Last Wednesday evening, here in Bournemouth, I welcomed the marvellous James Tripp to the hypnotherapist support group that I organise, as our speaker. Within the presentation, James elicited amnesia within a previous student of mine – who duly forgot his name.

Amnesia is often considered a hypnotic phenomena and so I thought I’d write a bit about it today.

When we talk about hypnotic amnesia, we are referring to a suggested loss of memory in some way, and as you’d expect it is the experience of forgetting something. (You don’t say Adam!)

Whenever you try to recall or remember something, you are attempt to access and bring forward some information from somewhere in your mind. So until I mention it here and now, it is very unlikely that you were thinking about what you did on your last birthday. That memory, however, may now present itself and you access it accordingly as a result of my mention. Unless it was one of those birthdays where you had a glass of shandy or two and really can’t remember anything… (*Takes a couple of seconds to remember what party hat he wore last Birthday.*)

Many believe that not every single memory is actually available to us to be aware of though. For example, some of the life experiences we had did not have enough attention paid to them at the time, or we may have been distracted or engaged in deep thought. We know we did something, but the detail was not recorded sufficiently at the time.

Then of course, there are those memories that people found to be traumatising and fearful and the way they were defended against was through “repression” whereby the memory is stuffed away into a dark corner and not referred to again. Repression is often accompanied by disscoiation for further protection.  Often, therapists that use regression or think it beneficial to go into a clients traumatic past, will keep them dissociated from the memory somewhat so that the client is not engaged in the traumatic experience again.

Amnesia is not exclusively hypnotic phenomena though, is it? We have all had it happen to us; meeting someone in the street and forgetting their name, same with phone numbers, going into a room and forgetting what you went there to do, forgetting where you put your wallet down, showing up for a meeting at the wrong time, and forgetting information of experiences, these are all common examples of amnesia happening.

When it happens naturally, therapists have subsequently considered ways of creating amnesia in clients for more than just demonstrations of hypnotic response. So what reasons are there for a hypnotherapist to elicit amnesia in a client they are working with?

I remember being utterly beguiled listening to a tape recording of Richard Bandler eliciting amnesia with his confusional language patterns and the aim was to have the lady he was working with forget how to have a bad reaction to certain circumstances.

Classic psychoanalysis is a long-term process of recovering repressed memories, particularly those of childhood, and you regular readers will know my take on the subject. However, do consider reading my articles on the subject here and here for starters. On the flip side of this, I have encountered schools and therapists who have on occasion thought it useful to actually repress problematic, hurtful memories. You can look at the 2001 work by Carol Lankton, for example.

Milton Erickson’s model of the mind was such that he considered the unconscious mind (again, if you want to read my own take on the unconscious mind, read here and also here) is the most powerful part of us when it comes to making changes and especially change was made easier when the conscious mind was bypassed.

As a result of this, Erickson’s work was heavily punctuated with methods and strategies that were aimed at the client in therapy consciously forgetting his suggestions so that the unconscious mind could deal with them in its own way.

For many hypnotherapists, amnesia is a common occurrence of a deep hypnotic experience. The client emerges from a hypnosis session and ends up having no recollection of what happened, even when amnesia was not suggested. Some think this is great and do that thing whereby they say “don’t worry, your unconscious mind heard it all and is dealing with it…” Whereas I prefer people to be engaged with the hypnosis and feedback what their ongoing experience is throughout. I prefer them to have good recall and conscious understanding of what is going on and the rationale underpinning why they are doing it all.

Lots of people, especially those educated by TV snippets, think amnesia is what always happens when you have been hypnotised. Amnesia is not automatic with hypnosis. I prefer my clients to know and think that they will recall everything that went on, which I think is reassuring.

So how do we go about creating amnesia on purpose?

I have written before about there being no evidence to support that idea that indirect language patterns enhance the results achieved with clinical hypnosis when compared to direct language. There is no evidence for that at all. However, when looking to elicit amnesia, i think being indirect lends itself well to the process rather than simply telling a client “you forget everything that went on” which could sound a tad sinister.

Though I have seen many great displays of amnesia being elicited using a direct approach, though the directness has often been slightly more permissive.  “You can choose to forget about that experience now, because it no longer has a place in your life . . .” For example, or as James Tripp said on Wednesday evening “your name is gone, you try to remember and it’s gone” whilst physically intimating that it has gone off into the distance with his non-verbal signs, pointing off into the distance.

In his amnesia elicitation tapes I referred to earlier, Richard Bandler uses very confusional language and suggestions at a pretty fast pace to create the amnesia. As the client focuses on the sentence they have just heard (with its double negatives and ambiguity) and attempts to make some sense of it, the unconscious mind responds to suggestions aimed at creating amnesia. It is very clever in theory and always seems to work when Bandler does it as a demonstration in the classroom.

Some may consider using distraction as an indirect method too. You could use the types of phrases suggested by Michael Yapko in his Trancework book and used in Roger Allen’s book of scripts:

“.. and as you continue to relax, each breath soothing you … I wonder how much attention you have paid to the different thoughts floating through your mind … your mind can be so active while it relaxes … and then you can realize how difficult it is to remember what I was talking about exactly seven minutes ago … and you could try to remember what I was saying nine minutes ago, or what you were thinking four minutes ago, but doesn’t it seem like much too much work to try and remember? … it takes more effort than it’s worth … and so why not let yourself relax comfortably . . . knowing you don’t have to remember when it’s too much work to .. .”

This type of phrasing is not suggesting that the client does forget, instead just labours the role of remembering, making it difficult to do.

Additionally, I have heard and seen this phrase used to elicit amnesia; “you can remember from this experience whatever it is you choose to remember.” This suggestion implies that you are in control and that you can also forget whatever you want to forget and gives the client a choice – which I think is a very client centred and progressive way to go about using amnesia

You can take distraction further and actually point the attention of the client in a different direction. I can recall meeting up with some friends that I had not seen for a long time last year and in the pub we were chatting away and catching up and I said “oh I have to tell you about John…” and one of my friends said, “oh first let me tell you about Jane…” and proceeded to talk about Jane, and when he said “oh what were you saying?” I had totally forgotten.

I had paid attention to my friend and lost the flow of thought I originally had, creating a minor amnesia. Completely the opposite often happens too, doesn’t it? You are in the car trying to work out who on earth sings the song that is playing on the radio and the harder you try to remember, the tougher it gets. Then you’ll be relaxed in bed later that night and there it is “Abba!”

So we can utilise this naturally occurring phenomena in the therapy room by purposely shifting the clients attention in a different direction throughout the hypnotic experience.

At the end of a hypnosis session, for example, you could ask the client a question that requires them to think deep and recall some other information altogether, thus they have very little opportunity to analyse the hypnosis experience they just had – Ericksonian hypnotherapists would think that would then allow the client to integrate the learnings at an unconscious level.

The same therapists would perhaps at times discourage conscious analysis of the therapy thinking it will make sure they do not reject the therapeutic intervention or suggestions given in that session.

I tend to believe that if you educate properly beforehand and ensure the client understands the reasoning for the intervention, there will be less need for such.

I have seen metaphors used to create amnesia, embedded commands and direct suggestion as well as a variety of other means. Whether it is truly beneficial in therapy is one thing up for debate. Used as a demonstration, it sure exhibits hypnotic phenomena in a powerful way though.

Ok, the sun is shining and I am running a training all weekend, lets hope it holds out until I have some time off. Enjoy the weekend.