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Human givens

Hannah Latham discovers how research into dreaming has led to an exciting new approach to mental health care and therapy


The father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, believed that the content of our dreams reveals our unconscious desires. For decades man has been fascinated by his/her dreams and there are many theories on how to interpret those lucid night-time dramas, but the focus is usually on the content, rather then the reasons why we experience them.

When you dream your muscles are paralyzed and you aren’t aware of the outside world, which makes you physically vulnerable. Knowing this, research psychologist Joe Griffin and psychologist Ivan Tyrell wanted to know why we dream. As we’ve evolved, nature has discarded the things that are of no use, therefore dreaming must have a purpose. After 15 years of research they came out with a surprisingly down-to-earth conclusion and findings that have become the backbone of a very effective approach to mental health with far-reaching applications. They called it Human Givens.

“It’s a bit like a flushed toilet,” says Alec Stansfield, Human Givens therapist and co-director of Alendi training and therapy centre in Trowbridge. “Whenever you’ve got emotional expectation, dreaming acts that out in metaphor using a different set of characters. That action flushes the loo if you like, frees the circuits of the brain to be fresh the next day for new events and new experiences.” When we lived in caves this would have been the fear of being eaten by a predator or anxiety about finding food, but now it’s anything from worrying about getting that job you want to excitement/nervousness about giving a speech or simply the quashed desire to eat a chocolate bar.

“When people get depressed the loo gets overloaded and you end up with crap on the floor,” Alec continues. In other words the brain becomes unable to process everything. When we sleep we cycle through the REM state, (when we dream) and slow-wave sleep, (when our body repairs itself). Research has found that depressed people experience too much REM sleep and not enough slow-wave sleep, hence the fact that lethargy and exhaustion are indicators of depression.

Wanting to know what was causing this, Joe and Ivan found a basic set of needs that make us happy: “things that you can take as a given of human nature,” says Alec, “like everybody needs a sense of community somewhere in their lives.”

(Left to right)

Bindi Gauntlett, Ivan Tyrrell, Alan Rankin, Alec Stansfield and Pamela Woodford:

the team at Wiltsihre Human Givens Centre

‘Human givens’ range from our basic requirements for survival (food, warmth, shelter and safety), to emotional needs such as giving and receiving attention, having friendships where you are totally accepted for who you are, to having a sense of status within your social groupings, to feeling stretched in what you do professionally.

These findings are useful within therapy because rather then just dealing with the emotions presented, you can really look at what is going on in that person’s life. “Research is showing that HG is proving more effective then other forms of therapy including CBT which government guidelines keep recommending,” says Ivan Tyrell.

But what is even more ground-breaking is that professionals from other areas are using HG in their work. It’s being used in schools for autism, with young offenders units, with asylum seekers, with addiction, in conflict resolution – the list goes on. Ivan is Principle of Mindfields College of Psychology and was approached by Weston Super Mare council to develop a 12-week programme for parents. “This was an attempt to address antisocial behaviour, including problems in schools, post-natal depression, anxiety disorders and addictions,” says Ivan.

Carmen Kane, parent Support Co-ordinator at Milton Keynes Council was the driving force. “People need to start with themselves as they are people before they are parents, and HG was the missing link,” she says. “We’ve run the programme three times and had fantastic results.” It took two years to develop and was run at a children’s centre. Parents referred themselves or were referred by children’s services or hospital psychologists. “A year down the line the mums are talking about how life-changing it’s been for them,” says Carmen. “I’m not saying it’s a cure of all evils as everyone still has major issues come up in their lives, but they’re dealing with them in a completely different way now.” One parent’s feedback was: “It made me feel more positive. I don’t feel a failure at everything. It has made me be more honest with myself about my children.”

Human Givens is the therapy everyone’s talking about and it’s easy to see why. I was curious to experience it and having just come out of a block of intense but promising CBT sessions straight back into my old depressive behaviours I wanted something that would work for the long term, so I arranged some sessions with Alec.

The process is a constant one of life evaluation and assessment. He gives me interesting scientific explanations of how the brain works with the parasympathetic nervous system relevant to what is going on for me. We go through some relaxation exercises and he sends me away with some really simple, calming breathing techniques and achievable goals to aim for. One problem for me has been that when I’m stressed I get over-tired, worry that I’m not sleeping and end up in a highly anxious state, usually crying until all hours of the night. This has come and gone throughout my life depending on my stress levels and it happens to occur after our first session. Alec picks up on the cause and uses a technique I recognise from NLP to neutralise it (he readily admits that HG borrows the best techniques from other modalities).

I have not had the same problem for two months now despite my stress levels remaining high. I now recognise when I’m over-tired and if I can’t sleep I don’t get anxious about it. I could have addressed this when I studied NLP years ago but somehow it never came up. This is only a small piece of a puzzle I haven’t got all the pieces for yet but Human Givens seems to be a very tangible way to make long-term changes in your life.

Alec Stansfield: 01225 766956

Mindfields College offers HG courses and workshops in Bristol and around the country: 01323 811440

More information on HG or to find a therapist: or


published in Spark 55 - winter 08/09

details correct at the time of going to press. Please make your own checks



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