Challenges with Popular Beliefs about Hypnosis and Memory
Did you know that most Americans have an incorrect understanding of memory? It gets worse: Many of my fellow Americans also have beliefs about memory that go against established scientific understandings of how memory actually works! More on that that later, but concerning hypnosis and memory, a nationally representative sample survey of Americans showed that 55.4% of the United States population agreed that “hypnosis is useful in helping witnesses accurately recall details of crimes.”  Unfortunately, that belief simply isn’t correct. In fact, the opposite is true: Courts treat hypnosis-based recollections as untrustworthy. Although hypnosis can lead to more recall by witnesses, it does not lead to more accurate recall. 
Widely-accepted beliefs about memory and hypnosis are not just interesting in their departure from decades of scientific research that disputes those beliefs. Popular opinion has the ability to seep into many parts of our lives, and its influence over the use of hypnosis for memory improvement made this particular use of hypnosis extremely popular and widespread in postwar America. The importance of lay knowledge lies in its power to shape how we approach and study the psychological sciences. Many researchers agree that popular psychological beliefs, no matter how wrong, play “a significant, even formative role in defining the nature of forensic psychological expertise, and also the framing of elite academic psychological research”.
Even today, the influence of popular culture continues to impact the study of the science behind hypnosis and its ability to improve memory. In the scientific community, hypnosis is considered a relatively taboo topic, due to its convoluted past, and as such, relatively few psychologists and scientists study the link that inevitably exists between hypnosis and its ability to alter, construct and define memories. For example, John F. Kihlstrom, a Berkeley psychologist, limited the his definition of hypnosis by calling it “a social interaction in which one person, called the subject, acts on suggestions from another person, called the hypnotist, for imaginative experiences involving alterations in cognition and voluntary action”.
There are, however, are a few psychologists, researchers and scientists who believe that hypnosis has immense potential, beyond its ability to induce atypical experiential states, and may reveal significant insights into cognition, the brain, and working memory function. It’s even possible that hypnotic research may have major implications for developing new methods to improve human learning and memory performance.
According to my understanding, hypnosis is the induction of a highly-focused state of consciousness, in which a person is highly responsive to suggestion or direction. This state can be achieved by the individual alone or with the help of another person or a recording. With that more expanded view of hypnosis, let’s take a closer look at what the research tells us about the link between hypnosis and memory. Let’s begin by looking at what memories really are.
What is Memory?
Memory can be defined as the faculty by which the brain stores and retrieves information. Although many people believe that memory works like “a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later” , this belief is actually incorrect and is not supported by science. “Despite what many people believe, memory is not a repository of past experiences, but a dynamic mechanism that ensures the stability and coherence of the self across situations”. Memories may be false when they are initially stored. They may also become false during repeated instances of retrieval and/or may be corrupted by time, ensuing events, brain injury or trauma, a person’s own sense of self, confidence about the memory and many other factors. So, to sum up memory, the idea that our memories are perfect, unaltered representations of historical reality is incorrect.
History of Hypnosis for Memory Improvement
Hypnosis as a means of memory improvement and recall became popular after World War II, when clinical and experimental hypnosis became widespread practices. “From the 1950s through the early 1980s, hypnosis became increasingly popular as a means to exhume information thought to be buried within the mind”. As audio and video recording devices were made available for the public to purchase and use, the lay public’s concept of a memory as a permanent, unalterable item fixed in the mind gained more acceptance. People began to believe that memories were stored just like audios and videos, as unalterable records of past events. This widely-held scientifically-incorrect belief also encouraged psychoanalysts and therapists who believed hypnosis was the key to unlocking these “unalterable” repressed or unclear memories.
This belief eventually lead to two important developments in the history of hypnosis and memory improvement: The first being hypnotic age regression and recall: The widespread phenomenon of people getting hypnotized and then suddenly remembering fantastical events that may or may not have happened to them as a child. The second being : The practice of regressing subjects to a specific moment or event that they had witnessed in order to “replay the memory of a crime” Let’s take a closer look at these two key developments.
Hypnotic Age Regression and Recall
The first development, the use of hypnotic techniques including age regression to enhance recall of past events experienced by the individual , was primarily led by psychologists, who used hypnosis to “exhume memories of incest, sexual abuse, and trauma,” as well as more unusual cases, such as recollections of alien abductions. However, there is no scientific evidence that supports these practices. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that discounts it.
While there is no evidence that hypnosis enhances accurate recollection of past events, hypnosis does appear to increase false recollection. Whitehouse and fellow researchers found that hypnosis also increased the confidence that people felt about their ability to recall items, without increasing their actual ability to recall the items. It seems that hypnosis can create a suggestive atmosphere that interacts with memory reconstruction and retrieval to give people the illusion of correctly remembering.  So, in the absence of independent corroboration, there is no reason to think that any hypnotically refreshed recollection is an accurate representation of the historical past, and, in fact, every reason to doubt it.
Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus went even further than saying that suggestion was the root challenge. She believed that the fundamental understanding of memory that underpinned the practice was wrong. “Previous memory practitioners had likened memory to tape recordings and motion picture film, but Loftus used real motion pictures as a way of defining the standard of truth, figurative and literal, against which to measure eyewitness memories. Her test subjects viewed films of events, like a traffic accident, and were then questioned about what they remembered. Their reports proved to be full of errors”. This study, among many others that she performed, served to illustrate the fact that memory, as it was culturally understood, was wrong, and that the very act of recollection could change the memories.
The second important event that occurred in the history of hypnosis and memory improvement was the development of forensic hypnosis. Due to the challenging issues of false recollection and believed-imaginings, forensic hypnosis had a fairly short lifespan in the legal field. “Given the lack of scientific support, coupled with evidence for greater memory distortion with hypnosis, the majority of state Supreme Courts that have grappled with the issue of hypnotically elicited testimony have placed major restrictions on its admissibility in court”. A lack of independent and objective corroboration proved to be a major factor in dismissing hypnotic-induced testimonies as nothing more than suggested representations of memories and events.
These two developments, hypnotic age regression and forensic hypnosis were, by most measures, resounding failures, and their significance continues to impact further scientific study on the subject today. As Lifshitz and fellow researchers summarize: “Two important events in the late twentieth century marred popular conceptions of hypnosis in relation to memory: The massive rise in dissociative identity disorder diagnoses and the increasing interest in legal issues surrounding the use of hypnotically enhanced memories in court” . Both of these events served to discredit hypnosis as a reliable recall tool. This is because it was later found that many of the diagnoses of dissociative identity disorder were made based on people remembering imagined past events, and many of the witness statements made in court were inaccurate. But because these popular conceptions live on in many people’s systems of belief about hypnosis and memory, they have had a negative impact on the advancement of research in this specific area.
Current Scientific Beliefs about Hypnosis for Memory Improvement
Since the turn of the century, between the years 2000 and 2020, there has been some salient experimentation involving hypnosis and memory improvement. Nemeth and fellow researchers analyzed the connection between human learning and memory, and how, in particular, hypnosis allowed for reduced engagement of the frontal lobe-mediated explicit attentional processes, leading to improved performance in striatum-related procedural learning. In other words, hypnosis enhances your ability to focus on completing procedural tasks. “Human learning and memory rely upon multiple cognitive systems related to separable brain structures. These systems interact in cooperative and sometimes competitive ways in optimizing memory and information processing performance”. The researchers used hypnosis as a tool to reduce the competition between frontal lobe-related explicit hypothesis testing and striatum-related procedural-based systems. “The main question of the study was how the disruption of frontal lobe functions by hypnosis affects performance in procedural-based sequence learning”. The study wanted to see if hypnosis impacts human attention processes enough to improve our ability to complete procedural, step-by-step tasks. By blocking some parts of the brain’s attention systems, hypnosis may actually increase focus on procedural tasks and how quickly or well we complete such tasks.
The results of this study were impressive. Nemeth and his team found that “hypnosis substantially boosted procedural-based sequence learning,” meaning participants were not only able to learn how to complete step-by-step tasks more quickly, but were also able to actually complete the tasks more efficiently. This result sheds light not only on the competitive nature of brain systems in cognitive processes” but could also have dramatic implications for developing new methods to improve human skill learning and increase procedural-based memory functioning. Jiang and colleagues furthered this line of research in their work, stating that “previous research suggests that hypnosis is associated with decreased DMN (Default Mode Network) activity and that high hypnotizability is associated with greater functional connectivity between the ECN (Executive Control Network) and the SN (Salience Network).” This further research served to advance the idea that hypnosis affects both the systems within the human brain and the ways in which the systems communicate with one another.
They went on to use functional magnetic resonance imaging to test activity and functional connectivity among these three networks in hypnosis. Their findings indicated that “cross-network coactivation patterns are modulated by hypnosis….Thus, effects of hypnosis may be due to separation of certain brain functions (ECN from DMN) as well as integration of others (ECN and SN)”. In other words, the scientists found that, in certain instances, hypnosis made certain brain functions work better together, and, in other instances, hypnosis caused other brain functions to not work together at all. Hypnosis, under these conditions, provokes the brain to increase connectivity between key cognitive functions and decrease communication between other key functions. The ability to choose when and to what degree the different networks communicate with one another could potentially lead to scientists being able to control how the brain works, or at least parts of it. And if scientists were able to control how our brains work, they would be able to help us learn more quickly and thoroughly, influence our habits (encouraging good habits and discouraging bad ones, such as smoking), and even possibly allow our memories to function better. Additional investigation must be completed on this matter, but as the research stands, it holds great promise for the future of education, training, and rehabilitation programs.
Recent Research on Hypnosis for Memory Improvement
Although the historical misapplications of hypnosis for memory improvement have tainted the image of hypnosis as a useful tool for evoking lost memories, new collective evidence shows that judicious use of hypnotic techniques can actually improve recall and decrease memory inaccuracy. Expectancies and demand characteristics appear to play a primary role in determining whether hypnosis or other suggestion-based procedures will either improve or bias memory. Expectancies refer to a person’s expectations for the experience of hypnosis: what it will be like, as well as how one may feel afterwards. Demand characteristics are behaviors that a participant exhibits during a research study after having formed an opinion of what the experiment’s purpose is. People generally don’t intend to but instead subconsciously alter their actions to fit their idea of the experiment and its intentions. Both of these occurrences tend to skew the results of the experiment, because participants are not acting naturally, but are instead doing what they believe they’re “supposed” to be doing.
A series of experiments by Wagstaff and fellow researchers demonstrates that instructing participants to expect that hypnosis leads to accurate memory reporting increases resilience to misleading information and decreases the likelihood of false recall”. Another effective method involves priming subjects by educating them about the threat of false recall, which allows them to protect themselves against confabulation (false answers the mind creates to fill in memory gaps – these are not lies) throughout the duration of the hypnotic treatment. Measures such as these strengthen the possibility that hypnosis can be used as a safe and successful means of memory improvement.
Another precautionary technique that helps safeguard the experiment is to ask questions during the hypnotic treatment that intentionally remind the participant to try to recall memories as accurately as possible. “Deliberately crafting suggestions that associate the [details of the] procedure with correct recall may serve to safeguard against the menace of confabulation and help foster more detailed and accurate experiential reports”. So, there is also promise in refining the interviewing methods used during the hypnotic experience, as well as intentionally framing the experiment and its purpose prior to the hypnotic treatment.
Hypnosis for Brain Injury
One area in which hypnosis has undoubtedly shown immense value is in improving working memory performance in brain-injured patients. “Working memory impairment is prevalent in brain injured patients across lesion aetiologies and severities,” meaning patients who have brain injuries from a variety of causes and at varying degrees of severity. Lindelov and colleagues demonstrated in their 2017 study that “working memory performance can be effectively restored by suggesting to hypnotized patients that they have regained their pre-injury level of working memory functioning.” The experiment was designed to measure not only short-term effects, but also long-term functioning of the working memory — and in both cases, the researchers found that the memory had improved and was now operating at or above the performance level of the healthy population. Lindelov and fellow researchers concluded that, “if framed correctly, hypnotic suggestion can effectively improve working memory following acquired brain injury. The speed and consistency with which this improvement occurred indicate that there may be a residual capacity for normal information processing in the injured brain”. These findings are merely the first step towards revolutionizing how rehabilitation programs are designed, but are an encouraging sign that hypnosis is an overlooked resource when it comes to improving memory performance.
P.S. Below is a free hypnosis session, designed to help you improve your memory. It does not contain music or binaural tones (my memory enhancement hypnosis mp3 download does).
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