Hypnosis Q&A: Can Hypnosis Really Recover Lost Memories?

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The answer to this question depends on what kinds of memories we are talking about.
For example, one of the most controversial uses of hypnosis has been in the so-called recovery of “suppressed memories” of traumatic events.
There was a time not so long ago when it was believed that the subconscious mind records an exact record of everything that happens to a person, and that if hypnosis could tap this record, even long-lost memories could be recovered.  This technique has been famously used to allegedly help victims of psychological and physical trauma to recover memories of what was done to them long in the past, and by whom it was done.  The idea is that the memory has been suppressed by the unconscious mind because it is too painful for the conscious mind to deal with.
Unfortunately, this way of recovering “memories” rests on a false premise: namely that what the unconscious mind records is an exact record of what went on–similar to a video recording.  Research has shown, however, that this is simply not so.  What the mind remembers is its own “story” of what happened, and this story–told by an individual to himself or herself–has many contributing factors, such as the emotional state of the individual at the time of the event, the ability of the individual at that time to understand what was happening, the influence of those attempting to recover the memory, and the desire of the individual to change the story to make himself or herself appear more heroic or blameless.  Readers interested in this subject should consult Elizabeth Loftus’ groundbreaking work “The Myth of Repressed Memory.”
The key point is that what is “recovered” could certainly be tainted by a number of factors to the point that it is far from a factual representation of any situation remembered.  I have yet to see any convincing evidence that exact memories of past events can be extracted by hypnosis, but I have seen that an individual’s feelings about such events can be uncovered by reliving the the events under hypnotherapy.  This can be highly useful in therapy.
Other memories, such as the location of a lost object, can indeed be recovered, but this is more a case of the individual concentrating on the object–aided by hypnosis–and simply accessing information already contained in the mind.  This information is usually not of a traumatic nature, so suppression for that reason is not a factor.
To be sure, this is a very complicated subject, and we have barely scratched the surface here.  It is worth remembering, however, that hypnosis–while it may look like magic–is not.  Helping the mind to relax and focus is sometimes all that is needed to retrieve the “lost” information sought.
Please keep your questions and comments coming!

Hypnosis Q&A: Undue Influence?

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Q: Isn’t hypnosis just a way to take over a person’s free will and make him or her do whatever the hypnotist wants?
A.  Fortunately for all of us, the answer is no.  People who are given hypnotic suggestions that are contrary to their deeply held beliefs and desires will simply reject such suggestions.  In our clinical setting, of course, patients are only given positive, healing suggestions–many of which are agreed upon by the patients in advance of the hypnotherapy session.  Not surprisingly, such suggestions are almost always welcomed.
Hypnosis, then, acts as a magnifier of these positive suggestions, as the patient is able to focus clearly on the positive changes desired, while ignoring other thoughts that could interfere with such healing.
Yet almost every media and cinema representation of hypnosis involves some nefarious individual bent on bending the will of some poor victim through hypnosis. This perception has become ingrained in our public consciousness over the years to the point that the average person assumes it is true.  This is most unfortunate, because most clinical hypnotists–like others who practice healing arts and sciences–are interested only in helping individuals to marshal their own subconscious resources to affect positive change and healing.
This is not to be confused with stage hypnosis, whose end is to entertain an audience.  I will have much more to say on that in answer to future questions.
Meanwhile, please rest assured that hypnosis cannot subvert the strong will of the individual.  In fact, it is primarily because hypnotherapy patients have such a strong will to change and heal that hypnosis is such a wonderful and effective treatment modality!
Keep those questions coming!