This paper, slightly amended here, first appeared in the April Issue of the 'Skeptical Adversaria' (the Newsletter of ASKE, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry), 2004, p1-3.
In 1991 young Ben Needham and his parents moved from Sheffield, England to the Greek island of Kos, where his grandparents Eddie and Christine Needham had set up home. On July 24th Ben, then aged 21 months, disappeared and, despite unstinting efforts by his mother, Kerry Needham, and the rest of his family, and others, and despite many reported sightings, he has never been found.
Ben was last seen playing on his own just outside the doorway of his grandparents' farmhouse in the village of Iraklise. His grandparents were inside, as was Ben's 17-year-old uncle Stephen Needham. At some point Stephen decided to leave and he rode off on his moped. Some time later, when Ben's grandmother looked out, Ben had disappeared. After a fruitless search of the area the grandparents assumed that Stephen had taken Ben with him on his moped. Ben's grandfather drove to Stephen's apartment but Ben was not there and Stephen had no knowledge of his whereabouts.
The police were notified and another search was started. Unfortunately, airports and docks were only informed of Ben's disappearance 3 days later. Initially the police suspected that Stephen had taken Ben on his moped and there had been an accident in which the boy had been killed and Stephen had buried the body. However Stephen insisted that he had left his parents' farmhouse on his own and I understand that there is no forensic evidence to support the police's suspicions.
Ben's family believe that he was abducted and is still alive on Kos or in some other country. A favourite theory is that his abductors were gypsies who may have sold him on, perhaps to a childless couple. Again I understand that evidence in support of this is lacking.
Many caring and concerned individuals have put their best efforts into solving this mystery, with the hope of finding Ben and returning him to his family. Needless to say there has been no shortage of self-styled 'psychics' elbowing their way forward with announcements of their 'visions'. Last September, Mr Uri Geller announced that he was willing to offer the benefits of his own special talents to help the Needham family. He was not going to charge a fee for this service.
Like everyone else my interest in this case is fuelled by a natural curiosity for unsolved mysteries and a dear wish for Ben to be found. I have also played a very minor backstage role in the continuing drama around the case.
Some years ago I was telephoned by, I think, a journalist who asked if hypnosis could be used to assist the memory of witnesses present at the time of Ben's disappearance. The enquirer had in mind the possibility that some little details might emerge that had hitherto been unrecalled, perhaps even something that could provide a new lead. (I think that this enquiry came at the time of intense media interest in the possibility that the 'Moors Murderer' Myra Hindley was to undergo hypnosis to see if she could recall where on Saddleworth Moor one the murdered children had been buried. Nothing ever came of this.)
My memory is very vague about all this now (perhaps I should subject myself to hypnosis) but I am pretty sure that I gave the enquirer the standard answer that there is no good evidence that hypnosis has any unique property that enables it to enhance a person's memory for specific events. I may have added that there is now a standardised protocol, called the 'cognitive interview', which is based on knowledge that has accumulated on the nature of memory, and which is now used by police and forensic psychologists to attempt to enhance eye-witness testimony.
Actually, I did hypnosis a disservice: there is no reason why some genuine improvement in memory cannot on occasions be obtained through the use of hypnosis. The process of 'contextual reinstatement' (recalling events in the context in which they occurred) has long been known to facilitate recall. (For example, you are more likely to do better in an exam if you are tested in the same room in which you revised the material.) One can reinstate the context through imagination - e.g. 'Now go back to the last time you had hold of your wallet' (to help someone locate his lost wallet). This is the obvious procedure to employ when using hypnosis and there is no reason why it should not sometimes prove fruitful. However, there is not a great deal of evidence that the basic procedure is more effective when augmented with a hypnotic induction. An objection to using hypnosis is that occasionally a significant quantity of false material may be elicited in the process, which the person confidently believes to be actual memories. It may be that, under the same conditions of demand and expectation, these problems arise even when a hypnotic induction is not employed, but this matter need not detain us here. Whatever the case, practitioners of clinical hypnosis have established a set of procedures that, when used sensibly and sensitively, can assist a person to confront traumatic memories that he or she finds too distressing to contemplate and communicate in the normal way. But we must still bear in mind that such procedures are not a way of guaranteeing that memories thus elicited are authentic.
That was the end of the matter until sometime in late 2000 or early 2001, when I was again telephoned with the same request. The interested party was a company that makes television documentaries. From what I could gather they were specifically concerned about one of the witnesses present at the scene of Ben's disappearance, who was experiencing nightmares relating to the event and was confused about his or her actual memories of that day. The enquirer was again interested in whether hypnosis could be used to assist the person to recall the events of that day. There was also the question of whether hypnosis could help resolve his or her distressing symptoms.
I was very busy at the time and I was also very uneasy about the fact that the company wanted to make a television documentary, whereby the sessions of hypnosis would be filmed and shown to a mass audience. I therefore recommended that the enquirer speak Dr Michael Berry, a very experienced clinical forensic psychologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, not an expert on hypnosis but someone who is au fait with the cognitive interview procedure and is accustomed to working with producers of television programmes.
Some time later, I spoke to Dr Berry. He had agreed to be involved but felt that the use of hypnosis was indicated in this case. I therefore recommended a trusted colleague who was very experienced in conducting clinical hypnosis as well treating patients with post-traumatic stress disorder. This was Mrs Phyllis Alden, Consultant Clinical Psychologist with South Derbyshire Health Authority. Dr Berry would interview and assess the witness (his or her psychological well-being being of overriding importance) and Mrs Alden would undertake the hypnosis sessions.
Dr Berry's work occasionally entails inspecting scenes of alleged crimes and, as a preliminary, he paid a visit to Kos to study the location of Ben's disappearance. According to Dr Berry, the farmhouse is in a very isolated spot up a dirt track that leads to a dead end. He asked a local to take him to the place and this person lost his way. Dr Berry therefore believes that the theory that gypsies arrived on the scene at an opportune moment and abducted Ben is a non-starter.
The filming of the witness took place over 5 days, the first day being given over to preliminaries, including testing the person's hypnotic susceptibility. The location of the filming was in Sheffield and I met up with Mrs Alden and Dr Berry one evening to ascertain how things were going and offer any helpful suggestions.
The subject of the hypnosis was Stephen Needham. His account was that, following Ben's disappearance, the Greek police had interrogated him with great forcefulness, virtually accusing him of taking Ben, having an accident in which Ben died, and burying his body. The experience was so traumatising that he had since suffered from depression, panic attacks and disturbed sleep. He was also having nightmares of the very activities that the police had suggested to him. His memory for that day was unusually poor; he had a vague idea that on leaving the farmhouse he had glimpsed Ben playing on his bike, but he could not be sure of the timing of this memory.
The documentary was duly televised on 20.6.01. Mrs Alden has written an account of the sessions with Stephen ('Yes, there are true memories - aren't there?' The International Society of Hypnosis Newsletter, 2002, Volume 26, Issue Two, pp. 12-15). I watched the programme and she conducted the sessions with commendable skill and sensitivity. (Whereas in the past it was common to 'abreact' patients by persuading them to relive in imagination the full horrors of their trauma until exhaustion set in, nowadays a gentler approach is favoured which aims to minimise the patient's distress. One method is to ask him or her first to imagine viewing the event on a screen and to alter the clarity of the picture, turn it off and on, and so on, until he or she is eventually able to focus on the image at full intensity. The earlier approach is similar to the technique of 'flooding', the latter 'systematic desensitisation', both used to treat fears and phobias.)
Much of the material not shown was taken up with procedures aimed to help Stephen with his problems. According to Mrs Alden, at the end of the 5 days he felt much better - 'as if a weight had been lifted'. He recalled details of the day of Ben's disappearance, which were corroborated, and he recalled that when he drove away from the farmhouse he encountered a truck carrying concrete. The programme's director was able to find confirmation of this detail. (There may be nothing unusual in this: Stephen may at one time have been able to remember all the details that now emerged but the passage of time (10 years) had made recall more effortful.)
Unfortunately Stephen was unable to retrieve any memories of seeing Ben as he left the farmhouse and rode off. It emerged that he felt guilty about not looking back as he rode off, as he might have seen something important. The final session of hypnosis ended when Mrs Alden asked Stephen to imagine viewing the scene of his departure from the farmhouse from a detached position. He refused and ended the session himself. This was obviously a distressing moment for him and, very correctly, Mrs Alden had made it clear that he should halt the proceedings if things were becoming too much for him.
I am sure that all readers will hope that one day, by whatever means, Ben will be found and reunited with his mother and family.