Hypnosis is a form of therapy where the subject is put into a deep state of relaxation. During this state, the mind can access memories, sensations, and other thoughts. Hypnosis has many uses, but the main ones are to break bad habits, control pain, manage stress, and manage other health conditions (Johns Hopkins Medicine). Not all people can be hypnotized, and some people are more receptive to hypnosis than others. If the subject does not want to be hypnotized, hypnosis does not work, and the subject can also ‘wake’ at will.
Hypnosis is also used to retrieve memories. In fact, it is widely thought by the general public to be the main purpose of hypnosis. A hypnotist walks the subject through the storage and retrieval process to find the lost memory. Once the subject is in the hypnotic state, they start by asking what cognitive mode the subject was in when they stored the information (basically what senses were used), what was the context of the situation, and what associations were made. Walking the subject through each step can lead them to their memory. In laboratory studies, hypnosis has been shown to improve memory recall compared to normal controls. Simple memory retrieval in hypnosis is “accomplished by helping the subject focus on the experience and sequence of details increasing the vividness of each memory until all the information was recalled” (Psychology Today). Hypnosis has also been used by police to help witnesses recall details of crimes. So why is it a problem?
Hypnosis can result in the creation of false memories. Individuals who have been hypnotized are also highly confident in their memories, even when they are false. Confidence cannot be used as an indicator for how well an individual remembers something. There is a lot of controversy over whether hypnosis can be used to help individuals recall earlier memories and trauma. In an experimental study where a false memory was implanted in all participants who underwent hypnosis, one group was warned that hypnosis could create false memories and one group did not receive the same warning. The results of this study revealed that 28% of the participants in the forewarned group and 44% in the group without the warning recalled the false memory (“Hypnosis May Cause False Memories”). While warning about possible false memories did decrease the percentage of participants who experienced them, it did not eliminate the risk. Ultimately, our capacity to be persuaded to remember something new while under the influence of hypnosis is a problem. This is why many states have laws regarding how hypnosis can be used in regards to witness testimony.
One of the biggest scandals in the U.S. involving hypnosis was the ‘Satanic Panic’ in the 1980s-90s. Therapists used recovered memory therapy, which includes hypnosis and guided imagery, to uncover memories of physical and sexual abuse of their clients, often in the context of Satanic rituals and cults. After thorough investigation of the 12,000 documented accusations, none of them were substantiated (New York Times). These false memories were extremely harmful and traumatic for the individuals that had them.
Today, recovered therapy memory has been discredited by the scientific and academic community and has been known to implant false memories. People with good imaginations may misinterpret the memory of an imagined event with the memory of a real event, leading to false memories, and hypnosis is a good tool for creating them. The best way to corroborate a memory is to compare it with empirical, external evidence. Overall, hypnosis may be a beneficial therapy and may improve memory, but it should not be relied upon as accurate, especially with evidence pointing to the ease of the creation of false memories under hypnosis. It is especially important to pay attention to the limitations of hypnosis so society does not repeat the mistakes of the past.
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