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Biology 202
2004 First Web Paper
On Serendip

Memory or Imagination: Where Does the Brain Draw a Line?

Mridula Shankar

The creation of false memories has recently been the focus of many experimental investigations and has sparked much debate and controversy. This phenomenon has been studied extensively in view of its impact on related conditions such as memory repression and its recovery through psychotherapy. False memories are created when events that were originally imagined or intensely thought about, are experienced as real on subsequent recollection.(7). Such falsely implanted memories have questioned the accuracy of memory. More importantly they have provoked serious ethical questions regarding the legitimacy of psychotherapy and other intrusive therapeutic procedures. Suspected perpetrators of sexual abuse and murder have been convicted in courts of law based on "evidence" provided by such memories that were nonexistent until the victim underwent therapy.(1). This paper will discuss the phenomenon of False Memory Syndrome (FMS) and attempt to find the neurological pathways that lead to its creation.

Nadean Cool, a nurse's aid went into therapy to help her cope with the effects of a traumatic event experienced by her daughter. Repeated sessions with the psychotherapist involving hypnosis and other suggestive techniques resulted in the resurfacing of memories of abuse that she herself had experienced. She came to believe that she had more than 120 personalities and had been subjected to severe sexual and physical abuse as a child. Once Nadean realized she was a victim of FMS, she sued the psychiatrist for malpractice. Her case was settled out of court for $2.4 million.(3). Nadean is just one of the many women who have developed False Memory Syndrome as a result of questionable therapy. Studies have shown that under the right conditions, guided misinformation can very easily blur the boundaries between reality and imagination.

The classic profile of an FMS victim is a white, middle class woman undergoing long term psychotherapy for relief from emotional problems.(6). She comes to a psychotherapist for treatment who often, in an effort to correlate these emotions with past abuse promotes the development of FMS. The rationale behind such an association lies in the theory that victims of childhood sexual abuse suppress memories soon after the occurrence of such events. These repressed memories induce emotional and physical ailments in adulthood resulting in the development of what some term Incest Survivor Syndrome. While there is no scientific evidence supporting this theory, therapists often induce the patient to take part in Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT).(6). Techniques of RMT include age regression, hypnosis, art and trance therapy and guided visualization.(1). Other techniques include group therapy sessions and reading of other accounts of women who have recovered traumatic memories of such abuse. Such "therapeutic sessions" pressurize the subject to find memories of abuse even when none originally exist. While such manipulative and confusing procedures "recover" disturbing mental and bodily memories of sexual abuse, their purpose is questionable. Misinformation interferes with accurate recollection of the actual event. Such memories misunderstood by the patient and miscomprehended by the therapist result in the creation of false memories leading to FMS.(6). In essence RMT is a technique used by therapists to generate a diagnosis often based on evidence that is conjured by the mind of the patient in response to misinformation fed to it.

The development of FMS impacts the psychological as well as social spheres of the patient's life. The patient is encouraged to distance herself from the perpetrator (often her father), members of the family and skeptical friends. Instead she derives support from other victims of abuse.(6). She gradually looses sense of the real world and encloses herself within an environment that supports the FMS state. The subject can develop multiple personality disorder, discovering hidden personalities ("alters") whose characteristics are significantly different from each other. In some extreme cases the patient believes she is a victim of Satanic Ritual Abuse involving the participation of relatives motivated by clandestine satanic beliefs.(6).

FMS raises a number of questions regarding the authenticity of memories of childhood abuse remembered later in life. Where and under what conditions are such memories generated? Are there ways of differentiating a true memory from a false one? Can one erase false memories created as a result of misinformation? These questions have been the focal point for experimental research in areas related to the repression and restoration of traumatic memories and the creation of false memories. The study of false memories has generated evidence that indicate the complex connection between memory and emotion. While strong emotions can either weaken or strengthen real memories, false memories can provoke strong emotion thereby simulating the creation of real memories.(5). Studies also show that false memories created as a result of the "misinformation effect" show variability depending on both the person as well the memory. The only apparent connection is that persons experiencing lapses of attention are more vulnerable to memory distortion.(5).

Researches working with split brain patients have made some fascinating observations regarding the nature of memory processing in the two hemispheres of the brain. When people are given information, their recollection of it is based largely on their experience. Often it is found that some parts of the recollection are not truly part of the experience. When split brain patients are presented with this information it if found that the left hemisphere is responsible for the creation of false reports whereas that right hemisphere gives a more factual description.(5). While this is proof that the two hemispheres respond to data differently, it also opens up avenues for the determination of how and where false memories are created.

One theory supports the view that false memories are a result of an erroneous processing of past experience. People create an outline of proceedings and then fit in false events that corroborate with the outline to develop a recollection of the original experience. Several observations support this view. The left hemisphere specializes in generating such schemata and has the ability to put the memory into context. In an attempt to interpret pieces of information within the larger context the left hemisphere is constantly seeking meaning and reason behind events. However when presented with information that is inconsistent with the schemata, the left hemisphere unable to differentiate between true and false data constructs an artificial past in place of the original one.(4). These findings are supported by the demonstration that left prefrontal regions of the brain of normal subjects are activated when false memories are recalled. In another experiment to determine the neurological pathway involved in the creation of memory, experimenters PET scanned the brains of volunteers. It is found that while true and false memories activate the hippocampus, only true memories activate the superior temporal lobe.(2). However PET scans cannot be relied on for accuracy. False memories may be equally likely to ignite the sensory apparatus of the brain as true memories do as a result of repeated misinformation.(2).

Once false memories are implanted it is often hard to rid them from memory. Yet studies have shown that propranolol, a beta blocker used in the treatment of patients with PTSD might prove to be effective in erasing false memories. Propranolol "interferes with the neurochemical pathway thought to be responsible for making emotionally arousing events more memorable- the beta adrenergic system."(5). Hence if the creation of false memories rely on activation of this system then propranolol administration could be effective in treatment of FMS. However false memories that are created as a result of fantasies or outright fabrications would be immune to the drug.(5).

This paper has attempted to discuss the phenomenon of False Memory Syndrome and define the neurological processes behind its creation. While this is an area that has seen an explosion of research in recent years, the specific neurological mechanisms that underlie the construction of such memories are yet to be determined. On a cautionary note, it is important not to completely disprove the legitimacy of buried memories. While it is true that memories can be implanted, it does not necessarily indicate that all hidden childhood memories recovered after therapy are fabricated. Thus the big question is, will research eventually allow one be able to correctly distinguish between an accurate memory and a false one?


Dr. Elizabeth f. Loftus, Remembering Dangerously. Skeptical Inquirer (March 1995): An interesting article that traces case studies of questionable techniques in Psychotherapy.
Sharon Begley, You must remember this. (false memories) Newsweek (July 15, 1996): Scientific paper that investigates parts of the brain activated by memory.
Dr.Elizabeth Loftus, Creating False Memories. Scientific American (September 1997): Research article that shows how suggestion and imagination can create false memories.
Michael Gazzaniga, The Split Brain Revisited. Scientific American (September 1998):
Scientific article on research into brain organization and consciousness.
We can implant entirely false memories. The Guardian (December 4, 2003) Article on research conducted to determine the nature of false memories.
John Hochman, M.D. Recovered Memory Therapy and False Memory Syndrome. Skeptic vol. 2, no. 3, 1994, pp58-61: An article that investigates techniques of RMT and the creation of FMS.
Christine Mc.Brien; Dale Dagenbach, The contributions of source misattributions, acquiescence, and response bias to children's false memories. American Journal Of Psychology (Winter 1998)

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