It has been my experience over the years that many people assume regression to be a part of any hypnotherapists tool set and that regression in hypnotherapy is a necessary thing… I want to demonstrate otherwise today.
Since days of Freudian and psychodynamic therapy, many subsequent schools of therapy have believed it is useful, even cathartic to use hypnosis to purposely induce an abreaction and regress to previous traumatic memories to relive them and once they are no longer ‘repressed’ they let go and have therapeutic benefit. Some would say that there is no evidence what so ever to support the usefulness of this notion.
Mainstream psychological research on memory clearly demonstrates the ‘reconstructive’ nature of this sort of memory and clinicians are (or should be) well aware of the issues surrounding the false memory syndrome controversies of the 1990s. Research on past-life regression, for example, has consistently failed to produce any credible positive evidence. Meanwhile, research on age regression has consistently shown how easy it is to install false memories of early childhood experiences.
There are obvious criticisms of past-life regression methodology. I think the most telling one is that people who are regressed have never been shown to re-acquire the language spoken. (Despite some anecdotal claims.) I’ve seen people ‘regressed’ to ancient India and Rome, etc., but they continued to speak modern English and any conversations were recalled in English – though they must have been spoken in Sanskrit or Latin, etc.
Some believe that it is blatantly a glorified role-playing game. I would say that it is natural and reasonable to be sceptical when there’s such an obvious lack of basic evidence, and a weight of counter-evidence in relation to past-life regression.
Not one single instance of someone acquiring the ability to speak an ancient language like Latin, for example, has ever been demonstrated under controlled conditions. The problems with recovered memory techniques have been well-publicised for several decades now. The notorious case of Bridey Murphey exposed the gullibility of people when it comes to these kinds of supernatural claims.
Ok, moving on, there is a real moral dilemma for hypnotherapists here. If the client says, ‘I want regression’, do we have a legal/moral obligation to explain the reconstructive nature of memory to clients, for informed consent? (informed consent is somthing I’ll discuss in more depth sometime soon)
A recent review of the clinical and research literature in this area by five leading authorities on the subject concluded by recommending that the American Psychological Association (APA) should actually change its codes to make it mandatory for psychologists to have clients sign an informed consent agreement before undertaking regression of any kind, that explained in writing that contemporary research provides overwhelming evidence that these memories are ‘reconstructed’ rather than ‘recovered’.
Arguably, that just takes the existing duty of care under civil law and elevates it to the status of a more explicit written contract, because they were concerned that psychologists were making mistakes and errors when it was purely verbal, failing to properly explain the issues to their clients.
I think we also need to look what the evidence says and what’s legal, ethical, and in the client’s interests.
It really does matter whether recovered memories are real or not, which becomes very apparent when you look at the literature on victims of false memory syndrome. False Memory Syndrome has been the basis for the most expensive (multi-million dollar) civil litigation in the history of the American psychiatric profession. It is unquestionably a massive legal and moral issue with extremely serious implications for the entire field of psychotherapy and hypnotherapy.
This entire debate exploded in the media in the 1990s and so it should be thoroughly common knowledge by now that there’s cause for concern. Most professional bodies were forced to issue policy statements on the risks attached to false memory syndrome, including past-life regression.
In response to these controversies that emerged in the mid-1990s surrounding recovered memory and reports of abuse, in 1995 the American Psychological Association (APA) recommended that those seeking psychotherapy be cautious of therapists who instantly accept or dismiss explanations of childhood abuse. The organisation further stated that childhood abuse is not correlated with any specific set of symptoms in adulthood.
False memory syndrome (FMS) is a term coined in 1992 by the False Memory Syndrome Foundation (FMSF) to describe a theory that some adults who belatedly remember instances of sexual abuse from their childhood may be mistaken about the accuracy of their memory and that the so-called false memories may have been the result of Recovered memory therapy, another term also coined by the FSMF in the early 1990s.
The FSMF is an advocacy organization acting on behalf of individuals who claimed they had been falsely accused of perpetrating sexual abuse. Some of the influential figures in the genesis of this theory are forensic psychologist Ralph Underwager, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus and sociologist Richard Ofshe. Charles Whitfield, MD, in his 1995 book Memory and Abuse, states that all critics of studies of the studies showing support for the validity of delayed memories, that he had found, are members of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation advisory board. (Charles Whitfield, MD, Memory and Abuse, 1995, pg 71.)
The theory of FMS was advanced in response to a historical upsurge in adults claiming to have been sexually abused as children. The theory may be considered a critical response to the psychological theory of dissociation, in which an individual is thought to repress his/her memory of a traumatic experience until later in life.
FMS proponents argue that self-help books, such as The Courage to Heal and Recovered Memory therapists are likely to influence adults to develop false memories. According to this theory, psychologists and psychiatrists may accidentally implant these false memories. The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance has speculated that during the 1980s and 1990s, thousands or tens of thousands of therapists attempted to recover memories of early childhood abuse from their clients.
The techniques, practices and exercises used in these attempts are often referred to as Recovered Memory Therapy and sometimes resulted in allegations of abuse being made by individuals against family members. Many of these individuals severed all connection with their parents, hundreds of whom were convicted of these crimes and imprisoned. Many of the people convicted on such charges have since been freed, in part due to the efforts of the FMSF and a wider, sceptical reappraisal of RMT and the veracity of individuals’ recovered memories. (Recovered memory therapy (RMT) on ReligiousTolerance.org)
One paper described one case in which vivid, factually incorrect memories appeared to be induced in a person who had been diagnosed with a dissociative disorder similar to multiple personality disorder. FMS advocates claim to be concerned that an individual’s purportedly repressed memories may not be historically accurate. FMS advocates strongly believe these memories are often confabulations that, if taken as fact, may result in wrongful accusation and bring unjust emotional and financial distress unto the accused. Other researchers believe that
Research has shown that traumatized individuals respond by using a variety of psychological mechanisms. One of the most common means of dealing with the pain is to try and push it out of awareness. Some label the phenomenon of the process whereby the mind avoids conscious acknowledgment of traumatic experiences as dissociative amnesia. Others use terms such as repression , dissociative state , traumatic amnesia, psychogenic shock, or motivated forgetting . Semantics aside, there is near-universal scientific acceptance of the fact that the mind is capable of avoiding conscious recall of traumatic experiences.
There is much research on the effect of trauma on memory too. Brown, Scheflin and Hammond reviewed 43 studies relevant to the subject of traumatic memory and found that every study that examined the question of dissociative amnesia in traumatised populations demonstrated that a substantial minority partially or completely forget the traumatic event experienced, and later recover memories of the event.
Next up then, I’d like to offer up the systematic review of the research on recovered memory, I mentioned,
We further contend that if therapists decide to use memory recovery techniques, then they should provide their clients with a written informed consent document that apprises them of
(1) accurate, scientifically grounded information about the reconstructive nature of memory,
(2) the fact that recovered memories must be corroborated before they can be given special credence, and
(3) information regarding laboratory studies of memory pertinent to the technique employed.
(Lynn, Lock, Loftus, Krackow, & Lilienfeld, 2003)
Therefore, advising a hypnotherapy client that research on recovered/false memories is relevant and is ethical and meets your legal duty of care in regard to regression and past-life regression in hypnotherapy.
The contention of the research team quoted above was that therapists have a legal and ethical obligation to explain current evidence regarding the reconstructive nature of memory, etc., in order to fulfil their duty of care and obtain informed consent from their clients. I guess that’s a tough point to swallow, and raises some interesting and pretty deep moral questions about the practice of therapy.
It is seen by many as a controversial issue, and some people even earn a living as revovered memory therapists or even past life regression therapists, the debate offers up a very interesting dilemma in professional ethics.
In respect of understanding the issues related further, I have looked in depth at the website of the British False Memory Society, a group set up to protect victims of false memory syndrome. There are accounts there of many people over the years who have been left disturbed by false memories installed during past-life regression or repressed memory therapies.
Additionally, when people are revisiting previous traumatic experiences inside their mind, through the medium of hypnosis, which is known to amplify states, thought processes and emotions, we run the risk of re-traumatisation. This is now exposing them to all the emotion, and raw sensation of the original experience and enhancing the issue. When we have a duty of care and a legal duty at that, we therefore have a duty to avoid using regression in hypnotherapy in this way.
Historically, a popular misconception about hypnosis is that we can use hypnosis to regress. Yet Hilgard in 1986 demonstrated that people who are suggestible can regress just as easily without any hypnotic induction.
Of course, in hypnotherapy we are not capable of actually going back in time. We might perceive that we are in a previous experience, but the individual is not actually there. So to suggest that changes can be made to the original event by re-experiencing it, as many psychodynamic hypnotherapists do, is somewhat of a fallacy. In fact, Laurence and Perry (1981) suggest that it is actually role play rather than being regressed.
As cited in other questions in this document, role play is an effective means of creating behaviour and if a client is role-playing an unwanted memory, this could mean that they are just reinforcing the unwanted memory and further embedding the unwanted response to it.
I think you reduce these risks in therapy by not doing regression in hypnotherapy. Alternatively, you can advise the client of these research findings and give them more of an informed choice of doing such a therapy. That said, if someone insists upon a regression or psychodynamic approach to a session of hypnotherapy, there are some ways to lessen the risks. For example, exposure therapy, or desensitisation in a graded format could be used as far as the problematic memory is concerned and the client is only moved forward in line with the level of comfort they are able to feel as they are exposed to those memories.
The therapist may choose to counsel the client now, in the way that they may have needed at the time of the event, rather than behaving as responding as if the event itself were occurring now, thus protecting them from possible re-traumatisation.
They can also be given a number of coping skills to deal with revisiting such memories – such as imagined safe places, breathing exercises to counteract any negative responses and progressive relaxation or mindful procedures.
A slightly different take on the subject, eh?
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Interesting article Adam. I share your concerns about past life regression and if someone wants to do some ‘hypnotic past life tourism’ I refer them on to another therapist/hypnotist. Not my scene, interesting though it is.
I’m not about to give up on the use of regression completely; I have on occasion found it useful, especially when coupled with inner child work.
I might say that is not always true regression but a reviewing (as if on film) of previous life experience. The notion of role play is a valid one but it is still useful and allows the client to come to new understanding of and freedoms from previous life events.
One thing you didn’t discuss is what happens when a client has a spontaneous regression. It’s only happened to me that a client regresses to their own life rather than a past life, but other therapists tell a different story. If it comes up don’t you use it to assist the client in the change they are seeking to make? How do you deal with it?
There is also the idea that a ‘past life regression’ is really the sub-conscious mind attempting to deal with a problem in the here and now through a metaphor or story that is acceptable and non-threatening to the person as a whole.
For the record, I listen to the client first, decide on an approach, get their ‘buy in’ to that. Then do the work and monitor the outcomes, adjust as appropriate and repeat until done. The client alone does not get to decide the approach taken; if that worked they would not be seeing you or me!
It would be a very poor therapist of any stripe, who did regression to cause and waited for the cathartic release without offering the client any additional tools to re-frame the event or situation in a new and more positive way. Unfortunately, I too have heard stories (apocryphal?) about people experiencing exactly that situation.
Thank you for your contribution John, it is very much respected and appreciated.
You are quite right, is there actually such a thing as ‘true regression’? I mean, we do not actually go back in time, do we?
I have not experienced spontaneous regression. My initial discussions ensure that our session is focused in a way that abreaction is never encouraged and we have a focus which leads the client to be in control of that which we are working on.
And one thing you didn’t discuss, is whether or not you believe it is part of our duty of care and informed consent to advise a client on the potential risks associated with regressive work if you choose to do it with them.
Again, thanks John, good hearing from you.
Great blog post. Thought provoking (considering the journey I’m beginning this year). You’ll have to forgive this reply as I can only type with one hand. Nasty fall, ice, broken arm, sexy nurses etc., oh yes, 2010 hasn’t started very well for me at all. 10 years without stepping foot in a hospital. First year of a new decade and fate just takes the mickey…anyway, inspired article.
Great post! Hypnotherapy have always awed me in many ways. For some, it’s a great cure to phobias and help get rid of bad habits. It’s amazing to be able to control other people’s minds by putting them to sleep and get inside their subconscious. I look forward to more revelations on hypnotherapy from this site. Thanks!
I appreciate the comment Andy and I am delighted to see your enthusiasm for the subject… However, you do not ‘control peoples minds’ with hypnosis, you certainly do not put them to sleep, and there is no evidence what so ever to suggest that such a thing as a subconscious mind actually exists… Moreover, for some it is a useful metaphor that we use to illustrate hypnosis.
And what on earth this comment is to do with the actual regression post, I have no idea… I noticed that you linked your name to a crude affiliate hypnosis website so suspect you were posting your comment to get a link back to it or hope that my readers will go look at it… I have disabled that. if you are really interested in learning more about this field, do explore and read more of what’s on offer here and feel free to contact me, I am always around to help. If you were writing ill-conceived comments to market your website, then consider this a wrap across the knuckles and go spam someone else’s blog. 🙂
Trauma builds on trauma. Frequently and unhappily the memory is distorted by the emphasis given by the therapist according to their own personal agenda. Having said this, itis not only traumamatic experiences that are distorted. Existential therapy may be the only honest approach alongside hypnotherapy, where the client and therapist are firmly grounded in the now.
A piece of research here, one among many, but this is up to date and demonstrates that adult memory for negative events tends to be inaccurate. Therefore another reason for not using regression?