To erase someone’s memories with hypnosis, it’s necessary to set things up in such a way that when they start to access those memories, their thoughts go somewhere else instead. When we do this, the old memories will gradually degrade over time. Memory redirects of this nature can be achieved through the use of hypnotic anchors, and by giving our subject very specific instructions.
To see how all of that works, we first need to appreciate a few things about how human memory works and why forgetting is an important skill.
Why do we forget?
A long time ago, I was fluent in French. By fluent I mean that I could speak, listen, read, write and think in French. As a language, it seemed thoroughly embedded in my mind.
And at the time, I presumed that since I had taken the time to learn an entire language, it would stick with me for life.
As it turns out, I was wrong.
So what’s going on here?
I dedicated thousands of hours to learning a language to the point where I could use it fluently, and then it vanished.
Now it’s not gone completely. A few years ago, I ran an experiment to discover just how much my ability to speak French had fallen apart. To do this, I relearnt a chunk of the language.
And I discovered something interesting.
Even though my ability to speak French had fallen apart, my ability to learn French was significantly enhanced.
How memory works
It turns out that there are different types of memory. Skills seem to be stored differently to the memories of our lives.
At the core they are stored in the same way.
With everything that we learn, our brains assign an importance to it. Our learning here includes the memories of our lives, and it happens in two ways.
As we experience things in the world, the information is encoded in the neural network inside our brains. I’ve gone into this in detail elsewhere, so if you’d like to know more about that you might enjoy my article on How Human Memory Works. For our purposes here, the important point is that the more we repeat something, the more easily we remember it.
The second way that our brains assign importance to new information is if we do something to assign importance to it. There are a few ways to do this. As hypnotists, the most useful to be aware of are strong emotions and meaning.
Countering this effect of learning new things, we have an ongoing memory degradation process: Memory degrades over time as the associated neural links are repurposed.
Our brains have significant capacity limits, so this is a good thing.
Here’s what it comes down to: When we don’t use information the underlying storage is reused. This results in us forgetting.
How to hypnotize someone to forget
So given all of that, can we use hypnosis to erase someone’s memories?
It turns out that the answer is yes, and no.
It’s not possible to use hypnosis to directly erase a memory. But if we can help someone to not access that memory, it will tend to degrade over time.
There are several ways we can do this.
In this article, I’m going to cover working with episodic memory, which is someone’s memories of the events of their life.
There are three methods we can use with hypnosis to inhibit someone’s recall.
First, we can simply suggest that they won’t remember a specific period of time. This tends to work very well when the subject is suggestible and they are in a mental state that is significantly different from their usual states.
This means that suggestion can work extremely well when we want to prevent someone from remembering the events of a hypnosis session. Some people are determined to disrupt the very changes they’ve asked for, so suggesting that they won’t recall a session like this can be helpful since it makes it more difficult for them to consciously mess it up.
Next, we can exploit a feature of the human task completion system to make it difficult for someone to recall. When we carry out tasks, our brains tend to remind us to keep coming back to those tasks while we are doing them, and we have a tendency to forget all about the task once it is completed. This is known as the Zeigarnik Effect, and it is extremely useful for hiding information inside different layers of stories, among other things.
And finally, we can give our subject instructions to redirect their memory elsewhere when they try to recall a specific event. Human memory recall seems to work almost entirely by association, so if we can intentionally insert a big enough association to something else at the right point, generally people will remember the new memory in place of the old.
There are a few other tricks, but most of these involve using the above three in different sequences.
Let’s go over these three in detail.
How to suggest post-hypnotic amnesia
There are 4 things we want to ensure we cover when suggesting post-hypnotic amnesia.
Get them onboard
Suggest to your subject that the details of their hypnosis session are only for their unconscious mind and that they don’t need to consciously recall them. Start off by asking them questions about whether they are happy with what they’ve discovered in the session and the progress they’ve made. Then use that to tell them that whatever the change might be is going to happen automatically now and that because it’s automatic they won’t want to think back to the session itself.
It’s important to do this enough that you can see the buy-in on their face. You can reinforce it by asking them about how much they like it when good things happen automatically and by riffing around similar themes.
Suggest post-hypnotic amnesia
Next, tell them that when they come out of hypnosis, they will find that they cannot recall any details of what happened in the session and that it’s completely natural and normal. Reinforce that it’s their unconscious mind deciding to do this for them.
Redirect their recall elsewhere
Often it’s not enough to suggest that they won’t recall the session, so tell them what will happen if they try to remember it. This does not have to be anything elaborate. It’s enough to say something like And you will find that any attempts you might make to think back to this session will result in your memory jumping from the start of the session directly to the end, almost like you’ve been asleep.
The idea is that if they attempt to consciously recall the details, they will find their thoughts going somewhere else.
Saturate their working memory
After telling them exactly what will happen in the previous 3 steps, it’s important to consume their working memory so that they don’t have a pathway back. The easiest way to do this is by abruptly talking about something else.
Be aware that most people can only hold on to between 5 and 9 things at once. As you’re talking, give them enough details about something unrelated that they cannot keep the instructions from the previous 3 steps in their conscious mind.
How to use the Zeigarnik effect
Directly suggesting that someone will not be able to recall a session tends to be most useful when the person in question is in a formal hypnotic trance.
The problem with it is that the subject can observe what we’re doing and ultimately can mess it up if they choose to do so.
One way to work around this is to hide things in plain sight. This is done by creating multiple story loops.
To create a story loop, tell a story until a cliffhanger moment, then switch to another story. When the inner story loop ends, continue on with the original story.
From your subject’s perspective, the inner story is complete, which makes it more difficult to recall.
Use this effect on multiple layers to hide information more deeply down in the story structure.
If you look closely at the method we used to suggest post-hypnotic amnesia in the previous step, you’ll notice that it also uses the Zeigarnik effect, just in a slightly different way.
How to use hypnosis to redirect memory recall
The above two methods are most useful when we want to obscure the contents of a hypnosis session.
Usually the reason we do this is to prevent the subject from interfering with the changes we’re helping them to make.
Sometimes though, we want to modify someone’s memory of past events. I’m not going to go into the ethics of whether you should or shouldn’t do this, or under what circumstances.
As a rule though, only modify someone’s memory of outside events if they have explicitly asked you to without being prompted, and it also seems like it’s a good idea.
The fact is that not all memories are helpful.
In order to understand how to redirect someone’s memory, it’s important to understand how memory recall works in humans.
Human memory recall works largely by association.
Specifically, we experience something, and that causes associated patterns inside our mind to fire up which leads to us remembering things we think happened.
The something that we experience can be anything we can perceive, including our own conscious and unconscious thoughts.
This leads to many of us erroneously concluding that the thoughts we have in any moment are random.
It also has some practical implications if we want to change someone’s memory of the past.
So how do we use hypnosis to redirect someone’s memory?
Establish how your subject accesses the memory
Most memories are accessed through a specific starting point. When events are important to us, we tend to give them labels.
For example, a label might be that time I climbed up to the lighthouse at Cape Palliser and got stuck half way up the steps. Naturally a label can refer to one event, or to many.
Regardless of the memory you want to redirect, the first step is to figure out how your subject typically remembers the event in question.
The easiest way to do this is to ask them to remember the start of that memory while they are in deep hypnosis. Naturally if this is a traumatic event, you’ll want to dissociate them from it. If you don’t know how to do that, don’t work with trauma until you have had specific training for it.
Once you’ve identified the start of the memory, anchor it for later use. Use a unique anchor here that your subject cannot accidentally experience.
If you’d like to know more about anchors, I go into them in detail in my book Artful Hypnotic Anchoring.
Establish what they will recall instead
A common mistake that people make is trying to have someone not think about a memory. The issue with this is that unless we give them something else to think about, the only thing they can think about is the very memory we just asked them not to think about.
The solution is straightforward: Give them something else to do.
So after establishing how they access the memory you’re redirecting, take a few moments to work out what memory your subject will think about instead.
This does not have to have happened at the same time. What we want to aim for is that every time they try to think about the memory you’re redirecting, they instead think of the alternative.
For example, suppose that someone wants to forget about a drunken incident at an office party, because they no longer work there. A useful redirect might be that when they try to think about that office party, they instead find themselves thinking about a specific and detailed trip to the beach.
Whatever it is, figure out what they are going to recall and how they access that memory.
Then anchor this memory with a different anchor.
Redirect their access to the original memory
Once you’ve established what memory is going to be redirected, and what they will think of instead, it’s time to make that happen.
The easiest way to do this is by taking them into deep hypnosis and then telling them that every time they try to think of that original memory, they will find that they jump straight to the new memory. As always, repeat a few times and then run them through the process to make sure they get it. Then bring them out of hypnosis and test.
If you want to be more subtle about it, use the anchors you attached to the entry points for both memories, and attach a powerful emotion to the new memory. Then fire the anchor for the old memory, immediately followed by the new one, to attach the new memory to the access point for the old.
Long-term memory erasure
So those are the three ways we can influence someone’s memory. There are some other tricks as well, such as having them describe the events to us in detail, and then inserting new details.
When we do this, what tends to happen is that at first they’ll reject the new details. But then a few weeks later, if they are asked to tell the story of that event in detail again, they will have not only inserted the new details, but will believe that they were always a part of the story.
That’s not what this article is about though.
What you really want to know is how to use hypnosis to erase memories.
That was the entire reason we went through those 3 processes earlier.
It turns out that it is possible to erase memories with hypnosis. Because human memory works on association, it’s a lot easier to erase isolated parts of memories.
Temporary memory erasure with hypnosis
For example, suppose that someone has a job they’d like to forget completely while on vacation. Maybe work has been causing them stress and they want it gone for a while so that they can properly enjoy themselves.
So long as they don’t do work stuff outside of work, all that’s required to erase those memories with hypnosis is finding the access points, and then redirecting them elsewhere.
If they drive to work each morning, an access point might be when they start to make lunch for that day at work. It could be something else entirely.
Whatever it is, figure out how they get to the memories of their work, and then redirect those memories elsewhere.
If there are specific work events that they want to forget, it tends to be a good idea to address each of those as well.
Here’s where it gets really cool.
It might seem like a lot of work to do all of that, but the reality is that human brains will do all of that stuff for you. All you really have to do is work through a couple of examples with them in deep hypnosis, then suggest that they will automatically think about their vacation when anything similar starts to pop into their head.
As with all hypnotic change, test as soon as you bring them out of hypnosis.
And naturally, you’ll want to suggest that when their vacation is over and it’s time to return to work, they’ll find that they can easily think about work again.
Permanent memory erasure with hypnosis
And what about erasing memories permanently with hypnosis?
Well that’s possible too.
Be very careful with this one.
Memories are interwoven, so if you delete a memory without fully appreciating the effects, it can have unintended consequences.
So how do you permanently erase memories with hypnosis?
The only way it can happen is if your subject does not access those memories for an extended period of time. As I mentioned earlier in this article, when we don’t access memories, they start to degrade as our brains repurpose the underlying neural structures for new memories.
Carry out the same process as for temporary memory erasure, only without telling your subject that the memories will come back later when they need them.
And go further.
You see, brains don’t like gaps very much.
This means that if you want to use hypnosis to permanently erase memories, you have to put something else in their place.
Conveniently this is also easy to do. When your subject is in deep hypnosis, have them construct a new sequence of events to replace those that are being erased. Or have them skip past it completely. Suggest that they will continue to build the new details in their dreams.
If there are strong emotions inside the memory being erased, make sure you deal with each of those emotions.
Find everything that triggers the old memories, and attach it to something else.
For example, suppose that driving past their old place of work triggers memories they don’t want. You will have to go in and redirect each of these somewhere else.
Now that might all sound like a lot of work. As it turns out, we can use a process known as generative change to make it all happen more or less automatically.
I’ll write about generative change another time because it’s a huge topic.
For now though, think in terms of how to teach their unconscious mind to automatically build the changes necessary to redirect new attempts to access those unwanted memories.
It’s the same as any other teaching. Give your subject a few worked examples. Then give them an example and ask them what they’re going to think about instead. Finally, suggest that they will automatically generalize out to other situations.
More resources for erasing memory with hypnosis
In this article we’ve talked about how to tweak someone’s memories even to the extent of completely erasing them with hypnosis. As a rule, it’s generally safe to blank out someone’s memory of a specific hypnosis session that you’ve just performed.
Working with other memories requires more skill and a solid understanding of how memory works.
If you’ve not already done so, I encourage you to read my article on How Human Memory Works next.
We’ve also covered some uses for hypnotic anchors in this article. Anchors are extremely useful when we want to be able to have our subjects do things without becoming consciously aware of it. As you might imagine, anchoring is a huge topic.
So I’ve written a book about it.
If you’d like to gain an appreciation of exactly how to create and use anchors, you might enjoy my book Artful Hypnotic Anchoring.
In it I cover what anchors really are, how to use anchors, how to know when they are effective, and lots more. I’ve tried to make it as short as possible to allow hypnotists to become good at anchoring fast.
Anchoring is a skill of critical importance in hypnosis, so if you’d like to learn all about it, go and check out my book Artful Hypnotic Anchoring right now.