Of the many questionable uses to which hypnosis has been applied, probably none is more absurd than past-life regression (PLR). In PLR, the hypnotized person is alleged to journey back into the past, to lives she or he lived before the present one. It is beyond dispute that some patients do in fact recall past lives; the source of the memories, however, is very much open to debate. Such memories have been taken by some to be evidence of reincarnation; in fact, they are very likely to be false memories, probably a combination of experiences from the current life, pure imagination, confabulations, and suggestions from the hypnotist.
The problem is that some therapists, frequently those with little or no scientiﬁc training in either hypnosis or the working of human memory, sincerely believe that hypnosis provides access to the unconscious mind, where memories are stored that are inaccessible to the conscious mind. Frequently this is due to repression, the deliberate forgetting that Freud proposed as the mind’s way of dealing with memories that are too traumatic to confront directly. Although research on memory has consistently failed to support the theory of repression, and research on hypnosis shows that it is far more likely to result in new, false memories, some therapists have suggested that memories of past lives are also locked away in the subconscious. It is unclear, and usually unstated, how such past-life memories would have become repressed in the ﬁrst place, since most such therapists adhere, however loosely, to some sort of doctrine of reincarnation. Traditions that incorporate reincarnation, however, such as Hinduism, do not include repressed memories of past lives among their beliefs.
Like all false memories, memories of past lives created under hypnosis are indistinguishable from “real” memories, at least from the point of view of the person remembering them, and they can be very vivid. Defenders of past-life therapy often point out, as proof that the memories are real, that people have remembered things they can’t possibly have known otherwise. In fact, remembering information while having no idea where it came from is extremely common, and the phenomenon is quite well known among memory researchers, who sometimes call it cryptomnesia. The case that started the whole past-life regression boom, the case of Bridey Murphy, illustrates this phenomenon extremely well. In 1956, Morey Bernstein published The Search for Bridey Murphy, his account of his many hypnotic sessions with housewife Virginia Tighe, who under hypnosis recalled being a nineteenth-century woman in Ireland. Under hypnosis, she spoke in a thick brogue, sang Irish songs, told Irish stories that she didn’t seem to know prior to hypnosis, and revealed various details about Ireland that the author said she couldn’t have otherwise known. In addition to the book, Bernstein released tapes of these sessions, which also sold well. The case received so much attention that reporters were actually dispatched to Ireland to ﬁnd out if a red-headed woman named Bridey Murphy had existed.
Unfortunately for Bernstein, one newspaper did ﬁnd her. When Tighe was a small child, her neighbor across the street was an Irish woman. Her name? Bridie Murphy Corkell. Tighe was digging up old memories, but they dated back to her early childhood, not to a previous life. The rest was simply the combination of imagination and confabulation that often results from hypnosis. Some of the “astounding” details of Irish life that she recalled were actually the sort of things that are common knowledge, not just to any tourist who has been to Ireland, but even to those who have merely read about it. For example, Bernstein emphasized that she knew that kissing the Blarney Stone requires the help of a friend to hold one’s legs while one leans over backwards. Despite these ﬁfty-year-old revelations, the book remains in print today and continues to inﬂuence believers.
Past-life regression could be easily dismissed as just another relatively harmless pop-culture fad, were it not for the existence of therapists who represent it as a tool for healing psychological problems. Just as some therapists have claimed that most psychological disorders are the result of repressed memories of sexual abuse, past-life therapists suggest that adjustment difﬁculties in the present life require confronting things that happened in previous lives. Any therapy that requires the patient to create delusions is potentially quite dangerous and should be avoided. The same cautions apply here as with other types of false memories: although some false memories can be harmless and silly, others can increase the patient’s suffering while also creating new suffering for the patient’s loved ones or destroying family relationships. The damage is difﬁcult to undo, as the memories are experienced by the patient as completely real, as real as things that actually happened.
- Bernstein, M. The Search for Bridey Murphy. Rev. ed. New York: Doubleday, 1965;
- Spanos, N. “Past-Life Hypnotic Regression.” Skeptical Inquirer, 12(2) (1988): 174–180.