Hypnotism – When I snap my fingers, you will wake up and remember a bunch of shit that never happened.
Everyone has seen hypnotism in some god-awful daytime talk show. The subject goes to sleep, the hypnotist talks to them for a while, and then they “get fresh” with the subject to their right. The audience has a good laugh, you laugh, I laugh, and the subject is SO EMBARRASSED! I have seen many people hypnotized but have never been successfully hypnotized myself so this is one of the few areas where I won’t be able to speak from as much personal experience. Further, my personal biases against hypnotism as a “technique” are such I probably will be giving the entire field a massive short shrift.
Before I begin in earnest, let me tell you what this won’t be about. It won’t address the basic problems of eyewitness testimony, memory, or other issues that people have without any interference whatsoever. Rest assured, however, these topics will be discussed in full eventually. It won’t address the legitimate medical and psychological uses of hypnosis. Psychiatrists still use hypnosis under certain circumstances to help patients. Make no mistake, it is still a legitimate medical tool, and I have no issues with it when it is used as such. Instead, this post will be about the use of hypnosis in legal proceedings and (criminal) investigations – “refreshed memories.” Given what we know now about memory, hypnosis, and suggestibility it might be better termed “creative remembrances.”
Hypnosis – The Secrets!
First, there are many misunderstandings about what hypnosis is. Is it a heightened level of awareness? A heightened level of calm and suggestibility? “A heightened state of concentration with a diminished awareness of peripheral events[?]” “A special psychological state with certain physiological attributes, resembling sleep only superficially and marked by a functioning of the individual at a level of awareness other than the ordinary conscious state[?]” Who knows! No one knows what hypnosis really is. No one knows how hypnosis works. It’s just voodoo magic as far as what the fuck is actually going on in the old noggin or with your consciousness when hypnotized. There is no accepted definition; there is no scientific consensus.
What we do know is that subjects, when hypnotized, appear capable of remarkable feats of memory and concentration. However, they also appear capable of disturbing levels of suggestibility. These are actually the same things we’ve come to realize as many of the “amazing recollections” are just made up to please the hypnotist. Third, subjects are also largely incapable of distinguishing actual recalled events from fictitious events even after being awaked from their hypnotic state. Combined with this is the fact that once awakened, subjects are now extremely confident of their new hypnotically refreshed recollections whereas before they might have been quite unsure. Finally, a hypnotized person will realize the gaps in their memory and just fill in the missing details to create a neat and complete story.
Meta-analyses have shown that unhypnotized people remember more accurately and have fewer false positives but hypnotized people are far more confident in their answers. Further studies have shown that it is not only possible but simple to fake a hypnotic state and even experienced experts are unable to distinguish between a hypnotized and unhypnotized but faking subject.
There is something to be said about allowing a person to testify about criminal acts that happened to them while hypnotized but the subject area is limited. For example, therapists have hypnotized their patients then raped them and it has been argued their testimony should be excluded because hypnotized testimony is inherently unreliable. What chutzpah.
Note that I haven’t really discussed “repressed memories” or “dissociative states” because, despite the DSM-IV, there isn’t really any science to support that these things exist as they are used in the criminal system. They’ve been recognized by courts sometimes, and more oftentimes not.
Funny Stories Time – A continuing series
That’s about all there is to say about hypnosis and its flaws, as they are many and easily stated. Instead, I shall now outline a series of humorous cases and instances where hypnosis has been used.
There were a few studies run by Science in 1983 about hypnotism. The first one studied if hypnosis could actually improve recall. Well, hypnotically refreshed subjects remembered twice as many items as unhyponotized subjects. However, they also made three times as many errors. Yes, you read that right. The second study was looking to see whether you could just straight up forcibly implant a fake memory into a hypnotized subject. It turns out that 13 of 27 subjects retained the false memory and insisted upon its veracity even after being informed that it was implanted via hypnosis. Whoops!
In one Minnesota case, a victim recalled a wealth of information under hypnosis. He could remember eating pizza at the restaurant. Then he remembered the attacker had a tattoo. Finally, he could remember that he was stabbed with a knife or scissors. Three problems though – the restaurant never served pizza, the attacker had no tattoos and the victim wasn’t stabbed.
The most famous case for hypnosis is the Chowchilla case. Its facts read straight out of a Dirty Harry movie. A few guys took a bus full of kids and the driver hostage. They then took everyone to a rock quarry over 100 miles away and buried them in a van. I have no idea how, but 16 hours later, the kids and the driver escaped. No one could remember anything about the kidnappers! Investigators hypnotized the bus driver and under hypnosis, he remembered all but one digit of the kidnappers’ license plate number! Amazing! Here are the problems – the bus driver had been trying to memorize the license plate number and keep it fresh in his memory for the whole ordeal so hypnosis likely wasn’t a factor. Second, the bus driver actually gave two license plate numbers under hypnosis and the second one wasn’t remotely similar. Third, the hypnosis was never really thoroughly examined because the suspects pleaded guilty to the offenses and only disputed sentencing. Fourth, the quarry was owned by one of the suspect’s father and they would have tracked down the defendants using good old-fashioned investigation if they had bothered.
Defendants have tried to introduce statements made under hypnosis as well has hypnotically refreshed testimony. One defendant claimed to have no memory of the crime but when hypnotized miraculously remembered facts that exculpated him. Courts deemed these statements inadmissible. However, hypnotically refreshed memory by defendants is likely admissible if only because defendants have a constitutional right to present any potentially reliable exculpatory evidence.
Prosecutors have tried the same malarkey. Unfortunately for defendants, the rules of evidence seem almost specially crafted to allow in these kinds of statements. Luckily, courts understood the inherent foolishness in believing anything a hypnotized person says while hypnotized and excluded these statements. However, hypnotically refreshed memories are sometimes allowed in IF the witness is testifying only about things they remembered AND recorded before hypnosis.
Police have even tried to hypnotize suspects and force confessions. Prosecutors then attempted to admit the confession. Luckily, the Supreme Court found these kinds of confessions were inherently coerced and could never be used.
In a case so tragic, it’s almost funny, the prosecution’s main and crucial witness was alleged to have been hypnotized prior to her testimony. It came out that she had been “interviewed” by several police hypnotists and a police psychologist. Her story changed six times prior to testifying. At trial, the defense was barred from using an expert to discuss what hypnotism does to a person’s memory. The 9th Circuit, fortunately, reversed.
Finally, in the ultimate joke on science in the courtroom, defendants have tried to raise hypnosis as a defense to crimes as recently as the mid 80’s. It makes sense if hypnosis is the same as a mind control device, destroying your will, but that’s not what it is. Evidence seems to show that a person is in control of themselves under hypnosis and afterwards and won’t be just “convinced” to commit crimes because of hypnosis.