The Surprising Truth About Hypnosis and Memory Improvement

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Image of Anthony Metivier with hypnotic watch to illustrate concepts related to the post called The Surprising Truth About Hypnosis and Memory ImprovementHow Cool Would It Be If You Could Hypnotize Your Way To A Better Memory?


Well, good luck. As you’re about to learn, there’s no scientific basis or reason to believe that hypnosis can cause memory improvement.

But to look at this issue, it will be helpful to focus on one area where hypnosis has been used in the attempt to improve memory: court cases.

So our question is, can hypnosis really improve the memory of witnesses? Read every word of this post if you want to learn several key ways that you can still make strides with your memory improvement goals even if hypnosis turns out to be a dud when it comes to enhanced memory.


Would You Believe That Hypnosis For Memory Improvement Goes This Far Back?


Hypnosis in the courts has a long history. If we can focus solely on America, I’ve read that hypnosis to improve the memories of witnesses was first rejected in 1897 by the Supreme Court of California.

After that, there’s a dark spot until after World War II. Given all that happened during this war, officials wanted reliable ways to enhance the recall of witnesses.

But despite all kinds of testing, to this date, no meaningful evidence supports hypnosis as a reliable means of improving memory. Especially not for providing testimony in a court of law.

Let’s break this issue down into parts so we can get both a broad and specific perspective.


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First off, hypnosis of this kind sets itself up for failure.


Because you can’t improve something that mostly doesn’t exist.

Think about it. You’re walking down the street and you see a crime. You weren’t expecting anything would happen, but then something does happen. The memories you do form are based on information that you have learned incidentally.

For example, I was riding my bike last Sunday to the Mauerpark. There’s a wonderful Flea Market and I was going to look for some cool postcards to send new members of the Magnetic Memory Method Masterclass. I usually find something cool there, often old cards with interesting buildings are memorable art that helps stimulate creativity.

Anyhow, I was stopped at a light when all of a sudden two guys ran into the street in front of a car. They asked a group of maybe three people, “This one?” and the group of people said yes.


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Then the two guys approached the doors of the car. One went to the passenger side, the other to the driver’s side. I think the car was blue, but I don’t quite remember. It may have had four doors.

What I do remember is that the guys opened the doors and started yelling.

The driver and the passenger were clearly in shock and didn’t know what to do.

Finally, the passenger pulled out a wallet and in a Russian accent, the guy standing in the street said, “Give it me!” He ripped the wallet out of the guy’s hand and slammed the door.

As the other guy slammed the driver’s door, the colliding air created a puff of ash from the ashtray. After the two men got back onto the sidewalk, the light turned green and the car sped off.

It might seem amazing that I remember all these details, but actually stress and memory can fuse together to help you remember more in certain circumstances.


Which Of These These Facts Prove That Hypnosis Has No Chance When It Comes To Improving Memory?


What I’ve done just now is to recall an event that I “learned” incidentally.

As I’m telling it to you, there are oodles of things I’m not telling you because there aren’t enough words in the universe to explain:

* The urgent voice in the back of my head telling me to get the hell out of there.

* The fact that the two guys in the car were either Turkish or Syrian.

* The hot girl on the bike in front of me with people who may or may not have been her brother and father.

* My thoughts following the event, such as the concern that someone could have been shot, questions about the crime rate in Berlin and other images and concepts rolling around in my mind.

Shortly thereafter, I forgot about the whole thing until it came time to put together this podcast. In fact, I had already outlined the entire episode before this event happen, and only when I started writing it did I remember this event.

And if I were asked to give testimony about it, my testimony would be deeply flawed because I wasn’t expecting such an event to happen. As memory expert Harry Lorayne points out in all his books, you cannot remember what you haven’t paid attention to in the first place.

That’s why I couldn’t tell you:

* Anything about the clothes any of the people were wearing (except for the clothes on the girl on the bike, because I was definitely paying attention to those).

  • The hair color of the Russian guys.
  • The color of the wallet.
  • The exact color or make of the car.
  • The exact time of day.
  • The name of the intersecting street (though I could take you to it if necessary).

* … and there is probably so much more useful information that the cops might need to know if they were to put together a case.

And in this case, the large amount that I do remember possible has to do with shock, the novelty of the event, the ease with which the event could be made into a linear story and the fact that I have a trained memory.

But just as each of these things could support the idea that I’ve remembered things well, each point could also prove me to be a poor witness.


Because …


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In any case, if a prosecutor wanted to use hypnosis on me, he would be making a couple of assumptions about memory.

First, hypnosis for eyewitness testimony assumes that memory is like a video recorder. One of the reasons enhanced memory is not normally accepted in a court of law is that we know memory does not store information for playback.

Rather, memories are reconstructed. Not only that, but memories are a reconstructed pastiche of many things.

For example, memory takes place only the present. You can only ask a person to recall information in their present moment. They cannot recall the information the past and they cannot recall it in the future. Memory only takes place in the present.

For that reason, every time you reconstruct a memory, you are affected by context. You are also affected by language.

Remember how I said that there are too many words for the truth to exist (as such) just a few minutes ago?

It’s true. There are so many words to choose from and so many possible combinations, unless you memorized what you were saying as you said it …

You could never repeat the same memory twice. Your report would always be slightly different.


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And each time you retold your memories, you might be:

  • Tired and hungry
  • Telling it to a different person
  • Impatient
  • Angry
  • Less certain than the time before about your accuracy
  • More certain than the time before
  •  … and much, much more

And all this depends on how much of the target information survived your short term memory and made it into long term memory.

And as massive as long term memory is, it is useful only to the extent that you can reconstruct useful and reliable material from it.

Are you interested in diving deeper into this issue?

You are?

Good. Then let’s go.

When we talk about memories moving around in the mind and recall as something that happens only in a certain kind of time (the present), we need to look at the three stages of memory.


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These are:

1. Acquisition
2. Retention
3. Retrieval

Acquisition involves encoding information for retention.

The quality of the encoding relies upon the attention you’ve paid to the information and to what extent you’ve intentionally memorized it.

As I mentioned, everything I recalled from the automobile situation last Sunday was learned incidentally. I made no special attempt to memorize anything and what I do remember was selected by my long term memory from a field of other thoughts, shock and the additional thoughts I added later.

The retention stage involves storing the memories. But this isn’t like storing old baseball mits in a box at the back of your shed. As memory expert Dr. Gary Small told us in an interview with him here on the Magnetic Memory Method Podcast a few weeks back, memories move around in the brain as they age.

This movement effects the quality of recall, both positively and negatively. It also changes the context of the information and how it will be recalled in new contexts during the reconstruction phase.

We’ve gone through this a bit already with my story from last Sunday, but let’s look at how the memory of witnesses can be affected during all of these stages:

Acquisition is influenced by:

* Age
* Level of rest
* Physical fitness
* Emotional states
* Confidence
* Stress
* Mood
* Attitude

You also have the factor of expectation. Again, if you haven’t expected to remember something, the something you are able to recall will most likely be of low quality.

Another factor involves the characteristics of the material:

* Is it an object?
* Is it a person?
* How many objects or people were involved?
* Are there any moving parts?
* How big or small are these objects or people?

(As an aside, answering all of these questions makes a great visualization exercise.)

We also have to account for the length of exposure to the the information. Did it take place in an instant, or did the witness have more time to study the event?

Finally, we have the addition of information between the instances of the event and the instances of recall.


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For example, imagine that you saw The Dark Knight at the movie theatre. You tell a bunch of friends about the movie and you balance your report by giving all the characters equal time.

Then you learn that Heath Ledger died. The next time you tell someone about the film, you’re much more likely to focus on the Joker parts of the film because the additional information about the film will not only change your memory of the film, but also how you talk about it. And each time you talk about a memory, you add more information to it, which changes it even more. You are in effect playing the telephone game with yourself.

Not only that, but you may not have really thought much about Heath Ledger as an actor, but by paying attention to him differently based on the new information, you may suddenly find that you’ve become a fan.


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To look at this differently, you’ve probably heard about the scientific studies where they show people films of car crashes.

When researchers ask people “how fast the cars were going before they collided,” the test subjects answer differently than when they ask people how fast the cars were going before they crashed or smashed into one another.

The way the mind hears the question conditions the answer. And questions count as new information.

So if I say to you, “How did you like the Joker in Batman,” you will select a different answer from your memory than if I ask you, “How did you like Heath Ledger’s final performance as the Joker in Batman?”


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So far we’ve covered some of the basic issues surrounding memory and hypnosis. Now let’s look more at the reconstruction of memories during interrogation and on the stand.

Investigators and prosecutors ask witnesses to reconstruct their memories in different ways.

The first is free narrative. The interrogator opens up free narrative by asking open-ended questions. For example, they might say, “tell me what you remember about the incident.”

The research shows that this kind of witness testimony produces surprisingly few errors. But the witnesses also often leave huge gaps.

Next we have controlled narrative. In this case, the interrogator ask for detailed descriptions of the event. They might ask, for example, “what was the assailant wearing?” to guide the witness towards specifics. This kind of testimony may indeed produce more detail, but the accuracy of the detail goes down.

Finally, we have forced choice. These are specific questions for which the witness can only give a limited number of answers. These are yes or no questions or either-or questions. “Was the car red or black?” is a question that requires a specific answer.

Although this kind of questioning provides the highest amount of detail, it produces the least amount of accuracy. When you press people to choose, you cut their ability to describe.


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Forced choice also leads people to give the answer they think the interrogator wants. And questions like these do indeed force certain assumptions. For example, a question like, “did you see the gun?” implies that there was a gun.

Moreover, the question puts the image of a gun into the imagination of the witness. As we talked about, the addition of new information can cause – and usually does cause – memories to change every time we reconstruct them.


Spell-Binding Questions That You’ll Want To Ask Yourself Before Giving Testimony Under Hypnosis In A Court Of Law


With these problems in mind, when we factor in hypnosis-aided testimony need to answer several questions. These questions include:

1) Does hypnosis create confidence? In other words, do witnesses become more convinced of the truth because hypnosis convinces them that their memories are more real.

Most of us know from our own lives how this works. Once we are convinced that we’ve experienced something a certain way, it becomes impossible to change back. We cannot go back to questioning the validity of our memory.

2) Does hypnosis help “destroy evidence?” In other words, if hypnosis makes a person more confident in their memory and the introduction of new information changes how they remember, where has the original evidence gone?

3) How to deal with the fact that the memories were not intentionally gathered. The witness was not instructed to learn it as if they were a student in school. These memories are typically the result of highly emotional conflict. And when the witness gives testimony, the future of someone’s life is at stake. If they mess up, an innocent person could wind up in the electric chair.

4) To what extent can the memories of witnesses be trusted even in the absence of hypnosis?

Over time, courts have suggested some solutions to some of these problems. These solutions include:

A) Leave it up to jury decision. The judge needs to point out that hypnosis assisted certain witness testimony and that they should place no more or less emphasis on the testimony as a result of the hypnosis.

B) Reject hypnosis-assisted testimony. Due to the lack of scientific evidence that hypnosis helps memory, some courts have barred all such testimony.

C) Use strict guidelines. In this case, hypnosis must be carried out by a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist trained in the practice.

Plus, the hypnotist must not be informed of the facts of the case before the session takes place. This measure is to ensure that the hypnotist cannot influence the testimony.

The hypnotist should also be independent, not someone chosen by either the prosecutor or the defence team.

Everything must be recorded on video, including from the beginning to the end of the meeting to capture any comments that may have influenced the testimony. This will also help reduce the chance of introducing post-hypnotic suggestions.

No one else should be present during the hypnotic session. Other people can unconsciously or inadvertently communicate what they expect to hear the witness say. They might also look startled, upset of disappointed by the testimony, shaping how the witness reconstructs their memories.

An expert in hypnosis must testify before the jury about the use of hypnosis to assist the witness in remembering more.

They must also explain that hypnosis is a suggestive procedure that does not ensure the validity of anything said during the testimony.

As you can imagine, there is a lot more to be said about this topic. But to sum up for now, we can now ask the ultimate question lurking behind this issues:


Can Hypnosis Improve Recall?


The answer is most likely no. Here’s why:

There’s no objective way to identify the accuracy or inaccuracy of any memory of an event. Memories are reconstructed, can only be delivered in the presence, and most studies show that memories are easily manipulated.

Also, there’s no way to tell if the memories were created by other means. For example, the witness could be lying. They might have heard someone else’s testimony or they saw something on TV. They may have revisited the scene of the crime. Worse, they might simply be unsure themselves of what exactly they saw.

Finally, when hypnosis takes place and memory does appear to be improved, it might not be hypnosis at all behind the improvement. Other factors might trigger recall, such as concentration, better rest, no longer being in shock, other forms of therapy, etc.



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IF hypnosis can be said to improve recall, it may be because:

1. People lower the level of what they would normally consider a good memory.

2. People under hypnosis may be praised for any memories they give. This may cause them to give a lot more detail, but the significance of these details may be in questions. The quantity and relatedness of the memories does not necessarily amount to quality and accuracy.

3. Repeated interrogation under hypnosis may improve more recall, but this could be the result of the witness simply giving the prosecutors what they think the prosecutors want.

So with all this said, what can we learn from these issues? How can they help us improve our own memory and reach our goals?


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There are several lessons here:

1. Relaxation does help us produce more detail. It’s especially useful for completing the exercises that improve your sensory memory.

2. We can change our memories by adding more detail. This fact of memory need not be negative. In fact, it is helpful when it comes to using mnemonics. The more we can associate unfamiliar information with familiar information, the easier it is to memorize.

3. We know that consequences count. Just as the stress of helping shape the future of someone’s life affects eyewitness testimony, the stress of texts, exams, speaking a foreign language, etc. shapes how well we recall information. This fact takes us back to relaxation because we can indeed train ourselves to be relaxed under pressure.

4. The importance of scientific validity when it comes to memory. Although there is no real evidence that hypnosis improves memory, we have all kinds of evidence that mnemonics do.


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But at the end of the day, the only science that matters is based on the experiments you perform yourself. You need to learn the techniques, apply them and track your results. Only then can you make informed decisions about how to change your approach. And only you can do the work of improving your memory. No court of law can force you to it, only your interest, your passion and your need.

So what are you waiting for?

Until next time, I hope that you never have to give eyewitness testimony. I also hope you never have to bump up against the law leading to someone else giving testimony against you.

Keep safe, keep on the right side of the law and until next time, keep Magnetic.

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