The question is: Can hypnosis make you forget?
Yes, hypnosis can make you forget memories or information. However, this is based on the person and their brain. Some people are more susceptible to memory suppression while others are more prone to forgetfulness and so on.
How Can Hypnosis Make You Forget?
Since ancient times, hypnosis has been a useful method for re-creating mysterious psychological occurrences to analyze and better understand them. Memory disorders such as functional amnesia, which includes a rapid loss of memory often brought on by some kind of psychological stress, may be modeled using a method that is known as posthypnotic amnesia (PHA).
This method is an example of a classic use of this strategy (rather than brain damage or disease). PHA typically only happens when it is specifically suggested, and it is much more likely to occur in those with high levels of hypnotic ability, also known as “high hypnotizable” people.
Hypnotists produce PHA by suggesting to a hypnotized person that after hypnosis, he will forget particular things until he receives a “cancellation,” such as “Now you can remember everything.” Again, PHA typically only happens when it is specifically suggested, and recent research has shown that being in a hypnotic state may really affect the brain activity related to remembering.
People with PHA who have high hypnotizability typically have an impaired explicit memory, defined as having difficulty consciously recalling events or material that is the focus of the suggestion. These people also dissociate between their implicit and explicit memories, which means that even though they cannot recall the information, it continues to affect their actions, thoughts, and behaviors.
The forgetfulness may be undone; then their memories return in full force. PHA is neither the consequence of inadequate encoding of the memories nor of normal forgetting since the memories return as soon as PHA is canceled, proving that these final two qualities, dissociation, and reversibility, are present. Instead, it is a momentary inability to recover information that has been securely stored in memory that is reflected by PHA. Because of this, it is an effective instrument for doing research.
Researchers have employed PHA as a functional amnesia laboratory model since the two disorders have some comparable characteristics.
For example, case studies of functional amnesia depict males and females who, after enduring a terrible event such as a brutal sexual assault or the loss of a loved one, cannot recall any portion of their whole personal history. Of course, this may be a permanent condition. But, on the other hand, similar to PHA, they could still reveal “implicit evidence” of the events that have been forgotten.
For example, they may dial the phone number of a family member whose name or face they cannot consciously remember without even realizing it. And just as suddenly as they lost their memories, they can just as suddenly recover them. (By contrast, explicit memories are those we consciously have access to, such as remembering a childhood birthday or what we had for dinner last night.) And, just as suddenly as they lost their memories, they can just as suddenly recover them.
Memory Loss Occurring in the Brain
However, to get the most out of the comparison between PHA and functional amnesia, we need to realize that both of these conditions have the same underlying mechanisms. Identifying the activity patterns in the brain connected with PHA is one technique to test this hypothesis. With functional magnetic resonance imaging, neurologist Avi Mendelsohn and his colleagues at the Weizmann Institute in Israel could do this, and their findings were published in the seminal journal Neuron (fMRI).
They chose 25 individuals to participate in their experiment after considering each one carefully. Even though everyone could be hypnotized, prior research had revealed that only half of them could react to a PHA suggestion (these individuals were referred to as “the PHA group”), while the other half (the “non-PHA group”) could not. Participants in the experiment viewed a movie for a total of forty-five minutes as part of the Study session.
The individuals were asked to return to the lab a week later for the Test session when they were hypnotized while lying inside the fMRI scanner. People in both the PHA group and the non-PHA group were given a suggestion to forget about the movie while they were under hypnosis. This suggestion was given to them to hear the precise cancellation signal.
After being put under hypnosis, the subjects’ memories were probed twice while their brain activity was monitored using an fMRI scanner. In the first test, participants were given 60 questions, 40 of which were about the plot of the film (for example, the actress went to her neighbor’s house and knocked on the door), and 20 of which were about the environment in which they saw the film (for instance, during the movie, the door to the study room was closed). A “yes” or “no” answer was needed for each question.
Participants in Test 2 were given the same 60 recognition items to answer, but before beginning the test, they were given the signal to cancel PHA. Test 1 evaluated the participant’s memory capacity and brain activity while the PHA suggestion was in place, and Test 2 evaluated the participant’s memory capacity and brain activity after the PHA suggestion was removed from the study.
In the first experiment that Mendelsohn and his colleagues conducted, they discovered that participants in the PHA group (who were able to experience PHA) tended to forget specifics about the film more than those in the non-PHA group (who could not experience PHA). In contrast, when the proposal was rejected in Test 2, the participant’s memory was restored to its previous state.
The PHA group’s members accurately identified as many facts from the film as the non-PHA group members did. However, perhaps unexpectedly, the exhortation to forget only limitedly influenced some aspects of memory. People in the PHA group had trouble remembering the plot of the movie after they were given a suggestion to forget it, but they had no trouble recalling the setting in which they watched the movie.
This discovery that PHA briefly affected some people’s capacity to remember the past is consistent with research on hypnosis conducted over many previous decades. However, the revelation that PHA was related to a particular pattern of brain activity is the most ground-breaking aspect of the research conducted by Mendelsohn and colleagues.
When people in the non-PHA group performed the recognition task and successfully remembered what happened in the movie, fMRI showed high activity levels in areas responsible for visualizing scenes (the occipital lobes) and analyzing verbally presented scenarios. This is consistent with what normally occurs in remembering; when people in the non-PHA group performed the recognition task and successfully remembered what happened in the movie, fMRI showed high levels of activity (the left temporal lobe).
Conversely, when persons in the PHA group did the recognition test and failed to recall the movie’s content, the fMRI indicated little to no activity in these regions. This contrasts sharply with the results obtained when people in the control group performed the task. In addition, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) also revealed increased activity in another brain region (the prefrontal cortex), which is important for controlling the activity in other brain regions.
So far, so good. As assessed by fMRI, brain activity was shown to connect with a person’s inability to recall when that person was part of the PHA group.
What if, however, diminished activation is constantly present in persons of this kind, regardless of whether or not these people are remembering or forgetting? People in the PHA group showed reduced activation only when they (unsuccessfully) answered questions about the content of the movie; they did not show reduced activation when they (successfully) answered questions about the context of the movie.
Because of this, we can rule out the possibility that this was the case. In fact, when it came to the context questions, they had the same activation as the participants in the non-PHA group. If this is the case, maybe the decreased activation indicates a total forgetting of the knowledge rather than only temporarily suppressing it. As soon as the suggestion was canceled, those in the PHA group exhibited normal activation, just as persons in the non-PHA group did. Thus this hypothesis may be ruled out as well.
This nice reversal demonstrates that normal activation occurs when the suggestion is canceled.
Hypnosis Is a Real Process
The research conducted by Mendelsohn and colleagues is significant because it reveals that hypnotic suggestions may impact activity levels in the brain and behavior and experience. The effects of hypnosis are quite genuine!
This fact has been demonstrated clearly in earlier work, for instance, by psychologist David Oakley (University College London) and colleagues, who compared the brain activation of genuinely hypnotized people given suggestions for leg paralysis with the brain activation of people who were simply asked to fake hypnosis and paralysis. The results showed genuine hypnosis causes a different pattern of brain activity than fake hypnosis and paralysis.
This most recent work is especially interesting since it describes the underlying brain mechanisms we presume PHA and functional amnesia have in common. Due to increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, Mendelsohn et al. hypothesized that the brain activation in PHA indicates a dampening, which can be thought of as some type of quick, early suppression of memory information. 
The question is, how does the mechanism for suppression choose what to suppress? PHA affected the content of movies but not the context of the movies in this research. Memories entail the “what,” “how,” “when,” and “where” of an event being braided together to the point that differences between content and context may become blurry (for example, “Was the movie shot with a hand-held camera?”).
For the suppressor module in the brain to discern such subtle distinctions, the information it receives must likely be processed at a sufficient level. However, this module has to move swiftly to preconsciously inhibit the activation of the information before it even reaches the level of consciousness. Imaging methods for the brain with a higher temporal resolution than fMRI, such as magnetoencephalography (MEG), could help address this seeming contradiction between complex and quick processes.
Additionally, we are curious about how the suppression process in PHA relates to the variety of forgetting that occurs in the laboratory and the real world. Compared to other types of forgetting, such as suppression, some types are perceived as deliberate, laborious, and conscious, while others are seen as automatic, effortless, and unconscious (say, repression).
After mapping the similarities between PHA and functional amnesia, the next step is to investigate and examine the mechanisms shared by both conditions (such as strategy use, motivation, and level of awareness).
When we finally integrate PHA’s most crucial element, the split between implicit and explicit memory, in imaging investigations, the brain basis of PHA will become further evident. PHA is similar to functional amnesia in that the individual affected cannot recollect particular knowledge directly, even though there is evidence of the information on implicit measures.
For example, a person given PHA may not be able to remember the term “doctor,” which they had previously learned, but they will have no problem completing the word fragment “d t r.” Mendelsohn and his colleagues did not test subjects’ implicit memories. Instead, they examined recognition, which, in a way, is similar to testing both explicit and implicit memory simultaneously.
Brain scans of a PHA group trying to explicitly recall the movie (they should show reduced activation, as described above) will be compared to brain scans of the same group completing an implicit memory measure of the movie. This comparison aims to determine which type of memory is more effective (they should show normal activation).
This would be a difficult task to do since implicit gauges of complicated content, such as movies and personal recollections, are difficult to locate or develop. But doing so would help provide a more accurate picture of the brain mechanisms in these unique types of forgetting.
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