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reading an article by Milton Erickson (Clinical and Experimental Observations on Hypnotic Amnesia: Introduction to an Unpublished Paper) where he was speaking of various distinctions that he had made regarding ordinary forgetting and hypnotic amnesia.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.

For years I have heard of Dave Dobson referred to as another Milton Erickson.  Though I had never seen footage of him in action.  Enclosed here is a youtube clip of him giving an interview about his work that he refers to as Other Than Conscious Communication. 

All throughout life people have experiences that they go through that changes the course of their lives or at the very least influences them greatly.  I can think about experiences that I had during my youth that shaped my interest to enter the field of personal development.  Some people the type of careers they grow to take on or the type hobbies that they become avid fans of can all be traced back to one magical moment.  From there when the seeds of that experience have been planted a person will tend to move through the world gathering more experiences and organizing them in ways that fit within the framework of the original experience.  Perhaps they go to the doctor and they do something wonderful to help them.  From that point on a person can decide that they want to do they same type of thing for other people that doctor did for them.

A person can also go through an experience that seems to have a ripple effect that affects their lives in a negative way.   The experience of a trauma would be an example of this.  Say a person was bitten by a dog or beaten by a loved one and that experience left a very distinct impression on the person involved.  In many cases this situation will serve as a self organizing attractor for the person’s perception to seek out other experiences to match their understanding of the world.  In the example of a person that was bitten by a dog.  The next time in their life that they might come across another dog they could be terrified and because of that earlier trauma they are unconsciously searching for behaviors that other dogs might be manifesting in order to validate their current implicit understanding of that animal.  A woman that is beaten by men can consciously know that not all men are like that however at an unconscious level because of that previous experience they can’t help but to be scared.

The Decision Destroyer is a pattern created by Co-Founder of NLP, Richard Bandler and is based on the case study by Milton H. Erickson, MD.  You can find more information about the case in the book, ‘The February Man’.  Essentially what Erickson does in this case study is to great a series of what he would sometimes referred to as ‘positive traumas’ and place them before a ‘negative trauma’ so that by virtue of having that previous experience when the person in their mind’s re-experienced the negative trauma that it no longer affected in the same way.  Recently when I taught this pattern at a study group that I was hosting I was able to assist the demonstration subject with being able to overcome a fear of something that she had been avoiding for over a month quickly and easily.

This pattern is a beautifully elegant and simple means of creating resource experiences for people so as to allow them to overcome previously limiting experiences.  Below is a clip of a demonstration by Steve Andreas a long time developer in the field of NLP.  In this clip he is working with a woman that no experience working with the pattern.  He demonstrates how easily it is assist someone in making a change using this pattern.  For a copy of the DVD please check his website.

Milton Erickson used to use behavioral metaphors as a means of priming clients for change.  One example that I can think of is in a book by Jeffrey Zeig during a teaching seminar Erickson pulled out a pencil with a little head on it with long purple hair and he held it between his hands.  He said to the group people come to me looking like this and then they leave looking like this (as he began to rub his hands together and the head began spinning in circles).

Robert Dilts or John Grinder I can’t remember which one of the two said it but one of them said that when they went to visit Erickson that he had a topsy tervy book.  It was a book that you could look at holding it one way and it looked one way and then when you flipped it upside down the image would shift and he would have people look at this book as he talk of how things sometimes look one way and other times shift in perspective.

One time when priming someone to do go into a trance as part of an induction Erickson asked a client to take a paper and a pen and to write their name.  So they did it.  He then asked them to write their name backwards.  So they after some effort did that too.  He then asked them to write it upside down. They did that.  He then had them do the all the same tasks with their opposite hand.  All those tasks were about preparing the client to do something different.

This is a common pattern throughout Erickson’s work.  To use behavioral actions as behavioral metaphors for what he is priming his clients to do.  Danie Beaulieu is an interesting woman that I had the opportunity to meet at Steve Andreas’ AMT 2010.  She does impact therapy so she is not really a NLP’er however she is one of the most elegant people that I have ever come across at creating these types of behavioral metaphors when working with clients.  I would recommend everyone look closely at her work and the work of Erickson further to see what gems they can gleam.

I’m noticing that as I continue to develop my own style of working with people that there are a lot of things that I used to do that I’m failing to do any longer.  In the past I was very patterns driven.  Everything I did was within pre-ordained NLP patterning.  When I was working with people I was constantly looking to see what patterns I could fit them into.  Are they a person that I can run a change personal history pattern on?  Maybe reimprinting?  They look like parts integration person to me.  Stuff like that.  That was me in the beginning.

As I progressed in my experience I was constantly very outcome orientated.  Meaning everything I did was for a specific purpose.  Most of the time I was constantly looking to do something very specific when working with myself or a client.  Am I changing a belief here?  Am I trying to integrate some anchors?  What am I attempting to do?  That was my thinking.

Now, I’m progressing through much trial and error to exploration.  Producing specific results is not something that drives me in my work anymore.  Yes, can I and will I when working with someone produce a result, absolutely.  And at the same time you can only do something the same way so many times without variation.  The field of NLP and Hypnosis as robust as they might be and with as many different styles and personalities is only so big.

At some point in order to keep growing one’s skills they have to put themselves into a position where they are exploring phenomena and taking note of what occurs as they do.  That’s where they are going to continue to build their skill.  Playing with things like Amnesia and how many different ways can a person can use it.  How many different ways does it manifest?  What can you get people to forget and in what ways?  How specifically can you get someone to forget one aspect of one thing?  As well as how in general can you get them to forget something as well?  And what type of mixes of in between can you create as well?

I’ve studied a lot of work of Milton Erickson the one thing that really impresses me about him.  His collected papers those aren’t about his successes they are about his experiments and his explorations during his work.  There were a lot of things that occurred in his work that he had no idea would occur however he did have some sort of idea that something would occur.

And ultimately I think that is where people are going to build their skill.  Through exploration and experimentation.  As much as people love to go to courses and purchase new CDs and DVDs and things of that nature your real growth in your skills will not be from those things.  It will be from those times that you were messing around to see what you could do only to find out that you did something that you would never have thought of.  I think we need more of that in general.
Milton Erickson and  Linn Cooper in their book, ‘Time Distortion in Hypnosis’ conducted a series of experiments in order to explore the phenomena of expansion of one’s sense of time.  They would induce a trance whereby they would then give the person they were working with suggestions that were designed to give them the experience having more time than they really did.  They would then be assigned a task that they were to accomplish in a given hypnotic reality and told how long they would be given to accomplish the task.  They would then be given a starting signal and an end signal by which they were to immediately cease taking anymore action in their assigned task at which time they would then report back to Erickson and Cooper as to their progress.

For example in one experiment subjects would be instructed that they were in a room sitting at a table and that there was a box of pennies in from of them.  They were to begin to pull them out and put them one by one on the table and were to count the number of pennies as they put them on the table.  They were TOLD that they were going to be given ten minutes to accomplish this task.  In actuality they were given anywhere from 10 seconds – 1 second to accomplish the task through multiple trials.  With each trial the subject would make it into the hundreds when it came to counting.

During some other tasks some subjects were given similar counting tasks in which they were TOLD that they would be allotted a certain amount of time and then in ACTUALITY they were given far less quite often as little as 3 seconds to accomplish what they were suppose to do.  Quite often it was found that people could complete their task with as little as 3 second BUT when Erickson would cut their time even further people were unable to complete their task nearly as well as they had previously.  The interesting thing to me was when Erickson brought them out of trance everyone of them had elaborate explanations for why they had not fared as well in the completion in this task as previously.

I think there is an interesting parallel between these rationalizations that would occur when people were in hypnotic trances and with clients.  Whereas a client will come to a changeworker with very sound reasoning and logic and all sorts of explanations regarding their particular problem as subject in one of these hypnotic trances could explain what occurred in their situation in equally convincing terms.  In both instances their explanations are equally real and in both instances they are equally fabricated.
Ecology is an extremely important consideration to take into account.  I've learned in my own life and work with people the great importance of making use of people's own internal wisdom which in this clip O'Hanlon refers to as 'indigenous knowledge' .  For me that was an interesting point.

Another interesting thing that he spoke of was giving people permission to do something or not too.  That has been extremely helpful in allowing clients to discharge any type of resistance that they might have had to working with their issue.

An additional thing I find that O'Hanlon is talking about that I have found echoed in my own work as well is the ability to simultaneously hold two opposites as a singular whole.

I really love of how he talks about looking for exceptions.

Bill O'Hanlon is an interesting gentleman that studied with Milton Erickson directly after having trained with Richard Bandler and John Grinder.  If you've read any of his books you'll be able to get a pretty good of his contribution to the field of therapy and personal development.  I personally really enjoy reading his work.  He also has put out an audio in which he shares some of his favorite teaching tales which I have also found extremely worthwhile.

The clip that I'm including with this post is of O'Hanlon speaking of how he met Dr. Erickson.


I once listened to a story told by Bill O’Hanlon about the ceremony of the room of 1,000 demons.  He spoke how there is this room where the Dali Lama and all the various Lama’s would gather for this ceremony.  And that in Buddhism there is this idea of reincarnation and that people would continue to live and die and that this cycle would repeat and repeat and you would have to pray and study and live a good life before they cycle would stop and you would reach nirvana.

The Dali Lama announced on this particular day to all the Lama’s present that, “today you have the possibility to get off the karmatic wheel and not have to worried about being enlightened anymore more.  Today you have that possibility.  All you have to do is walk through the room of a thousand demons and come out the other side.” 

He went on to explain, “what happens is that a door will be opened and those who so choose will be able to walk inside but once you do you cannot leave from the door that you entered from.  You must make it across the room to the other side to which there will be a door to exit.”

Now the reason this room is called the room of a thousand demons is because the demons that reside there have the ability to peer into you in such a way that enables them to take on your own worst fears and to seemingly make them real.

If you have a fear of people ridiculing you as soon as you walk into you will have people ridiculing you.

If you have a deep dark secret about yourself that you don’t want to the world it will seem to be revealed for all to see and it will feel very real.

If you have a fear of pain then pain will show up.

If you have a fear of being abandoned then you being abandoned will show up.

And so on and so forth…

These demons will make these fears feel real… they feel so real… as real as the reality that we are inhabiting now… so much so that most people begin to believe them.

The Dali Lama said, “Once you’re inside the room you are on your own.  We can’t come in and get you.  For those of you who want to leave now can go and those of you who want to stay please do.”

All but a few leave.

To those who stayed he said, “Through the centuries there have been two secrets passed down from those who have made it through the room of a 1,000 demons and have been enlightened.  The first is that these fears aren’t real.  The second is to keep your feet moving.”

And I think that’s good advice for any situation in life.

Most people understand hypnosis as being something that a hypnotist does to someone.  When Milton Erickson was around hypnosis at least the way he did it was you knocked out the conscious mind and made use of the rich amount of learning that were stored within the unconscious mind.  The type of hypnosis that Stephen Gilligan does is what he calls generative trance.

This type of work from what I have heard him say is when the subject internalizes the hypnotist and creates a relationship within himself where he holds constant and intention that he wants to accomplish while they allow their 'creative unconscious' to generate the solutions as to how.

Gilligan's work is really very interesting and in my opinion he is the leading authority on Ericksonian Hypnosis.


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