Orne, M.T.,  & O’Connell, D.N. A book review of Reiff, R., & Scheerer, M. Memory and hypnotic age regression: Developmental aspects of cognitive function explored through hypnosis. In Contemporary Psychology, 1961, 6 (3), 70-72. (Contemporary Psychology became PsychCRITIQUES in 2005.)

Age Regression by Hypnosis

Robert Reiff and Martin Scheerer

Memory and Hypnotic Age Regression: Developmental Aspects of Cognitive Function Explored through Hypnosis. New York: International Universities Press, 1959. Pp. 253  $5.00


The senior author, Dr. Scheerer, is Professor of Psychology at the University of Kansas. He had his doctorate from the University of Hamburg and a dozen years of teaching and research in New York City before he went to Kansas. He is known best for his research on brain injuries, symbolic processes, and personality theory. Dr. Reiff, who is now Chief Psychologist at the Jewish Board of Guardians in New York City, took his PhD under Scheerer at Kansas in 1954, and the present volume, their joint undertaking, grew out of Reiff’s doctoral dissertation. Dr. Orne, the senior reviewer, is a clinical psychologist and psychiatrist, at present Instructor in Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and Research Associate in Harvard’s Department of Social Relations. He is director of the Studies in Hypnosis Project in the Department of Psychiatry. O’Connell is a research associate with the Studies in Hypnosis Project at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center and is working now on the problem of hypnotic age regression.

This monograph consists of two separate sections. The first considers certain theoretical aspects of memory and related functions. The second section reports an experiment based on these theoretical aspects. These two parts are so disparate and of such different quality as to justify their separate review.

The chapters on theory present a detailed integration of dynamic theories of memory and the genetic theories of cognitive development characteristic of Piaget and others. The traditional concept of memory as an isolated capacity for retention is briefly discussed and compared with the Gestalt view, which treats memory as a dynamic function that is intimately related to cognitive-perceptual field organization during learning and recall and to the trace field during retention. The reviewers recognize that the trace theory of memory is not the strongest area of Gestalt theory, especially when it deals with the temporal organization of trace systems. Nevertheless, these chapters pose a thoughtful, convincing argument and review succinctly the relevant literature.

Some clarification is found in the distinction that the authors make between remembrances, memories experienced with a personal-temporal quality, and memoria, memories which do not have an autobiographical index quality. Memoria include, on the one hand, general items in the information repertoire of the individual, automized habits, an so




forth, and, on the other hand, the schemata of cognitive functioning at each stage of development. This latter characteristic is particularly relevant to the further argument. For instance, the difficulty that an adult encounters in his attempts to recall childhood events is assumed to be the result of qualitative differences between his present adult modes of thinking and those used previously in childhood. The events of the past are learned in the context of the modes of thinking characteristic of the past. As the individual proceeds from autistic to egocentric to realistic and rational modes of thinking, each preceding system of schemata is, in turn, forgotten. And forgotten with them are more and more of the events contextually associated with them. In effect, it is argued that we cannot remember childhood events because we can no longer think as we could when children. If those earlier modes could be revived in some way, it is assumed that recall for events contemporaneous with them would be greatly facilitated.

Some of the more recent psychoanalytic views and ego-psychology approaches, notably those of Hartman and Rapaport, are shown to be consistent with this theory. Finally, the authors suggest that hypnotic age regression is suggested as a method of demonstration, and the literature on that subject is reviewed.

The second part of the monograph is devoted to experimental demonstration of age regression. Five highly trained hypnotic subjects, who made up the experimental group, were chosen from a large population on the basis of their facile hypnotizability. Each member of the group was ‘regressed’ successively during the experiment to ages ten, seven, and four. After every regression each was brought back to his actual age, and amnesia was induced for the previous experience. The behavior of these subjects under hypnosis was compared with the behavior of a group of fifteen individuals each of whom was asked to play the role of one of the three ages. The groups were compared in terms of mode of functioning in specific task situations, with a view to establishing the developmental stage of each individual. The hollow tube test, exploration of how the subject tells time, understands right from left, does simple arithmetic, and so forth, were used in the style of Piaget and Werner. A free play period, word association tests, and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance were also used. Here the authors point out that they were not so much concerned with the success of failure of the task as with the particular mode of thinking. The differences in performance between the two groups, analyzed in terms of these developmental criteria, were attributed to the effect of hypnotic age regression. In addition to the tasks, each subject was presented with a number of factual questions during regression, dealing with such things as the day of the week on which his tenth birthday fell, the names of his schoolteachers at various ages, and the names of the classmates sitting next to him.  Finally, there were a number of experiments reported on the revival of forgotten skills. For instance, one person was able to translate a Latin passage which she had read in her second year of high school, and for which she denied understanding in her waking state. These final experiments deal with single examples, and no control groups were used.

The authors conclude from the set of experiments using both simulated and hypnotized subjects in age regression that support is found for both the development-stage theory of memory and the genuineness of hypnotic age regression. The ingenuity of their method and the potential importance of their findings make the monograph an important contribution to our understanding of this subject. It is thus particularly unfortunate that the authors have not avoided several serious methodological defects. They properly recognize the limitation of using a small sample, but there are more serious difficulties.

Of the five subjects used for hypnotic age regression, each was regressed to all three ages. The authors conclude that this is equivalent to the three groups of five subjects, each group regressed to one of the ages. They argue that the amnesia induced after each session  precluded contamination.

That conclusion is not supported by the work of previous investigators. In one study, Strickler showed that, although subjects denied recollection of trance events after induced amnesia, there was a 50 percent saving for both nonsense material and image learning when the ‘forgotten’ material was presented for relearning (Hull, 1933). Further, it has been generally observed that subjects will use information gained in hypnosis and ‘forgotten’ after induced amnesia if a solution to a relevant problem is called for, but will deny recall when asked directly. The simple fact that a post-hypnotic suggestion will be followed despite amnesia for the suggestion demonstrates this special quality of the hypnotic amnesia. Introspective recall is prevented, but there is no interference with the suggested performance. The subject is motivated to comply to the best of his ability with the suggestions of the hypnotist. In his classic paper on uniocular blindness, Pattie has shown the extent to which some subjects will go in attempting to carry out the suggestions (1935). It would seem incongruous to assume that just because amnesia has been suggested for events occurring previously in trance the subjects would not utilize the knowledge gained to improve their performance on subsequent occasions.

Moreover, the authors say that the



actual subjects had had some experience with age regression, before the actual study, to see whether they were able to follow the suggestion. Thus the control simulators employed in this study had only one opportunity to play the role of age regression whereas the hypnotic subjects had at least three and usually several more opportunities to learn this kind of task. For instance, the authors’ data show that the simulators did far better at simulating age ten than the younger ages. This is the age to which the hypnotized subjects were regressed first. It is therefore difficult to judge how much of the discrepancy in performance between the simulators and the hypnotic subjects is due to practice in and information about the tasks and how much is due to the actual phenomenon of age regression. For the differences between simulating and regressed subjects to have clearer meaning it would have been necessary to utilize either three groups of hypnotized subjects regressed to one age or one group of simulators regressed to all three ages.

A further objection may be made that no controls were used for these tests of subjects who were in the hypnotic state but not age-regressed. The possibility that an increase in autistic thinking might be an intrinsic quality of the trance state should be considered. If such be the case, the hypnotically age regressed subjects would appear to be functioning at an earlier developmental level, for autistic thinking is also characteristic of the earliest stages of cognitive development.

The authors emphasize that the behavior of the simulating subjects was unconvincing during the period of free play, but here both the simulator and the hypnotist were aware that simulation was involved. Under these circumstances the experimenter may not treat the simulating subject as he would the hypnotic subject, despite identical wording of instructions. Also for the subject who knows that the experimenter is aware of his simulation, the task is onerous and difficult. He knows that he is only playing a game and feels embarrassed about really throwing himself into the requested role. In our experience simulators perform very much as described by Reiff and Scheerer. When the situation is designed, however, to leave the experimenter in ignorance as to which subjects are simulating, and when in addition the subjects are told their task is to deceive him, then an entirely different order of performance is obtained. Under these circumstances real and simulating subjects, having been treated identically, tend to become behaviorally indistinguishable.

In this context, we note that another control is lacking. No data are presented on the performance of actual children of the appropriate ages. Piaget reports data, but they were obtained in another country, by different experimenters, and in vastly different settings. It would seem necessary to obtain some normative values before one could comfortably use the procedures as a test. While some of the word association tables for children are relatively recent and available, it would seem important for the authors to have obtained comparative information directly from control groups made up of children of the appropriate ages.

One final and serious drawback for a monograph of this type is the failure to present a meaningful rationale for hypnotic age regression. One would hope to find a discussion relating the phenomenon to contemporary personality theories. However, the reader is left with the impression that hypnotic age regression is somehow magically achieved by requesting a hypnotized subject ‘to be’ a given age.

It is possible to see this study in either one of two ways: as an investigation of the schemata of thinking utilized by the child at various ages and their relationship to memory, using the approach of hypnotic age regression; or as a study of hypnotic age regression utilizing the developmental tests of Piaget and Werner as the method of study. The authors appear to be trying to achieve both ends and the reader is never certain as to their primary intent. The demonstration of genuineness of hypnotic age regression is methodologically weak and thus throws some doubt on the use of the phenomenon as a valid means of investigating the schemata of thinking employed during the development of the individual. Seen as a study of hypnotic age regression, the use of developmental tests is an ingenious and appropriate technique, but here the absence of data on children’s performances becomes a serious omission. Thus while the theoretical contribution is provocative and the ideas underlying the empirical study are worthwhile, the absence of adequate controls leaves the authors’ findings as hypotheses that await further testing.


C.L. Hull. Hypnosis and suggestibility: an experimental approach. New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1933.

F.A. Pattie. A report of attempts to produce uniocular blindness by hypnotic suggestion. Brit J med Psychol, 1935, 15, 230-241.

The preceding paper is a reproduction of the following book review (Orne, M.T., & O’Connell, D.N. A book review of Reiff, R., & Scheerer, M. Memory and hypnotic age regression: Developmental aspects of cognitive functioning explored through hypnosis. In Contemporary Psychology, 1961, 6(3), 70-72. ). It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the American Psychological Association ©1961. No further reproduction or distribution of this book review is permitted without written permission of the publisher. (Contemporary Psychology became PsychCRITIQUES in 2005.)