False Memories: Can We Have
Two Memories of the Same Event?
(A Warning Regarding Hypnotic Regression)
by C. Roy Hunter, FAPHP, Hypnosis Trainer
Hopefully the above title caught your eye more than just another article discussing the benefits and pitfalls of regression therapy. The reason for my choice of words with the title of this article is personal: my own experience answers the above question in the affirmative - yes!
A number of credible teachers and authors have warned hypnotherapists about the risk of false memories resulting from inappropriate leading during hypnotic regression therapy. Likewise, I warn my own students - both in the classroom and in my text, The Art of Hypnotherapy. However, this article will go where few have gone before: by sharing my own personal experience with a mishandled regression. This journey started in the early 1990’s…
After a local speaking engagement, a hypnotist from the audience approached me. She claimed that she was doing extensive research into explanations of the so-called "out of body" experiences (O.B.E.) that occur to children. She asked me to have lunch with her so that she could discuss her theories at length with me. Although I listened with an open mind, she raised my skepticism. Nonetheless, being an adventurous soul, I agreed to allow her to hypnotize me as a participant in her research project. Let's call her Linda (not her real name).
Before the hypnotic regression, I told her about my own O.B.E. at age six after stepping on a scorpion. The closest doctor was 23 miles away, so he gave my parents instructions by telephone. (I'll spare you those details.) By the time I went to bed, the excruciating and spreading pain caused by the poisonous sting made my entire leg feel like it could explode any minute.
Later that night, my leg went totally numb; and then I saw a brilliant white globe of light hovering above my bed that appeared to be about the size of a basketball. Even at that young age, I marveled that the rest of the room was dark, reflecting none of the bright light. Then the numbness spread through my entire body, and I was now unable to feel anything or move anything. Furthermore, I could not look away from the light - so I tried to yell out to my sister who was sleeping nearby.
Not only was I unable to open my mouth, I realized that I was no longer breathing! Then I started to float upwards…and knew that I was dying. With mental awareness only, I cried out to God reminding Him that I was only six years old, and was too young to die just yet. Following that short silent prayer came a sensation of being slammed back into my body - and I cried out to my sister who told me that I was dreaming. Over 25 years passed before I ever told anyone else of that incident.
The next night, a similar globe of light hovered above my foot, but it was only the size of a baseball. This time the Light did not frighten me, because I was able to move. Also, whatever (or whoever) this Light was somehow gave me a mental or telepathic feeling that it was my guardian angel, and that it was there to look in on me. Within minutes I fell asleep, and my foot was better the next morning.
Armed with only the information about the first night (but not the second night), Linda hypnotized me to medium depth, and employed regression to specific event - taking me back to the moment when I first saw the bright light. She asked me to describe the room and my feelings, which I did. She then said, "I want you to go through the light and tell me if you are taken into a spaceship." (I've often told my students that the only thing missing was X-Files background music!) She proceeded to ask me one leading question after another, inappropriately leading me into "validating" her preconceived opinions, with me allegedly orbiting the earth for an hour or more having a UFO abduction experience.
When the session was completed, I told her that it was fantasy. Linda's response was to tell me that my mind had repressed those memories, and that most of her subjects reported similar experiences. Does anyone wonder why?
As an experienced hypnotherapy instructor, it is very easy for me to assume that what emerged during the regression is false memory - especially in light of the blatant inappropriate leading. For the next two years I simply accepted the experience as false memory (other than what was remembered by me at a conscious level prior to the regression). Eventually a competent hypnotherapist (whom we will call Carol) regressed me back to the same childhood event. Here is a summary of how that second regression unfolded:
When my body was paralyzed and I prayed inside my mind, the bright light told me that she was the death angel - but that it was not my time to die, because I had something important to do. That is when my body jerked and I cried out to my sister. There was nothing that apparently happened between the time I felt myself starting to float up, and the time that I was slammed back into my body. The next day my leg was still swollen and in pain. That next night, however, when the globe of light hovered above my foot, it apparently spoke to me and said, "I am your guardian angel, and I'm here to complete the healing of your foot." I awoke the next day healed.
Here is what I tell my students about the above conflicting regressions…
They both seem equally true, and they both seem equally fantasized - except for what I remembered prior to the first regression. Professionally speaking, I believe that the mishandled regression gave me false memories. However, the second regression may be just as fictional as the first one - because a client can create his or her own false memories in order to "prove" a point to someone!
Please note the importance of my last statement in the above paragraph. My own spiritual beliefs could easily have resulted in my own subconscious mind creating false memories on the second regression - in order to disprove the first regression.
Since both of these perceptions of the same event cannot be true, perhaps the truth might be a combination of the two regressions. Many hypnotherapists sitting in my workshops have offered to facilitate another regression to help me identify the real memories; but there is a gift in my having two sets of memories for the same event. I can look both students and professionals straight in the eye and teach something emphatically from my own experience:
If you are on the receiving end of a mishandled regression, you may not be able to distinguish fact from fantasy.
Can I discover the truth of that O.B.E. that happened when I was only six? In my opinion, the answer is yes - but this experience serves as a constant reminder for me to emphasize the important difference between leading and guiding what facilitating hypnotic regressions.
If you have opinions about the cause(s) of someone's problems while facilitating regressions, please set aside all those preconceived opinions. Whether those opinions are based on professional analytical skills, spiritual beliefs, intuition, or "psychic" awareness, you may drive your client farther from resolution if those opinions are in error. Ask open-ended questions that do not lead the client, and be prepared to deal with what emerges. Also be prepared to handle abreactions when clients remember emotional experiences.
While there is much more that I could write regarding regression therapy, my primary purpose in this article was to share my personal experience so that others may read and heed. Remember that the NGH Code of Ethics prohibits the use of hypnotic regression to members who have not yet received adequate training in regression therapy. Merely reading about regression is not enough training of and by itself. My recommendation is that hypnotists and hypnosis students alike should receive actual training before ever facilitating regressions.
Competent regression therapy can be far more valuable that suggestion alone in helping clients release the causes of problems - and can help bring permanent resolutions. For me personally, all of the hypnotic regressions that I've experienced as a client have helped me - except for the one that I wrote about in this article. And now, perhaps even that regression was helpful if it prevents other hypnotists from making the mistake that someone made while working with me.
I suggest that you consider investing in one or both of my two hypnotherapy texts: The Art of Hypnotherapy (4th Ed., 2010, Crown House Publishing), or The Art of Hypnotic Regression Therapy: A Clinical Guide (2012, Crown House Publishing), which was co-authored by Bruce Eimer, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and Fellow of ASCH. You can order either or both texts on my "Hypnosis Books" page (click here).
Roy Hunter practices hypnotherapy near Seattle, in the Pacific Northwest region of the USA. He also worked part time for the Franciscan Hospice facilitating hypnotherapy for terminal patients for seven years, and taught a 9-month professional hypnotherapy training course based on the teachings of Charles Tebbetts for over 20 years. Roy is the recipient of numerous awards, including awards from three different organizations for lifetime achievement in the hypnosis profession. Roy is available for mentoring and coaching.
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Last updated: January 13, 2013
Originally posted: May 11, 2007