I recently received a phone call from a young woman who wanted to know if hypnosis could erase memory. She recently had an episode in her life over which she felt guilty and wondered if it was possible to erase memory of the incident. I encouraged her to work on the guilt and the behaviors that lead to the episode rather than trying to erase the memory, although studies have shown that hypnosis can be used to temporarily block memories. I use hypnosis to help my clients recall emotionally charged forgotten memories and to bring them healing by helping them examine the significance surrounding the memory and to reevaluate it with mature wisdom, understanding, and insight.
There are various types of memory; sensory, short and long term, episodic, procedural, and bodily, although the latter remains embedded in controversy. Not all sensory memories, which are sense images lasting for a few hundred milliseconds, are picked up by awareness or translated into short term memory. Not all short term memories make their way into long term memory. Procedural memories are memories of skills and procedures we routinely perform. Repetition and practice are the keys in creating long term procedural memories. Episodic memories are stories of the events of our lives. One main contributing factor of an episode being stored into long term is the emotional weight associated with the event. The emotion may be positive such as ecstasy or negative such as intense fear. Intense fear seems to “burn” the event into our memory and is the root cause of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Our memories associated with negative emotions often cause us problems. When we create a long term memory we are essentially making a statement on the nature of reality. We believe unconsciously, that in future similar situations we must behave in a similar fashion and expect similar outcomes. The memory becomes the view or perspective through which we encounter our world. New situations lose their novelty and uniqueness; they become in essence a replay of the past; “been there, done that.” This is especially true if the old memory contains emotionally charged messages from childhood authorities such as parents or teachers. Because the message came from an authority, we assume it must be true and as children we lack the rational capabilities to challenge the voice of authority. Old childhood memories tend to slip into the unconscious either through the natural process of forgetting or through an unconscious defense mechanism of repression because they are too painful to recall. Once in the unconscious they take on a life of their own and insidiously motivate us to act out old patterned behaviors and expect the same old outcomes.
One of my professors at Pacifica once asked the class, “What do we remember when we remember?” The obvious answer seems to be we remember the event along with the characters involved and the plot which unfolded. However, this is not the case. When we remember something what we are actually remembering is the last time we recalled the event, the last time we retold ourselves or others the story of the event. The environment and mood we are in when we recall the memory affects how we remember it. For example, we will relate the same story very differently to our boss than to our best friend, children, parents, or a stranger. The more we retell the story, the truer it becomes, as we embellish it with some details and delete others. Memories become a conflagration or an amalgamation of these stories.
An example of this was uncovered last summer at a family reunion. I come from a very large family and every Thanksgiving we would drive from Northwest Ohio to New Jersey to visit my paternal grandparents. But since there were so many children, I have eleven siblings; we had to take two cars. Last year my brother, mother, and I were talking about these childhood trips when my brother said “Ray, do you remember the time when you were left at a rest stop in Pennsylvania?” I had no recollection of the event but my brother insisted. He told me that each driver thought I was in the other car and they didn’t realize I was gone for a half hour. I still could not recall the event. But he continued to insist “And when Mom and Dad found you they gave you so much love and attention that all the other kids were so jealous and really angry with you.” It was then my mother turned to him and said “No Jim that was you!” You can imagine in my family the one thing we all competed for was our parents love and affection. It is impossible in this case to determine whether my brother projected the memory onto me, or whether I repressed the memory.
If you find you are suffering from unexplained symptoms and emotional effects you may find healing through confronting your negative unconscious past. If you so desire, please give call me at (805) 637-4263 or email me to arrange for a consultation.