Can You Be Mesmerized to Memorize?

Article by Tony Sokol

Can hypnosis help you enhance your memory? Your ability to memorize and retrieve information?

You’ve seen it dozens of times on television police shows from Barney Miller through The X-Files to The Mentalist. A witness or a cop can’t remember an important detail that may or may not hold the key to solving a crime. Officers call in a hypnotist who relaxes the subject, allowing them to clear away the block and allow access to the evasive clue.

Of course, the hypnosis doesn’t always work out. On Barney Miller, in the episode "The Inventor," Detective Wojciehowicz is successfully hypnotized and the surrounding noise of the street is screened out of his perception and he hears the words that were blocked. But it turns out that the words were “hey you” and worthless. The joke worked, but what about the concept behind it? The jury is still out on what hypnosis can do with memory.

It is well-documented that police use hypnotists to help witnesses recall details of crime scenes. But there have also been claims that false memories can be created in a person in a highly suggestible state. Hypnotherapists use hypnosis for regression, which helps a subject recall early memories, but some experts believe that a person who is hypnotized can augment suggestions in order to please the hypnotist.

Sigmund Freud popularized the idea that unacceptable memories could become suppressed and cause psychological symptoms that went away after the repressed memory was remembered and let go. One of Freud's mentors, Jean Martin Charcot, a neurologist who studied the brain before equipment like the magnetic imaging and X-rays existed, continued these studies formally in his work with people suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. He found that people who had MS remembered things much the same way that musicians memorize music. Recall occurred when the person was deeply relaxed and highly focused.

Some studies show that a hypnotic state influences the brain activity associated with memory. Other studies say there is not enough data to commit. The researchers usually point to the similarities between normal relaxation and hypnosis. What becomes clear from the findings is the idea that a deeply relaxed state helps the mind clear away most blocks to memory. While this may not prove whether a person can remember things they did as a child during a session of regressive hypnosis, a deeply relaxed state can be used practically as a memory tool.

In a deeply relaxed state, a person can be guided to ignore distractions that get in the way of recall. But they can also program themselves to remember events they are accustomed to forgetting. A person who knows they have a problem remembering names, for example, can use simple self-hypnosis techniques to teach themselves to remember. They can hypnotically repeat the name of the person they just met in their mind while connecting that name to the face they are seeing for the first time.

Memory is a complicated system and short term memories can last a few seconds. A quick use of the self-hypnosis technique can implant the detail more firmly in their consciousness. The long term memory works in two stages. The experience must be stored and then it was to be recalled. Memories can be stored in different cognitive modes such as visual, auditory, written, or sensory. Any of these can be used to help both retrieve memory and memorize things.

Memory is fallible and prone to distortion. Stage hypnotists play with memory as a matter of course. They make people temporarily forget their names or a number and hilarity ensues. The stage hypnotist uses posthypnotic amnesia to cause a person to have temporary sudden memory loss by suggesting that after hypnosis the subject will forget whatever they are suggested to forget until the amnesia is cancelled by a trigger. When the suggestion is cancelled, the memories come flooding back.

According to a report in Science Daily, Dr. Yadin Dudai and his colleagues at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, were able to measure the effects of hypnosis on memory through Magnetic Resonance (MRI) machines. The study was published in the January 10, 2008, issue of the journal Neuron, published by Cell Press. The scientists studied two groups of volunteers: one group that was susceptible to hypnotic suggestions and one that was not. The volunteers were shown a documentary about a day in the life of a young woman. A week later, the volunteers were placed in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner and hypnotized to forget elements of the film. The subjects were also were given a "reversibility" cue that would restore their memory.

"The one thing we can say for sure is that hypnotism worked under the conditions we used," Dr. Dudai wrote in the paper. "The surprise for us was that activity was raised during memory suppression in one specific region in the frontal cortex that tells the other brain regions "don't even think about retrieving that memory'" he says.

The researchers found that they were able to influence recall in highly hypnotizable subjects. Brain scans found that activity in some brain regions was reduced during memory suppression. Brain activity increased in other areas. When the volunteers were hypnotized to recall details of the movie, the suppressed regions showed recovered activity when a cue was given to bring back the memory.

"The paralleled recovery of brain activity and memory performance strongly suggests that suppression was exerted at early stages of the retrieval process, thus preventing the activation of regions that are crucial for productive retrieval," the researchers wrote. "Some of these regions are likely to play a role in normal retrieval. Others are likely to be engaged in dysfunctions that involve an executive decision to abort subsequent retrieval."

While more studies are obviously needed before any conclusions can be made specifically on hypnotherapy, it is clear that memory functions can be altered during a deeply relaxed state.

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