Home > Memory > False memories and hypnosis: What is to blame for distortion in memory?

False memories and hypnosis: What is to blame for distortion in memory?

Hypnosis is commonly depicted as a way for people to get what they want. (https://www.kapwing.com/explore/you-want-to-hypnotist-swirl-meme-template )
( hypnotist-swirl-meme-template)

Star Wars displaying hypnosis as a “Jedi mind trick” is one of the ways the media has depicted hypnosis as a tactic for compliance and getting people to do what you want. Hypnosis gets a pretty bad and equally entertaining reputation because of these depictions. It is somewhat fantastical to imagine magical mind control and it draws viewers in. Most people’s hypnotism concept and its representation in media are likely based off of hypnosis’ dark side or proposing the ability to take advantage of someone’s liability within their mind.

In reality, hypnosis is a state in which one is awake and conscious but their attention is attached and focused on something or on inner experiences such as imagery and feelings that limit their attachment to their immediate environment and allow external input to guide their thoughts. One comes to a state of hypnosis through hypnotic induction which is focusing through imagination and attention. Focus could be on something visual like a candle flame, a ball, or an image as well as revivification of an occurrence like daydreaming. So why did we distort hypnosis and place it in the magic realm? The intriguing nature of false memories and suggestions had something to do with it. 

Implanting false memories

Memory is not just storage. It is malleable and when it is retrieved, it can be different from how it was encoded or processed into our brains. This difference can be a result of many things as outlined by Daniel Schacter as the “Seven Sins of Memory”. In many instances, outside sources can influence how we remember things, also known as suggestibility, which is one of the sins. You might not remember what you did for your fifth birthday, but if you were shown pictures or your mom told you an anecdote, you could piece together a confident episodic memory that may be completely false. Episodic memories are events stored in the large capacity of long-term memory. So if memories can be so easily distorted, then is it possible to plant false memories in our minds? 

Psychologist Elizabeth L Loftus sought to answer this question. By using the specific childhood memory of once being lost in a shopping mall, the goal was to plant this false memory into adult participants. They were told that their parents had given researchers some memories of them when they were about five or six, then they read memories about them in which one was secretly false. Their parents confirmed that they had not been lost in a shopping mall at the age of five or six. 25 % of participants had this false memory planted after they were asked to write about it and they even gave additional details about the person who found them and their surroundings. This successful planting of false memories also supports the notion that imagining a childhood event increases the confidence of that event occurring, otherwise known as imagination inflation. This false memory was created when there was a combination of real memories and suggestions from other people. This causes participants to forget the source of the information, which is another sin of memory, and to believe the suggestions given to them. 


Someone’s potential to be hypnotized, or their hypnotizability, is based on this influence of suggestions. The suggestibility of someone is increased while in hypnosis and is why people have blurred the lines between the possibilities of hypnosis and planting false memories. If the goal of a hypnosis session is to retrieve a memory, hypnosis is found to be an unreliable way to recover memories. This is especially true in legal witness recollection settings, because it causes increased confidence in memories that may not be entirely true and is more effective in addressing the emotion-related elements of memories in therapeutic settings. It is true that suggestions can cause false memories, but this is not only the case with hypnosis. An example is leading questions of the interrogator of a witness. Different phrasing in questions can lead to people recalling different episodic memories and further expresses the power of suggestion, not just within hypnosis. 

Even if you are confident in your recollection of memories, you could still be completely false and unaware of multiple factors, one of which being suggestion.


A hypnosis session has an objective and requires the acceptance of the individual. So if you are being hypnotized to recall a memory, there is a likelihood that suggestions, such as the words the hypnotherapist says, will influence what you remember, similarly to an experience outside of hypnosis. Additionally, it was found that having a positive and accepting attitude while being hypnotized leads people to create more false memories on a word recognition task than those with negative attitudes. This proposes that our beliefs and willingness about hypnosis can increase our suggestibility. Without this element of acceptance and attention to the process, hypnosis would not be possible. This debunks the misconception that hypnosis can be induced onto anyone as if it is magic. While under hypnosis, suggestibility is increased because of the acceptance of the individual. With suggestions involved in any human situation, our memories have the potential to be affected, distorted, or false. 

Hypnosis as treatment

In the cognitive field, hypnosis has this misconstrued reputation because of its power to create false memories. But it is possible to create false memories from other suggestions besides solely hypnotic suggestions, and hypnosis has many other features that benefit humans. Because it is a goal-oriented process, it has been used to reduce anxiety and pain since the beginning of humankind. It can guide human cognition to help reduce side effects of medications and other symptoms. There is even such a thing as hypnobirth in which the mother, while in labor, will focus on an image, for example, and follow steps to self-hypnotize and relieve focus off the immediate situation and pain attached to it. PTSD hypnosis therapy can also be effective in leading an individual through emotionally charged memories such as abuse in order to identify triggers and change reactions. Hypnosis is used alongside methods like cognitive behavioral therapy and psychodynamic psychotherapy as all very effective ways to treat PTSD.

Cigarette smokers have used hypnosis to limit the desire and craving for nicotine as well. With varied effects based on hypnotizability, there have been many success stories and the American Cancer Society recommends this method. After the session, hypnosis reflects not being able to retrieve information in memory that is safely stored, also known as posthypnotic amnesia, so this forgotten information can still influence behavior, actions, and thoughts and is why highly hypnotizable people will see success with such therapy. 

It comes down to suggestibility

Hypnosis is a process in which higher level thought is not engaged. This was found when comparing hypnosis to Tibethan Buddhist meditation. Although they are similar in their need for focus, these modified states of consciousness do differ because meditation is based on mindfulness and self-monitoring while hypnosis is based on the suggestibility of someone, as well as their attention to the sensory details they are brought to imagine or look at.

Although perceived by many as a weak state in human consciousness, the vulnerability to have suggestions influence our memory is present in our everyday lives. The things that people tell us about our memories have an effect on our confidence in remembering the memory and it is possible to plant as well as recall false memories using suggestion both with hypnosis, as well as without hypnosis. For example, flashbulb memories, or memories for emotionally arousing events, become less reliable as time goes by, even when confidence for the memory remains and false details of the memory are recalled. The suggestions from people around you recalling the event, information from media, and time result in this distortion. This can be seen in studies from traumatic events such as 9/11 and the Challenger explosion. Therefore, the unreliable nature of memory is not only present under hypnosis and there is no need to fear that a hypnotist will spontaneously cast a spell on you, planting a false memory.

Hypnosis is depicted as ambiguous coercion and mind control in pop culture, and as always, humans do love to know the dark side of things. Mass media favors the image of hypnosis as psychological manipulation when in reality, you may find yourself using its attentional properties when you are lost in a good book or staring at something for too long. If the goal of a hypnosis session is to retrieve a memory, it is likely that there will be errors because hypnosis is only possible through suggestions. The power to come in and out of hypnosis lies within each person’s mind and hypnosis’ therapeutic purposes can aid in alleviating pain and anxiety. Instead of deception and coercion, hypnosis is a powerful way to understand your own cognition.


Daniel L. Schacter, Joan Y. Chiao, and Jason P. Mitchell (2003) The Seven Sins of Memory, Implications for Self Department of Psychology, Harvard University. http://jasonmitchell.fas.harvard.edu/Papers/2003_Schacter_SevenSinsSelf.pdf

Kihlstrtom, John F. (2014) Hypnosis and Cognition Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice 2014, Vol. 1, No. 2, 139-152 Unversity of California, Berkeley. https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~jfkihlstrom/PDFs/2010s/2014/Kihlstrom_HypConsciousness_2014.pdf

Frederique, Robin, (May 2018) Hypnosis and False Memories. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/324928484_Hypnosis_and_False_Memories

Williamson A. What is hypnosis and how might it work? Palliat Care 2019; 12: 1–4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6357291/

University of Turku. (2021, March 26). Hypnosis changes the way our brain processes information. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 24, 2022 from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/03/210326122743.htm

Aguado, Jose Fernández, Pehuén Institute of Psychology, Barcelona, Spain. Psychological Manipulation, Hypnosis, and Suggestion International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 6, 2015, 48-59. https://www.icsahome.com/articles/psychological-manipulation

Lynn, Steven Jay, Kirsch, Irving, Terhune, Devin B., Green, Joseph P (August 11, 2020) Myths and misconceptions about hypnosis and suggestion: Separating fact and fiction Applied Cognitive Psychology / Volume 34, Issue 6 / p. 1253-1264. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/acp.3730

Tull, Matthew, PhD (June 25, 2020) Hypnotherapy for PTSD Verywellmind: PTSD: treatment. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-effective-is-hypnosis-in-treating-ptsd-2797256

Related posts:

Categories: Memory Tags:
  1. No comments yet.
You must be logged in to post a comment.