Chapter 3: How to Believe the Unbelievable
“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
Given that our memories can fool us sometimes, it is still hard to understand why or how people would want to believe that their parents committed such awful acts upon them. But it clearly isn’t a matter of wanting to believe. I have come to regard the initial incest suspicion as being a kind of mental kudzu seed–perhaps a perverse analogue to Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed. A few decades back, some bright agronomist imported this nifty Japanese vine to my native Georgia, hoping to halt erosion and provide cheap cow fodder. The insidious kudzu, with its broad, shiny green leaves, now covers entire forests, swallowing trees whole. While cows may indeed eat the stuff, I suspect a few of them have been enveloped, too, along the way.
Repressed memories seem to grow in the same way. It doesn’t take much–just a small seed, planted in your fertile brain by a television program, a book, a friend, or a therapist. Maybe, just maybe, all of your problems stem from childhood incest. Maybe you’ve forgotten it. Maybe that’s why you are uncomfortable at family reunions. Maybe. No, no, that’s insane! Forget it, not Dad, not Mom! You try to dismiss the idea. But it won’t go away. It takes root, sends out creepers, and grows. Soon the mental kudzu is twining out of your ears, sending roots down to your gut, taking over your life. It’s true! Your worst fears were justified!
Numerous types of “evidence” are used to provoke and “prove” the reality of repressed memories. These include hypnotic regression, sodium Amytal, dreams, visualizations, bodily pangs or marks, panic attacks, or just general unhappiness. I will review each of them in turn, but it is important to understand that debunking one method or symptom really isn’t the point, because another can easily take its place. Once the seed is planted, once the idea takes hold, it doesn’t matter what method is employed. The results are almost foreordained.
Hypnosis: Memory Prod or Production?
After both of my children cut off contact with me, I thought that maybe I really had done something horrible to them and had repressed the memory myself. So I went to a hypnotist. Like most people, I thought that when you sank into a deep hypnotic trance, you could magically tap into your dormant subconscious, unlocking long-forgotten memories. Fortunately, I went to an ethical hypnotist who did not lead me into believing I had committed incest on my children. She failed, however, to tell me how questionable memories are when “uncovered” in hypnosis. I discovered that fact during my research.
From its inception–covered in Chapter 10–hypnosis has caused considerable controversy and spawned innumerable myths. One thing that experts agree on, however, is that memories retrieved under hypnosis are often contaminated mixtures of fantasy and truth. In many cases, outright “confabulations”–the psychologists’ term for illusory memories–result. Here is an unequivocal passage from the 1989 fifth edition of the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry :
An overwhelming body of research indicates that hypnosis does not increase accurate memory, but does increase the person’s willingness to report previously uncertain memories with strong conviction. Furthermore, the hypnotized individual has a pronounced tendency to confabulate in those areas where there is little or no recollection; to distort memory to become more congruent with beliefs … and fantasies; and to incorporate cues from leading questions as factual memories. Finally there is a high likelihood that the beliefs of the hypnotist will somehow be communicated to the patient in hypnosis and incorporated into what the patient believes to be memories, often with strong conviction.
Psychologist Robert Baker observes that “confabulation shows up without fail in nearly every context in which hypnosis is employed.” No experimental study has ever provided evidence that hypnosis helps unlock real memories, although, as one researcher put it, “It is difficult to disregard totally the wealth of anecdotal reports extolling the virtues of hypnotic memory enhancement.” Perhaps, then, hypnosis can enhance both real memories and fantasies. Baker does not agree. “I carried out a number of laboratory studies over a period of three and a half years,” he writes. “My results in all cases showed no improvement in either memory or incidental memory as a result of hypnosis.” On the contrary, Baker concludes that “the hypnotist may unwittingly suggest memories and create pseudomemories, i.e., vivid recollections of events that never happened.”
The reason that memories retrieved under hypnosis are suspect goes to the very definition of the process, which invariably includes the concept of suggestion. Clark Hull and A. M. Weitzenhoffer defined hypnosis simply as “a state of enhanced suggestibility.” When a subject agrees to be hypnotized, he or she tacitly agrees to abide by the suggestions of the hypnotist. This state of heightened suggestibility can work quite well if the goal is to stop smoking, lose weight, enhance self-esteem, reduce perceived pain, or improve one’s sex life. But it is not an appropriate method for retrieving supposedly repressed memories, as psychiatrist Martin Orne and psychologist Elizabeth Loftus have repeatedly stressed in courtroom settings.
Orne asserts that hypnosis is a technique that “greatly facilitates the reconstruction of history, that allows an individual to be influenced unwittingly, and that may catalyze beliefs into ‘memories.'” He emphasizes that “we cannot distinguish between veridical [true] recall and pseudomemories elicited during hypnosis without prior knowledge or truly independent proof.” Loftus has said virtually the same thing. “There’s no way even the most sophisticated hypnotist can tell the difference between a memory that is real and one that’s created. If you’ve got a person who is hypnotized and highly suggestible and false information is implanted in his mind, it may get imbedded even more strongly. One psychologist tried to use a polygraph to distinguish between real and phony memory but it didn’t work. Once someone has constructed a memory, he comes to believe it himself.”
Consequently, numerous psychologists have recognized that reality is routinely distorted under hypnosis. Theodore R. Sarbin and William C. Coe have referred to hypnotism as “believed-in imaginings,” while Ernest R. Hilgard calls the process “imaginative involvement.” J. P. Sutcliffe characterized the hypnotic subject as “deluded” in a purely descriptive sense. Jean-Roch Laurence and Campbell Perry assert: “Hypnosis is a situation in which an individual is asked to set aside critical judgment, without abandoning it completely, and is asked also to indulge in make-believe and fantasy.”
The hypnotized subject is not the only one who is deluded. The hypnotist who believes that he or she is delving for hidden memories takes an active part in the shared belief system. Both hypnotist and subject are engaged in a tacitly accepted mini-drama in which they act out prescribed roles. Psychiatrist Harold Merskey has defined hypnosis as “a maneuver in which the subject and hypnotist have an implicit agreement that certain events [e.g. paralyses, hallucinations, amnesias] will occur, either during the special procedure or later, in accordance with the hypnotist’s instructions. Both try hard to put this agreement into effect.” He notes that “there is no trance state, no detectable cerebral physiological change, and only such peripheral physiological responses as may be produced equally by non-hypnotic suggestion or other emotional changes.” Laurence and Perry concur, explaining that “the EEG [brain wave] of a hypnotized person is formally indistinguishable from that of a person who is relaxed, alert, with eyes closed.”
Eric Greenleaf observes that “the pretense of hypnotist-operator is a sort of shared delusion which both patient and therapist participate in.” He states that the methods of hypnotic induction are “more like following the rules of social procedure than … chemical analysis.” Robert Baker puts it more bluntly: “There is no such thing as hypnosis .” Numerous experiments have demonstrated that all of the mysterious hypnotic phenomena, such as pain reduction, posthypnotic amnesia, blindness, paralysis, and the like, are simply part of a subject’s belief system and, with the sanction of the authority–the hypnotist–they can all magically reverse themselves.
I am not trying to imply that “hypnosis,” whether a real state or not, does not have a profound effect, however. The human imagination is capable of incredible feats, so that subjects under hypnosis can even will away their warts. And it does not have to be called “hypnosis” to have the same effect. Guided imagery, visualization, sodium Amytal interviews, relaxation exercises, breathing exercises, and prayers to God to reveal abuse are all actually forms of hypnosis. When someone is relaxed, willing to suspend critical judgment, engage in fantasy, and place ultimate faith in an authority figure using ritualistic methods, deceptive scenes from the past can easily be induced.
Hypnotism entails a powerful social mythology. Just as those “possessed” by demons believed in the process of exorcism, most modern Americans believe that in a hypnotic state, they are granted magical access to the subconscious, where repressed memories lie ready to spring forward at the proper command. Hollywood movies have reinforced this mythology, beginning with a spate of amnesia-retrieval dramas, such as Hitchcock’s Spellbound , in the 1940s. A good hypnotic subject therefore responds to what psychologists call “social demand characteristics.” As Baker puts it, there is a “strong desire of the subject to supply the information demanded of him by the hypnotist.” Psychiatrist Herbert Spiegel says it more directly: “A good hypnotic subject will vomit up just what the therapist wants to hear.”
The hypnotist is often completely unaware that he is influencing the inductee, but what psychologists term “inadvertent cuing” can easily occur, often through tone of voice. “It is incredible,” wrote French psychologist Hippolyte Bernheim in 1888, “with what acumen certain hypnotized subjects detect, as it were, the idea which they ought to carry into execution. One word, one gesture, one intonation puts them on the track.” Simply urging “Go on” at a crucial point, or asking “How does that feel to you?” can cue the desired response. A person who agrees to play the role of the hypnotized subject is obviously motivated to believe in that role and act it properly. As hypnotist G. H. Estabrooks wrote in 1946, “the subject is very quick to co-operate with the operator and at time almost uncanny in his ability to figure out what the operator wishes.” This goes double for clients in psychotherapy who are desperately seeking to locate the source of their unhappiness. If the therapist has let them know, either subtly or directly, that they can expect to find scenes of sexual abuse while under hypnosis or through guided imagery, they are likely to do so.
In the introduction to Theories of Hypnosis: Current Models and Perspectives (1991), editors Steven Jay Lynn and Judith W. Rhue summarize the views expressed by the majority of the contributors: “Hypnotic behavior is interpersonal in nature …. Subjects’ sensitivity to the hypnotist, subtle cues, and the tacit implications of hypnotic communications have a bearing on how they respond.” Further, they note that “subjects may engage in self-deception, may be unaware of the intrapsychic and contextual determinants of their actions, and may engage in behaviors that fulfill suggested demands with little awareness that they are doing so.”
Experimental psychologists have long understood that false memories can be implanted during hypnosis. In 1891, Bernheim suggested to a hypnotized subject that his sleep had been disturbed the night before by a neighbor who “coughed, sang, and then opened the window.” After the session, the patient elaborated on this illusory event, even adding how someone else had told his neighbor to close the window. Bernheim then told him that the scene had never happened, that he had dreamed it. “I didn’t dream it,” the patient protested indignantly. “I was wide awake!”