One morning in August 1919 seventeen-year-old Milton Erickson, future pioneer in hypnotherapy and one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, awoke to discover parts of his body suddenly paralyzed. Over the next few days the paralysis spread. He was soon diagnosed with polio, a near epidemic at the time. As he lay in bed, he heard his mother in another room discussing his case with two specialists the family had called in. Assuming Erickson was asleep, one of the doctors told her, “The boy will be dead by morning.” His mother came into his room, clearly trying to disguise her grief, unaware that her son had overhead the conversation. Erickson kept asking her to move the chest of drawers near his bed over here, over there. She thought he was delusional, but he had his reasons: he wanted to distract her from her anguish, and he wanted the mirror on the chest positioned just right. If he began to lose consciousness, he could focus on the sunset in the reflected mirror, holding on to this image as long as he could. The sun always returned; maybe he would as well, proving the doctors wrong. Within hours he fell into a coma.
Erickson regained consciousness three days later. Somehow he had cheated death, but now the paralysis had spread to his entire body. Even his lips were paralyzed. He could not move or gesture, nor communicate to others in any way. The only body parts he could move were his eyeballs, allowing him to scan the narrow space of his room. Quarantined in the house on the farm in rural Wisconsin where he grew up, his only company was his seven sisters, his one brother, his parents, and a private nurse. For someone with such an active mind, the boredom was excruciating. But one day as he listened to his sisters talking among themselves, he became aware of something he had never noticed before. As they talked, their faces made all kinds of movements, and the tone of their voices seemed to have a life of its own. One sister said to another, “Yes, that’s a good idea,” but she said this in a monotone and with a noticeable smirk, all of which seemed to say, “I actually don’t think it’s a good idea at all.” Somehow a yes could really mean no.
Now he paid attention to this. It was a stimulating game. In the course of the next day he counted sixteen different forms of no that he heard, indicating various degrees of hardness, all accompanied by different facial expressions. At one point he noticed one sister saying yes to something while actually shaking her head no. It was very subtle, but he saw it. If people said yes but really felt no, it appeared to show up in their grimaces and body language. On another occasion he watched closely from the corner of his eye as one sister offered another an apple, but the tension in her face and tightness in her arms indicated she was just being polite and clearly wanted to keep it for herself. This signal was not picked up, and yet it seemed so clear to him.
Unable to participate in conversations, he found his mind completely absorbed in observing people’s hand gestures, their raised eyebrows, the pitch of their voices, and the sudden folding of their arms. He noticed, for instance, how often the veins in his sisters’ necks would begin to pulsate when they stood over him, indicating the nervousness they felt in his presence. Their breathing patterns as they spoke fascinated him, and he discovered that certain rhythms indicated boredom and were generally followed by a yawn. Hair seemed to play an important role with his sisters. A very deliberate brushing back of strands of hair would indicate impatience—“I’ve heard enough; now please shut up.” But a quicker, more unconscious stroke could indicate rapt attention.
Trapped in bed, his hearing became more acute. He could now pick up conversations in the other room, where people were not trying to put on a pleasant show in front of him. And soon he noticed a peculiar pattern—in a conversation people were rarely direct. A sister could spend minutes beating around the bush, leaving hints to others about what she really wanted—such as to borrow an article of clothing or hear an apology from someone. Her hidden desire was clearly indicated by her tone of voice, which gave emphasis to certain words. Her hope was that the others would pick this up and offer what she desired, but often the hints were ignored and she would be forced to come out and say what she wanted. Conversation after conversation fell into this recurring pattern. Soon it became a game for him to guess within as few seconds as possible what the sister was hinting at.
It was as if in his paralysis he had suddenly become aware of a second channel of human communication, a second language in which people expressed something from deep within themselves, sometimes without being aware of it. What would happen if he could somehow master the intricacies of this language? How would it alter his perception of people? Could he extend his reading powers to the nearly invisible gestures people made with their lips, their breath, the level of tension in their hands?
One day several months later, as he sat near a window in a special reclining chair his family had designed for him, he listened to his brother and sisters playing outside. (He had regained movement in his lips and could speak, but his body remained paralyzed.) He wanted so desperately to join them. As if momentarily forgetting his paralysis, in his mind he began to stand up, and for a brief second he experienced the twitching of a muscle in his leg, the first time he had felt any movement in his body at all. The doctors had told his mother he would never walk again, but they had been wrong before. Based on this simple twitch, he decided to try an experiment. He would focus deeply on a particular muscle in his leg, remembering the sensation he had before his paralysis, wanting badly to move it, and imagining it functioning again. His nurse would massage that area, and slowly, with intermittent success, he would feel a twitch and then the slightest bit of movement returning to the muscle. Through this excruciatingly slow process he taught himself to stand, then take a few steps, then walk around his room, then walk outside, increasing the distances.
Somehow, by drawing upon his willpower and imagination, he was able to alter his physical condition and regain complete movement. Clearly, he realized, the mind and the body operate together, in ways we are hardly aware of. Wanting to explore this further, he decided to pursue a career in medicine and psychology, and in the late 1920s he began to practice psychiatry in various hospitals. Quickly he developed a method that was completely his own and diametrically opposed to others trained in the field. Almost all practicing psychiatrists focused largely on words. They would get patients to talk, particularly going over their early childhood. In this way they hoped to gain access to their patients’ unconscious. Erickson instead focused mostly on people’s physical presence as an entrée into their mental life and unconscious. Words are often used as a cover-up, a way to conceal what is really going on. Making his patients completely comfortable, he would detect signs of hidden tension and unmet desires that came through in their face, voice, and posture. As he did this, he explored in greater depth the world of nonverbal communication.
His motto was “observe, observe, observe.” For this purpose he kept a notebook, writing down all of his observations. One element that particularly fascinated him was the walking styles of people, perhaps a reflection of his own difficulties in relearning how to use his legs. He would watch people walking in every part of the city. He paid attention to the heaviness of the step—there was the emphatic walk of those who were persistent and full of resolve; the light step of those who seemed more indecisive; the loping, fluid walk of those who seemed rather lazy; the meandering walk of the person lost in thought. He observed closely the extra swaying of the hips or the strut that seemed to elevate the head, indicating high levels of confidence in a person. There was the walk that people put on to cover up some weakness or insecurity— the exaggerated masculine stride, the nonchalant shuffle of the rebellious teenager. He took note of the sudden changes in people’s walk as they became excited or nervous. All of this supplied him endless information about people’s moods and self-confidence.
In his office, he placed his desk at the far end of the room, making his patients walk toward him. He would notice changes in the walk from before to after the session. He would scrutinize their way of sitting down, the level of tension in their hands as they grasped the arms of the chair, the degree to which they would face him as they talked, and in a matter of a few seconds, without words being exchanged, he had a profound read on their insecurities and rigidities, as mapped clearly in their body language.
At one point in his career, Erickson worked in a ward for the mentally disturbed. In one instance the psychologists there were perplexed by the case of a particular patient—a former businessman who had made a fortune and then lost everything because of the Depression. All the man could do was cry and continually move his hands back and forth, straight out from his chest. Nobody could figure out the source of this tic or how to help him. Getting him to talk was not easy and it led nowhere. To Erickson, however, the moment he saw the man he understood the nature of the problem—through this gesture he was literally expressing the futile efforts in his life to get ahead and the despair this had brought him. Erickson went up to him and said, “Your life has had many ups and downs,” and as he did so, he shifted the motion of the arms to up and down. The man seemed interested in this new motion and it now became his tic.
Working with an occupational therapist on site, Erickson placed blocks of sandpaper in each of the man’s hands and put a rough piece of lumber in front of him. Soon the man became enthralled with the sanding of the wood and the smell of it as he polished it. He stopped crying and took woodworking classes, carving elaborate chess sets and selling them. By focusing exclusively on his body language and altering his physical motion, Erickson could alter the locked position of his mind and cure him.
One category that fascinated him was the difference in nonverbal communication between men and women and how this reflected a different way of thinking. He was particularly sensitive to the mannerisms of women, perhaps a reflection of the months he had spent closely observing his sisters. He could dissect every nuance of their body language. One time, a beautiful young woman came to see him, saying she had seen various psychiatrists but none of them were quite right. Could Erickson possibly be the right one? As she talked some more, never discussing the nature of her problem, Erickson watched her pick some lint off her sleeve. He listened and nodded, then posed some rather uninteresting questions.
Suddenly, out of the blue, he said in a very confident tone that he was the right, in fact the only psychiatrist for her. Taken aback by his conceited attitude, she asked him why he felt that way. He said he needed to ask her one more question in order to prove it.
“How long,” he asked, “have you been wearing women’s clothes?”
“How did you know?” the man asked in astonishment. Erickson explained that he had noticed the way he had picked off the lint, without making a naturally wide detour around the breast area. He had seen that motion too many times to be fooled by anything else. In addition, his assertive way of discussing his need to test Erickson first, all expressed in a very staccato vocal rhythm, was decidedly masculine. All of the other psychiatrists had been taken in by the young man’s extremely feminine appearance and the voice he had worked on so carefully, but the body does not lie.
On another occasion Erickson entered his office to see a new female patient waiting for him. She explained that she had sought him out because she had a phobia of flying. Erickson interrupted her. Without explaining why, he asked her to leave the office and reenter. She seemed annoyed but complied, and he studied her walk closely, as well as her posture as she settled into the chair. He then asked her to explain her problem.
“My husband is taking me a-broad in September and I have a deathly fear of being on an airplane.”
“Madam,” Erickson said, “when a patient comes to a psychiatrist there can be no withholding of information. I know something about you. I am going to ask you an unpleasant question. . . . Does your husband know about your love affair?”
“No,” she said with astonishment, “but how did you?”
“Your body language told me.” He explained how her legs were crossed in a very tight position, with one foot completely tucked around the ankle. In his experience, every married woman having an affair locks her body up in a similar way. And she had clearly said “a broad” instead of “abroad,” in a hesitant tone, as if she were ashamed of herself. And her walk indicated a woman who felt trapped in complicated relationships. In subsequent sessions she brought in her lover, who was also married. Erickson asked to see the wife of the lover, and when she came, she sat in the exact same locked position, with the foot under the ankle.
“So you’re having an affair,” he told her.
“Yes, did my husband tell you?”
“No, I got it from your body language. Now I know why your husband suffers from chronic headaches.” Soon he was treating them all and helping them out of their locked and painful positions.
Over the years, his observation powers extended to elements of nonverbal communication that were nearly imperceptible. He could determine people’s states of mind by their breathing patterns, and by mirroring these patterns himself he could lead the patient into a hypnotic trance and create a feeling of deep rapport. He could read subliminal and subvocal speech as people would mouth a word or name in a barely visible manner. This was how fortune-tellers, psychics, and some magicians would make a living. He could tell when his secretary was menstruating by the heaviness of her typing. He could guess the career backgrounds of people by the quality of their hands, the heaviness of their step, the way they tilted their heads, and their vocal inflections. To patients and friends it seemed as if Erickson possessed psychic powers, but they were simply unaware of how long and hard he had studied this, gaining mastery of the second language.