Forensic Hypnosis for Memory Enhancement

Forensic hypnosis is the scientific application of memory enhancement—an investigational aid to law enforcement leads and admissible courtroom evidence. Hypnotic recall assists witnesses to reliably relay hidden details of events and descriptions that aren’t extracted through conventional interview techniques.

In my police career, I’ve had cases using hypnotic memory enhancement. Several had successes. One was amazing.

I’m fascinated with the human mind. I think modern medicine and psychiatry are just beginning to understand the complexity of how our consciousness works. Hypnosis is a tool to assist in entering our subconscious and unlock the vault where memory is stored. Its magic is the ability to alter the subject’s state of consciousness which is what shamanism is all about. But, then, shamanism is for another discussion.

The best forensic hypnotherapist I’ve had the pleasure to work with is Dr. Lee Pulos of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Here’s how Dr. Pulos explains it.

Hypnosis is a natural state of consciousness that we drift in and out of quite regularly. For example, while driving along a highway and then suddenly discovering that you ‘lost’ several miles without being aware of it. This can also happen during reading when you may notice that you have ‘read’ a chapter or two without being mindful of the content. Hypnosis is basically a technique for focusing consciousness by entering a deep state of absorption. It allows you to shift from your outer to inner awareness and tap deeper levels of consciousness so we can re-educate and reprogram the subconscious with empowering suggestions or beliefs.”

The word hypnosis comes from the name of a Greek god Hypnos, who presided over sleep. In the late1700s, Anton Mesmer brought the technique into popular consciousness in Europe, and in 1843 Scottish physician James Braid coined the term hypnotism for the experience that was passing in many circles as animal magnetism.

Hypnosis places a person in a trance state that can resemble sleep. Instead, it’s an altered state of consciousness more akin to lucid dreams. Often, people in a trance are quite alert but focused in a way that differs from their normal conscious state. Contrary to popular notions, subjects aren’t out cold. They’re in a light trance and aware of everything going on.

I’ve seen a rough and tough biker-witness under hypnosis who was instructed to play “patty-cake” by clapping his hands on his knees. He couldn’t stop laughing at the fact that he couldn’t control his hands, though he seemed perfectly conscious in a way that ought to have enabled him to resist the instruction. His hands changed to patting his head and stomach at the hypnotist’s instruction. They looked at each other the whole time and even had a conversation with his hands patting about.

The trance-state, which has its own ebb and flow, is the result of a trusting and cooperative process between the subject and the hypnotist. It’s not one person controlling another, and there’s no way the hypnotist can make the subject do something they would not do while they’re in a normal state, such as an illegal or immoral act.

Hypnosis,” says Kevin McConkey, President of the Australian Psychological Society and co-author of Hypnosis, Memory, and Behavior in Criminal Investigation, “is essentially a phenomenon that reflects genuinely experienced alterations of reality in response to suggestions administered by a hypnotist. The subject’s testimony is what confirms the trance, although susceptibility varies among individuals. Those who are highly suggestive will behave as if going through truly significant cognitive alterations.”

Forensic hypnosis involves concentration that is heightened to the point where one can recall details that seemed to elude that same person in a conscious state. It’s a powerful tool for criminal investigation, although some researchers challenge the notion that hypnosis leads to significant increases in memory.

There are two primary purposes for using forensic hypnosis.

Most common is inducing relaxation when anxiety and stress obstructs a witness’s ability to recall maximum information. The second is when information retrieval from witnesses can’t be acquired through conventional means.

The first court case involving forensic hypnosis was Cornell v. Superior Court of San Diego in 1959. Although forensic hypnosis is mostly used by prosecutors, in this particular court case, it was the defense that used hypnosis as an aid in preparing its strategy. Since then, many famous cases have used hypnosis as an aid, including the Boston Strangler, Ted Bundy, and Sam Sheppard.

Currently, no overriding judgment has been handed down regarding the admissibility of evidence achieved through forensic hypnosis, and the use of hypnotic evidence varies between jurisdictions. Adding to the reliability problem is that solid evidence can be devalued as a result of unprofessional circumstances in obtaining evidence through hypnosis.

I remember one judge rejecting evidence from a witness who had been subject to hypnotic recall stating, “There’s nothing more unreliable than an eyewitness, never mind one who is tainted by hocus-pocus.” One the other hand, I recall another judge being fascinated by the process and readily accepting witness evidence, particularly because the information obtained under hypnosis was corroborated by independent facts.

As in all types of evidence, the key is reliability.

To ensure solid forensic hypnosis used in criminal investigations is not devalued, it’s become standard and vital operating procedure that all hypnosis sessions are video/audio recorded and the session is witnessed by independent observers. To strengthen the case, the hypnosis must be performed by a trained forensic hypnotist.

Before a forensic hypnotist is allowed to begin a session, one very important condition must be met. The subject must be assured that during the hypnotic session no attempt shall be made to elicit any information that is not directly relevant to the investigation. In addition, the forensic hypnotist must also assure the subject that no information retrieved will lead to self-incrimination.

Critics of forensic hypnotism center their attacks on the accuracy and reliability of the evidence that’s obtained. The concern is that suggestion(s) implanted during hypnotism may create false memories using leading questions.

One thing that a forensic hypnotist cannot do, and is never called to do, is to help a suspect confess to a crime. Not only is this impossible, but any confession arrived at through hypnosis would never be admissible in court.

Here’s a true case I investigated where forensic hypnosis for memory enhancement led to a breakthrough in solving the crime. It was conducted by Dr. Lee Pulos.

In wintery April, an elderly lady in her 70s was alone in her cabin on a remote gold claim in northern British Columbia. A masked man with a handgun appeared at her door, demanding she hand over her gold stash. She refused. He proceeded to blindfold and hog-tie her, then began torturing by burning her hands and ribs with a red-hot knife heated on her wood stove.

Now this lady was one tough old bird, as you’d expect a gold miner to be. She later stated she’d worked so hard to build her gold stash that she’d “rather die than turn it over to this asshole.” Realizing his interrogation technique was going nowhere, the bad guy quit in frustration. He set the cabin on fire with her still tied, blindfolded, and left her to die. She was able to wiggle over and boot the door, then crawl outside where she laid in excruciating pain on the snow in sub-zero temperature until her husband returned.

Because this was such a horrific crime, we “pulled the stops”.

We flew her to Vancouver to undergo hypnosis with Lee Pulos. He was able to extract two things that led to solving the case. One, she recalled the bad guy was using a two-way radio or ‘communicator’, as she called it. Second, he used the term for her gold stash as being ‘squirreled away’.

Now knowing an accomplice was involved, we focused the investigation on a neighbor who’d been involved with a gold claim boundary dispute. We identified the suspect as a Hells Angels striker who’d been hired by the neighbor, so we ran a wiretap which caught him using the term ‘squirreled away’. This led to an elaborate, clandestine sting operation resulting in his confession to an undercover agent. He was convicted and got twenty years.

Like I said, I’ve always been fascinated with how the human mind works. One thing I’m positive about—there’s more to consciousness than modern medicine and psychiatry know—except for the shamans.

But, then, shamanism is for another discussion.

What about you Kill Zoners? Have you used hypnosis scenes in your works? Have you ever been hypnotized? Do you believe hypnosis is valid science? Tell us in the comments.

42 thoughts on “Forensic Hypnosis for Memory Enhancement

  1. You don’t get to be old without being tough. Good for her!

    My great-grandmother threatened to shoot the mayor once when he sent a crew to put some sort of construction through her rose garden. She had a shotgun bigger than she was (she was barely five feet tall and looked like she’d blow away with the next wind). The project got moved to across the street where there was a perfectly good vacant lot he could tear up.

    Just about everyone in Mississippi says squirreled away. I’ve said it myself (product of Mississippi parents).

    • “Aunt Gina” lived in a neighborhood that went from German/Jewish to crime ridden. She stayed. She kept her shotgun by the front door. When she moved out she probably didn’t weigh 125. The kickback would probably have broken her hip. But she was going to be in better shape than whatever the business end was pointed at.

    • Good on yer Granny, Cynthia. “Squirreled away” is somewhat unusual up here, but since this case I’ve found myself using it often.

    • North Carolinians use it, and it’s a common phrase. A Southern term, perhaps? I just did an etymology search, but I couldn’t chase down who uses it.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Garry. Fascinating, as always.

    I’ve been hypnotized by certain oscillating movements encountered randomly in the wild, but that’s a topic for another place and time.

    Hope you’re having a great week!

    • It’s been a great last week, Joe. I was back in Saskatchewan for my wife’s dad’s 90th birthday. I think hypnosis cut in because I barely remember most of the long, flat drive across the prairie.

      • It’s called “highway hypnosis” by many. I remember finding myself in a small residential area off my main route home. There’s a fork in the main road and I often told myself to bear left, but on that day, I’d apparently taken the right branch. I quickly found a way out of the area and went home. The next day, i reminded myself to bear left. As I passed the fork, I noted there was a steel barrier across it, with 8×8 posts . . . and thick weeds growing around every post.

  3. What a fascinating subject, Garry. Thanks!

    The term “mesmerize” was named for the 18th century German doctor Anton Mesmer.

    Writers talk about being “in the zone” which feels a lot like the trance state you describe under hypnosis. I’ve gone for a walk many times and can’t remember what neighborhoods I went through b/c my brain is totally focused on a plot problem. The subconscious is hard at work, sending up solutions from the depths.

    Is that self-hypnosis?

    • In cases like driving, it’s a left brain, right brain situation. One side is being a good driver and getting you where you need to go while the other side is doing other stuff. It’s which side of the brain we are listening to that matters.

      I’ve always considered “the zone” for writing to be hyper-focus, not self-hypnosis.

      My siblings and some of their SOs have multiple degrees in psychology and brain/chemical research. I need to ask them about “the zone” the next time we get together.

    • Pele, the futbol star recounts in his autobiography an instance of being “in the Zone.” having a feeling, not of ordinary confidence, but of certainty that he would score, which he did. I’ve had that feeling only once or twice, a knowledge that I could not miss.

  4. Fascinating subject, Garry. I used hypnosis in one of my books and loved researching the subject. It’s been a while so I might use it again. 😉

  5. When I read, ‘ Dr. Pulos explains it.
    “Hypnosis is a natural state of consciousness that we drift in and out of quite regularly. For example, while driving along a highway and then suddenly discovering that you ‘lost’ several miles without being aware of it…”‘ I learned that something that happens to me has a name and a cause.

    I recently stopped delivering for Domino’s after 35 years. Many times I have pulled up to a house and not remembered the drive. My first thought is always, “Did I stop for all of the lights?” It is unnerving.


  6. Too many times, I’m driving and know where I am, where I’m going, but can’t remember getting to that point.
    Back in my youth, there was a television show featuring a hypnotist and they never showed him putting the ‘volunteers’ under for fear (or so they said) people at home might fall into the trance. At the end, he always broke the spell and included the home audience. I was a kid; how real it was, I don’t know, but I know we always watched it. Would probably have been in the 50s.

    • I’ve had that spooky experience, too (I suspect many of us have) of suddenly realizing I’d been driving and didn’t recall getting to where I’m currently at, though I know exactly where I’m going and where I am at at that moment.

    • I don’t know if you remember a TV hypnotist named Reveen, Terry. This guy was amazing and could put an entire audience under his spell.

      • I’m too young to remember the host’s name, but it was a fun show to watch–which meant my parents had to like it, because they controlled the television set. One of those black-and-whites in a huge bookshelf/console.

  7. Interesting post, Garry.

    I have used hypnosis in my fantasy series. A 200+ yr old Wizard helps the Mad River Magic team find portals to other worlds by going into a trance and accessing the Book of Knowledge.

    I have been hypnotized frequently. Every morning at breakfast when my wife begins describing all the ingredients of what she is preparing for meals for that day, her voice takes me to a deep REM (reluctant ear mode) where I can work on plot and revisions with surprising efficiency. I pull myself out of the hypnosis with the words, “Sorry, Honey, what did you say?”

    Thanks for this discussion. I hope your week is a good one.

  8. Good morning, Garry. I have to echo other commenters on what a fascinating post this is. I had heard about forensic hypnosis, but didn’t know any details. I really should have researched it. Thanks to this post, I have a basic understanding of how it might be used in gathering evidence as part of a trial.

    As for hypnosis, I’m working on improving my ability to do that with myself when writing, and letting my subconscious navigate my spinning stories more, and get into flow state.

    Hope you are having a good week, and that your latest fiction project is going well.

    • Hi Dale! My latest fiction project has taken on a life of its own, but that’s for another post. I find my best composition comes when I let myself go and get in the zone. “Writing into the dark” is a good term for it. Right, Harvey? (wink)

  9. All I can tell is my personal experience.

    When I worked at McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach they had an employee assistance program. If you self reported it didn’t go in your personnel record but if your boss sent you there it did. I was pretty stressed at the time so I self reported and they sent me to a hypnotherapist for stress management.

    After a few sessions it changed to him instructing me how to get to my safe place when things were building up. It was a combination of self hypnosis, deep relaxation techniques, breathing exercises to lower my pulse and some yoga thrown in.

    The benefits were significant. I stopped picking fights with people, my study habits (I was enrolled full time at Cal State Long Beach carrying 18 units and working full time on second shift) improved markedly, and doing self hypnosis yields a sleep benefit that is worth about three hours of sleep in maybe 30 minutes.

    What you do is you build a safe place inside your head that you can always call up and explore. Mine was a lakeside log cabin in the Adirondacks. At one time I drew a floor plan complete with every object in this log cabin that existed in my mind-that’s how detailed it can be, and every time you call it up it gets more detailed.

    I can still call that safe place up at will, and the techniques are very useful for insomnia.

  10. Great post, Garry. I agree, the human mind is an awesome creation.

    Back in the day (early ’80’s) when I worked as a dispatcher for our Sheriff’s Dept., I once overheard some officers talking about hypnosis as an investigative tool.

    Their consensus in this basically one-horse town was “bunk”. I wonder how that consensus would go now…

    • I can see how some police officers (and others) might think hypnosis is bunk, Deb. I have to say I was skeptical, but a professional hypnotist with a suitable subject can work wonders. Just ask the guy who got 20 years for attempting to murder my gold miner.

  11. Great piece, Garry. The mind is endlessly fascinating.

    That said, procedures like this make me nervous. I remember the McMartin Pre-School trial in the ’80s, when hundreds of charges were filed against the McMartin family based of the recovery of repressed memories from dozens of children who “remembered” being sexually abused in the school. Later, during the trial, but after the media frenzy that destroyed the McMartin family, we learned that all those memories were coached by the prosecutor. All charges were dropped.

    I don’t have a problem with hypnosis being used as part of the chain of evidence, but I bristle at the thought of repressed memories as direct testimony.

    • Thanks, John. I certainly recall the McMartin travesty. Every investigator must absorb the terrible legal abuse that family endured and vow to never let it happen again. My view on evidence gleaned through hypnosis is it must be solidly corroborated by fact – independent of statements made while in a trance. In the gold miner case which was broken open through hypnosis recall, it was backed up by the bad guy’s DNA at the scene. He’d watched the cabin for a few hours until the husband departed for town. All the while he was smoking and left his saliva-soaked butts on the ground.

  12. Fascinating post, Garry. I was mesmerized! 🙂

    I haven’t used hypnosis in any of my books, but your article and the others’ comments make it an attractive idea. Thanks for bringing it up!

    • I recently used the term “mesmerizing eyes” to describe a character, Kay, but I had to look up the definition to make sure I used it correctly. From Merriam: “hypnotic induction held to involve animal magnetism.”

  13. My dad was a liaison pilot for the Army during WWII who also flew for the RAF. He mainly flew his small plane to ferry various officials and important people. His two most interesting frequent flyers were a chef and a psychiatrist. The chef taught him a neat trick for breaking apart a baked potato. (Use the fork tines to poke a square outline in the center of the cooked potato then smush it from both sides. Lots of fluffy potato goodness erupts.) The psychiatrist taught him how to hypnotize people. Dad mainly used it as a party trick to entertain his Scouts. I saw him do it a lot.

    Anyway, hypnosis is a tool for past life regressions so I used it in my reincarnation novel, TIME AFTER TIME, for one scene. The hero is trying to convince the heroine that they are reincarnated lovers who always come together in each life. It failed dramatically for emotional reasons.

    The scene was hard to write because I wanted to be true to the methodology, but the process is pretty dang long and boring. I also didn’t want to give step by step instructions. Hypnosis can be dangerous if not used correctly, and this was pre-Internet. I was pleased with the results, and fans said it made them cry so yeah, me.

  14. I haven’t used hypnosis in my books (yet) but I love self-hypnosis. Remind me to send you the link to an amazing self-hypnosis session for writers. Whenever life gets stressful, I slide on the headphones, breathe deep…and let go. After the hour session, I feel like a new suit. I’m not at home or I’d post the link here.

    You know how I feel about shamanism. 😍

  15. Have you used hypnosis scenes in your works?

    I had Carl Jung hypnotize “Der Fuehrer” in “Mouth of the Lion,” to put Hitler to sleep and to get safely away with knowledge of how to fool him.

    Have you ever been hypnotized?

    Not as far as I know.

    Do you believe hypnosis is valid science?

    In some applications, most definitely. Combined with other methods, it may be the best way to tread certain disorders. However, Carl Jung stopped using it in his clinical work. In his opinion, it was too easy to impress the therapist’s opinions upon the client. I didn’t understand the McMartin Preschool case until I saw a photo of the so-called therapist in the paper. Later, a co-worker told me he watched copies of the CII interview tapes. He said no child was going to leave the therapist’s office without implicating the suspects. Note: Children’s play is a hypnotic state. So is “play therapy” involving dolls and puppets.

  16. I’ve shared here previously my hypothesis that the mind contains a rapid protective region that bypasses the frontal lobes in an emergency. It is autonomous, since waiting for permission from the intellect before acting would be inconsistent with its purpose. It is, at a minimum, semi-sentient. As Jung said, “In each of us there is an ʘther whom we do not know. He speaks to us in dreams…” –Psychological Reflections

    It is this part of the mind that helps us drive, gets us out of bed for midnight excursions in our sleep, takes control during hypnosis, causes deja vu, and, having no conscience, is implicated in various malfunctions, such as addiction, bipolar disorder, alcoholic blackouts, and denial. It is also our creative center, our dreamer, and the manager of our memories.

    Six monographs are linked to this page:

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