Among academics and mental health professionals, there is a widespread belief that hypnosis has the power to retrieve lost memories. In 1980, Elizabeth and Geoffrey Loftus found that 84% of psychologists and 69% of non-psychologists endorsed the statement that “memory is permanently stored in the mind” and that “with hypnosis, or other specialized techniques, these inaccessible details could eventually be recovered.”
The idea of whether people can truly forget traumatic memories has been debated for years. Early psychologists and psychiatrists such as Sigmund Freud, Joseph Breuer, and Pierre Janet also endorsed the memory-enhancing powers of hypnosis. In addition, belief in the power of hypnosis has spilled over into the mainstream with the help of TV shows, movies, and books. However, experts in general agree that “hypnosis either has no effect on memory or that it can impair and distort recall.” While people can certainly remember events they haven’t thought about for years, the issue at question is whether a special mechanism of repression exists that accounts for the forgetting of traumatic experiences.
While there are many reports of people who seem to have recovered memories of abuse through hypnosis, David Holmes reviewed 60 years of research and found no convincing laboratory evidence for repression. In his book, Remembering Trauma, psychologist Richard McNally concludes that repressed memories are “a piece of psychiatric folklore devoid of convincing empirical support.” In addition, McNally gives an alternate explanation for the recovery of repressed memories: “Children may be more confused than upset by sexual advances from a relative, yet years later recall the event with revulsion as they realize that it was, in fact, an instance of abuse.”
People sometimes forget significant life events, such as accidents and hospitalizations, even a year after they occur; therefore, a delay in the recall of events isn’t unusual. While hypnosis may not be the magic potion that uncovers traumatic memories, not all uses of hypnosis are scientifically problematic. Controlled research evidence suggests that hypnosis may be useful in pain management, treating medical conditions, eliminating habits such as smoking addiction, and as therapy for anxiety, obesity, and other conditions. Memories recalled even decades later aren’t necessarily false; however, it shouldn’t be assumed that recovered memories are valid unless corroborating evidence exists.
What do you think? Is hypnosis the real deal? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!