Hypnosis and Memory
By Judith E. Pearson, Ph.D.
As a clinical hypnotherapist, I occasionally receive requests from my clients to help them remember something they’ve forgotten, or to help them forget something they no longer wish to remember. It’s not always possible or advisable to fulfill these requests. The idea of using hypnotherapy to manipulate memory is more complex than most people realize. The general public seems to have much confusion on the subject. I’d like to clear that confusion with this article.
First, let’s talk about whether hypnosis can facilitate memory. People want to remember things they have forgotten for a number of often legitimate reasons. Here are some reasons I’ve encountered in my practice:
• People want to remember where they left some item that they cannot find.
• People want to search through their past to discover the original cause of seemingly inexplicable and troubling emotions, thought patterns, or behaviors. This is often the case when people suspect they may have suppressed memories of childhood abuse, or when people want to explore “past lives”. Many believe that by uncovering the “cause” of the problems, they will be “cured” or at least they will understand themselves more fully.
• People want to remember what happened when they have a “gap” in time. For example, during a fever, or while inebriated, or under the effects of certain drugs, people may lose memory. When they recover their senses, they might wonder what happened while their minds were incapacitated.
• In legal cases, people may want to remember the details of a crime they have witnessed, in order to give a more accurate report to the police or more complete testimony to the courts. In legal cases, forensic hypnotherapy is often employed by hypnotherapist specifically trained in eliciting legally admissible information.
Can hypnosis really help in these kinds of cases? The answer is “Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no.” It is a myth that the human brain stores every memory of everything that has ever occurred to the individual. There is no scientific way to prove that every memory is stored intact for a lifetime. It is far more likely and logical to conclude that the brain maintains memories based on whether they are recent, useful and frequently recalled, and eventually deletes those that are not. This theory makes sense due to the fact that most of us forget far more than we remember. It would simply overload the brain to have to remember every detail of every waking moment of our lives.
Another myth is that memories are stored accurately and intact. Memory erodes and changes over time. You might recall in vivid detail your vacation, if it was just last week. How well do you remember a vacation you took ten years ago? Just because someone “remembers” an event via hypnosis doesn’t mean the memory is accurate or complete.
Hypnotherapy may or may not be effective in retrieving a memory. One person may recover a memory in just one session of hypnotherapy, while another may require several sessions. The ability to recover a memory in hypnosis depends on a number of factors. One factor is the client’s degree of hypnotizability. Hypnotizability (the ability to access the hypnotic state) varies among individuals. Another factor is the motivation of the client. A client may be less amenable to hypnosis if he or she feels conflicted about recovering the memory. For example, suppose an individual want to remember the details of early childhood abuse at the hands of an unknown assailant, and at the same time, suspects or fears that the assailant may be revealed as a loved family member. A person wanting to reveal what happened during a “gap” in time may worry that he or she will remember something embarrassing or shameful.
Another factor is the skill of the hypnotherapist. Hypnotherapists do best when they can put their clients at ease, adjust procedures to the needs and preferences of the client, and maintain the flexibility to work with a wide variety of client personalities. Hypnotherapists must also have a repertoire of trance-induction methods so that if a client is not responsive to one method, another method can be used.
Finally, when it comes to recovering memories, the hypnotherapist must be careful with wording the instructions and questions to the client in trance. The hypnotherapist should make every effort to avoid “leading” instructions or “presuppositional” questions. Let’s say, for example, that during hypnotic regression, the client reports a memory of being in a room with an adult and feeling afraid. At the point, it would be inappropriate for the hypnotherapist to say, “Give me the name of this man” The instruction assumes that the person is a man, and that the client should know his name, when perhaps neither is the case. An example of a presuppositional question might be, “Where did he touch you?” when it hasn’t been established that the client was touched at all. A more neutral question would be “And then what happened?”
Careless wording in hypnotherapy may lead to a phenomenon called “false memory.” False memory occurs when the client produces a memory of something that did not happen, and believes it to be true, especially since it emerged during hypnosis. Just because a memory emerges in hypnosis, does not make it true. Some clients are very compliant in hypnosis and are likely to go along with leading instructions and presuppositional questions, producing inaccurate recall. Even with the most scrupulous instructions and questions, false memories can emerge. Sometimes clients want to remember something so badly that the mind actually fabricates a false memory to satisfy the desire. A hypnotherapist should never vouch for the accuracy of truthfulness of a memory that a client produces through hypnotherapy.
In the case of remembering events that may constitute the origin of troubling behaviors, thoughts or emotions, there are additional considerations. First, when no memory emerges, it doesn’t mean the individual cannot change. People make significant changes in their lives without always understanding the origins of their problems. Second, human problems might result from other factors, not just past events. Biology, cultural influences, brain chemistry, and genetics can play a role. Third, sometimes the basis of the problem is an omission—and no memory exists for something that didn’t happen. A lack of validation and affection can be as emotionally damaging to a child as criticism and belittling.
Finally, when it comes to lost memory, perhaps it is a survival mechanism that the mind can mercifully block out a memory of trauma or tragedy. I recently met a man who asked my professional opinion about this. His niece was assaulted in her home by an intruder, who beat her severely. After months of medical care and recovery, she is doing well, with no memory of what happened that night. Her psychiatrist concluded that it is unnecessary for her to recall the trauma, and to insist that she do so would be unkind and perhaps unethical. Did I agree? Under the circumstances, yes.
Next, allow me to discuss how hypnosis can facilitate forgetting and the ethical considerations involved. Over the years I’ve had a few clients tell they wanted hypnotherapy in order to forget something painful. It can be done. Again, hypnotizability, motivation, and rapport are all factors in how well someone can be hypnotized and how completely one will follow the instruction to forget something.
Stage hypnotists often give their volunteers instructions for temporary amnesia—say, failure to recall one’s address, or middle name, or the number between six and eight. As long as the instruction is not threatening, the hypnotized individual will often comply. At the end of the show, the stage hypnotist always tells the volunteer that he or she will once more recall the information.
Hypnotherapy is different. The goal is not to entertain, but to change people’s lives for the better. I’ve had mainly two types of requests for forgetting. One I often encounter is from someone who has just gone through a painful break-up. One man told me that the thought of his former girlfriend caused him so much anguish that he wanted to totally erase her memory from his mind. Another man told me he wanted to forget that he was ever a smoker, so that he would stop smoking and never be tempted so smoke again.
In every case, I have refused on ethical grounds. Here’s why. The mind stores information like a database stores data. Much of the information is cross-linked to other pieces of information. Delete one category of information and other, cross linked information becomes incomplete and confusing. Associative memories may be lost as well. Suppose Joe does forget Jane via hypnosis. What happens when he encounters her one day on the street and she begins to talk about her memories of their relationship? What happens when he finds a card or letter in his drawer with her signature at the bottom? Suppose Sam forgets he was ever a smoker, but can’t account for the lighters in his desk and briefcase. Will Joe and Sam think they are going crazy?
It’s not a good idea to purposely remove memories, even painful ones. Besides, there are other ways to get over a break-up or stop smoking without having to forget. It’s still possible for hypnotherapy to help in both cases.
Tampering with memory via hypnosis is a delicate and uncertain business. There are no guarantees. Please understand this when you go looking for a hypnotherapist to help you remember something. Additionally, for your own piece of mind, don’t ask a hypnotherapist help you to forget something of vital significance in your life.