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Can Hypnotherapy Really Help You to Forget Unwanted Memories?

09/12/2015 10:43 GMT | Updated 08/12/2016 10:12 GMT

If you have seen the film The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind then you will understand the request that some clients make to hypnotherapists.

In the film an unhappy couple seek the services of a brain altering specialist in the hope that their unhappy memories will be erased. It is a great film and although being in essence science fiction raises interesting ideas about the desire to be brain-washed.

Hypnosis is often seen as a tool for 'accessing the unconscious' and so it understandable that a person might expect a hypnotherapist to be able to wipe away a memory that is hurtful in a similar way to The Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. A kind of benign brainwashing. The brain doctor helping to take away the pain of memory and experience. It is doubtlful that hypnosis has that effect- but read on.

In the field of psychology, memory has been widely investigated. There is little evidence of brain washing in real life unless you consider Hollywood to be real life. However, the changeable nature of memory is something that is real, if not the absolute wiping that is required for brain washing. It is this flexibility that is of use to the person who seeks to forget.

A wise hypnotherapist and enquiring patient would do well to take their lead from the conclusion of these psychological studies.

Memories are not fixed, we play with them each time they are recalled. We create a story about the memories adding any number of meanings, details and belief as we go. Memories are suggestible, flexible and sometimes downright fiction. It appears that details can be added and lost by accident or design. If this is the case then maybe 'altering' memories is what happens naturally and the hypnotherapist is entitled, at the client's request, to give things a nudge. After all, Hypnotherapy can only enhance natural processes.

The stories we tell ourselves about our past are all in the telling. Each time we remember we are adding to that memory even though it may seem we are simply recalling. And it is in the style of recall that hypnotherapy can help us to 'forget'. Because what we want to forget is not the fact that it happened but the way we feel about that memory, the way the emotions and the body responds on recall.

So my first answer to the request "Can you make me forget" is "I can help you change the way you feel about a memory".

A decent hypnotherapist will help you to feel comfortable. You can call it hypnosis or relaxation or trance but basically you are encouraged to get comfortable. If you feel comfortable when recalling things that usually make you feel uncomfortable or unhappy then you are making progress. You are adding the experience of being in the hypnotherapy chair,( hopefully carefree and relaxed) to a memory that is usually associated with discomfort. The positive experience of recall is new to the client, they may have spent years retelling the story with all its negative connotations. The repetition of this positive experience will not create a completely new memory or totally erase the old one but will very likely create new associations that are instrumental in putting the memory behind them. An old memory with a new feeling.

It is all about the new associations you make while sitting in the therapy chair. Make new associations with some old memories and you start to 'move on'.

But is it ethical to help someone change the way they feel about a memory?

You could argue that some memories should remain painful, to keep us morally upright, that the pain of experience serves a purpose to remind us of our humanity. This is an important consideration.

However every therapist of whatever psychological persuasion has to make some kind of decision about the creation of new feelings when treating a patient. The patient is seeking some resolution of their problem which by definition requires at least a re-evaluation of the past. This re-evaluation is to some degree a kind of 'forgetting'. The patient finds a new perspective on themselves or the world or their past which requires a changed mindset.

And are we not always re-evaluating the past?