Hypnosis-Aided Memory is a Slippery Slope

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Memory is a vital element to all sorts of learning in life, yet it can be elusive at just the wrong times, such as when we are taking a final examination or we need to recall the combination to a safe.  In this modern age, there are all sorts of solutions to memory problems, from smartphone apps and other clever devices to supplements made from jellyfish that are alleged to increase one’s powers of recall.

But what happens when we witness something–a critical incident for example–and our memory stubbornly refuses to cooperate, due to stress or nervousness or some other psychological manifestation?  In those cases, many turn to hypnosis as a means of clearing the mind and thus aiding in recall.  The problem, however, is that no matter how clearly one recalls something, it is not the same as a mental video recording.

It was once assumed that any information taken in by the brain (especially the unconscious mind) was stored like an exact video reproduction, ready to be recalled when needed.  Research in memory, however, has revealed something completely different.  Certainly, the brain records most of what it experiences–either consciously or subconsciously–but that information is filtered through the individual’s own assumptions, knowledge, sensory limitations, emotions, and prejudices.  The resulting report of the person doing the remembering may actually be quite different than what was happening.

For example, suppose you and your five-year-old child take your family dog to the veterinarian for its shots.  You watch calmly as the vet struggles a little to get your characteristically rambunctious pet under control, perhaps with a bit of a grimace on his face.  “There, I’ve got you,” says the frustrated vet, whereupon he proceeds to administer the shot.  Everything goes as expected, and you would report that you had seen the vet give the dog a shot, perhaps laughing at the rambunctiousness.

Your five-year-old, knowing nothing about veterinarians and shots, sees something completely different.  He sees a strange man in a white coat grabbing his beloved pet and struggling with it.  He sees what could be an angry look on the vet’s face.  “There, I’ve got you,” snarls the mean man.  Then he sees this man sticking the poor dog with a long needle that he thinks must be causing a lot of pain.  Your five-year-old might tearfully report that he had seen a ,man grab and wrestle with the family pet, then assault the helpless animal with a needle.

You and your five-year-old witnessed the exact same incident, but your reports are significantly different.  Even under hypnosis, neither of you would be likely to change your report significantly.

A recent news item actually reports a murder conviction being overturned on the basis that the state’s sole witness had undergone hypnosis to sharpen his memory before testifying (a fact not revealed by the prosecution).  The article noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a person under hypnosis “could potentially fill memory gaps with fantasy or experience increased confidence in both accurate and inaccurate recollections.”

This is certainly true, but the reason for inaccurate recollections lies not in the fact that the witness was or was not hypnotized.  It is likely that any factual inaccuracies are simply the product of the way the mind works to remember things, putting its own “spin” on the story, so to speak.

This should serve as a reminder to all of us that memories are rarely 100 percent factual, if “factual” is defined as the equivalent of a video and audio recording of an incident.  A person’s whose memory of an incident is “sharpened” via hypnosis may experience recalled images more vividly (including heightened emotions) and may recall other things such as sounds and even smells, but this does not mean that the memories are more factual as we have defined that term above.

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