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The Truth About Hypnosis and Memory

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Why memories should never be 'recovered' in therapy

I've always been sceptical of the idea of 'repressed' or 'recovered' memories, partly due to a story of my own which I'll tell you in a moment.

Some people think hypnosis can be used to 'find out what happened' in a person's past when they don't already know.

There are three assumptions here:

  1. That hypnosis is a reliable way of accessing memories you don't currently have
  2. That 'repressed' memories are common
  3. That 'uncovering' what happened somehow cures the problem.

Before we get going, in case you don't read any further, let me tell you this: I think you should steer clear of any therapist who claims they can help you by 'uncovering' memories.

Why? Because they are working from an outmoded, unscientific, and potentially very dangerous false premise.

But let's start with that true, but false, story of mine.

My golden memory

I had a memory of something that never was.

My memory seemed real. Had I been pressed, even in a court of law, I would have sworn it was true.

I had a clear snapshot memory of being 14, on holiday with my parents in San Francisco. In my mind I was standing on the Golden Gate Bridge, looking out over the bay at the infamous island jail of Alcatraz.

I told people for years I'd been to San Fran. Only I hadn't. I wasn't lying - just mistaken.

I happened to mention this memory to my mother 20 years after the (non-)event. She looked at me curiously and said, "We went to LA and San Diego, but we never went to San Francisco. What are you talking about?" Not satisfied, I sought backup from my dad and sister - who both confirmed we hadn't gone to San Fran!

Was I crazy? I remembered it... didn't I?

Implanted memories are not just science fiction

Fortunately, lots of good research on the unreliability of memory has been done,1 which makes me feel somewhat less weird about my own self-created memory.

In a now famous study that became known as the 'Lost in The Mall Experiment', it was found that memories of an experience which never took place, namely, being lost in a shopping mall, could be implanted in the minds of young children.2 What's more, the memory could be long lasting.

I even found a video on Youtube in which the subject of such an experiment describes a vivid memory of being lost in a shopping mall, which, as we know, never happened. The researchers managed to 'implant' this memory by having Chris' family write journal entries in which they described this event alongside other, real events, then having Chris read these journals.

So what made people conduct this seemingly strange research? Well, it was done because something really worrying had started to happen.

Ignorant therapeutic practice can ruin lives

The 1990s saw a growing mania in therapy to 'recover' memories, and many lawsuits stemming from the resulting accusations.3,4,5 Therapists who assumed that present-day emotional difficulties could only signify suppressed past childhood abuse would sometimes lead their clients with assumptive language, eventually leading the client to also assume they had suffered past abuse. Past abuse which may never have happened.

People tend to recall most of what happened to them, especially if it was awful as what I describe in this piece.

There is little evidence that people repress or 'bury' terrible memories, nor that 'recovering' them will magically solve current problems.6 Alarmingly, a 2007 study found that when clients suddenly recalled previously non-existent memories during therapy, the account was less likely to have any corroborating evidence than if the memories had been recalled without any 'help'.7

But I want to make one thing clear.

If a person has always had a memory, there is little reason to doubt them

We should always assume that people who recall terrible things happening to them, when they've always had those memories, aren't mistaken. But we should be wary of memories that never existed before 'coming up' during psychotherapy, especially when there is no corroborating evidence.

A therapist needs to understand how memory works in the mind but also how language can shape both expectation and experience. It's amazing how even the subtlest nuances of language can mould memory, as this next example clearly shows.

Was it a smash, or a bump? How language shapes memory

Researcher Elizabeth Loftus found that language can shape memory.8 In her experiments, subjects were shown films of motor vehicle accidents then asked to answer questions about them.

Questions such as "How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?" resulted in research subjects overestimating the speed at which the vehicles had been travelling compared with when words like bumped or collided were used.

When retested a week later, participants were asked "Did you see the broken glass?" Those who had been exposed to the word smashed were much more likely to say "yes" even though there had been no broken glass.

Language can shape experience and also create, or at least greatly mould, memory. Therapists, particularly those who have been trained in the 'recovered memory' ideology, may ask leading questions or use unwitting presuppositions. They may use words like 'uncomfortable', 'painful', or even 'traumatic' when the client hasn't used these words.

Using hypnosis to try to 'uncover' memories is even more dangerous because of the creativity and suggestibility that occur during the hypnotic trance state.

And that goes double for traumatic memories.

Why post-traumatic stress disorder is not a condition of memory suppression

If you go along to a practitioner for help dealing with a painful memory you have always had, that's one thing. But going along because they have offered to help you 'find out why' you have difficulties is another.

We evolved to recall painful memories in order to avoid such situations in the future. This isn't to say that suppression of painful memories is impossible, or that something terrible didn't happen to someone when they were so young they hadn't yet started forming memories,9 or that we can't fail to lay down memories when we are extremely drunk.10 But it is to say that post-traumatic stress disorder is not a condition of memory suppression. It's a condition of too much and too vivid recall, in which the past feels present.

When we are traumatized, the stress we experience can be so extreme that the memory is laid down in the amygdala, the part of the brain that produces the fight-or-flight or terror response. What's more, it stays 'locked' in this part of the brain (instead of the parts that house less-emotional memories) as a survival pattern, ready to reactivate at even the faintest reminder of the original, triggering incident.

The problem isn't one of too little or no memory, but of too much, too often. In fact, traumatic memory can feel so strong it's almost like a regression back to the original trauma.

I recall working with a survivor of World War II who wanted help processing a traumatic memory of an horrific military experience that had plagued him for 50 years. Whenever he spontaneously recalled it, he said, it felt like he was "right back there," "reliving" it. Traumatic memories tend not to fade like more neutral or even happier memories do.

All this isn't to say that sometimes a person will recall something they hadn't thought about in a long, long time. This is a memory they've always had, though, not a new or 'recovered' one.

Using hypnosis to implant false memories

I taught in a hypnotherapy and psychotherapy diploma course at Brighton University for 10 years. I and the other teachers believed it was important to address the myths around memory early on.

We showed our students a video clip in which esteemed hypnosis researcher Dr Orne records a session with a young woman. He asks her whether she slept well the night before, and she says she did. He then hypnotizes her and suggests she was awoken in the night by the sound of an explosion "like a car backfiring". She accepts this suggestion.

Now he awakens her and again asks how she slept the night before. This time she tells him she remembers being woken up in the night by an explosion noise - "like a car backfiring."

When Dr Orne then plays her the tape of her earlier conviction (prior to his suggestions) that she had not been woken up, she is, understandably, quite confused.

Not everyone would have responded as she did, but it's clear that during hypnosis the mind can become even more suggestible and creative. And if a therapist doesn't (a) understand this when they use hypnosis and (b) understand how hypnosis can happen spontaneously quite outside of their control, then there is a risk that memories which did not exist before therapy may be manufactured by the therapy.

Hypnosis has so many life-enhancing benefits when it's used well. But it is not a truth serum, and it certainly isn't a reliable way to access so-called 'buried memories'.

So, memory is malleable. But memory also has two other features that you need to know about.

Using hypnosis to affect the physical

Memory is a hypnotic process. And in fact many hypnotherapists induce hypnosis in their clients simply by asking them to focus on a particular memory (a good one!). Recall is hypnotic because it has us focusing inward and perhaps even creating images in our minds.

But there's something else about memory and recall.

When we recall, especially during the powerful state of hypnosis, we do so not just with our minds but with our whole bodies.

If I recall a time I was very angry, my blood pressure may rise (people with chronic heart conditions are encouraged not to recall times when they were very angry) and I may begin to breathe quicker and feel hotter.

Harvard University professors found that, in healthy people, simply recalling a time when they were highly angry caused a six-hour dip in antibody immunoglobulin A, which is cells' first line against infection.11

Recall is so hypnotic that it can cause physical changes.

But we can use this to our advantage.

The wonderful power of remembered wellness

Hypnotherapists often use hypnosis to revivify wonderful times from the past for people so they can take those feelings and experience them more in their present and future life.

The fact is we don't just remember with our minds, but with our bodies too.

If I recall reclining on a Caribbean beach my blood pressure may go down; my hands and feet may feel warmer; I may begin to produce more serotonin in my brain, making me feel better; and so on.

Remembered wellness is a technique that uses the physical aspect of memory.12 Starting to recall times you felt relaxed (and healthy and well if you are currently unwell), totally mentally and physically comfortable and happy, can start to influence the way you feel now and possibly even your physical health.

So, hypnosis should never been used to try to find out what did or didn't happen. Memories can be shaped, even created, through language, whether the therapist understands this or not, and memory is in itself an hypnotic experience that affects the whole body, not just the mind.

I'm happy to say that I have now genuinely been to San Francisco. Really, I have! I've looked out across the bay to Alcatraz for real. I've even visited the famous ex-prison itself. I have the pictures to prove it.

I can finally count that as a real memory.

Published by Mark Tyrrell - in Hypnosis Training