Article: A Thorny Question: An Experiential Analysis of Spontaneous and Hypnotically Induced Past Life Memory Retrieval – Jenny Cockell (Is.32)

by Jenny Cockell

Abstract—In this article, Jenny Cockell, well-known author and personality in the field of reincarnation research, seeks to compare and extrapolate her own experiences of spontaneous past life memory recall with her experiences of accessing past life memories utilising hypnosis. In this well-considered and intimate account, Jenny shares examples of the positives and negatives, gains and detriments, of both experiential realms. Further, she addresses the question as to whether or not hypnosis is a useful tool in retrieving past life memories which can be validated in the same manner in which many thousands of spontaneous past life memories have been interrogated and verified. If not, why not, are questions which run throughout the body of her article.


Reincarnation Research

According to academic researchers, spontaneous past life recollection in children offers us the best and usually the most accurate insight into what past lives are about. Tucker states, “The phenomenon of young children reporting past life memories is fascinating in and of itself, and as you learn about it, you can gradually form an opinion about what it means” (2006, p.xv). There are thousands of child past life cases that have been approved and verified by intensive research and more cases crop up every day. Many of these include memories of the period between lives, also known as intermission memories, which are equally as enlightening as the past life memories (Tucker, ibid). Notable in the work of such researchers is an absence of many of the ‘new age’ beliefs often attributed to reincarnation, such as contracts and life planning.

The criteria for past life verification are necessarily strict. A past life person is identified. A significant number of details that cannot have been found out by any normal means are provided and these can be corroborated by a member of the past life family, preferably in the presence of an independent researcher or checked by researchers.

Spontaneous Childhood Memories of Past Lives

When a child remembers a past life the memories are like any other memory, so are experienced as snapshots of isolated incidents. Some of these are very detailed, others less so.

It has been noted that the memories tend to be concentrated around the death and the few years closest to the death (See Stevenson, 2001, for information on the commonality of memories of violent deaths). They seldom contain accurate dates and although most will remember their own first name there may be very few other names. It is rare to remember a surname at all.

It seems that past life memory instead consists of events with a strong emotional content. Dr Natwar Sharma (2021) makes the point that even one emotion-laden past life event can produce a “Cocktail of emotions” (p.5) which can emerge within and influence a current life. Therefore, the emotional content in itself may be the reason for remembering at all. Additionally, the details recalled focus on sensory information, such as seeing the surroundings and recalling feelings, smells or sounds involved in an event. In other words a child is most likely to remember specific and often quite detailed events, along with how they felt at the time.

Some memories might be recalled in dreams, but it is more usual that they emerge during reflective moments, or when reminded of the past by a present life incident. When a child remembers a past life the advice is that they should be allowed to talk openly without too many questions being asked. Neither should too many opinions about reincarnation be offered so as not to cause unnecessary interference with the recall process, which should remain spontaneous. The process should be allowed to happen naturally without the pressure to perform, or to agree with data formulated and proposed externally.

It should be accepted that most children will forget their past life narratives and experiences as they integrate fully into their current lives. This often seems to happen around the ages of six to eight (Haraldsson & Matlock, 2016). By that age most children, even those with very detailed past life memories, will forget. Indeed this is probably a healthy option; it’s much easier to live in the here and now without being shadowed by the past.

The Role of Hypnotic Regression and Personal Experiences of Hypnosis

But what is the role of hypnotic regression in past life memory recall, and how does it compare with spontaneous recall? Or, to go further, should we even be comparing these approaches? As a consequence of having both verified childhood past life memories and having been a subject of hypnosis, I believe this puts me in an unusual position where it is possible to compare the two experiences.

My own experience of hypnosis has only been at the receiving end. I know nothing about the theory, practice, therapy methods or anything else from the practitioner’s side. But I hope that my observations are of some use.

I also have to point out that my experience with hypnosis was more than thirty years ago and even then most practitioners, including several excellent hypnotists I met, had already moved on to different methods of questioning and approaching subjects (See Lucas (1992) for examples). So I think my experience should be considered outdated, even by standards at the time. But I feel it is still useful to look at the ‘what, how and why?’ to understand the relationship between memory per se and past life memory within the context of hypnosis.

My main hypnosis experience was in the 1980’s with an amateur hypnotist interested in past lives, but I was also hypnotised a few other times including on one occasion by Brian Weiss. In my recent book ‘Living With Past Lives’ (Cockell, 2021) I went to some lengths to directly compare the accuracy of my verified childhood past life memories with details given under my hypnosis sessions, partly to find out why hypnosis can introduce errors. I wondered if such potential errors contributed to the difficulties associated with verification of a past life persona determined via hypnosis.

Hypnotic regression has been used for a long time on a great many subjects, so by now shouldn’t it have produced tens of thousands of verified cases to compare with the several thousand verified spontaneous childhood past life cases? As far as I am aware, it has failed to produce more than a handful. But why is this? This is the ‘Thorny Question’ which I am seeking to address in this article. It doesn’t mean that hypnosis fails to find past lives, just that something different is happening compared to spontaneous memory. I wanted to find out what that was.

It is likely that using the same approach under hypnosis, as is advised for childhood spontaneous memories, might provide relatively undistorted memories; but only of course where such memories are available. Allowing the subject to talk without too many specific questions, no pressure to perform, or perceived requests to accept or concur with proposed data or suggestions external to the subject which might cause unnecessary interference, might produce accurate results. Albeit, that the retrieved memories may be without the specific details (names and dates for example) needed to research the lives revealed.

My presumption is that if the memories are not available, the narrative could be from an unconscious archetypal realm, or exude from the imagination. Awareness of these factors, in themselves, would of course be useful from a therapeutic viewpoint.

Spontaneous Retrieval of Specific Details of Past Lives

With my own past life memory I thought the limited names and my poor ability with names in any case, were a hindrance to research. I was wrong. Not only is it normal to find names a problem to recall, but I remembered so much else that pinpointed the location that the names were not essential. I drew maps of my Irish past life showing where the house was and indicated the village as Malahide in childhood (Cockell, 1993). Specific memories of family events and detailed descriptions also proved extremely useful in providing necessary evidence when the time came.

Hypnotic Retrieval of Specific Details of Past Lives

When I was encouraged to try hypnosis, the enthusiast believed he could help me find the names I thought I needed. Logically hypnosis has a similarity to meditation and the dream state so may access unconscious thoughts, which is a useful thing to be able to do. In theory it seemed a sensible step to take.

However, my experience of the process was so problematic that during my search for the past life family I had to abandon what I had seen under hypnosis because, unlike the spontaneous past life memories I had in childhood, so much of the memories recovered under hypnosis were completely wrong or at least misleading.

It was only later that I realised how many of the visual memories retrieved during hypnosis were useful and noticed how many more memories were unvoiced during the hypnosis sessions, partly because the wrong questions were asked or too many questions were asked. Though in fairness it must be difficult to know what is in someone else’s mind. However, the practitioner should have allowed me to have the necessary space I needed for the contents of my unconscious mind to make their way to consciousness and be revealed.

So something went wrong during the sessions I underwent, but what went wrong?

Detriments and Gains of Hypnotic Approaches to Past Life Memory Retrieval

There were a number of problems during the hypnosis sessions I had, including a few unfortunate, but very clear accidental suggestions.

For example I gave a surname, which was a close approximation for the married surname (obviously all memory is available at all times, despite any specific time period we are told we should be looking at). I was later asked for the father’s surname and when I couldn’t find it I was told that it “MUST” be the same, which of course it wasn’t.

The rigorous and sometimes unrelenting questioning itself often directed the imagination instead of allowing recollection.

I think one of the reasons that makes hypnosis a very useful tool for therapy is because it harnesses the person’s imagination and reveals their inner worries, which of course offers a chance to process partially repressed concerns. But this same success with imagination might be the downfall of regression when it comes to finding useful facts about a past life, because it is so easy for imagination to trump reality, much as it does in the unrepressed dream state.

But although many past lives seen under hypnosis will include varying degrees of imagination or become mixed up with more recent memories, I feel that people may see aspects of real past lives. During my hypnosis experience it was inevitable that I would see at least some of the past life I always had, because that was already my focus and I already had considerable childhood recall. Indeed I saw and re-experienced a great many of the things I knew already and was able to visualise a few small details I may have forgotten since childhood.

The subjects themselves are always part of the experiment and individuals differ in how they interact with others, how they listen or how much pressure they add themselves. I tended to abruptly change to other times or places when accidentally triggered by a word. We all react differently and think differently, so even verbal instruction itself can be problematic. The only person who can really interpret the experience in the end is the subject themselves.

At times the hypnotic process felt too much like an interrogation and the answers were often a reflex, so sometimes had nothing to do with a past life at all. Instead, they were somewhat random unconscious thoughts or as a response to irritation. At other times the questions were too closed and directive. For example, if I was asked a specific question, like ‘Are there horses?’ I would of course see horses, because the question was phrased in such a way as to almost suggest horses and therefore activate images of horses. Also, when I couldn’t recall a name it didn’t help when it was suggested that I would remember the name later. It was essentially an instruction to give a name when asked later, even if it was wrong.

The intervening decades have brought many of these difficulties to light, which I would imagine have improved the process. As an example, a research study conducted by the EARTh Research Committee, had the intention to raise practitioner awareness around areas which need to be more fully considered and integrated into contemporary practice.

This study was reported on in the International Journal of Regression Therapy (Fenn, 2017) and named a variety of problematic areas which practitioners should be mindful of. These included: not appropriately listening to the client and misinterpreting what they hear, the necessity to build a sense of trust between the client and the practitioner, being conscious of how the therapists ‘use of self’ and their own intentions can influence the process, and the crucial importance of paying attention to the client’s specific needs and being adaptive to those needs by not applying fixed approaches.

Issues Particular to Retrieving Specific Historical Details

Regression hypnosis in the 1950’s and for several decades more, focussed on trying to find specific details, like names, dates and historical information to try to trace a past life, yet this is where the process is at its weakest. People seldom remember past life names or dates except in the broadest sense. Most children at best recall a rough time frame or names that bear some similarity. This is so common in spontaneous past life memories that it seems this kind of detail is the hardest to access (Tucker, 2013). The focus for historical details given under hypnosis that could be checked was equally problematic, as many of the cases turned out to relate to history that people had read in a book or gained some other way; a phenomenon known as cryptomnesia (Porge, 2018). Perhaps realistically the efforts should not have been concentrated on these details.

Memory works best when you come at it sideways rather than head on, so perhaps oblique, subtle questioning and non-directive facilitation could have released detail that would be more accurate.

With my sessions in the 1980’s the hypnotist became exasperated by my lack of historical replies, without understanding that I have never had any interest in politics – I still don’t watch the news. I was also asked a great many questions about things that past life memories seldom contain. When asked very specific questions about names and dates under hypnosis, a compliant person is almost bound to produce false information just to be obedient.

It was only whilst researching for my most recent book (Cockell, 2021) that I noticed that almost all of the information about names and dates I gave were from my current life, which is why they were wrong for the past life. So when asked about siblings for example, I automatically said that I had two brothers, which of course I did in my current life. I even gave my older brother’s middle name.

I think it hadn’t occurred to me that the present-day conscious self may be active even whilst under hypnosis, hence in any retrieved memory, past life or otherwise. This is yet another problem which practitioners and subjects should be aware of – the answers can come from any time, which confuses the issue.

I had to conclude that the hypnosis I underwent was mostly unable to help me provide reliable names or dates and encouraged incorrect elaboration, imaginative or otherwise, facilitated by the style of questioning utilised by the practitioner. But confusingly, quite a bit of what I saw was completely right and the same as the past I had always described. This might not be seen as particularly helpful because I knew most of these things anyway before hypnosis. However, mentioning some of these things under hypnosis did provide an extra layer of verification.

Recalibrating Thoughts About Hypnotic Regression – Resolving the ‘Thorny Question’

Reading through this you might assume that I dismiss hypnosis regression completely. But you would be wrong. I think as long as people are not asked to respond to very directed over-specific questioning, or led, or assumptions made that control the direction, but instead are just allowed to describe what they see or feel at their own pace, then something can be achieved. This ‘something’ might be an insight into real past lives or it might be a gateway to understanding that person’s inner fears. Both of these are valid from a therapeutic point of view. As long as the subject’s needs are met then the process has merit.

Over the years regression hypnosis has evolved. Friends tell me that they were asked to describe what they saw or felt, without directive instruction or excessive questioning that might lead to reaching for answers and relying on imagination or giving random replies.

Is the reason why there are so few verified cases with regression hypnosis simply because the kind of detail relied upon to ascertain the identity is not the kind of information that can be easily supplied under hypnosis? In other words the process may be mainly or partially real in many cases, but not possible to evidence.

With my own sessions, once I ignored the random names and dates, there were a few useful details. For example I saw an event where a rabbit was caught in a snare and a day when I overfilled the mattress with chaff and couldn’t get it through the door – causing much laughter with the children.

Both events were emotive, which may be meaningful in terms of thinking about the best ways to facilitate the therapeutic process. Both events were also confirmed by the family when I later traced them, as was the name Mac who we paid rent to (the owner of the rented cottage was called MacMahon), which was also given under hypnosis.

Additionally and oddly, the hypnosis did help with a name with one of my other lives, which was later verified. I gave the name Charles S which turned out to be Charles Savage, my life during the Second World War. Interestingly there was much less pressure to perform when asked that name, which might be why it was easier to recall.

Hypnosis as an Enhancer of PSI

One aspect that I did find surprisingly useful was hypnosis as an enhancer of ability. It did slightly magnify the past life memory that was already there, but it also proved useful as an enhancer of precognition. All my life I have had precognitive experiences. Exploring these further with hypnosis revealed interesting strengths of the process.

The hypnotist did push hard in the quest for names and dates again, which really wasn’t much help, but something odd happened. I wasn’t able to appreciate the significance until a few decades had passed, but slowly some of the precognitive things I saw and described under hypnosis did start to happen.

This was long before there was any internet, but I had described people in the future working from home and talking face to face with other people onscreen in conference calls. It wasn’t an educated guess; I saw it happening. I also saw moving video advertising boards, which started to appear around a decade after the experiment, and large screens like cinema screens, advertising in shops, which were a much more recent development.

The best pre-cognitive experience was my receptivity to visualise and my capacity to describe a laser microscope capable of looking at living tissue. I have described and discussed this in some detail in several of my books. The news of the prototype of the invention was published in The Telegraph, after the book I first mentioned it in (Cockell, 1996) was published and a long time after the hypnosis.

So it seemed that there was another good use for hypnosis, to help induce the correct state of mind needed to perform psychic feats and access events across a timeline.

I would presume, that this receptivity and capacity is only likely if the person was already capable of precognitive or psychic experiences without hypnosis. Therefore, hypnosis slightly enhancing rather than creating a pre-existent psychic ability. In my opinion, it seems extremely unlikely that using hypnosis to see the future or develop other psychic abilities in a person who was unable to do this normally could work. In the same way that hypnosis would be unlikely to turn someone who is tone-deaf into a competent musician.

In the assessment of what worked and what didn’t work associated with hypnosis, I think that the ability searched for has to be there to a greater extent to begin with. Hypnosis couldn’t help me overcome my difficulty remembering names or retrieve memories that were not there in the first place, but it did help me focus on what I already knew and what I could already do and add a little bit. In other words, it could very slightly extend what was already there; though it was unfortunate that the process seemed to add a great deal of erroneous extras.

Further, the names and dates associated with my precognitions didn’t work, and although my usual precognitive experiences, generally whilst wide awake, were very accurate and detailed I found that under hypnosis, once the questioning ramped up again, much of what I saw felt altered by imagination and I was less inclined to accept it.

The things I visualised related to the future happened much sooner than the dates guessed or suggested under hypnosis. Most of the things happened within the following few decades, so they began to happen within my lifetime. This made a lot of sense as most of my precognitive experiences occur between several weeks to several years ahead, with only a few much further ahead.

Concluding Comments

My own conclusions from this rather long-ago experience are that I wasn’t able to recall what wasn’t in my memory already. Having discussed this with others who also had childhood spontaneous past life memories and also used hypnosis, we found that increasing the pressure or questioning caused the memories to become mixed up with imagination, past with present, unvoiced worries or childhood trauma. All of this can be presented as a dialogue rather similar to a dream, but may be no more real than a dream; complete with imaginative contents which present as a consequence of the lifting of repression in the dream state.

Still talking from the outside, and hoping not to annoy those of you who have far more understanding of hypnosis than I do, I think this may answer why past life cases from hypnosis seldom produce the evidence required for verification.

Spontaneous past life recollection in childhood is useful as it can be researched, but using hypnosis to help adults has a completely different role and probably shouldn’t be used in verification. Why? Because you can only draw out memories that are there. If something is completely forgotten then pursuing an answer may result in grasping at whatever the unconscious can throw up.

There is no doubt that hypnosis is a powerful tool in therapy and in resolving issues. Everything we do has its strengths and weaknesses. But by harnessing the strengths whilst being mindful of its weaknesses, the tool can be used to its greatest affect.

It is very likely that regression hypnosis is producing memories of past lives, but where there are gaps, maybe they are filled in with imagination rather than leaving a void. As I see it, the process is probably working, just not perfectly. Rather like us. We are imperfect and prone to making mistakes or acting rashly. Our unconscious may be similarly imperfect.




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