Mischaracterized Nature of (Hypnotic) Amnesia:

Anyone that has had the experience of hypnotizing an individuals for any great length of time will be familiar with the scenario of inducing a trance, deepening it, giving suggestions, emerging the subject from the trance state and them having ‘amnesia’ for all that occurred during the session.  Recently I was reading an article by Milton Erickson (Clinical and Experimental Observations on Hypnotic Amnesia: Introduction to an Unpublished Paper) where he was speaking of various distinctions that he had made regarding ordinary forgetting and hypnotic amnesia.

The first couple of pages of the article is him speaking about the challenges in experimental design in testing various assumptions and being able to differentiate between the two phenomena.  Towards the end of the paper though Erickson relates an interesting example of something that most people would mischaracterize as Amnesia one that I am sure in varying forms most of us can identify with.

“This example relates to the teaching of a series of tricks to the family dog.  By force of circumstances this teaching and all performances of the tricks occurred in a basement room, although the dog had the run of the entire house.  One day, long after the dog had not only learned the tricks well but would perform them spontaneously in anticipation of a food reward, visitors asked for a demonstration.  The dog was called into the living room, a crust of bread was offered, and the usual commands were given.  The dog gave every evidence of wanting the bread but seemed to have no understanding of the commands or of what was wanted, despite patient, repeated efforts.  When everyone went down to the basement, the sight of the bread crust was sufficient to elicit repeated spontaneous performances of all her tricks without commands being given.  Even after having eaten the bread, she performed readily upon commands from anybody without further reward.  Upon return to the living room the dog again seemed unable to understand commands, nor did the offer of food do more than elicit restless, hungry behavior.  Giving her small morsels didn’t help, but another trip to the basement resulted in an adequate performance.  Finally, after repeated commands and offering of food and much restless puzzled behavior by the dog, she finally began to understand the familiar command of “roll over.”  She responded by racing to the basement, performing the task, and then racing back for the food reward, repeating this behavior at every new command.”

Erickson does go on in the next paragraph to say, “While this behavior cannot legitimately be called an amnesia, certain of the results were comparable to those that would derive from an amnesia.”  This observation by Erickson seems to fall in line with the research presented in Gabriel Radvansky’s book, Memory P.125 where he speaks of, “Context being an important memory cue.”  There is a phenomena that is referred to as Encoding Specificity.  An example of this would be seminar amnesia as many of us like to call it.  We teach students how to do amazing and wonderful skills or we see people pull off amazing things in seminars but then once they walk outside the seminar room doors all that they just had is no longer available to them.  It’s almost as if it never happened.

Radvansky cited an example of encoding specificity, “Having lived most of his life in St. Louis, Missouri, except for 2 years at the University of Texas at Austin, and 4 years in the military service during the Second World War, my father returned to Texas after 42 long years of forgetting.  Although previously certain that he could recall only a few disembodied fragments of memories of his college days, he became increasingly amazed, upon his return, at the freshness and detail of his newly remembered experiences.  Strolling along the streets of Austin, my father suddenly stopped and animatedly described the house in which he lived in a location now occupied by a parking lot.  He recalled in vivid detail, for example, how an armadillo had climbed up the drainpipe one night and became his pet, and how the woman who had cooked for the residents of his house had informed them of the attack on Pearl Harbor, abruptly ending his college career.  Not until he returned to the setting in which those long-past events had occurred had my father thought or spoken of them.” (Radvansky, 2010)

Radvansky further goes on to speak of a study in which scuba divers learned lists of words.  Some divers learned the words on land other learned them underwater. The divers were then tested in both contexts.  It was found that divers that learned on land recalled better on land than underwater and that divers that learned underwater recalled better underwater than on land. The implication of all this research appears to me that if a person wants to have information available in multiple contexts then they should learn it there or use it there so that there is a generalizing effect.

This all got me thinking.  Many times what is really a situation of something NOT generalizing we mischaracterize it as amnesia or forgetting.  At the most we could consider this non-generalizing a form of amnesia or forgetting but then even that might be stretching it.  The applicability of this information to me seems two fold 1.) we begin getting closer to describing the varying phenomena that is all lumped together as ‘Amnesia’ or ‘Forgetting’ 2.) as we break down these various phenomena we discover fairly simple ways to deal with them.

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