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Austin Cline

Hypnosis, Recovered Memories, and False Memories

By August 9, 2006

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A popular belief about hypnosis is that it can be used to access memories which have been repressed and buried very deeply. It's even believe that hypnosis can be used to access memories of past lives. These beliefs are all false — there is no basis for thinking such things to be true. It's little more than a myth popularized by the gullible.

In the January / February 2006 Skeptical Inquirer, Martin Gardner writes about the still-simmering debate over recovered or repressed memories about childhood sexual abuse:

Of all such techniques the most worthless is hypnotism. Mesmerized patients are in a curious, little-understood state of extreme suggestibility and compliance. They will quickly pick up subtle cues about what a hypnotist wants them to say, and then say it. The notion that under hypnosis one’s unconscious takes over to dredge up honest and accurate memories of a distant past event is one of the most persistent myths of psychology.

There simply is no known way, short of confirming evidence, to distinguish true from false memories aroused by hypnotism or any other technique. After many sessions with a sincere but misguided therapist, false memories can become so vivid and so entrenched in a patient’s mind that they will last a lifetime.

The key to the claim about recovering “repressed” memories is confirmation. How do you tell the difference between a genuine memory that has been repressed and a false one that has essentially been created by an incompetent or dishonest hypnotist? There is nothing inherent in the memories themselves which can provide this information. You can’t rely on how strongly a person believes in a memory — in fact, there is evidence that stronger confidence is associated with greater error in memories.

The only thing we can do is find independent evidence that confirms what has been reported — but if we have that independent evidence, of what value are the memories? At best they might be used as a reason for looking in particular places for evidence, but hopefully a good investigator will have already thought to look there and doesn’t need the “recovered” memories in the first place.

All in all, then, it would appear that hypnotism for the purpose of “recovering” a “repressed” memory has no real value at all. It’s not reliable and doesn’t produce decent information. Why do people use it so much, then?

 

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Comments
February 27, 2010 at 1:13 am
(1) Ambi says:

Hypnosis exists on all levels of human society, and very few scientists can remember that their favorite models started out as metaphors.” Robert Anton Wilson

And all that exists, exists as a thought…your past as well as future!!
nothing exists out of thought…its only that other people’s thought agree with you and you say …’well this thought must be real’..whole of society is hypnotized……

November 26, 2010 at 3:46 am
(2) Artjoy Hypnosis says:

Well, you cannot base a whole theory only on 1 case of study.If you do want to build a theory you can document several hundreds or maybe thousands of hypnotic regressions, so you can build a real based statistic.
As a working hypnotist I did myself a couple of regression and I am aware that a false memory can be “planted”.
However when a person relieves completely an event in the past and is fully associated with all the emotions, images, sounds,all the perceptions from that specific moment, it is very hard to believe that all that amount of data can be “planted”.
And sometimes the memories can be verified by asking the persons that participated in that event, such as parents or siblings.
The main challenge for such a theory to be true is the absence of tangible material hard evidence.But this does not mean that it could not be true.

November 26, 2010 at 1:54 pm
(3) Austin Cline says:

However when a person relieves completely an event in the past and is fully associated with all the emotions, images, sounds,all the perceptions from that specific moment, it is very hard to believe that all that amount of data can be “planted”.

It’s not necessary for all of it to be planted; all that’s necessary is for the core ideas to be planted. The rest is easy for the brain to create around those ideas by way of explanation — filling in the gaps.

What’s more, your argument boils down to little more than “nothing believed so strongly could be entirely false,” when in reality the strength of a belief has no bearing whatsoever on the truth of that belief. You’re citing something completely irrelevant in order to bolster a claim. You can only support the claim about repressed memories being true by providing completely independent, corroborating evidence for those alleged memories. Thus far, all those claiming to being able to find repressed memories have failed.

Well, you cannot base a whole theory only on 1 case of study.If you do want to build a theory you can document several hundreds or maybe thousands of hypnotic regressions, so you can build a real based statistic.

That’s exactly what’s needed from people claiming that memories of traumatic events can be completely repressed then later brought out, accurately and in detail, through hypnotic regression. Thus far they have failed which means, according to your standard, they don’t have a real case to make.

The main challenge for such a theory to be true is the absence of tangible material hard evidence.But this does not mean that it could not be true.

The same can be said for any random nonsense. I don’t have tangible hard evidence that I’m not a magical space alien… but that doesn’t mean that it could not be true!

February 9, 2011 at 10:08 am
(4) Formation hypnose says:

The hypnosis help people to access memories which have been repressed and buried very deeply. I think the word “help” is very important here.

Well, you cannot base a whole theory only on 1 case of study.If you do want to build a theory you can document several hundreds or maybe thousands of hypnotic regressions, so you can build a real based statistic.

You are right on that. People are different and the result cannot be interpreted with only one case.

February 9, 2011 at 1:00 pm
(5) Austin Cline says:

The hypnosis help people to access memories which have been repressed and buried very deeply. I think the word “help” is very important here.

Except for the lack of scientific evidence for repressed memories.

August 12, 2012 at 6:33 pm
(6) Vic Morrisey says:

Mr. Cline, the arrogance of your statements is one rarely displayed with such a propriety of language all the while being so utterly ignorant of the matter at hand. First and foremost, I’ve read your bio. I’d like to make you aware that I have a Ph. D. in Clinical Psychology, having specialized myself in study of the fields of psychosis and deviant behaviors. You, on the other hand, what preparation have about the matter you’re writing about? You, other than a Master in Arts, studied religion and philosophy. What you might know about about the use of hypnotism in experimentally verified settings like as those made by recent cognitve-behaviorists like Barnes, Spavin and Chaves, all influential and respected experts in the field of cognitive-behavioral studies?
Before “debunking” hypnotism as a scam you should at least prepare yourself better on the matter of the discussion and maybe humbly make present to the readers that you don’t have any specific preparation about what’re talking about and are exposing only your personal views instead of presenting them like scientific facts, and that’s moreover true considering the only reference you make in substantiating your claims comes from a MATHEMATICIAN (I excuse myself for the use of the caps but I’d like to make my point clear).
Best regards,
Vic Morrisey, Ph. D in Clinical Psychology at Rutgers State University

August 12, 2012 at 8:22 pm
(7) Austin Cline says:

Mr. Cline, the arrogance of your statements is one rarely displayed with such a propriety of language all the while being so utterly ignorant of the matter at hand.

Yet, you prove yourself unable to directly and substantively address any of the things you think are wrong. So why should your complaint be taken seriously?

Before “debunking” hypnotism as a scam

Before you make accusations, you should make sure you have your facts straight. The above article isn’t about hypnotism generally, but about using hypnotism to recover allegedly repressed memories.

the only reference you make in substantiating your claims comes from a MATHEMATICIAN

He’s not the only one to have concluded that repressed memories are hogwash. Then again, you don’t seem to have noticed that repressed memories are the subject here.

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