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Being At Cause In Your Life

Dr Richard Bolstad

What it means to be at cause

Imagine that changing one belief could increase your life by fifteen years, protect your close relationships from breaking up, stop you getting depressed even in the most challenging circumstances, speed up your healing, make you a more generous and helpful human being, and enable you to make the other life changes you've always wanted easily. Imagine there was research to prove that this one belief could do all that. This article is about that belief: the belief that since you are able to choose what you think about, you can create your own future.

The presupposition that we are in charge of our brain and thus in charge of our results is cited by Robert Dilts as one of the key ideas underpinning NLP (Dilts, 1998, p 7-10). Accepting this presupposition is often termed in NLP "being at cause". Perhaps this refers back to the metamodel, an NLP framework generating a series of questions which can (for example) challenge the belief that any external event "causes" the "effects" that a person copes with. In my training of NLP Practitioners, I am attempting not only to teach NLP, but also to share with people what I have learned about how to be happy. I find increasingly that living with this one concept (being at cause) answers most of that second question (how to be happy). Here's how -

The idea that being at cause is useful goes back far beyond NLP of course. William James, the nineteenth century medical doctor, suffered from severe depression. Graduating as a medical doctor at the age of 27 only left him more depressed and anguished about the pointlessness of his life, which seemed predetermined and empty. In 1870, he made the philosophical breakthrough that enabled him to pull himself out of his depression. This was the realisation that different beliefs have different consequences. James had been puzzling for some time about whether human beings had a genuine free will, or whether their actions were the deterministic results of genetic and environmental influences. He now realised that such questions were insoluble, and that the more important issue was which beliefs have the most useful consequences for the believer. James discovered that the belief in determinism made him passive and impotent; the belief in free will allowed him to consider alternatives, to act and to plan. Describing the brain as "an instrument of possibilities" (Hunt, 1993, p149), he decided, "At any rate, I will assume for the present -until next year- that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will. I will go a step further with my will, not only act with it, but believe as well; believe in my individual reality and creative power." His depression lifted, and James went on to become the central figure in the development of "scientific psychology".

In this article I want to affirm James' choice and suggest some of the implications. I'm going to quote a little from my previous articles, but with good reason. I think it's about time all this was collected together in one place. Let's begin!

The brain area responsible for responsibility

Chris Frith and colleagues at the Wellcome Department of Cognitive Neurology in London had subjects lying under a PET (Positron Emission Topography) brain scanner for two hours while they performed a simple task; lifting their finger. Sometimes, the researchers told the subjects to lift the left finger, sometimes to lift the right finger, and sometimes to decide themselves which finger to lift. When the person made their own decision, the neurologists saw a very specific area of the brain light up: the area where autonomous decisions are made. This area is at the side of the frontal cortex (Carter, 1998, p 24). In clinical depression and in cases of schizophrenia where apathy is the key symptom, this same area of the brain is chronically under-active (Carter, 1998, p 160). The depressed person does not use this decision-making ability. Conversely, abandoning decision-making leads to a shutdown of this area and to depression.

The frontal cortex of the brain was first studied in the 19th century, when an American railway worker named Phineas Gage had a steel rod blown through the front of his skull as a result of a mistimed explosion. Gage survived, but the injury transformed him from a purposeful, industrious worker into a drunken drifter. His doctor described the new Gage as "at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned - a child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, yet with the animal passions of a strong man." (Carter, 1998, p 25-28). Neurologists Russell Swerdlow and Jeffrey Burns at the University of Virginia studied a twenty first century equivalent; a man who had an egg sized tumour in the orbofrontal cortex, and lost self control in a number of ways. The man, previously a mild-mannered schoolteacher, now found himself unable to control his impulses. He came to police attention when he molested children, and solicited prostitutes at massage parlours. Referred by the court to a counseling program, he began propositioning the women at the counseling group. When his tumour was removed, these behaviours stopped entirely. They returned when the tumour regrew, and then disappeared upon his second surgery (Burns and Swerdlow, 2003).

How being at cause affects your social and psychological results

Psychotherapy clients who believe that they are in charge of their own responses do far better in numerous research studies with a variety of different models of psychotherapy (Miller et alia, 1996, p 319, 325). Furthermore, research shows that this sense of being in control is not a stable "quality" that some clients have and others do not; it varies over the course of their interaction with the helper. Successful therapy has been shown to result first in a shift in the "locus of control", and then in the desired success. That is, first clients shift their belief about who is running their brain, and then they find themselves able to make the changes they wanted (Miller et alia, 1996, p 326). As you might expect, exposure to NLP enhances clients' belief that they are "at cause". In their study of NLP Psychotherapy, Martina Genser-Medlitsch and Peter Sch(?)tz in Vienna (1997) found that NLP clients scored higher than controls in their perception of themselves as in control of their lives (with a difference at 10% significance level).

Therapists who convey the sense of being at cause in their own way of living will inspire this sense in others. As early as the 1960s and 1970s, counselling developers Robert Carkhuff and Bernard Berenson published a number of research studies showing that helping interactions tend to influence clients either for better or for worse. They identified several measures of successful human functioning, and showed that helpers who function well on these dimensions are able to assist others to function well on these dimensions too. Central to these measures is the idea of being in charge of one's life. Helpers who function poorly on these dimensions actually influence clients to deteriorate in their functioning! (Carkhuff and Berenson, 1977, p 5, p 35). Carkhuff and Berenson likened most psychotherapists to professional lifeguards with extensive training in rowing a boat, throwing a ring buoy, and giving artificial respiration, but without the ability to swim. "They cannot save another because, given the same circumstances, they could not save themselves." When they do not feel able to run their own life, Carkhuff says, therapists are unable to communicate this crucial skill to their clients.

Not being at cause also does long term harm to someone's personal relationships. Social psychologist Daniel Gilbert studied the length of time that people harboured ill-feeling after being involved in or witnessing an insulting interaction (Gilbert et alia, 2004). People said, prior to the study, that they thought they would hold onto their dislike of a rude stranger for longer if the stranger insulted them, rather than if they merely saw the stranger insult someone else. In reality, they held on to their annoyance much longer when they only observed the insult. This seemed to be related to their experience of being unable to do anything about the insult that they merely observed. Gilbert noted that it is the "petty" problems, which people do not feel able to do something to solve, that actually distress us more in the long term. Relationships break up due to someone's unwillingness to put out the rubbish/trash, rather than due to bigger issues like an affair. When we feel able to solve problems, we are able to forgive and to re-establish a relationship. In the study of cooperative relationships, the term for being at cause is "owning the problem". When someone feels clear that they "own the problem" and are able to act to do something about it, then problems are solved easier. When they believe they don't "have a right" to solve the problem, resentments and hurt linger on.

Does this mean that people who are "at cause" are more selfish, and only interested in solving their own problems? On the contrary! There is a strong correlation between the belief that one is in charge of one's own destiny, and the willingness to help others, and there is a strong correlation between high self esteem and such helping behaviour (this research is tabulated in Midlarsky, 1984, p 299-300; and in Kohn, 1990, p 76-78). Those who help others tend to be those who feel in charge of their own life.

How being at cause affects your body

In study after study, the belief that you are in charge of your results is shown to help positive changes happening in the body. Steven Maier and Mark Laudenslager exposed two groups of rats to electric shocks (not a very nice experiment, but we can still learn from the consistent results). One group of rats could control the shock with a lever; the other group had no way to control it. In a short time, the immune system of the rats with no control was in collapse while the others stayed healthy (Ornstein and Sobel, 1989, p 151). In another study, Maier and Martin Seligman found that dogs who had been put through this experience (of being unable to control the shocks) developed a style of behaviour they called "Learned Helplessness". In subsequent experiments, the dogs would not even jump out of an area which gave them shocks; they had given up on being able to prevent the problem. Seligman followed up these experiments by studying human beings. He found that humans with this "learned helplessness" approach respond to stressful events (such as failing a university exam) by becoming depressed (Seligman, 1997).

Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin worked with two groups of elderly people in a nursing home. One group were each given a plant and told that they were to look after it. The other group were each given a plant but told that (like them) the plant would be looked after by the staff. Within a few weeks just this simple difference in the level of control over their life was reflected in different health results. Over the next 18 months only a half as many "in control" residents died as others (Langer, 1989).

Just believing that you can control your health and healing makes it happen. It hardly matters how "true" it is, in some theoretical way. R.C. Mason studied a group of patients in hospital for a similar eye operation. Before the operation the patients were asked if they felt confident both about the operation and about their ability to cope if it went wrong. Those who were most confident and felt most able to cope were the same ones who later recovered quickest (Ornstein and Sobel, 1989, p 246).

An at cause "proactive" style of coping with stress is associated with enhanced activity by the body's immune cells (Goodkin et alia, 1992). That is to say, when someone is in a state where they feel in charge of their life, and as if they are making choices about their future, a check of their immune cells (T lymphocytes to be exact) will show that these cells are more actively protecting the body from infection, and eliminating cancer cells. In fact, people who adopt a more "optimistic" approach to life live 19% longer, according to a 30 year study at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota (Maruta, Colligan, Malinchoc, and Offord, 2000). Mayo clinic doctor Toshihiko Maruta says "It confirmed our common-sense belief. It tells us that mind and body are linked and that attitude has an impact on the final outcome, death."

Beliefs that seem to block people being at cause a) Higher Power

There are certain beliefs which, by implication seem to me to contradict the idea of being "at cause". Foremost are the belief that a "higher power" should be at cause, and the belief that an "unconscious mind" should be at cause. Since I highly value the concepts of higher power and of unconscious mind, I want to clarify the relationship between those ideas and the idea of being at cause as discussed here.

The epitome of the "higher power" theory is found in the 12 Step model of addiction. Step one in programs such as AA is "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable." And step two is "Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity". The original AA group was a little more explicit. AA co-founder Frank Buchman says "The secret is God-control". The true patriot gives his life to bring his nation under God's control. Those who oppose that control are public enemies." (Buchman, 1961, p 24).

I have pointed out elsewhere that the research on addictions treatment does not bear out the claim of step one of the 12 steps. Over two thirds of those addicted people who stop drinking alcohol, do so on their own with no help. These people have better long term success than those who choose treatment programs: 81% of those who stop drinking on their own will abstain for the next ten years, as compared with only 32% of those who are going to AA (Trimpey, 1996, p 78; Ragge, 1998, p 24).

Addiction has been described by AA as beyond self-control, and alcoholics are told that just one drink sets off the uncontrollable disease process again. Research consistently invalidates this claim. In 1973, Psychologist Alan Marlatt gave alcoholics heavily flavoured alcoholic drinks and found that - as long as they believed the drinks were alcohol free - they drank only normal amounts. On the other hand, alcoholics who were told their drink contained alcohol began to drink compulsively, even though their beverage contained none. Such studies have been repeated numerous times under varying conditions. Those who believe that they are powerless once they have had a drink of alcohol, do far worse in long term studies. One four year study followed up 548 diagnosed alcoholics initially treated at 8 different AA centres, and found that while only 7% had managed abstinence, 18% were now social drinkers with no instances of drunkenness. In this study, those who most strongly agreed with the AA disease model of alcoholism were the most likely to still be heavy problem drinkers four years later (Ragge, 1998, p 32-34). Similar research is available for recovery from cigarette smoking, heroin abuse, and obesity. In each case, those who buy into the idea of powerlessness do worse. Those who recover best are those who have nothing to do with the theorists of powerlessness (Schachter, 1982, p 436-444; Peele, 1989, p 167-168; Trimpey, 1996, p 78).

Let's imagine for a moment that there is a "God". Does that God really want us not to use the frontal cortex? Is the at-cause area there just a cunning trick by the devil, to subvert God's work? I don't think so. To me, every positive success achieved by being at cause is a celebration of the divine nature of human life. I'm not saying that NLP Practitioners shouldn't go to AA meetings. Merely that they could keep their eyes and ears open when they do.

Being "spiritually inclined" doesn't have to mean giving up being at cause. Mahatma Gandhi, for example, took on the seemingly impossible task of defying the world's largest empire and wresting its biggest colony away. He clearly believed that his destiny was in his own hands. In one of his articles, he quotes a very beautiful letter about this, written to him by a person with limited English. The letter says "Men are born naked. But to them two hands are given. We think God have given paradise upon men, but He have not given it directly upon men. He have given it indirectly upon them by giving two hands - the power to create any and everything - to make paradise itself in the present world. So I think it is the duty of man to make use their hands best." (Gandhi, 1997, p 84).

Beliefs that seem to block people being at cause b) The Unconscious mind

In a recent article, Carmen Bostic St. Clair and John Grinder suggested that there were some errors in the original coding of NLP. One of these, they said, was the lack of emphasis on the unconscious mind being in charge of ecological change-work (Bostic St Clair and Grinder, 2002). They describe a change process in which they have the person enter a "know-nothing state", which is then anchored to the situations in which the person wants to change. They emphasise that "At no time does the client attempt to consciously formulate what differences (neither the desired state, the new resource nor the preferred behaviour) they desire to occur in that context. Thus at the end of the session, the client knows something important has shifted but typically has no conscious access to the specific differences that are available."

While I agree with the value of involving the "unconscious mind" in all change processes, I do not think that this requires the deliberate disengagement of the conscious mind or of being at cause. As Bostic St. Clair and Grinder say, Milton Erickson emphasised that change is an unconscious process. However, when we check Erickson's work, we find that he also understood that the conscious mind needed to be involved in any change. The risk, otherwise, is that the conscious mind becomes the "enemy" of change. He says (Erickson and Rossi, 1979, p 10) "Many patients readily recognise and admit changes they have experienced. Others with less introspective ability need the therapist's help in evaluating the changes that have taken place. A recognition and appreciation of the trance work is necessary, lest the patient's old negative attitudes disrupt and destroy the new therapeutic responses that are still in a fragile state of development".

When I climb a mountain, my "unconscious mind" adjusts my breathing and pulse rate to enable me to get there. Trying to control those functions will only waste energy that I could better put into enjoying the view. But I do not ask my unconscious mind to decide which mountain I should climb. Nor do I ask my unconscious mind to "decide" when I should start or stop climbing. In the same way, I am happy to have my unconscious mind make the adjustments needed to assist me to reach my goals. I am not interested in having my unconscious mind decide what changes I should make. To the extent that this latter is what Bostic St. Clair and Grinder mean, I suggest that their proposal begs the question "What is the unconscious mind?"

What is the unconscious mind?

To understand how the "unconscious mind" operates in neurological terms, let me explain a little about the brain and memory. At one time in my life, I needed to use my conscious mind to tie my shoelaces. Nowdays, my "unconscious mind" performs that function. What do I mean when I say that last sentence? I mean that another area of the brain now runs my shoelace tying strategy automatically when it is triggered by the sight of my shoes untied. Even a person severely affected by the memory loss of Alzheimer's disease may continue for some time to be able to tie their shoelaces, because such strategies are stored in areas of the brain less affected by that condition (Schacter, 1996, p 134-137). Such memories are called "procedural memories".

There is another type of memory which patients with Alzheimer's continue to have too. Memory researcher Daniel Schacter discusses the results of an experiment with words which reveals this other type of memory. First, he shows people a series of words, each of which is to be studied carefully for 5 seconds.

The first set of words are: assassin, octopus, avocado, mystery, sheriff, climate.

Next, he shows people a second set of words and asks if any of this second set were in the first set.

The second set are: twilight, assassin, dinosaur, mystery.

If your memory functions well, you recognised two of these from the first list. Next, Schacter asks people to complete the following English words by filling in the blanks.

Third set: ch----nk, o-t--us, -og-y---, -l-m-te.

Most people who have seen the first set of words have difficulty coming up with two in this third set of words (chipmunk and bogeyman) but find octopus and climate rather obvious. That's because your memory has been "primed" by studying the first set. Now, here's the interesting thing. Priming also works for people with Alzheimer's disease, who cannot recall whether any of the second set were in the first set. Priming even works for people who are exposed to spoken information when they are unconscious due to anaesthetic! (Schacter, 1996, p 170-172). Whereas conscious memory requires activation of the frontal cortex, the unconscious memories of priming and the unconscious memories of a procedure such as shoelace tying are stored deeper in the brain.

These other types of memory/skill are unconscious, and they are very useful. We do not need to make such memory systems conscious. Unfortunately, these unconscious memories operate on automatic. They can be "primed" by any irrelevant and even harmful stimuli which a person happens to come across.

Phineas Gage, who (remember from earlier in our story) had his frontal lobe damaged, could be primed to behave impulsively by all sorts of random events, such as the availability of alcohol in his immediate environment. What he had lost was the ability to decide which things he would respond to. The function of the frontal cortex is to make decisions. Decision-making cannot be "transferred to the unconscious mind" because the unconscious mind is simply those areas of the brain that are functioning without conscious (including frontal cortex) decision-making. The unconscious mind, then, can be trusted to do and to remember many things that your conscious mind cannot do or remember. It has far more resources than the conscious mind. But it cannot be trusted to make decisions for you. If you consult it (either in trance or by using a pendulum, tarot cards or any other divining system) it will respond with whatever it has been primed to respond with.

It's your life to live!

So here it is. One belief that transforms life. The notion that we are "at cause" or in charge of our mind and its results is central to NLP, but even more; it is central to enjoying life. The frontal cortex seems to have a central role in enabling us to function "at cause", and when it is inactive, depression and apathy or impulsive behaviour may result. Being at cause is correlated with changing successfully in psychotherapy, with letting go of unpleasant emotions, and with altruistic behaviour. Physiologically, it boosts the immune system, extends the life by 19%, and enables faster healing. One belief does all this!

There are two main types of disempowering beliefs which run counter to the notion of being at cause. Firstly, there is the belief that one should abandon decision-making to let God be at cause. Therapies based on this notion seem to have lower success rates, and it may be more useful to accept that God gave us a frontal cortex and two hands for a reason. Secondly, there is the disempowering belief that the unconscious mind is a more ecological decision-making mechanism than the conscious mind. Unconscious skills and memories are primed almost randomly however, and the decision-making function of the frontal cortex cannot be passed over to some other brain area.

As William James pointed out, we cannot be sure exactly how much we are truly in charge of our lives - but that is not the question. The question is whether it works better to assume we are in charge of our lives. In this article, I believe, there is adequate evidence that it does. As with any belief, if this is new to you, it will feel strange; even phoney at first. You owe it to yourself to go beyond that and discover for yourself what the research is showing. And if you already have this belief, here's even more evidence that you are on the right path. Happy adventuring!

Richard Bolstad is an NLP trainer and teacher of Chinese chi kung.

Richard Bolstad, Transformations International Consulting & Training Ltd