Interview with Joe Griffin - The dreamcatcher

Interview and article by Barbara Kiser, originally published in the New Scientist, Apr 12 2003. Reprinted here with permission of Ivan Tyrrell, MindFields College, UK.

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How can you deal with serious depression in just a day?

The important thing is to know how depression is manufactured in the brain. Once you understand that, you can correct the maladaptive cycle incredibly fast. For 40 years it’s been known that depressed people have excessive REM sleep. They dream far more than healthy people. What we realised – and proved –is that the negative introspection, or ruminations, that depressed people engage in actually causes the excessive dreaming. So depression is being generated on a 24-hour cycle and we can make a difference within 24 hours to how a person feels.

But how is dream sleep responsible for depression?

My findings show that ordinarily dream sleep does a great housekeeping job for us. Each night it brings down our autonomic arousal level. Dreams are metaphorical translations of those waking introspections – emotionally arousing feelings and thoughts – that we don't act upon while we are awake. Once aroused, our brain has to complete that cycle of arousal and, if we don't complete it in the external world, we do so in our dream sleep. The patterns of arousal are metaphorically acted out and thereby deactivated. But depressed people do so much worrying and feel so stuck that the ruminations cause an overload of dreaming which uses up a lot of energy in the brain. They also have correspondingly less of the most physically recuperative element of sleep, so-called slow-wave sleep. Which is why they wake up exhausted and unable to focus their mind outwards and motivate themselves to get on with life.

This is a departure from the accepted view, isn't it?

Yes, it is. But we have filmed hundreds of cases and you can see time and time again that when depressed people start talking about depression, they talk about waking up tired and unable to motivate themselves. All day long they feel low and emotional. Many describe how they have difficulty getting off to sleep because of emotional thoughts going round and round in their heads. And when it is explained to them how they are doing this to themselves, the explanation alone helps – and then the therapy we do with them is primarily aimed at helping them to stop all the negative ruminating. The common explanation that their doctors give them is that there is a chemical imbalance in their brain. But that's a half-truth: the other half is that their low serotonin level is an index that their life isn't working – their needs are not being met and they feel stuck – not that they've got something ‘wrong’ with their brain chemistry.

Brain chemistry is not a cause, it is an effect.

So you tell your clients how they're generating their depression, then what?
We use an integrated approach combining behavioural, cognitive and interpersonal methods, relaxation, humour, suggestions for exercise – all based on what we call the "human givens", our genetic endowment of needs and resources. Any skills the person already has that can help them reconnect with other people and the wider community are particularly important. Above all, we get them to use their imagination differently, and this is not as difficult as it might seem. Our job as therapists is to stop them worrying and dreaming excessively. We do all this in the first session, and for some people that is enough. Others will need a little more work.

What exactly are the human givens?

Human givens is a phrase psychotherapists, psycho-logists, educationalists and others are increasingly using to encompass some new, large organising ideas that are developing from what science is discovering about the workings of the brain.
We are all born with a rich natural inheritance – a partially formed mind containing a genetic treasure house of innate knowledge patterns. These patterns appear as physical and emotional needs that must be met if our minds are to unfold and develop to their fullest potential. How well they connect with, unfold and become enriched by the world determines our own particular character, our clarity of perception and our own and our family's emotional health and happiness – as well as the maturity of the greater society we create around us.
In addition to emotional needs, nature has given us a range of resources to help us meet those needs in whatever environment we find ourselves in. Depression is usually caused by worry about needs not being met – needs for control, for security, for meaning, for intimacy, connection to the wider community etc. – and by misusing some of the innate resources. Worry, for example, is a misuse of one of our most powerful innate resources, that of imagination.

What other techniques do you use?

We also use metaphor and storytelling. People are used to hearing stories and anecdotes so they’re not threatening. An appropriate metaphor, contained in a story, can bypass the defensiveness of the conscious mind and go in as a seed to the right neocortex, which understands patterns. Later on, when the client thinks about the therapy, that pattern in the right neocortex will fire off and makes connections spontaneously, so they have an "Aha!" experience. They can then "own" the insight, and it is easier for them to work with it.
Here's an example. A colleague's elderly client was depressed about becoming incontinent. He began telling her about his uncle and aunt who had a lovely old country house, where some of the family lived and which everybody loved. He himself used to go there often as a child. And then gradually he started to introduce the metaphor – that as the house grew older, it got damper, and there were a few damp patches and plumbing problems, but nobody seemed to mind, everybody still loved the old house and they kept bringing their families and their friends there. She came out of her depression without even having known that she had had help. This is because her brain had now absorbed a bigger metaphorical pattern which could override the one that had depressed her.

Are there kinds of therapy that people suffering from depression would do well to avoid?

Research shows that any therapy or counselling that encourages people to introspect about what they were unhappy about in their past will deepen depression. This type of therapy is based on a misunderstanding going right back to Freud. He had a model of the unconscious mind that saw it as being very like an underground cesspit – he believed that emotions that weren't fully expressed are held onto in this cesspit of repression, and the job of the therapist is to release the noxious emotions and thereby free the person. But this just does not work. Research has shown quite unambiguously that dreams do this for us every night. In other words, nature actually invented the emotional ‘flush toilet mechanism’ long before Freud tried to. These kinds of approaches to therapy, by encouraging emotionally arousing introspection, are actually working against nature.

You have also ventured into one of the biggest minefields of all, psychosis, where you suggest that schizophrenia is waking reality processed by the dreaming brain. How does that work?

First you need to separate out the REM state in which dreaming occurs from the content, which is the dream. The REM state has the same characteristics as the hypnotic state – the left neocortex is generally much less activated, we have instant access to metaphor and our emotions, and we are responding to our own emotional inputs much more than we are to external reality. Now imagine someone who has been so stressed and depressed that their dreaming process has broken down – their brain doesn’t properly click out of the REM state. They still have to try and make sense of the waking world but are stuck in the emotional right-hemisphere ... whose only language is metaphor. It’s a frightening place to be. They are going to experience all kinds of weird things.

Such as?

Take hearing voices: left-hemisphere thoughts are still being generated in a psychotic person although they are overwhelmed by the power of the REM state that they are now largely operating out of. The only way the dreaming brain of the right hemisphere can make sense of left-hemisphere thoughts is to put it into a metaphor of ‘hearing voices’. And, as in the dream state, your sense of self is dissolved because you are now acting out a dream script.
So if you are trying to process reality, you won't have a sense of self with which to orient the experiences coming in, and you’re going to feel that somebody else must be controlling everything. We are not saying that this is a complete explanation for psychosis, but when it has been put to people who have experienced psychosis, they have told us, “thank goodness, that makes such sense to me”.

How do all these ideas go down with the psychotherapeutic community? Are some people hostile?

When we first started it was relatively easy. We were getting people who were already open to our ideas. Later we met quite a significant bit of hostility. We’d get mass walkouts of people trained by the Tavistock Institute in London and places like that. This happens because schools of therapy tend to degenerate into ideologies and don’t work with real knowledge. They become cults, with sacred texts and high priests. Then they tend not to be open to new ideas. But the encouraging aspect was the response of people at the coalface – occupational therapists, social workers, psychiatric nurses, GPs counsellors working in the community and so on. They knew their training didn't give them many real tools to help people. And they were totally willing to take on board new ideas and skills.

So how does the school of therapy you helped to found itself avoid becoming a cult?

Science is based on the idea that any knowledge that we currently hold is subject to revision in the light of further facts. We incorporate the latest findings from all the sciences and we accept and recognise that all the major schools of therapy have stumbled on pieces of the truth. But these are just bits of information. We don’t buy into their various ideologies. Instead we look at the information and put it in a bigger model and integrate what is of value within various approaches and discard what is not. I must also say that perhaps one of the biggest bars to the advancement of therapy in Britain is the criterion used for recognising properly trained therapists. It is mainly based on ideology, not reality. For instance, research shows that it is absolutely irrelevant whether or not therapists have themselves had therapy, in terms of assessing their effectiveness, yet the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) will not accredit counsellors unless they have had a minimum of 40 sessions of counselling (which they have to pay for) themselves. And some other schools of therapy require much more than that! So these power structures are more concerned with protecting their territory, how many hours training someone has had (not how effective that training is) and creating work for their members. Whereas I would say they should only concern themselves with what works and assessing how effective an individual counsellor or therapist actually is in practice.

And effective therapy is crucial given the alarming rise in mental illness. Has emotion spun out of control in our culture?

Our culture doesn't really have a handle on emotions. An emotion is simply a ‘box’ in which the brain initially codes incoming stimuli. So each perception is ‘tagged’ in the anger box, or the anxiety box, or the sadness box. Our self-obsessed culture treats emotions as though they were something sacred and the most significant aspect of being human, rather than seeing them as a primitive classification system that usually needs further refinement. Refining perceptions is the job of the higher cortex, which can fill in the thousand shades of grey that usually exists between the black and white of emotional reasoning.

Does this explain how easily we become locked in conflicts?

Emotional arousal is the hand-maiden of tyranny – in the home and on the world stage. It locks attention. It stops clear thinking and facilitates the rise of psycho-pathic personalities who impose their will on others. The only long-term resolution of conflict is to devise a social order that enables more people to get their needs met.

And of course, conflict, whether it is on the battlefield or in the home, can result in people becoming traumatised...

Yes. Any brain can become traumatised if put under enough pressure from life-threatening events. It is not the amount of abuse, nor the length of the time the abuse went on, that is the key factor. It's the amount of damage that has taken place to the development of personality, the failure to develop essential life skills among people who were extensively abused in childhood for example. It is when the whole of their life has become dysfunctional that there is usually a need for major long-term psychological and life-skills education. This is more likely when a close family member has done the abuse and thereby interfered with the unfolding of normal development.

What about victims of torture?

People who can retain an element of control during long-term torture or deprivation regimes are most likely to make a rapid recovery. Even if it is only control over when they scream – counting to ten, maybe, just before electrodes are applied. We have treated people who have experienced extreme trauma in conflicts in Eastern Europe, for example, and we found them very responsive. And we have trained a team in Northern Ireland, the Nova Project, which in the past 18 months has treated more than 300 victims of the violence from both sides of the community with amazingly good results.

How do you treat trauma?

We know that not everyone develops post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a proportion of people who are more vulnerable – very often those with good imaginations. When we are exposed to a life-threatening event, our initial reaction is to freeze to ascertain what is going on. Most of us will then activate our fight-or-flight mechanism. However, a proportion of people with good imaginations stay in the freeze state, which is essentially a hypnotic state, and an enormous amount of information from the traumatic event is programmed into their limbic system. Ever after, whenever anything at all remotely recognised as being similar to some aspect of what happened when they were initially traumatised occurs, panic and other symptoms are automatically triggered.

How do you deal with that?

We use guided imagery to produce a deeply relaxed, dissociated, trance state, then we use a technique involving the metaphor of a video, "replaying" the memories very fast to give the person control. This pulls the trauma pattern out of the limbic system into narrative memory. Of all the methods for detraumatising people we looked at this was the most effective. All the therapists we train can do this. It works because the limbic system is encouraged to replay the memories whilst the body is physiologically relaxed. This sends a different message to the amygdale, saying this event isn't dangerous any more, so it doesn't have to maintain the person in a state of hyper-vigilance. This technique will be invaluable in the aftermath of wars, which traumatise so many soldiers and civilians.

See the Human Givens website

About the authors

Mark Tyrrell
Mark Tyrrell
Roger Elliott
Roger Elliott

The Depression Learning Path was created by Mark Tyrrell and Roger Elliott of Uncommon Knowledge. Mark and Roger have also written and recorded over 800 hypnosis sessions at Hypnosis Downloads, the web's busiest hypnosis site where you can get a cutting-edge hypnosis session for almost any situation.