Precious Memory

Our memories are not as reliable as we would believe. New research has uncovered disturbing evidence that offers a damning indictment of a theory so flawed, it should never have been taken seriously in the first place. At long last, scientists have proved beyond any reasonable doubt that ‘Repressed Memory Syndrome’ is not only unsafe it has resulted in one of the great injustices of our time.

It is a little known fact that Freud was a serial cocaine addict. Maybe it was this that muddled his thinking. He even believed cocaine would cure respiratory illness. So… in case you haven’t got it yet, Freud was a fraud. It beats me how so much of his stuff was held in such high regard for so long. Maybe it’s because psychology, as a degree subject at any rate, was still in its infancy at the time and Freud’s nonsense was something that helped fill the time. His theories of repressed memory still cause untold damage years after his death.

When Sigmund Freud was called in to examine United States President Woodrow Wilson, who had suddenly and seemingly inexplicably become paralysed down one side, Freud put it down to his being dominated by his father at a young age and the paralysis was the physical manifestation of the mind and body rebelling against domineering old dad. Er… no. It was a stroke. The problem is Freud wasn’t nearly such a genius as is popularly believed. These days, most of Freud’s theories have been debunked to the extent that they are deemed laughable by most psychologists. In particular, the idea that an event traumatic enough can be buried deep enough that it can never resurface without the intervention of the appropriate expert, has mercifully had its day. The real difficulty however, is that many hypnotherapists still embrace the idea.

Conventional wisdom, based on sound research, suggests that traumatic events are rarely forgotten, never mind repressed. Unfortunately, it is only after several high profile (not to mention expensive) law suits that the American Medical Association has issued warnings to patients about the unreliability of ‘recovered’ memories. The American Psychiatric Association is in agreement. There is a very real danger that the brain’s emotional circuitry could be damaged by such careless whispers, with lasting effects on memory and mental health.

Emotional arousal tends to make memories stronger, especially if the emotion in question is part of a peak experience. Even when patients know that they didn’t experience ritual or satanic abuse for example, they may, in extreme cases, be tormented by recurring visions of such events. More recent research goes so far as to suggest that people who have been exposed to traumatic events will be damaged even further by being encouraged to relive disturbing memories; the process can diminish resilience and impede recovery. For the record, this is a view that I wholeheartedly embrace.

According to a 1996 report of the Crime Victims Compensation Program in Washington State, a survey of 183 claims of repressed memories of childhood abuse uncovered the following scary stuff;

• 100% of the patients reported torture or mutilation, yet no medical examinations were able to corroborate these claims;
• 97% recovered memories of satanic abuse;
• 76% claimed they remembered infant cannibalism;
• 69% said they remembered being tortured with spiders;

Even more distressing;

• 100% remained in therapy for at least three years after the so-called memories were ‘uncovered;’
• More than 50% were still in therapy five years after the event;
• 10% reported that they had thoughts of suicide prior to therapy;
• This level increased to 70% after therapy!
• Hospitalisations increased from 7% before memory recovery to 37% after memory recovery;
• The instances of self-mutilation increased from 3% to 27%;
• 83% of patients were employed prior to memory recovery whereas only 10% remained in employment three years into therapy;
• 77% were married prior to therapy but 48% of these divorced after three years of therapy;
• 23% of patients who had children prior to therapy lost custody of their children;

And worse;

• ALL of them became estranged from their extended families.

These numbers raise disturbing questions about the validity of the increasingly widespread use of this sort of therapy. Remember, the vast majority of hypnotherapists, hypnoanalysts and NLP practitioners have no qualifications!!! Whereas traditional, tried and tested psychological approaches can work wonders and more often than not reduce psychological problems, recovered memory therapy, albeit unintentionally, can make things rapidly go from bad to worse. Surely this is a prime example of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread!

Repressed memory has become part of our culture. In the United States, prior to 1973, barely 50 cases were reported; by 1994, due to the increased popularity (and fuelled by increased publicity) surrounding this kind of therapy, the number had soared to over 40,000. Time to call in the experts.

Neuroscientist Bruce McEwen, working at the Rockefeller University believes that chronic stress alters neural complexity. His research indicates that compromised functioning of the prefrontal cortex may be associated with a patient’s ability to adequately distinguish reality from fiction; growth of neurons in the amygdale may lead to hyper-vigilance and suspiciousness; and compromised prefrontal cortex functioning may diminish the patient’s ability in the future to inhibit fearful or distressing memories. Now there’s a recipe for disaster if ever there was one.

Psychologist Stephen Kosslyn, at Harvard University has a good deal of evidence that shows that the same areas of the brain are activated when we see an object and when we close our eyes and imagine that object. All this supports the power and effectiveness of guided imagining during hypnosis, but it must also serve as a health warning. I can find no properly qualified psychiatrist who goes along with notions of demonic possession or ritual satanic abuse. No papers have been published by psychologists or psychiatrists who have uncovered any such thing. On the contrary, these traumas have one thing in common – they were uncovered by unqualified, if well-meaning, amateurs! By amateurs, I mean overenthusiastic social workers, lay therapists and occasionally, individuals who are out to prove a point. There are very few places a patient can go for deprogramming after a traumatic encounter with an incompetent or careless therapist.

Also at Harvard, psychologist Richard McNally suggests that the malleability of memories is merely a by-product of human imagination, inference and prediction – and again, I agree. (I’m always more comfortable with the well considered pleadings of real scientists that the dubious pronouncements of the amateurs, especially if it fits in with my own common-sense and understanding.) The bottom line here is that recovered memory therapy needs to be completely reconsidered before it is inevitably consigned to the trash-can of history.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the brain is sometimes not a very discriminating processor of information. Research carried out by Elizabeth F. Loftus at the University of Washington and later at the University of California-Irvine has proved beyond doubt that it can be nigh on impossible for some people to distinguish between real and falsely implanted memories. Together with her associate, Jacqueline Pickrell, in 1995, family members of 24 individuals were interviewed in an information gathering exercise about their lives. Profiles were constructed using real events, but, as an added bonus, a false story was added about being lost in a shopping mall at the age of five. A staggering 29% of the subjects remembered the false event and went on to provide details of it. This is exactly what happens under hypnosis; the beautifully relaxed feelings of calm and well-being hypnosis bestows, allows the imagination to freewheel. What is one moment purely imaginary can the next, become very real.

Stage hypnotists in particular are very much aware of this phenomenon and witness it on a nightly basis. But in Stage hypnosis, there is an implicit understanding between the hypnotists and the volunteer about the sort of behaviour expected and that whatever occurs during the course of a performance will have no relevance after that performance is over. But in the therapeutic situation, where there is an expectation on behalf of both the subject and the therapist that things are about to take a serious turn, the dangers of an overactive imagination should not be underestimated.

It is also interesting to note, while we’re at it, that all too often, witness testimony in courts of law has led to guilty verdicts that have later been overturned when DNA evidence was introduced. Witnesses are often unreliable; their recall of events can be swayed by clever cross-questioning.

Of course, memories of traumatic events can serve as reminders to avoid potentially threatening or dangerous situations. The difference is that we are talking about real events and real memories! The very real danger is that guided tours of imaginary events, particularly those that have strong emotional connotations, become fixed in the mind.

Therapy depends on trust. When a patient is confronted by a therapist with [perceived] credentials, the suggestions imparted by that therapist can be of the prestige variety, making the likelihood of misinterpretation all the greater.

At the very cutting edge of research into brain function, bio-psychologists think that a great deal of the brain’s activity is governed by a process called Modulation (only recently discovered and measured.) This is particularly important when it comes to memory. Modulation is basically a matter of increasing or decreasing the chances that anything from a single cell, to a network of tens of thousands of cells, will fire. This depends to a large extent on what else is going on at the time, but the brain has the ability to decide what is important and what is not and allocate attention by either inhibiting or enhancing activity accordingly. This ability of the brain to do this, simply has to be part of the survival strategy.

This is the way the brain associates events; If two things happen one after another, the circuits of cells that store the memory of those two events form interconnections that will affect behaviour. Once these connections are in place, the brain will always remind you that once the first event has happened, the second will surely follow. Here, again, we are in familiar Pavlovian territory, but on a more human level, it should now be clear that there is a correlation with all sorts of human behaviour – fears and phobias immediately spring to mind. Remember, a phobia is literally a fear of a fear. The first event – going to the airport, triggers the second event – the conditioned fear responses (nervous tummy, sweating, sudden dread fear etc.) associated with flying.

When long term associations are laid down, the genetic machinery in the nucleus of the cell is activated to produce new proteins – the building blocks of most living tissue! The cells use these proteins to build extensions of themselves, forming new sites where connections can form. Networks of cells that are activated either frequently, or in emotionally charged situations, become permanent. In future, they will all react together. This is how memory is created, and as we shall see, special memory, like behaviour, can be modified, hopefully to the advantage of the client.

I would like to explore this in more detail. Let’s take as an example a memory of a particular image. The more the brain sees that image, the more likely it is that the brain will remember and recognise it. Repeated sightings of a particular person will reinforce the pattern and will activate other mental triggers. “This woman I attractive, I would like to get to know her better” or “this man is a pain in the arse, I need to avoid him.” The mere sight of a person triggers different emotional responses. These [predictable] emotional responses make it more likely that the memory of that image/person will be retained in the long term memory.

What makes memory so complex is that patterns overlap so that a single stimulus can trigger a flood of different memories – and emotions.

Obviously, damage to the brain can result in damage to one’s memory. A much studied patient (known as HM) lost part of his hippocampus as a result of surgery designed to relieve severe epilepsy. The result was that he could remember everything that happened in his life before the surgery but was then completely unable to form new memories and the result was that he became stuck in the 1950’s.

Emotional trauma, even shock, can also distort memory. For instance, everyone can remember where they were and what they were doing when the news of the World Trade Centre attacks broke on 11th September, but that is a rare instance. In a popular experiment, oft repeated for the entertainment of psychology students, volunteers are asked to view a five minute film, part of which involves a car accident. Even straight after the film, witnesses disagreed about even the most basic facts, particularly when questions relating to the events portrayed in the drama were phrased in such a way as to be deliberately misleading and designed to alter perception.

Memory is vital to establishing experience and experience in its turn is vital to predicting the future. Human civilisation would have ground to a halt were it not for our remarkable ability to predict future events based on the patterns of previous history. When MRI scans of volunteers who underwent tests of memory and prediction were examined, the results astonished the scientists who carried them out. Asked to recall memories and then imagine future events, the areas of the brain that were most active were almost identical! Projecting the future is not the main function of memory, but it now seems certain that it is one of its primary functions. Another argument for caution when using the guided imagery most often associated with hypnosis (particularly in the case of ‘regression’ hypnosis, which brings another surprise and possibly unstable guest to the party!)

From the age of about four, children develop the ability to talk about their own past and the future at the same time. The ability to recognise patterns in past events (stored in the memory) is vital to the ability to predict what will happen in the future when similar sets of circumstances present themselves. This principle is present in every facet of life, from relationships, to political events, to economics, to earthquake prediction, to family affairs, to… well, everything.

Even more amazing is that people who lose their memories also lose their ability to imagine their future. More important, is that the areas of the brain that are used for memory and prediction are also used for imagination.

Armed with all this knowledge, we can now consider the possibility of tinkering, using suggestion and focused attention. In other words, for the most spectacular results, use hypnosis.

But tinkering with memory under hypnosis is exactly what you must not do! Would you get on a 747 and fly across the Atlantic if you knew that the pilot had only been trained to fly a glider? Of course you wouldn’t. But the therapist is the person we all want so desperately to trust. No one ever thinks of asking about the real value of all those framed certificates hanging on the wall, we just go along with whatever this perceived expert suggests. And sometimes this can get us into very deep and turbulent water indeed.

For more information about how to use suggestion for manipulation, read All in the Mind – Hypnosis, Suggestion and the New Mesmerists. Available from this website.

Copyright Andrew Newton 2009. All rights reserved.

About Andrew Newton

Andrew Newton has an international reputation as a leading authority on hypnosis. 

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