A Primer on Hypnosis

Kathleen Marden

 The use of hypnosis to recover lost memories of “missing time” during a purported UFO abduction has engendered more controversy than nearly any other debate among UFO researchers. Skeptics point out that although hypnosis facilitates the recall of accurate information, we may unwittingly manufacture details that were not previously present, particularly when the hypnotist specializes presses the client for detailed information that is not part of their conscious memories. Others claim that the entire abduction sequence can be manufactured by fantasy prone individuals who are convinced they were abducted by non-human entities. The proponents of hypnotic regression counter the skeptic’s arguments with claims that their clients had conscious memories of the event, correlating data, and material evidence. They argue that “real” abductees describe detailed information about their experiences not found in literature or visual media. In this paper, we will explore the multifaceted controversy pertaining to hypnosis. But first, we’ll explore hypnosis in general.  

What is Hypnosis?

Today some researchers claim that no one knows what hypnosis is. But in 1988, an article in Science News stated that hypnosis involves dissociation in a structured setting, whereby one idea is brought into focus while the field of vision is narrowed. All other competing thoughts are omitted and one’s attention is concentrated in a hyper-memory. In other words, we enter into a state of intense concentration that permits us to filter out distractions and to focus our attention upon a certain past event.

Hypnotic suggestibility scales were devised to determine the extent to which a subject responds to hypnosis. Although they consist of various measures for each stage of induction, the first stage is usually determined by the subject’s compliance with a simple task, such as imagining the force of a heavy weight held in one’s hand. If the subject’s arm sags he or she has reached level one. The suggestion that a subject will not experience pain when needle inserted into his or her arm signifies the attainment of a deep trance level. In earlier times, hypnotic suggestibility was thought to be an indication of a subject’s willingness to comply with a hypnotist’s directives. More recently, new studies have refuted earlier beliefs.

A 2005 article by Michael R. Nash and Grant Bentham in Scientific American Mind, discussed the “The Truth and Hype of Hypnosis.” They explained that new hypnosis studies have shown not everyone is susceptible to hypnotic suggestion and motivation does not necessarily play a role in the success of induction. It seems to relate more to an individual's ability to concentrate and to become absorbed in activities, such as reading or listening to music. It is unrelated to gullibility, hysteria, psychopathology, submissiveness or imagination. Nash and Bentham discussed a 2004 study by James E. Horton of the University of Virginia's College at Wise and Helen J. Crawford of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Using magnetic resonance imaging they attempted to determine whether or not brain structures play a part in an individual's responsiveness to hypnosis. They observed that the anterior part of the corpus callosum, the large white matter structure that connects the left and right brain, was thirty-two percent larger in highly hypnotizable subjects. This part of the brain inhibits unwanted stimuli and plays an important role in focusing attention. It would be interesting to image the corpus callosum of patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to test this finding. If this group is more suggestible, it would seem to follow that this area of their brain is more highly developed.

Even today, rigid skeptics cite experimental psychologist/parapsychologist Theodore Barber’s (1927-2005) early hypothesis that hypnosis was nothing more than heightened suggestibility, not an altered state of consciousness. They argue that it is simply a matter of having an especially vivid imagination and that all UFO abductees are imaginative, fantasy prone individuals. However, empirical studies have shown that many imaginative subjects are poor candidates for hypnosis. Therefore, when we learn that a hypnotic subject is highly suggestible, it does not indicate that he is malleable or compliant. It means only that he is more hypnotizable. In a rejection of his earlier views as conditioned and naive, late in life Barber wrote, “When I trained as a psychologist more than 40 years ago, I learned that these and related precepts were useful in understanding behavior. During the past four decades, however, while continuously conducting intensive research in human psychology…and, more recently, in comparative psychology… I gradually realized, with increasing certainly, that [these] precepts are misguided and hinder the progress of more than one area of psychology.”[i] His perceptual, not indoctrinated, view of psychological constructs changed radically as he moved toward scientific objectivity and acquired unbiased, experimental information about cognitive psychology.

The History of Modern Hypnosis

Franz A. Mesmer (1734-1815), the father of modern hypnosis was the first to devise a method to treat patients by stroking them with magnets. He believed that invisible fluid in the body acted according to the laws of magnetism. Any disruption of the proper balance of this fluid could cause disease. His “animal magnetism” was so successful in alleviating psychologically induced physical symptoms that he was elected to Bavaria’s Academy of Sciences. He realized his initial premise was incorrect when a rival practitioner gained curative success through manipulation without the use of magnets. Thereafter, he used touch, suggestion and soft music to induce hypnotic trance.

Dr. James Braid (1795-1869), a skeptic who initially set out to expose “animal magnetism” as a fraudulent practice, was astonished to learn that trance states were real. He speculated that patients entered into a sleep state due to eye fatigue and coined the “hypnotism” after the Greek god of sleep, Hypnos. Later, when he realized that his initial assumption was incorrect, he made a futile attempt to change the terminology.

The Psychology of Suggestion, published in 1903, offered a clear definition of nine levels of hypnotic suggestibility as observed by neurologist Dr. Hippolyte Bernheim (1837-1919), a renowned professor at the medical school in Nancy, France, ranging from drowsiness in level 1 to loss of memory with hypnotic and post hypnotic hallucinations in level 9. The first to regard hypnosis as a natural phenomenon, he believed that it was a special form of sleep where the subject’s attention was hyper focused upon the hypnotist’s suggestions. He said the first stage can easily be induced in all but five percent of the population. Extremely psychotic individuals and those of low intelligence are the two groups who, probably due to their inability to focus and attend, are resistant to hypnotic suggestion. Conscious willingness and unconscious resistance also influence individual levels of suggestibility.

Milton Erickson (1902-1980), an American psychiatrist, hypnotist and family therapist is considered the father of modern hypnotherapy. He developed patient specific induction techniques that proved very effective in inducing trance states through indirect suggestion. He often spoke to his patients about specific details related to their personal interests, while he suggested relaxation of muscle groups and eye closure. Instead of giving specific directions to his patients to recall everything and tell him everything about their lives, he asked them to discuss only what they felt comfortable with, not personal secrets. Gradually, through conversation he would suggest to his patients that their revelations were not a problem and encouraged them to talk about everything. This indirect and metaphorical methodology decreased conscious resistance and a great deal of therapy was accomplished.

Throughout its modern history hypnosis has come under fire by skeptics who, through ignorance or misunderstanding, have incorrectly characterized its practitioners as charlatans. Likewise, professional skeptics and some false memory researchers have cited the findings of some cognitive research experiments that misrepresent the characteristics of hypnotic recall in trauma victims. As we explore the multifaceted shades of gray, we will find that clinical hypnosis cannot be written off, primarily because its efficacy differs from that of experimental research findings. To draw a correlation between the two is like comparing apples to oranges.

Levels of Trance and Suggestibility

Light trance is characterized by steady, even respiration, fixed attention and muscle relaxation. It is ideal for meditation, relaxation and visualization and much can be accomplished at this trance level. It is ideal for working with problems such as smoking cessation, weight loss, pain management, phobias, self-confidence, anxiety reduction, anger management and grief.

Deep trance hypnosis, the level of somnambulism, is characterized by highly focused and selectively attentive response. University studies have demonstrated that mental functioning in this deep trance stage is different than the characteristics of light stage hypnosis. There is an alteration of language processing in deep trance that we do not see in light trance. Words are interpreted much more literally and communication focuses on words themselves rather than ideas. There is also a decrease in critical judgment and an increase in incongruity. Deep trance hypnosis can be employed by a clinical hypnotherapist to reduce the anxiety associated with the period of amnesia and to guide the patient through the painful experience or conflict. The clinical hypnotist must use extreme caution to prevent the creation of false memories through suggestion or to stimulate extreme anxiety that could lead to an increased level of trauma. Recent research has suggested that although the content of the recovered memories may or may not be entirely accurate, it most frequently is.

What do the Cognitive Research Studies Say?

Empirical studies have demonstrated that while test subjects recalled accurate information in deep trance, they may have unwittingly manufactured details that were not part of their biographical memory. However, this is characteristic of recall in general, especially over time. We remember those events that are most significant to us and forget those we identify as trivial. However, if an event is so disturbing that it leads to trauma, our mind undergoes the adaptive process of repression or distortion. Simply stated, conscious recall and hypnotic regression both display similar characteristics. They are more of an adaptive process than a videotaped recording. "Each act of recall is a fresh creative process and not a memory retrieval of some fixed item from storage."[i] When extraordinary memories seem to defy what is commonly accepted as plausible, the individuals and the trained psychiatrist must rely upon their own experience to determine the reality of the recall. They cannot simply be discarded as highly improbable. They must be viewed within the biographical context in which they occurred. Further evidence to substantiate the claim must be examined. We can confirm that a retrieved memory supports the veracity of real event when physical evidence, circumstantial evidence, or confirmatory testimony from an independent witness substantiates it.

There has been abundant skepticism over the ability of trance subjects to differentiate between real and imagined information recovered through hypnosis. These charges stem from the fact that good hypnotic subjects can experience trance generated visual and auditory hallucinations. Empirical studies have revealed that hypnotic suggestion is capable of tricking the brain into registering a hallucinated sequence as real. The part of the brain that is responsible for reasoning and memory was equally active during a hallucinated auditory sequence and the real audio taped event. However, when test subjects were instructed to imagine the audio taped sequence, the brain did not register it as real. One important point is worth mentioning: the majority of individuals who have experienced trance generated hallucinations do not register them as real events after the hypnosis session has been terminated.

Skeptics often cite “false memory syndrome” as the primary cause of abduction claims, but an empirical study of 236 adults with recovered memories at University College, London, revealed that many recovered memories are true. Dr. Bernice Andrews, the research scientist who conducted the study stated, “There is increasing evidence that many recovered memories cannot be explained by so-called False Memory Syndrome. A substantial portion of these memories have been corroborated.”[ii] The key to the accurate recovery of repressed traumatic memories seems to lie in methodology. When the hypnotized person is reliving the event in the present, without suggestive techniques, accurate recall is at its highest level.

Experimental psychologists have determined that good hypnotic subjects can experience enhanced recall of memories, perceptual distortions and hallucinations under hypnosis. Characteristic of memory in general, some of the detailed information in recovered traumatic memories may have shape shifted over time, approximating the real experience but differing somewhat from it. The hypnotist must use extreme caution to prevent the creation of false memories through suggestion or to stimulate extreme anxiety that could lead to an increased level of trauma.

The enhanced recall of repressed memories related to trauma can be effective in alleviating physical ailments of psychogenic origin. In cases of post-traumatic stress disorder due to combat experiences, criminal victimization, natural disasters and UFO abductions, the posthypnotic suggestion for amnesia is often employed to protect the patient from additional trauma until they can be worked out in therapy. Although amnesia sometimes occurs spontaneously, it can also be initiated as a direct or indirect hypnotic suggestion. The amnesia effect can last for several months, or even years, depending upon the significance of the amnesia, the content of the repressed material, and the subjects’ motivation to recall the events.

Dr. Benjamin Simon’s Methodology in the Hill Abduction Case

Neuro-Psychiatrist Dr. Benjamin Simon is most celebrated for his work during World War II, as the Chief of Psychiatry at the Mason General Hospital on Long Island, New York. It was the Army’s chief psychiatric center for soldiers who had been disabled by the horror of war. At its peak, the hospital was a three thousand bed psychiatric facility. Dr. Simon brought hypnosis to the forefront in the treatment of battle related amnesia, combat neurosis and conversion hysteria. Through the expert use of deep trance hypnosis, he treated soldiers who exhibited symptoms of what we now refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was skilled in the use of deep trance hypnosis, sometimes as an adjunct to narocsynthesis, to resolve psychogenically induced issues related to traumatic amnesia. He attained a high rate of success in the treatment of his patients, even when former therapists had failed to bring about an amelioration of psychiatric symptoms. It was through the use of his “authoritative personality,” he said, that he was able to penetrate traumatic pseudo memories and less critical memories that precipitated amnesia or psychologically generated physical symptoms. By probing deeply to identify the various traumatic causes of the condition, Simon was able to relieve his patients’ symptoms.

Dr. Simon was not a believer in UFOs. In fact, he knew practically nothing about UFOs when he hypnotized Betty and Barney Hill, separately, over a period of several weeks during the winter and spring of 1964. According to their investigator, Walter Webb, he didn’t bother to familiarize himself with the Hill’s perplexing encounter with a silent, hovering craft, only 100 feet overhead, and the figures dressed in black shiny uniforms that had caused Barney’s traumatic reaction. But he was an expert in ferreting out the cause of Barney’s physiological symptoms, as they related to his conscious recall and a 2-hour period of lost time. The physical evidence and memories of contact with this strange craft and its occupants that were initially overlooked by the highly skeptical psychiatrist. But, as the couple’s memories emerged, Dr. Simon realized that they should be temporarily forgotten. He employed posthypnotic amnesia for two reasons: 1. To protect his patients from the full impact of their terrifying memories of alien abduction. 2. To prevent the cross-contamination of information from one patient to the other.

Dr. Simon skillfully used a hypnoanalysis technique with Barney, instructing him to remember everything that occurred on the night of September 19, 1961, and to compare his traumatic memories to similar events in his past. For example, when Barney spoke of standing in a field looking up at the non-human entities aboard a UFO that were looking back at him, he became terrified. This had been part of his conscious, continuous recall and was a large part of what led to his ongoing anxiety about the event. He described what he saw and also added that the leader looked like a Nazi. Of course, the leader wasn't a Nazi. Barney had conscious recall of observing non-humans dressed in black, shiny uniforms, not Nazis. Never again would he mention Nazis when Dr. Simon instructed him to return to this frightening scenario. But under extreme duress, as he underwent a powerful release of pent up emotion, Barney recalled his time in the Army during WW II. He'd been wounded in an explosion. He felt the same level of terror in the field that he felt during this life-threatening event.

Betty did not have hypnoanalysis. Dr. Simon used a different type of hypnotherapy with her because she did not present in his office as an individual in need of hypnoanalysis. He did not ask her to compare her memories to those in her past. Her hypnosis was more a straightforward account of her observations and emotions on September 19, 1961. However, he challenged her memories in an attempt to convince her that they couldn't be real. There had to be a more conventional explanation.

When a consistent account of UFO abduction by non-human entities emerged in the both Betty and Barney’s independent hypnotic testimony, Dr. Simon attempted to puncture their perceived pseudo memories of abduction by aliens. He hypothesized that information contained within a series of five dreams experienced by Betty ten days after the UFO incident on September 19, 1961, contributed to Barney’s abduction fantasy. Betty’s dreams seemed more like memories, and occurred in the morning immediately before she awakened. However, Dr. Simon speculated that Betty’s hypnotic recall of abduction by extraterrestrials matched her dreams. Although Dr. Simon was an expert at penetrating pseudo-memories, he could not convince the Hills that their memories were false. They were troubled by their conscious memories and the circumstantial and physical evidence related to their UFO event. Also, both Betty and Barney independently recalled a significant amount of detailed information that was not present in Betty’s dreams, which Dr. Simon seems to have overlooked.

My detailed comparative analysis of the Hills’ statements which appears in my book Captured! The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience, coauthored with nuclear physicist/scientific ufologist Stanton T. Friedman, proves that there is substantial evidence that Hills were abducted by non-human entities. In a substantial way, Betty’s and Barney’s testimony did not correlate with the details in Betty’s dream material. Yet each independently contributed correlating descriptive details of their captor’s physical appearance, the interior of the craft, and the number of entities involved in sequential events that were not in Betty’s dreams.

Additionally, physical evidence that an anomalous event occurred was available for laboratory analysis. The first analysis of Betty’s dress was done by the Chemistry Department at the University of Cincinnati in 1972. It returned anomalous results. Later, Research Scientist Phyllis Budinger, a world class analytical chemist, spent twenty-three months (11/2002-10/2004), on the chemical analysis of the dress Betty wore on the night of her UFO encounter. In the end, she made the following statement, “I am convinced that the event did happen as determined by the chemical analysis I did on Betty Hill’s dress.” The scientific analysis of Betty’s dress, in different laboratories, has returned similar results.

Dr. Simon was primarily concerned with the amelioration of the Hills’ anxiety following a close encounter with a UFO, not in the physical evidence. Despite the abundance of evidence that the Hills had been abducted, he chose to concede only that their experience could be neither proved nor disproved. In later years, under pressure from disinformant Philip Klass, he advocated the dream generated fantasy hypothesis. Although the evidence unequivocally demonstrates that this hypothesis cannot be supported by the evidence, it continues to be touted by some poorly informed skeptics.

Early Hypnosis Efforts by Some UFO Investigators

The use of hypnosis by Dr. Simon generated interest among early UFO investigators who used it to open up amnesia in suspected UFO abduction cases. However, Dr. Simon’s methodology was more often the exception than the rule. This was probably due to the wide degree of variation among the training and skill levels of the hypnotists, the objectivity and ignorance of subject information, and the trance levels induced in the suspected abductees. UFO literature frequently reported short term hypnotic regression (1-3 sessions), where specific questions were employed to gain information that was interesting to the UFO investigator. Frequently, a technique whereby the suspected abductee was removed from the experiential recall (and emotional abreaction), was employed to hasten the hypnotist’s investigation around specific recall. The hypnotized subjects were given the suggestion to picture themselves as viewers of a movie to protect them from the trauma of their recovered memories. Sometimes, unskilled hypnotists ended the session during an a particularly frightening event, such as when the abductee was undergoing a painful procedure. The abductee was left with the traumatic memory and the emotional impact of their perceived memories.

Some early abductees were not given the opportunity to resolve the trauma they experienced at the hands of extraterrestrial visitors. Additionally, when their information was presented to the public, many suffered from the negative media attention they received from mainstream scientists and professional skeptics. No amount of evidence mitigated the skeptical condemnation against alleged abductees and UFO abduction researchers. Photographs, lie detector tests, multiple witness testimony, physical trace evidence and character assessment did not deter their charges. Hypotheses offered by skeptics included psychiatric illness with delusions, fantasy prone personalities, hallucinations, sleep paralysis, and outright deception. Abduction researchers who employed hypnosis to puncture the wall of amnesia experienced during missing time episodes were accused of unethical conduct by facilitating the formation of false memories in their clients.

The questions pertaining to the reality of alien abduction generated interest in experimental psychology departments at some universities. They carried out responsible, controlled studies approved by ethics committees, but those studies could not approximate clinical hypnosis studies. To protect experimental subjects from the potentially disturbing effects of experimenter induced trauma, their experiments were always emotionally neutral and of short duration. Studies generally involved high suggestibility and low suggestibility subjects and a control group. Since these experiments did not involve pathological memory loss, hypnotic technique was altered to prevent the subject from expressing intense emotions that could raise therapeutic issues.

In some studies, the experimental subjects were encouraged to visualize the events as if viewing a television screen that could move forward or backward through time. The hypnotist suggested to the subjects that they view the screen event without experiencing pain or fear. The recall brought forth was fragmentary and based primarily upon the hypnotist’s suggestions rather than the reliving of a repressed event. Using this technique, experimenters were successful in inducing false memories of details around an event. For example, some of the experimental subjects who were regressed to a childhood event recalled specific events accurately, but added inaccurate details about the names and appearance of their playmates.

In a 1971-72 research project, Martin T. Orne (1927-2000) used time regression hypnosis to test the accuracy of recall among college students who were age regressed to the second grade. (Orne earned his medical degree at Tufts University in 1955 and his doctorate in psychology from Harvard in 1958. He was a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, for 32 years before his retirement in 1996.) They were asked to describe specific details about their classrooms, including seating arrangements and curriculum activities, and to identity their classmates and teachers by name. The historical accuracy of their recollections was independently verified through class pictures and school records. Highly suggestible subjects were able to accurately recall teacher’s names and curriculum activities, but when asked to identify their classmates, they frequently added friends from other grade levels. Orne concluded that “hypnotic suggestion to relive a past event, particularly when asked to recall certain details, pressures the subject to provide information for which there are few actual memories available. The subject will increase recall, but may also fill in details with memories from other times or fantasies.”[i]

In 1979 false memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus and experimental psychologist Ernest Hilgard (1904-2001), a pioneer in the scientific study of hypnosis, designed an experimental study to test the accuracy of recall using the screen viewing memory retrieval method mentioned above. (Hilgard is credited for helping to raise the Stanford Department of Psychology to national prominence.) The result yielded a negative correlation between verifiable fact and subjective recall. It vastly lowered the accuracy of material obtained and maximized the potential for confabulation. However, it did not and could not address the issues around repressed memory. Despite this fact, it sent up a warning signal in the UFO community who had formerly used the screen viewing method of memory retrieval to elicit factual details to provide data for comparative studies.

In another study, conducted by Nogrady, McConkey and Perry (1985), subjects viewed police films and were later hypnotically regressed. When asked to recall the events depicted in the films, highly suggestible subjects demonstrated significantly increased recall over less suggestible and control subjects. However, valid memory was accompanied by an increase in false recollection. This guess factor, which was confused with reality, was significantly increased when the hypnotist asked questions involving details in the police films or leading questions. Additional experimental studies supported the Nogrady, et al findings. However, none addressed issues around repressed memory.

Martin T. Orne stated that when previously amnesic memories enter into conscious awareness, the release of repressed memories occurs and intense emotions are released. It is the clinical hypnotherapist’s job to facilitate the patient in becoming aware of his feelings through the process of re-experiencing the traumatic event. Since repressed memories, according to Orne, suddenly flow into consciousness as an entire experience rather than as a string of details, specific questions must be postponed in order not to interfere with the psychological process. Orne stated, “While there is no certainty about the historical accuracy of these memories, when they emerge largely spontaneously and without undue pressure, they are more likely to contain important and accurate information.”[ii] Clinical and forensic studies in age regressed patients suggests that the reliving of an event as opposed to questioning by the hypnotist has a higher likelihood of producing uncontaminated memories. Orne advises that further details should be elicited during subsequent hypnosis sessions only after previously amnesic memories have flowed into consciousness as an entire experience. Although the retrieval of detailed memories also increases the risk of confabulation, it can provide important information for statistical analysis by scientific ufologists.

Experienced abduction researchers have collected convincing data that suggests UFO abductions are real. In order to prevent cross contamination, they have withheld key descriptive evidence, some of which is only now becoming available to researchers, and tested for suggestibility. Each researcher’s correlating data should statistically confirm that at least some of their hypnotic subjects derived identical, previously unpublished information about non-human entities and their craft.

The Ethical Use of Hypnosis

The use of hypnosis to treat amnesia to recover repressed information relating to UFO abduction raises complex ethical questions. UFO investigators and mental health professionals have worked to resolve the troubling issues that surfaced in early abduction investigations, especially those that employed hypnotic regression. Ethical issues and research findings were addressed in an effort to safeguard against the pitfalls of hypnotic regression.

Given our current knowledge about the characteristics of hypnotic trance and memory retrieval methodology, scientific ufologists who are hypnotherapists are in a better position than ever to employ the ethical use of hypnosis. We must be mindful that since hypnosis involves human subjects, by its very nature, it can never accede to absolute certainty. It can, however, be employed in a manner which will reduce the probability of confabulation and increase the chances for a true regression. It must be understood, though, that the use of hypnosis can profoundly affect the subject’s subsequent memory and emotional well-being. The emotional well-being of the individual experiencer must take precedence over the desire of the investigative hypnotist to extract data.


[i] www.parapsych.org/pa_abstracts_2006.html

[ii] "Bizarre Remembrances under Hypnosis." P. 14. Hypnosis.com/faq/faq2-3.html.

[iii] http://dailynews.yahoo.com/h/nm/20000313/sc/health_memory_2.html.

[iv] http://www.psych.upemm.edu/history/orne/orneojceh19794311341.html, 5/19/2008

[v] Ibid.


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