When you’re a hypnotist, it’s critical to have an understanding of how human memory works. Once we have these understandings, a lot of hypnotic processes become easier to grasp.
So how does human memory work? Human memory is stored in a massively-interconnected, multi-layered neural network. It works by associating stuff with other nearby stuff, both in space and in time. Most technical descriptions cover things that aren’t really important for hypnosis, so in this article, we’ll go over the things it’s important to appreciate when we want to simplify our understanding of hypnosis.
What is human memory?
Human memory is the result of the brain processing incoming information and using that information to adjust its own structure. It is our internal representation of the world around us, and everything we’ve ever experienced, including our own thoughts.
When we remember, what we’re really doing is using the retrieval system in our brain to reconstruct our perceptions and understandings of a sequence of events in time and space.
There’s a little more to it than that, but for the purposes of hypnosis the important points are:
- Memory works by associating stuff with other stuff.
- How easily we can store something in our memory depends on how important we perceive it as being, and how often we repeat it.
- Conscious awareness resides at the interface between external experiences and internal ones.
- New external information coming into our brains passes through a perceptual filter before we become consciously aware of it.
- We tend to assume that things we retrieve from our memory are correct unless we have evidence to the contrary.
- We cannot retrieve memories without changing them in some way.
- Certain types of memories may be able to be stored throughout our bodies.
How does human perception work?
Before we can cover how human memory works, it’s important to have a basic understanding of perception.
We tend to think of ourselves as experiencing the world around us in an ongoing manner.
In reality, what we experience is more like a view on the world playing out in a multi-sensory theater inside our minds.
If it helps, think of it as being like the most realistic TV show or movie ever playing out on a screen inside our minds.
Here’s the simplified version of how the process of perception works:
- Information arrives at our senses and is transmitted to our brain.
- Our brain processes that information and pre-selects things that might be important for us to consider.
- This pre-selected information is then passed on to our conscious awareness. This is the part of our brain that we typically think of as being us. All of the information flows into our mind, but without our conscious awareness telling us what’s important, the background information is stored relatively weakly.
- At the same time, the patterns of incoming information combined with our conscious thoughts cause associated neural pathways to strongly light up and be modified.
- This creates a feedback loop in which our ongoing perception of the world is really a combination of our current sensory data, our current thoughts, and the information that our brain has associated with all of those.
- Because there is a time delay in retrieving this information from our memory, we perceive that something happened, then we had a thought about it.
As hypnotists, we can modify the perceived information at any of these stages.
The purpose of the conscious mind is essentially to fact-check incoming information. When incoming information seems like an error of some kind, our conscious alerting system is tripped and we tend to throw out the information.
With training, we can also use our conscious mind to perform logic-based operations and planning. Many hypnosis trainings talk about bypassing the conscious mind so that we can override this fact-checking process.
In reality, it’s not necessary to bypass the conscious mind at all. What is necessary for hypnosis is ensuring that we present information in such a way that it doesn’t trip our conscious alerting system. The greater the skill of the hypnotist in doing this, the less we have to bypass the conscious mind.
How are memories formed?
Everything we experience results in a reshaping of our neural network to some degree.
The result of this reshaping process is what we typically think of as memories being formed.
What influences how strongly memory is encoded?
Critically, not all incoming information is equal. Our brains continuously assign importance to new incoming information. The more important we perceive something to be, the more strongly it will be encoded in our memory.
As a hypnotist, it’s usually most helpful to think of there being just two things that influence how easily we can remember something: repetition and emotion.
Each time we repeat something, the associated neural pathways light up and are strengthened. This makes it easier to remember. It’s also why study works.
And when our brain perceives something as being important, it is more strongly encoded.
Our emotions are essentially a warning system that tells us how well we’re doing, so when we have strong emotions, the associated memories are automatically perceived as important.
There are other ways to also increase the importance we place on something, such as attaching meaning to it, and associating it with other things we think are important.
Types of memory
Psychologists like to break memory down into lots of different types, including episodic memory, implicit memory, semantic memory, procedural memory, declarative (or explicit) memory, and more.
As hypnotists, we are mostly concerned with just two types: short-term working memory, and long-term memory.
Working memory is associated with our conscious mind. When we place something into short-term memory, it will stay there for about 30 seconds at most. Short-term memory also has a very limited capacity: We can typically only keep between 5 and 9 things in it at once.
Any more, and things quite literally fall out of our awareness.
Long-term memory is more associated with our unconscious mind. It is the encoded representation of everything we’ve ever experienced.
Naturally, the system is more complex than this. Rather than there being two types of memory, it’s more of a continuum.
Here’s the thing though: We only have a limited capacity with which to do stuff. The simpler we can make our understanding of the mind, the more easily we can learn to influence others.
Our neural network is bigger than our brain
We tend to think of our brain as being where all of our thoughts and memories are stored.
In reality, our nervous system extends throughout our entire body. Information is distributed throughout the entire system. This is why we talk about things such as muscle memory.
There are some parts of our bodies that have significant concentrations of neural structures. In particular, the gut is often referred to as the second brain because not only can it operate independently of the brain, but it quite literally has millions of neurons of its own.
Similarly, the optic nerves are densely packed neural structures that modify incoming visual information before it’s even received by the brain itself. The interconnectivity here is so strong that the optic nerves and receptors in the eyes are often considered to be a part of the brain.
Regardless of the model used in other fields, it’s helpful as a hypnotist to consider that we are influencing the entire nervous system.
Information pre-selection in memory formation
The very first stage in memory formation is information arriving at our senses.
Before this information even arrives at our conscious awareness in short-term memory, it is automatically tweaked and modified.
It appears that we can influence this process by making appropriate suggestions when the person is in hypnosis.
I’ve personally found success in neutralizing pain, and in modifying visual, auditory and kinesthetic information. Others have reported success with modifying the entire gamut of sensory inputs.
Regardless of whether we attempt to intentionally modify the incoming information, it’s going to happen anyway.
This is guaranteed to be true because if it weren’t, we wouldn’t have enough capacity to process everything. I talk about this more in my article How Does Hypnosis Work.
Essentially, our pre-conscious system strips out a heap of information so that we don’t become overwhelmed.
It does this by assigning importance to different information, and preferentially feeding the most important things into our conscious awareness. It also feeds the information into the autonomic nervous system where our flight or fight response resides.
Because of this, we can be walking down a street lost in thought, and automatically jump out of the way to avoid a bus barrelling down on us before we even become consciously aware that it’s there.
The system has evolved to keep us safe before we can even think about what’s happening.
It’s not entirely clear what happens to the information that doesn’t get sent to the conscious mind. Experiments have revealed that it’s possible to use hypnosis to reconstruct environments based on background memories that we didn’t pay attention to at the time. However, it’s possible that this is nothing more than our brain making an educated guess.
It does appear to be the case that some part of everything we experience leaks through into our long-term memory, regardless of our conscious processing or how important we perceive it to be.
Because this information leaking through is perceived as being relatively unimportant, it’s encoded weakly unless we experience it a lot.
It’s possible that this happens when our conscious awareness is not fully occupied with something else.
Here’s a quick experiment you can run to convince yourself that something is going on:
First, think about an environment you’ve been in a lot but have never really paid much attention to. An example might be the lunch room at work. Chances are that most of the time when you’re there, you’re either lost in thought or chatting with co-workers.
Next, close your eyes and think of that environment. Notice where everything is. Pay attention to as many details as you can. Then write them down.
Finally, next time you’re in that environment, see how much you got right.
When I do this, I find that it’s quite a lot.
Short-term working memory
Once information makes its way through our senses and our pre-selection system, some of it makes its way into our short-term working memory.
This is where our conscious mind resides, and it’s what we typically think of as being us.
At the same time as information arrives from our pre-selection system, other information arrives from our ongoing stream of thought. This means that what’s in our conscious mind at any moment in time is a combination of what we’re experiencing right now, combined with our thoughts, which are typically comprised of the next thing on from what we’ve just experienced.
There’s also a steady stream of information coming up from our long-term memory based on pattern matching from our recent thoughts and experiences.
Studies have shown that we can only hold between 5 and 9 things in our short-term memory at once. But like the rest of our brain, our short-term memory constantly associates things with other things.
This constant process of association means that what we initially perceive as 2 or more pieces of information can become a single piece of information.
When information comes into our conscious mind, we can influence it directly. We still remember what’s going on, but our conscious response can shape how well we remember that information by placing importance on it.
We can do this by intentionally repeating information to force it to go in. We can also do it by attaching it to something else that’s important to us. As human beings, we tend to be interested in how the world works, so when we attach meaning to something, it can become important.
A lot of the problems we work with as hypnotists come about because people have models of the world that they strongly believe in, but which aren’t useful to them. If we attempt to attack those models directly, they are called into the subject’s short term memory, and then their fact-checking system throws out the changes they’d like to have happen.
In turn this means that if we want to help someone, we have to help them get out of their own way.
The more skilled a hypnotist is at presenting information in such a way that it won’t trip the subject’s conscious alerting system, the less it’s necessary to distract their conscious mind.
Long-term memory storage
Once information is accepted by our conscious mind, it’s fed into our long-term storage.
Our long-term memory operates almost entirely on association. Whenever information arrives, it is combined with everything else we’ve ever experienced, in a specific way.
The easiest way to think of it is that each new piece of information is matched with everything else in a way that reflects its similarities.
For example, right now I can see my phone. It’s on my desk, so the memory of it becomes associated with my desk even if I had never placed it there before this moment.
Similarly, if my phone was in another room and I thought of it while sitting at my desk, it would become partially associated with my desk.
What it comes down to is that the more something is associated with something else, the more that is reflected inside our brain.
These associations are not just simple associations like my old phone being similar to my new phone, but also far more tangential.
They extend far beyond physical similarity into every type of thing we can perceive, including where and when we are, and how we’re feeling.
This is also why we end up with things like mirror neurons, yes ladders and state-dependent learning.
They’re all guaranteed to happen because our brains associate stuff with other stuff.
Long-term memory retrieval
When we want to retrieve something from our long-term memory, all we do is think of some part of something associated with that thing, and the pattern matching in our long-term memory fires up the associated neural pathways, and brings the thing we wanted to remember into our memory.
Because of how human memory works, this is never a clean process.
First, at any moment in time, we have our ongoing experience of the world and our thoughts. When we attempt to recall something, it automatically becomes associated with everything else we were doing at that time.
Beyond that, not only does the act of attempting to retrieve a memory modify it, but the memory itself is already associated with numerous other things.
Generally speaking, the stronger the associations, the more likely we’ll be to recall them.
Now you might be wondering how we think of a thing without first remembering it.
The key to understanding this is to appreciate that our thoughts are constant and ongoing.
We’re always thinking about something, and because we don’t generally appreciate how the associations inside our brains work, it can seem like a random stream of thought.
In reality, every single thing we think is caused by either new information, or something that we remembered.
This also has a practical side-effect: If we want to be able to remember something, all we have to do is intentionally associate it with something else that we can either easily remember or uniquely experience.
Which is how the method of loci and hypnotic anchoring work.
How memory degrades over time
As you may have experienced, we can tend to forget things when we don’t use memories.
There are a few things going on here.
If a memory is associated with anything else at all, then each time that associated thing fires up, the memory will be accessed and modified, even if it doesn’t make its way into our conscious awareness.
Over time, the effect of this is that our unaccessed memories first change and eventually are overwritten with random data as the cells making up their neural pathways are repurposed.
It’s basically impossible to make a memory that’s not associated with anything else.
In fact, most memories are associated with everything else we’ve ever experienced.
As a result, if we don’t periodically think about our memories, they slowly degrade and are eventually forgotten.
Now, it’s possible to set things up in such a way that memories become self-reinforcing.
This is what happens with trauma, but the same process can be used to set up self-reinforcing good memories. Just with good emotions rather than bad.
As a rule, this only happens if we take the time to intentionally to make it happen.
The way we do this is by building a hypnotic program inside the mind.
A hypnotic program is nothing more than a sequence of states, each of which leads to the next.
Usually we build a program in reverse.
We generate the last step, then create an anchor so we can cause it on demand.
Then we generate the second-to-last step and make it so that the last thing that happens in it is firing the anchor for the last step.
Attach another anchor to fire the second-to-last step, and watch the sequence play out.
As an example, suppose that we want to build enthusiasm for something and have it persist over time.
We might anchor a state of enthusiasm, and create another anchor to make that state stronger. Then we anchor whatever we want to be enthusiastic about.
Finally we combine all of them together, and create another anchor to fire the sequence repeatedly throughout the day.
So what is an anchor?
Hypnotic anchors are memories
A hypnotic anchor is nothing more than a memory that we’ve deliberately attached to something to make it automatic to remember. As an example, we might intentionally attach a unique gesture to our subject experiencing deep hypnosis. After doing this, we can drop them into deep hypnosis any time we choose by simply performing the gesture.
Because our minds control our bodies, hypnotic anchors can be used to trigger just about any unconscious response you can imagine.
This can be anything from feeling a certain way through to thinking certain things, going into pre-determined states, and even physically acting in specific ways.
Anchors can be created to remind people to do just about anything that a person can do. And because the response is unconscious, it’s very difficult for most people to interfere with them. This is extremely useful when we want to help someone get out of their own way.
Anchoring is a topic that is critical for any hypnotist to master. So if you’d like to know more about what anchoring is and how to do it, you might enjoy my book Artful Hypnotic Anchoring.
In it, I go into detail on how anchoring works, how to create anchors, and how to use them for various purposes. Then I give some worked examples demonstrating their use.
My intention was to create a book that would allow anyone familiar with hypnosis to quickly and easily master the art of anchoring. To that end, I’ve made it as short as possible, and I’ve tried to leave out all the fluff.
If anchoring sounds like something you’d like to know more about, grab your copy of Artful Hypnotic Anchoring right now!