This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 202
2003 Second Web Paper
On Serendip

False Memory Syndrome And The Brain

Kathleen Flannery

In the mid-nineties, a sniper's hammering shots echoed through an American playground. Several children were killed and many injured. A 1998 study of the 133 children who attended the school by psychologists Dr. Robert Pynoos and Dr. Karim Nader, experts on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among children, yielded a very bizarre discovery. Some of the children who were not on the schools grounds that day obstinately swore they had very vivid personal recollections of the attack happening (1). The children were not exaggerating, or playing make-believe. They were adamant about the fact that they were indeed there, and that they saw the attack as it was occuring. Why would these children remember something so harrowing if they didn't actually experience it? What kind of trick was their brain playing on them? Why did it happen?

False Memory Syndrome (FMS) is a condition in which a person's identity and interpersonal relationships are centered on a memory of traumatic experience which is actually false, but in which the person is strongly convinced (2). When considering FMS, it's best to remember that all individuals are prone to creating false memories. A common experiment in Introduction to Psychology courses include a test similar to this one:
Look at this list of words and try to memorize them:

sharp thread sting eye pinch sew thin mend

After a few seconds, the students will be asked to recall these words, and are asked the following questions: Was the word "needle" on the list? Was it near the top? The majority of the class will vehemently agree that needle was, in fact, on the list. And not only that, it was actually quite close to being the first word. Some will attest to having vivid recollections of seeing the word "needle" on the page. These students have created a false memory. Due to the exposure of words similar to or related to the word "needle", they have very genuine memories of actually seeing the word on the list. Like the children who were absent from school on the day of the sniper attack, the false memories were stimulated by exposure to similar words (or in the sniper case, stories). In the school children's case, the false memories were created by the exposure to the stories of those who actually underwent the trauma. Our brain uses three diverse procedures to receive information, store information, and access it. These processes are: Sensory information storage, which acts like a very small holding tank, briefly storing information upon impact. Short term memory, in which the brain accounts for what has just happened, also based mainly on the senses. This has a bit more durability than sensory information storage because the brain can interpret the information it's receiving more so than in sensory information storage. Finally, there is Long term memory, the procedure in which the brain stores away significant or enduring information for retrieval at a later date (3).

So where exactly is this false memory of the sniper attack being stored? Because the brains of young children are not as fully developed as the brains of adults, it's interesting to consider that Jean Piaget, the well-known child psychologist, asserted that his earliest memory was of a botched kidnapping at the age of 2. He distinctly remembered details of watching his nurse try to fend off the kidnapper as he sat in his stroller, and the policeman's uniform as he chased the kidnapper away. Thirteen years after the alleged attack, the nurse admitted to Piaget's parents that she had fabricated the story. However, the story, told repeatedly by the nurse, crept into Piaget's psyche and expanded until it took on a life of its own. Piaget later wrote: "I therefore must have heard, as a child, the account of this story...and projected it into the past in the form of a visual memory, which was a memory of a memory, but false" (4).

Due to the way our brains work, remembering a kidnapping incident at the age of 2 could be nothing other than a false memory. The left inferior prefrontal lobe is not yet developed in infants (4). It is this lobe that is necessary for long-term memory. The complicated and sophisticated encoding necessary for remembering such an event could not occur in the infant's brain. However, the adult brain works in a far different way. Valerie Jenks, a woman living in Idaho, was raped at the age of 14. After a few seemingly trauma-free years, she began to become depressed shortly after her marriage and the birth of her first child. In therapy, Dr. Mark Stephenson convinced her to try hypnotherapy, and after her very first session, Jenks came to believe that she'd been sexually abused by her family and friends (5). In Freud's theory of "repression", the mind involuntarily expels traumatic events from memory to avoid overpowering anxiety and trauma (6). Aided by the memory of her rape at age 14, Jenks created a false memory - an elaborately fabricated memory of rape and molestation by her father and other family members. These memories were "repressed memories", said Stephenson. Further, Stephenson said she answered "yes" to many of his questions, not verbally, but by tapping the index finger of her left hand. These tappings were "body memories", claimed Stephenson. According to him, some patients have tried to explain their physical distress as coming from repressed "body memories" of incest. Therapists have told patients that "the body remembers what the mind forgets," and that many of the physical sensations they are experiencing during therapy (like Jenks' finger tapping) are symptoms of forgotten childhood sexual mistreatment. These memories, said Stephenson, are documented in cellular DNA. (7).) However, absolutely no scientific proof supports this notion of a "body memory". Memories are encoded and stored in the three processes of the brain discussed earlier. A psychical pain or sensation is not evidence that abuse occurred (5). Jenks no longer sees Dr. Stephenson and is seeking compensation for the horrific trauma she endured because of his treatment.

With organizations such as the False Memory Syndrome Foundation popping up around the globe, the awareness of FMS is spreading. False memories, in their most fundamental condition, are very real and existent in our world, as shown in the aforementioned psychology experiment. However, it is only when therapists, armed with the notion of Freudian "repressed-memories" and bizarre concepts like "body memories", implant unhealthy and false ideas into the brains of their patients that havoc ensues.


1)Recovered Memory Therapy and False Memory Syndrome, Recent Legal and Investigative Trends by Dr. John Hochman, M.D.

2) Memory and Reality: Website of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation

3) How Memory Works

4) The Skeptic's Dictionary False Memory

5) Health and Body - The Story of Valerie Jenks

6) How Memory Really Works Freud's Notion of Repressed Memory

7) FAQ for the False Memory Syndrome Foundation

| Course Home Page | Course Forum | Brain and Behavior | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:53:04 CDT