Science

I forgot I made it up.

Too much attention is paid to so-called recovered memories, memories of experiences so traumatic that they are defensively repressed and then, with therapy, freed from repression. We find especially dark and fantastic forms that include descriptions of satanic rituals often accompanied by coercive sexual practices. Such accusations have ruined lives and families. But it has been shown that such descriptions, at least in some cases, are insinuated or implanted by others. This frequent combination of an influential witness (often a child) and an authoritative figure (perhaps a therapist, teacher, social worker or researcher) can be especially powerful.

From the Inquisition and the Salem witch trials, through the Soviet trials of the 1930s and Abu Ghraib, varieties of “extreme interrogation,” or physical and mental torture without dissimulation, have been used to obtain religious or political “confessions. (In this sense, there is no more relevant parable than Orwell’s 1984, where Winston, subjected to unbearable pressure, ends up giving in, betraying Julia, betraying himself and his ideals, betraying his memories and his judgment, and ending up adoring Big Brother.

But maybe you don’t need a huge or coercive suggestion to influence a person’s memories. We all know that witness testimony is subject to suggestion and error, often with disastrous results for people who have been wrongly accused. With DNA testing, it is now possible in many cases to obtain objective corroboration or rebuttal of such testimonies, and [investigator] Schacter has observed that “a recent analysis of 40 cases in which DNA testing established the innocence of unjustly imprisoned individuals revealed that in 36 of them (90%) the witnesses had made a mistake in identifying them.

If recent decades have witnessed an emergence or re-emergence of ambiguous memory and identity syndromes, they have also led to important research – forensic, theoretical and experimental – on the malleability of memory. Elizabeth Loftus, a memory psychologist, has documented disturbing successes in implanting false memories simply by suggesting to a subject who has lived through a fictitious event. Such pseudo-events, invented by psychologists, can range from comic incidents to slightly disturbing ones (e.g., that as a child you would have been lost in a shopping mall), and even more serious ones (that one would have been the victim of an animal attack or aggression by another child). After the initial skepticism (“I’ve never been lost in a shopping mall”) and a subsequent hesitation, the subject may end up feeling such a deep conviction that he will continue to insist on the truth of the implanted memory even after the experimenter confesses that, to begin with, it never happened.

What is clear in all of these cases – whether real or imaginary child abuse, authentic or experimentally implanted memories, manipulated witnesses and brainwashed prisoners, unconscious plagiarism and false memories that we have all wrongly attributed or confused their origin – is that, in the absence of any external confirmation, there is no easy way to distinguish an authentic memory or inspiration, senses as such, from those borrowed or suggested, between what Donald Spence calls “historical truth” and “narrative truth.

Even if the underlying mechanism of a false memory is discovered, such a thing may not alter the sense of a lived experience or “reality” possessed by such memories. And not only that, but perhaps the obvious contradictions or absurdities of certain memories do not alter our conviction or belief either. When people who claim to have been abducted by aliens relate their experiences, they don’t lie about most of what they say, and they’re not aware that they made up a story, but they actually believe it happened.

As soon as this story or memory is constructed, accompanied by vivid sensory imagery and strong emotions, there is no inner psychological way to distinguish the true from the false, nor is there an outer neurological way. The psychological correlate of such memories can be examined using the production of functional brain images, and these images show us that living memories produce a general brain activation involving sensory, emotional (limbic), and executive (frontal lobe) areas: a pattern that is virtually identical whether the “memory” is based on experience or not.

Apparently, there is no mechanism in the mind or brain that assures the truth, or at least the truthfulness, of our memories. We have no direct access to historical truth, and what we think is true or say is true is based on both our imagination and our senses. There is no way of transmitting or recording in our brains the events of the world; they are experienced and constructed in an enormously subjective way which, to begin with, is different in each individual, and each time an event is evoked it is reinterpreted or re-experienced in a different way. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell to each other and to ourselves: the stories we continually re-categorize and refine. Such subjectivity is incorporated into the very nature of memory and is a consequence of the foundation and mechanisms of our brain. The amazing thing is that exaggerated aberrations are relatively rare, and for the most part our memories are solid and reliable.

We, as human beings, end up with fallible, fragile and imperfect memories, but we also possess great flexibility and creativity. Confusion about their origins or indifference towards them can be a paradoxical force: if we could identify the origin of all our knowledge, we would end up saturated with information that is often irrelevant. Indifference towards sources allows us to assimilate what we read, what they tell us, what others say and think, what they write and paint, with the same richness and intensity as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with the eyes and ears of others, to enter into the minds of others to assimilate the art, science and religion of the whole culture, to enter and contribute to the common mind, to the general wealth of knowledge. Memory does not arise only from experience, but from the exchange of many minds.

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