~Subj:   Past-Life Hypnotic Regression
~Date:   94-12-17 01:36:02 EST
~From:   kihlstrm@minerva.cis.yale.edu (John F Kihlstrom)
A short while ago someone wrote on this net asking for information concerning past-life regression.

I replied that anyone using past-life regression for therapeutic purposes stop doing so immediately.

Since then, I have received a remarkable number of messages asking for my reasons.

Life is too short to prolong this discussion, but since the essential points can be generalized to a wide variety of topics with respect to both hypnosis and psychotherapy, allow me the cyberspace to make the following points.

First, past-life regression is entirely bogus. We don't have past lives, so there's nothing to regress to.

Now, I know all about the Hindus and Buddhists, but that is of course a matter of religious belief, not scientific evidence, and I am assuming that the subscribers to this list are interested in putting clinical practice on a firm scientific basis. If I am wrong about this, we are all in big trouble.

But of course, references to Hindus and Buddhists are beside the point, because the vast majority of patients and therapists involved in past-life regression are Christians, Jews, and secular folk who come from a Judeo-Christian heritage (I can't think of any examples, but before someone declares a fatwa on me let me concede that there are probably religious and secular Muslims involved as well).

Anyway, I doubt that it would ever occur to a practicing Hindu or Buddhist to engage in past-life regression, because what's past is past. The important thing in both traditions is to lead a good life NOW, so as to increase the likelihood of future reincarnation into a higher form of life -- a point to which I will return.

In the final analysis, people who do religious healing should do religious healing, and not call it psychotherapy. After all, genuine faith healers don't call what they do medicine.

One correspondent has agreed that religious belief is beside the point, but argued that past-life recall offers the person profound insights, analogous to remembering infantile sexual feelings.

I'm sorry, but I don't know what kind of profound insights are to be had from an experience that is wholly illusory. What possible benefit is there to "remembering" oneself as someone one wasn't? If one concedes that the "remembering" is in fact "imagining", I repeat the question: with what possible benefit? I am prepared to believe that imagining oneself to be someone else can be beneficial, as in role-taking therapies of the sort developed by George Kelly or others in the cognitive-behavioral tradition, but setting this imagination in the context of past lives brings occult pseudoscience into what is supposed to be a scientifically based therapeutic method. It's not necessary, and it's harmful if it (1) reinforces inappropriate beliefs on the part of the patient and/or (2) makes the profession of psychotherapy look ridiculous.

With respect to remembering the sexual feelings of one's earliest years, this is another wholly illusory concept, but it is Freudian pseudoscience (read Malcolm Macmillan's Freud Reevaluated: The Completed Arc or Fred Crews's recent essay in the New York Review of Books) not occult pseudoscience, and thus a topic for another message someday (I know you all can't wait).

Second, the implicit assumption is that a hypnotically suggested effect is the same as the "real thing". Hypnotic effects are products of the imagination, closer to delusion than anything else.

Let me be clear that anyone who treats the past lives produced through hypnotic regression as historically accurate is making this assumption. It is an assumption as old as Bridey Murphy, likely older. But everything we know about hypnosis tells us that hypnosis is first and foremost an experience of the imagination. The analogy is to hypnotic age-regression where we suggest to adults that they are children once again. There is no convincing evidence that such regression is "genuine" in the sense that it reinstates childhood modes of mental functioning (any more than the subject grows smaller in the chair), abolishes adult knowledge and memories, or revives early memories. For reviews of this literature, see the articles by Nash in Psych Bull or Fromm & Nash's Contemporary Hypnosis Research, or the review by Barnhardt and myself in Wegner & Pennebaker's Handbook of Mental Control. If regression to Age 5 (e.g.) doesn't produce the real thing, why should anyone expect more of past-life regression?

Some correspondents have objected to my use of the term "delusion" here, but of course I am only invoking J.P. Sutcliffe's classic (and I think largely correct) resolution of the credulous-skeptical debate. For a discussion of hypnosis as a delusion, see the chapter by Hoyt and myself in Oltmanns and Maher's Delusional Beliefs.

Third, past-life regression encourages the patient to focus on the past rather than the present, and to assign blame rather than to change and cope.

It has been argued that past-life regression tells the patient what he or she has to cope with, not whom he or she has to blame. In fact, as the "recovered memory" movement indicates, there is a whole lot of blaming going on. But I'll just rephrase my earlier question: what's the point of coping with something that may well be a therapist-induced delusion?

Fourth, there is absolutely no acceptable evidence -- by which I mean that there is not even a single clinical study with anything like an acceptable design -- showing that past-life regression has positive therapeutic effects.

This last one should be the clincher. Scientifically oriented psychotherapists have an affirmative professional obligation to employ only techniques that are known to be safe and efficacious.

John F. Kihlstrom, Professor
Department of Psychology, Yale University
P.O. Box 208205, New Haven, Connecticut 06520-8205
Telephone (203) 432-2596 Facsimile (203) 432-7172

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