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reading an article by Milton Erickson (Clinical and Experimental Observations on Hypnotic Amnesia: Introduction to an Unpublished Paper) where he was speaking of various distinctions that he had made regarding ordinary forgetting and hypnotic amnesia.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

_ Milton Erickson once wrote of some clients that he had come that were Doctors, Lawyers, Ph.D. candidates, college students, etc… that had come to him through the years all requesting help passing tests.  Most of the time these clients had come to him after multiple failures in their own attempts to achieve a passing grade on their examinations and few of them had been to other therapists or hypnotists before him.

Erickson in his collected papers describes a basic outline of what he did to help them.  In all cases he induced a light to somnambulistic trance state.  He then told all of his clients in trance and to listen to him carefully that he was to say carefully though it would not be what they wanted to hear and he reminded them that what they were currently do was not working so to do what he suggest.  He told them from the outset that the first thing they were all to do was pass their exams but in the way he instructed.

And then he told them all that when they went into take their tests they were to aim for the lowest passing grade.  They were to go out of their way to make certain that they passed with the lowest passing grade.  He specifically told each and every one of them that they were explicitly not to aim for an A or a B but that they were to go for the lowest possible passing grade.

He then instructed them that once they left his office that they would feel carefree and forget about the examination that they were to take but that they would show up at the right place and time and be present to take the test.

Once they arrived on time and ready to take the examination that they were to read through the entire examination all the questions and then begin once again at the first question re-reading it.  They were then to begin to write and they were instructed that their unconscious would release bits and pieces of information and knowledge that they needed in drips to them and that they were to write those drips down as they came and that when they stopped.  They were to move on to the next problem and that the process would repeat itself.  When they were done they were to turn in their exams feeling calm and at ease with themselves.

The results of this outline as Erickson described turned out to be very favorable he goes on to explain how when he explained this process to others they questioned him on his use of having them go for the lowest passing grade.  Especially by the time it was done he had many clients that got A and B’s a few C’s and no D’s or F’s.

The explanation given to those who questioned him was that by telling them to go for the lowest passing grade was that it freed them up from the anxiety of trying to do well or trying to get the highest possible score.  He said that through his years of experience he has found ‘wisdom’ in having his clients  avoid their ‘perfectionistic drives’.

Personally I have found this true in my experience.  When I was writing my book, ‘Experiencing Reality’ it was so important to me that it be perfect from the outset that I never really got started.  It was only when I gave myself permission to write something that was less than perfect that I was able to write the manuscript.  And then even from the manuscript to publishing the book.  It was because I ‘felt’ that everything had to be perfect that I delayed it’s being published for many months because I was afraid that it was not perfect.  It was only then that I gave myself permission to put out an imperfect albeit but the best I could do product that I was able to publish it.

_Throughout Erickson’s work if you take a look at his language you will see a recurring pattern emerge.  When working with people he will tell people to ‘make changes in your own way’ or ‘make change in ways that are most appropriate for you’.  I’ve always found this an interesting way of formulating suggestions so as to fit themselves to the person right in front of you.  Erickson one wrote a paper where he talked about a young man that was recently married that came into him because he needed help to correct his driving.

The man told Erickson that he didn’t think he could be hypnotized but that he still wanted Erickson to give it a shot anyways.  Erickson said in the paper that he was able to induce a fairly deep trance during which time he spoke to the man questioning as to what he should do to help him correct his driving.  The man told Erickson that there was nothing that Erickson could do and that it would be pointless for him to make suggestions because they man would have to do it in his own way.  Erickson continued to question the man as to when he would correct his own driving and the guy said essentially in about a month’s time and then re-iterated to Erickson that there was no point in him suggesting anything to him because he would have to do it in his own way.

Taking a hold of that Erickson began to making several repetitious suggestions to the client slightly different in how they were said but all with pretty much the same mean about how he was going to correct his driving in his own way.  The essay goes on to say that the man was one day came in a couple weeks later to tell Erickson that he was still driving like a mad man and that he didn’t know what to do.  The man then left disappointedly. 

A couple weeks later about the time when the man said he would correct his driving in his own way the man came in telling Erickson that he was working on his car with a friend.  The got the car all supped up.  And then without taking his friend or his wife with him when out driving like a wild man in the mountains as he normally did.  He stated that he was enjoying seeing how fast he could go until he realized he was coming to a turn in the road and that he was losing control of the vehicle.  He man before it was too late jumped out of the vehicle to safety the vehicle went off the road.

The man spent the rest of the day walking back home thinking to himself how he was going to have to correct his driving in his own way.  Later on the man made it back home explained what happened to his wife and then on purchased a new vehicle.  A while later he dropped into see Erickson to say that he was no driving correctly and within legal limits and said that he really learned this lesson the hard and expensive way.  He didn’t give much credit to Erickson for what had happened in making his change other than to say that he gave him the little extra push that he needed.

I like this story because it reminds me that sometimes when you work with clients you are going to have some clients that it’s more useful for them to discover for themselves the resources they need in their own way.  I would suggest that anyone reading this and that work in Hypnosis share with their clients that they really ought to make the changes that are most appropriate for them in reaching their desired outcomes.


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