Spells and Counter Spells

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Presented at Disney’s Educators Summit Inspiring Brilliance 2017

Jon Skidmore, Psy.D


Normally in the role of psychologist I would be talking about Creating An Optimal Performance Mindset. But we are in the Magic Kingdom (put on hat, cape and grab the wand) and with a little bit of Disney Magic I am a sorcerer’s apprentice and I am going to talk about Spells and Counter-spells!

Some time ago I had a group of parents of younger students who were learning the magic of the piano in my workshop. To illustrate the power of spells, and by the way spells can be positive and negative. I wanted to see who had been subject to the “I am a singer spell” and who was subject to the “I am a non-singer spell.”  So I asked the room, “How many of you in this room are singers?” About ¾ of the hands went up. “How many of you are non-singers?” The other quarter of the hands went up. Then I said, “Ok non-singers, how many of you have vocal cords?” They all raised their hands. “How many of you have sung Happy Birthday before?” All of the hands…..but one went up. The entire room looked at this mother in dismay and disbelief. She responded to the pressure with a quiet, “I mouth the words.”  Usually the love of a mother for her child on the child’s birthday overpowers the “non-singer spell.” But not in this case so I needed to investigate. She shared her story. She was a little girl probably about 7. She was singing Happy Birthday with energy, enthusiasm and volume. Her brother made fun of her singing. He let her know that she was a terrible singer. That was enough. The spell had been cast and from that day forward she would only mouth the words to all songs. I decided to just let the workshop do it’s magic and I knew that I would revisit the spell that was causing her to mouth the words to Happy Birthday.


The Physiology of Mindset

In the Magic Kingdom we talk about magic, in the other world they talk about the brain. According to their scientists there are two parts of the brain related to spells and counter-spells. The mid-brain or the amygdale is the home of the fight or flight response and the pre-frontal cortex where decisions are made, creativity happens and meaning is created.

I believe everyone wishing to inspire brilliance in others needs to understand the difference between positive spells and negative spells and which part of the brain they come from as well as the importance of counter spells.

To illustrate this I will need four volunteers. May I have four volunteers please?

Let’s look at the common spells associated with volunteering.

By show of hands how many of you experienced something, like hesitation, caution, even concern and consequently kept your hands down?

How many of you seemed to recognize some concern, but it did not seem to stop you?

How many of you responded promptly with a quick hand into the air?

The mid-brain is encoding information from birth. It is fully developed by the time a child is two. It is like a radar looking for pleasure or pain. It does not forget and waits with a pre-set response ready to be triggered.  When the adrenaline, aka: super juice, floods the system we have

the same physiological response every time. It is often called the stress response, fight, flight or freeze response or even performance anxiety. The result is a first response that is most often a reaction ideal for bolting away from rattle snakes. The first response can also be a thought or even an emotion.

The retraining of the mid-brain is challenging. It takes lots of practice. A great counter spell for the well trained mid-brain is “if it is not life threatening, it’s trivial.”  Generally, if it is not going to kill you, your first response cannot be trusted and it probably won’t help you or the situation.

The pre- frontal cortex is about choice, planning, learning, and designing meaning, or casting new spells and breaking old ones.


The Research Project

To further understand spells and counter spells a fellow sorcerer–  Dr. Paul Broomhead, I love his name, it just sounds so magical– and I decided to conduct some experiments on the power of casting spells.

We invited 150 young singers to go one by one into a laboratory, a practice room, and we asked them to sing Happy Birthday as musically as they could in front of a camera. Then as they finished, by random assignment, half of the students went back to choir and the other half went to a special class on how to use the “Bold, Confident, Free” spell. We wanted to see what the impact of 40 minutes of training would have on this group of young singers. After the training was over both groups went back into the laboratory with the same request and we discovered that teaching students the “Bold, Confident, Free” spell had a positive impact on the performance over the control group. The new spell worked!


Practicing the Magic of Mindset

I was invited to share my magic at a vocal a capella camp called ReMix. That is where I met the Master Sorcerer Thomas Schultheis. He is a master. While I was teaching a class I discerned that there was a student who had been caught in the “Unhappy Camper Spell.” There was a very unhappy cloud around him. I decided to investigate. I discovered that he is a cancer survivor. That he wanted to go home. His mother was not going to take him home and he was in constant mild-to-moderate physical pain depending on what he was doing. After receiving permission from his mother, I talked with this young man. The first thing I asked him was, “So what is your mindset about being here?” He responded with, “This is lame, I want to go home.” He was caught in the “Unhappy Camper” spell. I began to do my magic. Drawing on what I hoped he had learned at the earlier workshop, I asked him if he could put his “Unhappy Camper” spell in the garbage can and then come up with a powerful counter spell.  He paused and said, “This Is Fun!” I could tell my magic was working.

Then I presented to him the possibility of casting a new spell on his ReMix experience. It was no longer about singing, it was no longer about the power struggle between he and his mother. It was no longer about being in pain. It was no longer about not wanting to be here. It was about practicing the art of the counter-spell.  Our conversation ended with his request to return to the stage and continue practicing.

He took the challenge. When he felt the pull of the “Unhappy Camper” spell he practiced the “This is Fun!” counter-spell . Two days later I got a call from a very happy mother. I saw him solo Friday night free from the cloud of the “Unhappy Camper” spell. The Spell was broken. 

In the Magic Kingdom all of the stories end with a happily ever after. Not so in that other world. A young man approached me after a workshop and shared with me a very tragic ending that resulted from being caught in a spell he didn’t even know he was under. He was part of an other research project on the power of spells and counter spells. There were tears in his eyes as he shared his sad story.


In February he auditioned for and received a college scholarship for his magical musical skills with the cello. In May he was invited to perform at his high school’s awards assembly. He accepted that invitation. He was very disappointed, frustrated and embarrassed at how poorly he performed. Then he cast upon himself the “I Am Not Doing that Again” spell.  Not knowing the power of spells and counter spells he resigned his scholarship and quit playing his cello. 


This was an unnecessary tragedy!  But he was not the first nor is he likely to be the last person caught in the “I Am Not Doing that Again” spell.  As educators who want to inspire and bring forth brilliance you must understand the power of spells and counter-spells.

Remember the story of the woman who was under the “I Am a Non- Singer” spell? I was not going to let an opportunity for her to practice the counter-spell pass. At the right time I invited her to sing happy birthday to everyone who would be having a birthday this coming year. She paused, the effect of the “I Am a Non-Singer” spell was obvious and then she cast the counter-spell. She said “Yes.” She sang beautifully.  The spell was broken!

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