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Can our memories ever lie?

Hypnotherapists sometimes get asked to help people remember things that happened in the past. Or to put it a bit more precisely, to go back to see if something definitely happened or not. “I need to know the truth”.

This is rarely a good idea.

Some key questions to ask yourself if you are wanting to know if something did or didn’t happen are.

What are you going to do with the answer? How is it going to help you? What if it’s not the answer you suspect? What are the consequences of having this new “knowledge”?

And something else that’s also important to consider is, what you remember may not be accurate. Our memories aren’t fallible, memory isn’t like a video recording of our lives that runs and runs without the tape ever becoming creased or running out.

We can recall things that never happened

It’s perfectly possible for people to remember things they have been told they’ve done, when they haven’t done them at all. False memories can be created. Most times this is harmless.

If our Mum tells us often that when we were 3 we had a favourite teddy bear which we carried round with us on our tricycle, then we can create memories of doing just that. Even if in fact Mum has mis-remembered and the teddy was our sister’s instead and we had a scooter not a tricycle.

It’s important to remember our memories aren’t fallible, police officers know this.

Making things up

When interviewing a witness to a crime, if a police officer asks the person “How tall was the suspect?” they are likely to get a different answer than if they ask “What was their height?”. Exchanging the word “tall” for “height” in the question can see a reduction in the answer, but the person the witness is thinking of hasn’t shrunk. Unintended contamination of memories is easily done.

Under pressure we can confabulate, make things up to fill the gaps. If that same police officer presses and presses the witness for more and more details about what the suspect looked like, the witness can end up subconsciously making up more and more detail, just to try to be helpful. It’s why police officers are trained to ask questions in a certain way.

Leading questions are a no no  “Which man held the knife?” implies there was a knife. What if the witness didn’t see a knife? Clean, nice open questions are essential. “Tell me what happened” is a good place to start.

Before we leave the world of crime and policing, now consider this – would you ever lie to the police?

Telling the Truth

Let’s say we’re trying to help the police solve a crime. They want to know about the route we took to work on a particular day. We may be adamant we walked along a certain street,  but the CCTV tells the police otherwise. Have we lied? No! We’ve told the truth as we recalled it.

So, what’s happened? We are confusing the route we generally take each day to work with the route we actually took that day.

On this particular day we took a detour because we had to post a letter on the way. The posting of the letter was an unremarkable event and so the exception isn’t a strong memory and we’ve ended up recalling details of our typical journey from work. We’ve pulled the general event details from what’s called our semantic memory, rather than the details of a specific occurrence of that event from what’s called our episodic memory. That day’s journey to work was unremarkable enough not warrant an easily recalled episodic memory.

Despite all this it can be helpful to go back to some memories

Having said all this, Hypnotherapists do assist clients in recalling old memories sometimes. So, given what’s been said above – why would we do this.

The answer is, when there’s a good therapeutic reason in doing so.

Positive times

The first reason we might re-visit memories is for recall of times when someone has been in a positive, resourceful state of mind. So, a  sportsperson might be assisted to revisit a time when they were performing well, to re-connect them to those feelings which for whatever reason they have become di-connected from.

If someone is lacking in confidence now but had some in the past, re-visiting times when they have been confidence can be helpful.

You get the idea.

Troubling Times

In hypotherapy we can also go back and revisit events in our mind that are troubling us. We can change the way we feel about those events. We can prevent those memories that belong in the past from intruding our here and now.

One thing we can’t guarantee is that the memories we work with are accurate. What we go back to make be a real event, it may be a combination of events, it may be a mixture of real things, childhood dreamings, what we’ve seen on TV or what we’ve been told about by other people.

And do you know it doesn’t matter. Because our purpose of revisiting them in the first place is not to prove anything, not to show who’s right, who’s wrong – it’s merely to make us feel better. A means to an end.

So, recalling memories is part of what hypnotherapist do, but it has to be done in the right way.