Cryptomnesia 101

памятьCryptomnesia is, literally, hidden memory.  Cryptomnesia is a memory that has been forgotten and then returns without being recognized as such by the subject, who believes it is something new and original. In general, the memory returns in the form of an idea or intuition […] (Definition from International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis.)

The term was coined by Théodore Flournoy (1854-1921), the Geneva-based psychiatrist. Flournoy came up with the term and first used it in his book From India to the Planet Mars: A Case of Multiple Personality with Imaginary Languages published in 1901.from indiaThe book attempts to discredit or, rather, explain and rationalize the spiritualist phenomena. The case in point was that of the medium Catherine-Élise Müller, aka Hélène Smith. Flournoy explains that most of miracles mediums perform are latent memories that come out, often greatly altered by a subliminal work of imagination or reasoning as so often happens in our ordinary dreams.

geuu_01_img0051It seems likely that cryptomnesia is feeding most of so-called past life regressions induced through hypnosis.For example, Virginia Tighe’s hypnotic recollections of Bridey Murphy of Cork, Ireland (Bridie Murphey Corkell), if not deliberately fraudulent, are most likely an elaborate confabulation fed by recollections of events that happened in this life — events that she had forgotten.

The story goes like this: In 1952, Virginia Tighe of Pueblo, Colorado, was hypnotized by local businessman Morey Bernstein. Allegedly, Virginia spoke in an Irish brogue and claimed she was Bridey Murphy, a 19th-century woman from Cork, Ireland. Bernstein says he encouraged past life regression and his subject cooperated. He hypnotized Tighe many times. While under hypnosis, she sang Irish songs and told Irish stories, always as Bridey Murphy. She gave a birth date as1798, described her childhood in a Protestant family in the city of Cork, her marriage to Sean Brian Joseph McCarthy, and her burial in Belfast in 1864. Bernstein’s book, The Search for Bridey Murphy (1956), became a best-seller and a movie. (Tighe is called Ruth Simmons in the book.)

the searchThe sessions of hypnosis were recorded, translated into a dozen languages and sold well. The reincarnation boom in American publishing had begun.

Question, however, remained: Was there a red-headed Bridey Murphy who lived in Ireland in the nineteenth century?

Several respectable (and not so respectable) newspapers sent their investigative reporters to Ireland.

No records were found that matched Tighe’s claims for Bridey’s birth, upbringing, marriage, or death. Bill Barker, one of the staunchest supporters of the story, did find a record of a clerk named John M’Carthy working in Belfast between 1858-1862. Is that all?

But then a newspaper, the Chicago American, found Bridie Murphey Corkell in Wisconsin in the 20th century.  She lived in the house across the street from where Virginia Tighe grew up.

What Virginia reported while hypnotized were not memories of her previous life but memories from her early childhood. Whatever else the hypnotic state is, it is a state where one’s fantasies are energetically displayed. Many people were impressed with the details of Tighe’s hypnotic memories, but the details were not evidence of past life regression, reincarnation, or channeling. They were evidence of a vivid imagination, a confused memory, fraud, or a combination of the three.

Another well documented “past-life memoirs” were produced by “Jane Evans” while under hypnosis induced by Arnall Bloxham.arnall-bloxham-resim

A Welsh housewife identified under the pseudonym Jane Evans was Bloxham’s unquestioned star patient. Under hypnosis she recalled seven different lives. She was a Roman matron named Livonia (who happened to be married to the tutor of the future Emperor Constantine) and, most famously, a 12th century Jewish woman named Rebecca who lived in the English city of York.

“Jane Evans” provided extensive details oft “Rebecca of York’s” life and travails  — the savage persecution that the Jews of her era often faced. She described hiding with one of her children in a crypt beneath a small church “near a big copper gate” before they were found and brutally murdered.

Was this, too, an unconsciously produced confabulation?


St Mary’s Castlegate was founded in 1020, probably on the site of a Saxon church. The building dates mainly from the 13th, 14th and 15th century, when the 154ft/47m spire was built.

JEFFREY IVERSON took great care in verifying Rebecca’s story. Working with historians, Iverson established that “Rebecca’s” recall matched known historical accounts of Jewish persecution during that time period and also identified the church she described as St. Mary’s Church, near Coppergate in York. Even more astoundingly, an actual crypt was discovered beneath the church in 1975 which had been previously unknown.

Elated, Jeffrey Iverson published his findings in a 1976 book titled More Lives Than One?: Evidence of the Remarkable Bloxham Tapes. The book, along with the BBC broadcast, was presented as absolute proof of reincarnation.  more lives

Unfortunately for Bloxham and Iverson, later critics weren’t quite as impressed and far more skeptical. As Ian Wilson pointed out in his 1982 book, Reincarnation? The Claims Investigated, all of the evidence that Bloxham and Iverson had presented could be explained by the phenomenon of — what else? — cryptomnesia.

As for their star case, Jane Evans and “Rebecca of York”, Wilson raised a rather obvious point:

“Rebecca of York” was a fictional character. While the persecution of Jews in the 12th century was very real, Rebecca of York was a central figure in Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel, Ivanhoe (give yourself a literary pat on the back if you spotted this too). Many of the details “recalled” by Jane Evans matched points in Scott’s book (not to mention the 1952 movie of the same name featuring Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca). Several of Jane Evans’ other past lives also resembled fictional characters (the Roman matron Livonia strongly resembles a character in Louis de Wohl’s novel, The Living Wood). The Bloxham Tapes.


William Stanton Moses, a prominent nineteenth-century medium, could levitate, produce lights, and materialize objects during séances. mosesSo there. All of that and a small detail: the first recorded instance of cryptomnesia occurred in 1874 and involved William Stanton Moses. 

During a séance, William Stanton Moses claimed to be in contact with the spirits of two unfortunate  brothers who had recently died in India. The deaths were verified, but “further research showed that the obituary ran in a newspaper six days before the séance and all information in the obituary was given in the séance and nothing more was added.”

Well, let’s give the medium a benefit of doubt — perhaps he wasn’t a total fraud and a charlatan. His brains, somehow and totally unbeknownst to him, retained the information in the obituary and, a few days later, emerged in a form of “communication with the dead.”  William Stanton Moses was a cryptomnesiac… but still a talented trickster and a charlatan.



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