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The Root of the Thought

rachelr's picture

"You create the world of the dream, you bring the subject into that dream, and they fill it with their subconscious…"




             What is a memory? Ideally it is something that you remember, that you recall as an absolute. You remember your professor telling you that the innermost meningeal layer of the brain is the pia mater, and you remember every day what classes to go to, or what you did with friends the night before. Surprisingly, Merriam Webster Dictionary lends a much broader definition to the word “memory.” It states that “memory is: the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained, especially through associative mechanisms.” This definition seems to say that it is the associative mechanisms that are the most influential in the development of memories. We all know about memories, we have all experienced them. Those who have studied psychology most likely know far more about the mechanics of memory, but we all know that for the most part, under normal conditions, when we do something or see something, we remember it, or at least part of it. But what about false memory, when an event is distorted or completely imagined? And what, then, is reality?

False memories can only be distinguished from true memories by corroboration, whether that be through evidence or testimonies. Studies have found that “the ability to distinguish memory from imagination depends on the recall of source information (Carroll)”. You can have a dream only to wake up and think that it is, or question that it might be, reality. Subliminal messages, prodding, and suggestion can also create a false memory. Memories can be created to erase painful events, or during a traumatic event a person may fail to create a full memory, essentially blocking the memory of the event from implanting itself in the brain. And we must ask ourselves- if a suppressed memory is somehow retrieved, how accurate is it?

False, or altered memories are of greatest concern when the life or lives of individuals hang in the balance, and this is just the problem that arises within the judicial system. Many innocent men and women have been put behind bars because of false testimony, whether because of an accidental false memory of because of an implanted or manipulated memory. As Cutler writes in the book Expert Testimony on the Psychology of Eyewitness Identification,

“Although there may be some relatively valid cues to memory accuracy, they are not likely to be readily available in the testimonial behavior of individuals on the witness stand whose behavior is also being influenced by prior coaching and current stressors associated with adversarial questioning. In short, evaluating the efficacy of expert testimony based on its ability to teach jurors to better judge the accuracy of a single witness seems inappropriate. It is not clear that this is an achievable criterion (190)”.  

Such false memories (in addition, of course, to false testimony, evidence, etc.) are what Randall Adams came up against in the 1976 murder trial of Robert Woods. Adams could not accurately account for his whereabouts, while David Harris, who eventually accused Adams of the crime, had an alibi. Potential witnesses who initially claimed that they didn’t see or hear anything later testified as to seeing and/or hearing something, after certain details of the crime had been publicized. So had they actually seen or heard something and it just took a trigger for them to remember reality? Or did the evidence implant a false memory in their brain?

            I myself question whether what I might consider my first memory actually is or not. I seem to remember being three years old, and having my grandmother buckle me into my car seat, and giving me one wrapped present for every hour of the approximately six hour car trip from Manassas, VA to Princeton, NJ. But I still question: do I have a true memory of this, or have the photos of the event and all the times my grandmother and parents told me about it collected themselves together to create a false memory? I know the event happened, there is evidence, and that is not the point. The point is whether I have a true memory of the event.

            While discussing this very paper with a friend and asking her if she had any memories that she considered to be false to share with me, she told me that one night, after drinking a substantial amount, that she couldn’t figure out if she had dreamed about two friends having an emotional conversation or if it had actually occurred. She said, “I think I was laying there listening and I said to myself this is inappropriate, I should leave so I’m not listening. But I just couldn’t open my eyes and stand up to leave, and I don’t know if that actually happened or if I dreamed it.” In this instance, it would be simple to check with the other individuals involved to learn the truth; she would only have to ask. However because her memory did not accurately record the memory or differentiate it from a dream, whatever the case may be, it could be stored as a false memory.

            True memories and false memories are directly related to absolutism and relativism, and play a huge role in establishing “reality.” And this is the very reason that Paul Grobstein argues that there is no “reality.” Because each and every person in the world has different views, opinions, and experiences, there is no such thing as a common reality, and this is further complicated when false memories, manipulated memories, and outright lies are written down and propagated as the truth, or reality. The reality of Harris was completely different from the reality of Adams (as Adams was convicted to life in jail and Harris walked free), and the reality of Harris and Adams (perhaps the only two people who knew exactly what had happened) was different than the reality of everyone else in the world, who came to incorrectly believe that Adams was guilty. In essence, whatever you can convince yourself of will become your reality, so it becomes that self acceptance and acknowledgment of something will make it so for you. What can be seen everyday with people who are scitsofrenic or who hallucinate is true on a broader scale: just because something isn’t real to everyone doesn’t mean that it isn’t the reality of one or more people.

            So how can we trust ourselves, when the haunting reality of our brains is that they can so easily be deceived of the truth? I don’t think that this is something that I can answer. This is for you, as an individual, to decide for yourself. How will you know truth, tell the truth, and shape your reality to be the best that you can be? It is in your hands now to shape your reality.            



Works Cited:

  • Appelbaum, Paul S. "Law & Psychiatry: Third-Party Suits Against Therapists in Recovered-Memory Cases -- Appelbaum 52 (1): 27 -- Psychiatr Serv." Psychiatric Services. Web. 26 Oct. 2010. <>.
  •  Carroll, Robert T. "Memory." The Skeptic's Dictionary - Web. 29 Oct. 2010.         <>.
  • Cutler, Brian. "Expert Testimony on the Psychology of Eyewitness Testimony." Oxford Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 2009.
  •  Loftus, Elizabeth F. "The Reality of Repressed Memories." UW Faculty Web Server. Web. 29 Oct. 2010. <>.
  • "The Thin Blue Line (documentary)." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 25 Oct. 2010. <>.



Anne Dalke's picture

Memory, history and the brain

So you're moving a little too fast (and too far) for me. You begin by describing memories as woven together by "associative mechanisms," and then suggest that--given their unreliability-- "false memories can only be distinguished from true memories by corroboration." This works, I think (and jives w/ the suggestion that Owl makes in her paper that a "considerable amount of people have to agree" upon the realness of something, for it to be real; "what is reiterated," in other words, "often is what comes to be considered as real." So far, so good.

But then you go on to say that "there is no such thing as a common reality," and it's here that I think you begin to overgeneralize. That memory is unreliable, always constructed and always re-constructable, yes; that we cannot therefore create a world together, one in which we share perceptions (and politics, and religion, and all of culture, plus much of nature) seems to me much over-stated.

The point, I'd say, is less "how we can trust ourselves," or "whether you have a true memory of an event," than whether that memory can be corroborated--and what you do if it isn't! (It's not actually the case, for example, that "the reality of Harris was completely different from the reality of Adams"; it's rather the case that Harris, in order to get himself off, constructed a false story, rather than testifying to the one the two of them shared.)

See a couple of great archives on Serendip -- start, perhaps, w/ History, Memory and the Brain and Memory, History and the Brain, Part II -- for more along these lines.