Scientific Content Analysis: Lie Detection or Wishful Thinking?

Whether you know it or not, law enforcement agencies all over the world are using a method called Scientific Content Analysis (SCAN) to determine whether or not those they interview are being truthful or deceptive.  According to the Collins Dictionary, SCAN is “the close analysis of the content of statements made to the police by suspects in an attempt to identify innocence or guilt.”

Certainly, we can agree that statements made to police should be closely scrutinized and analyzed, since their truth or falsehood is critical to achieving the ends of justice.  It is alleged that studying the content and structure of a person’s written statements via SCAN will enable a detective or polygraph examiner to accurately judge whether or not the person is being truthful.  Obviously, if that is true, it is a small wonder that law enforcement personnel worldwide are being trained in this process.

The basis for this tool is the idea that certain factors are more likely to be present when a statement is accurate, as opposed to being completely or partially fabricated.  One such factor is that a greater quantity of details are mentioned (e.g., “I saw a yellow and red sunburst pin on the attacker’s left lapel” or “It happened in the rain in the alley next to the Blue Lion convenience store at 8:15 p.m.”) in accurate reports.

As scholarly and scientific as all this sounds, however, SCAN has not shown itself to be effective in revealing deception.  In fact, in an article published in Frontiers in Psychology, the headline conclusion is that “Scientific Content Analysis (SCAN) Cannot Distinguish Between Truthful and Fabricated Accounts of a Negative Event.”  Noting that research on the accuracy of SCAN is scarce, the article states that 117 participants were asked to write down one true and one fabricated statement about a recent negative event in their lives.  Statements were analyzed using 11 criteria derived from SCAN.  The results “indicated that SCAN was not able to correctly classify true and fabricated statements.”  In the researchers’ opinion, “the application of SCAN in its current form should be discouraged.”

Despite these findings (and no support elsewhere) regarding SCAN, it continues to be taught and utilized by law enforcement.  Why should this be?  The simple answer is that we wish it could be as effective as we want it to be.  Unfortunately, like much of what comes out of psychological research, we find that even if SCAN is effective somewhere, it is clearly not effective everywhere.  We want so much to uncover deception–not only in law enforcement, but in critical areas like government and politics–that we childishly cling to methods that sound promising, even in the absence of any credible proof.

To be sure, we as mental health practitioners look for and often find deception in the statements of those we see.  But deception is a deceptively broad term.  It could refer to an outright lie, or it could be a result of wanting to make oneself look better, or it could be to make someone else look worse.  Then there is that long-recognized bugaboo–social desirability.  Especially when it comes to embarrassing details, patients are likely to change the narrative in order that they appear to be the heroes of the story, or at least the innocent victims.

There may well come a time when things like SCAN are clinically verified, and their use justified.  As things stand, however, we are better off trusting the therapist’s instincts over an unproven system of wishful ideas.

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.

Book Review: “Battle for the Mind”

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I first heard of Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brain-Washing in a sermon that was addressing the godly and ungodly choices one can make in life, as well as the things that influence us.  The preacher let us know that this controversial work had made quite a stir since its first appearance in 1957, but that it since had been “discredited.”  Far from discouraging me to forget the title, this only made me more determined to find out what this book was all about and why people were upset to the point that they wanted to discredit it.

One clue was the subhead on the cover, which reads “How Evangelists, Psychiatrists, Politicians, and Medicine Men can change your beliefs and behavior.”  The idea that evangelists and psychiatrists–people with respectable and sometimes laudable credentials–should be lumped in with politicians and medicine men–whose credibility and intentions may be seriously in doubt–certainly could ruffle some feathers.  And it just didn’t make any sense on the face of it.

The author, William Sargant, himself a highly controversial figure, is described by one web site as being “perhaps the foremost face of British mind control experimentation.”  His basic premise in the work under discussion is that brain-washing–in this case, the radical shift from even core beliefs to different beliefs suggested by someone else–is accomplished by bringing the subject to a state of complete nervous, and often physical, exhaustion–or what today we would refer to as “trauma.”  Modern referents would be terms like battle fatigue, shell-shock, or PTSD, but Sargant makes clear that such breakdowns may also occur due to administration of drugs, electro-convulsive therapy, fear of punishment (proximate, as in torture, or future, as in the prospect of eternity in Hell for sinners), and even continued exposure to rhythmic sounds such as are present in voodoo ceremonies or while dancing to rock and roll.

Sargant’s explanation of this begins with records of experiments on dogs by Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist famous for his work on classical conditioning with salivating dogs.  When Pavlov’s dogs were accidentally traumatized by nearly being drowned in his flooded laboratory, he noticed significant changes in their behavior.  They seemed to have forgotten their recent conditioning and were even observed to have reversed their training in some cases.  They also seemed to show a dislike for human keepers whom they had previously liked.  In short, they lost their previous thought patterns.

Sargant then goes on to postulate that this inducement of trauma, whether deliberate or accidental, is the key method used by the various groups mentioned to influence behavior and change thought patterns.  The weakness in his argument lies in the fact that he applies it too far afield, perhaps revealing his own personal prejudices rather than proven facts.  His examples run the gamut, and in many cases the connection is obvious–as in the tortures used to elicit confessions during the Spanish Inquisition and in the jails and police stations of Communist states who were hell-bent on wiping out all ideological opposition.  In some cases cited, individuals were subjected to so much pain, monotony, and physical deprivation that they would have confessed to anything.  Ironically, however, Sargant points out that it was not uncommon for these individuals to later insist on their guilt as wrongdoers (despite there being no evidence) and on their allegiance to the new state, the new religious teachings, or the new way of thought.  They had truly been brainwashed.

But is this what happens in a psychiatrist’s or psychologist’s office?  Certainly, an effort is made to convince patients that certain behaviors are constructive and others destructive, yet we see none of the continued deprivation, torture, and threats to life and family experienced in the cases mentioned above.  Even a more extreme measure like ECT, which has been shown to be highly effective in reversing some symptoms of certain mental illnesses, is generally aimed at resetting the brain function to a calmer level and not at implanting new thoughts.

Then there are the evangelists.  There are definitely “hell and brimstone” preachers who will bring up the threat of eternal punishment for unrepentant sinners, but elevating the fear of eternal punishment to the level of the fear of losing one’s present life is, for most of us, a non-sequitur.  To be sure, the idea of being thrown into a lake of fire for eternity is a powerful argument for faith, but for non-believers, Hell is not an issue.

My readers may wonder how the practice of hypnosis–erroneously thought by some to be a form of brain-washing–fits into this picture.  The answer, according to Sargant, is that it doesn’t. He does cite instances in World War I in which hypnosis was used to help battle-scarred individuals to mentally (and safely) relive their traumas in order to deal with them in therapy. This is hardly the same, however, as deliberately invoking a disabling mental crisis.

On the other hand, it is not difficult to imagine that the relentless drumming and exhausting dancing for hours that is part of some voodoo rites does indeed leave the individual in a dog-tired stupor–a state in which minds may indeed be influenced and declarations of voodoo practitioners believed.  Whether or not the same effect is produced by dancing to rock and roll seems questionable at best.

All this being said, there is definitely value to realizing that thoughts and even core beliefs may be changed by traumatic experiences or treatments.  It is important to note that Sargant is not advocating such experiences; he is merely explaining what he believes to be the mechanism and method for changing thoughts and, perhaps, behaviors.

This is a fascinating book, but the reader should be aware that descriptions of some methods of brain-washing are disturbing to read.  Whether you credit or discredit all or parts of this book, it certainly offers some interesting explanations for changes that we sometimes find inexplicable.

If you read, or have read, this book.  Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions here.



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!

But HOW Does Hypnosis Work? (Part 1)

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In our last post, we looked at the question of whether or not hypnosis or hypnotherapy actually works, which it undoubtedly does.  But that begs another, perhaps more interesting, question: Just how does hypnotherapy work in the mind to affect desired changes?
First, let me state that no one actually knows the answer to this question, although there are many interesting ideas.  If this surprises you, think about the fact that there are a number of drugs that share this same mystery; that is, they do work for the prescribed conditions, but doctors are not sure exactly how working works!  Science has not yet caught up with real world functionality.
So what follows is my own opinion about how hypnosis enables individuals to make changes, based on my training, my research, and–most important–my experience as a clinician.  It should also be stated that I am taking a broad overview of hypnosis as a practice, acknowledging that there are many differences in therapeutic modalities while at the same time stating that most forms of hypnotherapy share the same basic factors.
Most hypnosis clinicians agree that hypnosis involves the unconscious mind.  According to, “the unconscious mind comprises mental processes that are inaccessible to consciousness but that influence judgements, feelings, or behavior (Wilson, 2002). According to Freud (1915), the unconscious mind is the primary source of human behavior. Like an iceberg, the most important part of the mind is the part you cannot see.”
Freud said this part of the mind is filled with images and thoughts that, if known by the conscious mind (the part we use during most of our waking lives), might prove disturbing or upsetting.  Be that as it may, our unconscious thought processes can exert a powerful influence on our perceptions and behaviors.  These thought processes are often blamed for otherwise inexplicable things, such as unreasonable fears or habits that seem to arise out of nowhere.
The unconscious is also thought to be expressed in the realm of dreams, which suggests that the understanding of our unconscious mind is far different–and usually far less logical–than that of the conscious mind.  It is for this reason that dreams, when remembered, often seem to be nonsensical to our conscious minds.  To put it another way, the unconscious mind has a language and symbolism of its own–an idea advanced famously by the noted psychologist C. G. Jung.
Since most of us acknowledge that the unconscious mind has the power to influence behavior and perception, it follows that influencing or changing what goes on in the unconscious mind itself can and will bring about positive changes, whether the problem is a phobia, a bad habit, anxiety, or your errant golf swing.  This is the task of the hypnotherapist: to access the unconscious mind, to see how that mind is influencing or causing undesirable feelings and behaviors, and to change or repair thought patterns to yield more positive and helpful results.
In our next posting, we will discuss how the hypnotherapist works with the unconscious mind to achieve those desired results.
Meanwhile, your comments and suggestions are always welcomed.