Have you ever felt like your desires to make changes in your life are sabotaged by your subconscious?
Pavlov’s dogs have a super power that can help.
The Super Power
Pavlov’s dogs discovered how we can align our subconscious with our conscious desires – by making changes at a level way below conscious awareness. (Well, actually it was not the dogs that made the discovery, but the Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, who did.)
In other words, he discovered how to make the kinds of changes that are most elusive in personal development – changes at a subconscious and physiological level that will support what we really want. (Well, actually it wasn’t Pavlov who made that discovery, but I’ve found an application of his work that does accomplish that.)
In 1901, Pavlov repeatedly presented dogs with the sound of a bell followed by food. As you would expect, the food made the dogs salivate. But Pavlov’s ground-breaking discovery was that after a while the dogs became conditioned to associate the ring of the bell with food. Once that association had been established, the ring of the bell alone (without any food) would cause the dogs to salivate.
A totally arbitrary stimulus, the ring of a bell, which has nothing to do with food at all, was triggering an autonomic, physiological response in the dogs – salivation.
This phenomenon, has become known as “classical conditioning”.
More recently, in 1971, American psychologists Adler and Cohen discovered that this phenomenon of classical conditioning goes way further than anyone had ever imagined. They found that they could condition rats to have a specific immune response to an arbitrary stimulus. (In their experiment they conditioned rats so that drinking saccharine water would trigger their immune systems to shut down).
It seems that there are almost no limits to the power of classical conditioning. Almost any stimulus can be conditioned to elicit almost any automatic response at the subconscious level.
The Curse of Classical Conditioning
Classical conditioning affects us all the time, throughout our lives, often with negative consequences.
If a parent yells at a child every time she speaks her mind, then she’ll become conditioned to be afraid of speaking out. Even as an adult, no matter how much she wants to speak out, the conditioned fear will make speaking out very difficult.
If a boy gets shipped off on school vacations to an aunt’s house in the countryside where he feels sad and lonely, and the house has mold, then he’ll become conditioned to feel sad and lonely every time he is exposed to that particular mold. Even as an adult, that same mold will evoke feelings of sadness and loneliness. The grown man will probably have no conscious idea why he’s suddenly feeling sad and lonely when he’s exposed to the mold, but the emotions will inevitably be triggered.
Of course conditioning can be positive as well. If a cherished caregiver wears a particular perfume, then that scent will become associated with feeling happy and loved. As an adult the same perfume will evoke those good feelings again. (That could turn out to be good news or bad news, depending on whether the new wearer of the perfume would be a good or bad choice as a romantic partner!)
The real problem with classical conditioning, as it affects us in daily life, is that it’s always happening, and most of the time affects our responses and behaviors in ways that we’re completely not aware of in our conscious minds.
We’re hardwiring our responses to specific stimuli without even knowing we’re doing it.
The Blessing of Classical Conditioning
Most of the time classical conditioning ‘happens to’ us, without conscious awareness or choice. But we can use it to our advantage by choosing what response we want to have to a specific stimulus, and then using classical conditioning to re-wire our automatic responses.
Once that’s done, we will automatically have the new response that we’ve been striving for.
It turns out that it’s quite easy to create these types of desired conditioned responses using the Body-Psyche guided meditations you’ll find here on this blog.
So, if there’s a new behavior we want to perform in specific circumstances (like speaking out in meetings at work) or with specific people (like being patient with our kids), then all we need to do is use classical conditioning to hardwire those new desired behaviors.
The Kryptonite of Pavlov’s Dogs
There’s just one problem. And it’s a big problem.
We can condition new, desired responses fairly easily. However, if there is some deeper reason driving the old, unwanted behavior, then that conditioning will dissolve and the old, unwanted behavior will come back fairly quickly.
For example, consider a boy who’s father shamed him into thinking he would never, and should never, amount to anything. That would embed a sense of shame about success in his subconscious. Later in life, he might use classical conditioning to establish new, courageous behaviors, and then use those new behaviors to go out and create more success for himself. However, his deeply-embedded subconscious shame would be in conflict with his newfound success. As a result the embedded shame would work to quickly dismantle the new behavior of success, reverting to the old patterns of self-sabotage in order to be consistent with his own self-image.
If you’ve ever gone to a personal-development workshop, come out of it feeling great, and started acting in completely new ways that you were delighted with – only to revert back to the old, unwanted behaviors after a few weeks, then this is what was happening. Some deeply embedded identity belief or emotional wound was working to dismantle the new behaviors you so desired to establish.
To put it succinctly, if a new behavior conflicts with some self-identity belief or emotional wound, then any new conditioned response will always and quickly revert back to the old behavior.
That’s the kryptonite of using the Pavlov’s dogs strategy for creating new behaviors.
How to Beat the Kryptonite
There is a way to beat this problem.
Fortunately the solution is in the problem itself.
Whenever we use classical conditioning to establish a new behavior, if there is some wound in conflict with the new behavior, then every time we perform the new behavior, it will stimulate the old wound.
This turns out to be very useful for healing.
By stimulating the old wound, we are shown exactly what we need to heal in order for the new behavior to stick. Healing the re-stimulated wound is the most useful next step in our personal-development process.
Once an old wound has been activated, it’s quite easy to contact and heal it using Body-Psyche guided meditations such as the one in this one.
And then once the wound that had an ‘objection’ to the new behavior is no-longer active, it’s easy to go back and hardwire the new behavior using classical conditioning.
A Process That Works
Here’s a process that works for creating new, desired behaviors using a combination of classical conditioning and deeper healing:
- Identify the new behavior you want to adopt
- Identify the stimulus that you want to have trigger that new behavior (i.e. the situations, circumstances or people around whom you want perform that new behavior)
- Use classical conditioning to establish your new, desired behavior
- If this new behavior sticks, you’re all set.
- If the new behavior is still difficult or reverts, then use Body-Psyche guided meditations to connect with, release and heal the emotional ‘objections’ that come up
- Go back to step (3) to use the classical conditioning again to hardwire the new desired behavior
- Repeat steps (3), (4) and (5) as often as you need to until you have no subconscious objections to performing the new behavior. Once you’ve done that, the new behavior will become a lasting habit. You’ll do the things you want to do without even having to think about it.
In the last few weeks I’ve used this model to rapidly increase my courage and self-confidence both in business and social situations. More recently I’ve used it to heal an allergy to mold that I had had for decades. (The example of the boy with the mold above was somewhat autobiographical.)
When I was working on self-confidence, I looped through steps (3), (4) and (5) about three times, releasing feelings of fear, shame and loss in the process. Once those wounds had been healed, the new behaviors I wanted became automatic.
When I was working on healing my allergies, I looped through steps (3), (4) and (5) about five times, releasing several different old wounds of loss and sadness from different periods of my childhood. Those wounds had been totally out of my awareness until I did the guided meditations.
In both cases the process has been remarkably efficient, and the results have been amazing. It’s nice to feel myself being courageous and self-confident without thinking about it. And it’s great to be able to stay in a hotel with mold without feeling drained and miserable from the allergies.