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Can hypnosis recover memories of a traumatic experience blurred by alcohol, drugs and time?


This is a very interesting and complex question. In recent years we have heard and seen much publicity around the issues of repressed memories and their recovering in psychotherapy. While at first hesitant to respond to a question with so many complexities and contradictions, this writer has decided to approach this issue from the standpoint of relevancy to success in psychotherapy and forensic hypnosis. The goal here is to clarify the underlying issues and point to further resources on this subject.

Crasineck and Hall (1985) suggest that one of the most important contributions of hypnosis to the treatment of certain problems is it usefulness in recovering repressed material. While no one refutes the idea that some people are able to recover lost memories during an hypnotic encounter, the questions arise with regard to the quality and usefulness of the recovered material. The therapeutic issue here is whether or not these recovered memories can be sucessfully integrated into the conscious ego structure of the subject (person recovering the memory under hypnosis). Simply recovering repressed memories is not enough. In fact, recovering repressed material without adequate therapeutic presentation and integration can do more harm than good.

Another key issue to be explored is the relevancy of recovered material to actual events that may or may not have occurred. This is an issue of forensic psychology. At the present time, it is the opinion of this writer that few therapists (and hypnotic subjects) are sophisticated enough in their technique as to produce the reliable recovery of repressed material that is unaltered by such problems as "leading questions," "unintended suggestion," and general distortion. The foregoing statement does not go as far as to invalidate the quality of repressed material, but merely suggests that beyond the spontaneous and involuntary emergence of repressed material, such memories are prone to various forms of distortion and misinterpretation.

Having said that, there is much we are learning about this important issue.  The theory of state-dependent memory, learning and behavior suggests that what is learned and remembered is dependent upon one's mental, emotional and physical state at the time of learning. This idea is very important to issues being discussed here. Plainly spoken, if a learning experience occurs in a given "state of being" (a given context) then that experience may be recalled in that context. Further, this information may not be available to one's conscious awareness outside of this "given" context. Such is the nature of a repressed memory. 

Many researchers and practitioners of hypnosis report that memories acquired through hypnosis are forgotten in the waking state but are available once again when hypnosis is reintroduced. Milton H. Erickson, M.D. ( 1943, 1948) provides us with a number of clinical accounts of how traumatic amnesias (forgetting/memory loss) can be resolved through what he called "inner resynthesis" in hypnotherapy. Later, Overton (1978) reviewed forty years of research on this subject, establishing state-dependent memory and learning as a valid experimental basis of dissociation in areas of study relating to mood altering drugs and psychophysiology in general. 

In the 70s, Hilgard formulated the neodissociative theory of hypnosis which implies that state-dependent memory and learning is a kind of mental dissociation, or intense episode of day-dreaming. Later, McGaugh (1983; 1989) and Izquierdo (1984) reported that state-dependent memory formation may be influenced by "stress hormones" secreted in the brain and body. More recently, research advanced by Shors, Weiss, & Thompson (1992) and Rossi (1993) supports this view.


Marcus S. Robinson, D.C.H. is an author, consultant and trainer in the field clinical hypnotherapy. He is the author of several books and numerous articles convering the issues of personal growth, professional development, and therapeutic hypnosis. His interests include the interdisciplinary study of consciousness, mind-body healing, and personal productivity and effectiveness. Dr. Robinson lives in Rochester, New York with his wife and son where maintains a consulting and training practice. He holds a doctorate degree from the American Institute of Hypnotherapy.