“Trance”: Hypnosis in the Movies Is Not Like the Real Thing

The new movie “Trance” is an entertaining story about an art thief with amnesia. Unfortunately, the movie perpetuates some common myths about hypnosis. Hollywood has been spreading these myths since at least as far back as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” in which Ingrid Bergman helps Gregory Peck recover repressed traumatic memories.  

First and foremost, hypnosis is NOT a tool for retrieving lost memories – period. “Memories” that surface during hypnosis are notoriously unreliable. A vast body of research shows that, with a little influence from the hypnotist, the subject may “remember” things that never happened – from past lives to abductions by space aliens.  

Widespread misuse of hypnosis to recover repressed memories led to a slew of cases in the 1980s and 1990s of people “remembering” childhood abuse incidents that may or may not have actually happened. To be sure, childhood abuse does occur, at a horrifically high rate, and its effects can be devastating. It is also true that we do not fully understand the ways that the brain creates, stores, and retrieves memories, and that people do in fact suddenly remember significant past events that had previously not been available to the conscious mind. 

But any memory suddenly recovered in hypnosis — or without hypnosis – cannot automatically be presumed to be valid. Instead, the memory must be corroborated independently in order to be confirmed.  

I have known people, both clients and friends, who have had previously-repressed disturbing memories come suddenly to the surface. They were not trying to recover repressed memories – it just happened. These people were able to get family members to corroborate for them that yes, these incidents did in fact happen.

 Hypnosis is not a tool to retrieve those memories. In reality, clinical hypnosis is a powerful and effective treatment that can greatly assist with a wide variety of emotional, cognitive, and even physical issues. It is a safe and very extensively-researched clinical method that has helped innumerable people worldwide for many decades.   

It is absolutely essential that the person doing the hypnosis be a professional clinician who has lots of experience and solid credentials, such as membership in one of the major clinical hypnosis associations. Anyone promising miracle cures should be avoided at all costs. Your physician or clergy person would be a good source of referrals to therapists with great track records.  

Repressed memories are real. It is our natural tendency to want to find a fix or a cure for all the painful aspects of life. But for now, repressed memories remain one of the many unsolved mysteries of the mind.