up from my book and say that I was waiting to get my canoe carried over the dam. This always meant volunteer service.”

Milton Erickson BicycleWith an occasional day’s work along the river, and volunteer service, Erickson completed his summer of canoeing, extending his limits by putting himself in good physical shape. When he returned, his chest measurement had increased six inches, he could swim a mile, and he could paddle upstream against a four-mile current from dawn to dark. He could also carry his own canoe over a dam.

Years later, in 1952, Dr. Erickson suffered a rare medical occurrence when he was stricken with another strain of polio. This attack markedly affected his right arm and side. Within a year he had made one of the more difficult hikes in the mountains of Arizona with the use of two canes.

Dr. Erickson left Eloise and settled in Phoenix, largely for his health. His private practice is conducted in a unique setting. The office in which he sees patients is in his home, a small three-bedroom brick house in a pleasant neighborhood¬†[the house has since been converted into the Erickson Museum]. His waiting room is the living room, and his patients have been exposed over the years to his family life and his eight children, He sees patients in an office which is just large enough to contain his desk, a few chairs, and bookcases. On the wall is a picture of his parents who lived until into their nineties, and scattered about are family mementos from over the years, including a stuffed badger. This office is almost absurdly unpretentious for a psychiatrist of Dr. Erickson’s stature, but his attitude toward it is that it is convenient. A young disciple who was setting up a practice in Phoenix was seeking a proper office, and he once protested to Dr. Erickson that his office was not all that it might be. Dr. Erickson replied that it had been even less fancy when he first began practice, since the room had in it only a card table and two chairs. ‘However,” he said, “I was there.”

Milton Erickson Office

Erickson and WifeBesides his private practice, Dr. Erickson carries on many of his professional activities from his home, including editing The American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis with the assistance of his wife. Elizabeth Erickson has worked with her husband in many activities over the years and co-authored a number of papers with him. They met when she was a psychology student and laboratory assistant at Wayne State University, and were married in 1936. Dr. Erickson, who had been previously divorced, brought three children to the marriage. Since then, they have had five more children with a consequently lively family life. Mrs. Erickson once estimated that they would have at least one teen-ager in the family for 30 consecutive years. The last two are now in their teens, and the earlier children are married and bringing home grandchildren.

Dr. Erickson uses examples from his life with his children when discussing hypnosis and therapy. Readers who might wonder what it is like to have a father who is a master hypnotist could enjoy the article “Pediatric Hypnotherapy” in this volume. Dr. Erickson describes handling an incident with his son Robert to illustrated how to deal with children in pain. Robert fell down the back stairs, split his lip, and knocked his upper tooth back into the maxilla. He was bleeding and screaming with pain and fright. His parents rushed to him and saw that it was an emergency. Dr. Erickson writes, “No effort was made to pick him up. Instead, as he paused for breath for fresh screaming, he was told quickly, simply, sympathetically and emphatically, ‘That hurts awful, Robert. That hurts terrible.’

Milton Erickson Child“Right then, without any doubt, my son knew that I knew what I was talking about. He could agree with me and he knew I was agreeing with him completely. Therefore he could listen respectfully to me, because I had demonstrated that I understood the situation fully.”

Rather than reassure the boy, Dr. Erickson proceeded in typical fashion:

‘Then I told Robert, ‘And it will keep right on hurting.’ In this simple statement, I named his own fear, confirmed his own judgment of the situation, demonstrated my good intelligent grasp of the entire matter and my entire agreement with him, since right then he could foresee a lifetime of anguish and pain for himself.

“The next step for him and for me was to declare, as he took another breath, ‘And you really wish it would stop hurting.’ Again, we were in full agreement and he was ratified and even encouraged in this wish. And it was his wish, deriving entirely from within him and constituting his own urgent need.

‘With the situation so defined, I could then offer a suggestion with some certainty of its acceptance. This suggestion was, ‘Maybe it will stop hurting in a little while, in just a minute or two.’

“This was a suggestion in full accord with his own needs and wishes and, because it was qualified by ‘maybe it will,’ it was not in contradiction to his own understandings of the situation. Thus he could accept the idea and initiate his response to it.”

Dr. Erickson then shifted to another important matter. As he puts it:

“Robert knew that he hurt, that he was a damaged person; he could see his blood upon the pavement, taste it in his mouth and see it on his hands. And yet, like all other human beings, he too could desire narcissistic distinction in his misfortune, along with the desire even more for narcissistic comfort. Nobody wants a picayune headache: since a headache must be endured, let it be so colossal that only the sufferer could endure it. Human pride is so curiously good and comforting! Therefore, Robert’s attention was doubly directed to two vital issues of comprehensible importance to him by the simple statements, ‘That’s an awful lot of blood on the pavement. Is it good, red, strong blood? Look carefully, Mother, and see. I think it is, but I want you to be sure.’ “

Examination proved it to be good strong blood, but it was necessary to verify this by examination of it against the white background of the bathroom sink. In this way the boy, who had ceased crying in pain and fright, was cleaned up. When he went to the doctor for stitches the question was whether he would get as many as his sister had once been given. The suturing was done without anesthetic on a boy who was an interested participant in the procedure.

Erickson Family

Although Dr. Erickson has a local practice, many of the patients who come to see him have traveled considerable distances. Patients will fly from as far as New York or from Mexico City to be relieved of their troubles almost as if visiting a surgeon, and others commute irregularly from the West Coast. In recent years both his practice and his teaching have been curtailed because of illness. When he attends an occasional meeting now it is in a wheelchair, and his work load at home is reduced.

Milton H. Erickson

Copyright © 1967, Jay Haley Taken from Advanced Techniques of Hypnosis and Therapy: Selected Papers of Milton H. Erickson, M.D. Grune and Statton Publishers, New York, pp. 1-6. [Reproduced with the permission of the author]