Thursday, August 12, 2010

True Memory Syndrome

In the early 1990s, when psychologists Elizabeth Loftus and Richard Ofshe coined the term 'False Memory Syndrome' (FMS), they were reacting to a spate of lawsuits that developed out of recovered memory, hypnosis, and regression therapy.

At that time, FMS was welcomed by the scientific community as an organizing concept. Some of the stories emerging in therapy were so outlandish and alarming that they seemed impossible.

Ordinary housewives, cops, and truck drivers were remembering frightening episodes of alien abduction, satanic ritual abuse, and sexual exploitation at the hands of respected community figures. Some people were claiming to host hundreds of different personalities in one single brain and body.

It was all getting a little bit hallucinatory and hysterical and disturbing.

Science is by definition uncomfortable with strong emotion and vivid internal imagery anyway, so scientists were understandably anxious to tone down the volume ASAP.

Loftus helped that happen.

[Multiple personalities exit stage left. Shoo.]

However, even when Loftus first published her (self-described) groundbreaking research into FMS and confabulation within the therapeutic setting, it struck me that there was an ontological problem with the whole concept--a problem that, if rigorously examined, would likely reveal much more interesting stuff than the unremarkable fact that people in therapy are sometimes prone to suggestion.

No one was talking about this problem at all. They still aren't talking about it.

I realize now that no one will be talking about it, not ever--at least no one in mainstream science.

The underlying problem with the idea of false memory is simply that it implies that its opposite--true memory--actually exists. For FMS to be meaningful as a organizing construct, there have to be two kinds of memory: verifiable or 'true' memory that is grounded only in straightforward material events, and isolated or 'false' memory grounded in fantasy, imagery, and emotion.

Yet we know that memory is not organized around this duality.

ALL memory is fluid and creative and informed by emotion and symbolic content. The way you remember an event the day after it happened differs radically from the way you remember it forty years later, and it should. The mind naturally alters memory to suit the current context, to provide the most needed information in whatever situation it finds itself. This is a normal process, not pathology.

The mind may also connect bits of events here and there to symbolic content in order to convey metacontent more efficiently than, say, a philosophy treatise: kind of like a mnemonic zip file. Some recent research even suggests that memory may be holographic in the sense that it can occupy many dimensions of experience at once.

In other words, the mere fact that a memory can be confirmed by others when broken into bits of raw data in no sense makes that memory 'true'. For example, witnesses to a crime often make similar misidentifications. A bunch of people can verify details of an event that are not empirically correct, and this happens all the time without the aid of a therapist.

Families also commonly construct group stories that when examined by an outsider turn out to be pure myth, yet most people in the family will readily verify all the details.

No one would look at memories of a pleasant childhood and cry 'false memory syndrome' when the family had itself implanted this falsely idyllic scene by consensus, but in fact such narratives do fit Loftus and Ofshe's definition. Such memories only become problematic when one family member exhibits pathology based on events that everyone else has edited out.

Likewise, the fact that a memory cannot be confirmed or verified in any way does not necessarily mean it contains no useful, genuine information. Such memories are not so much 'false' as they are complex and highly dependent on social context.

Satanic ritual abuse is an interesting example. Many such claims were made by people experiencing real institutional mistreatment that was nonetheless supported and normalized by the right wing religious communities to which they belonged.

These people were truly suffering and sought help because of their genuine pain, but they literally could not say that their preachers, fathers, mothers, congregations, or beliefs were doing them grave harm. They lacked the social context to make any such statement.

Their consensual reality, their 'true memories' left these victims no room for seeing what was obvious to an observant outsider, much less the words to vocalize the problem. No one in their own right wing Christian world would validate such an accusation--it would have seemed like madness or heresy.

The memories that emerged in connection with their very real pain therefore were not so much false as they were symbolic: An attempt by the mind to accurately convey actual abuse that was done ritually to their most vulnerable selves within a social context that accepted such abuse as normal, systematically editing out all evidence of it as a condition of membership. The satanic tale was a symbolic reflection of an empirical fact.

Social reality is always created by consensus, but consensual reality is highly limited and selective. When people tend to report as 'real' only events that can be confirmed by others or that validate their own views about what is possible it strengthens the group. There is real comfort in this. It's not all bad. The process makes daily life more comfortable and bearable.

'Confirmation bias' is widely documented in a bazillion solid behavioral studies that illustrate it in a bazillion different ways. This bias causes us to gravitate toward and validate what we already think we know. The up side is that this tendency makes community life possible. The down side is that it leaves communities vulnerable to group delusion and harmful rigidity.

In other words, consensual reality itself is a kind of socially implanted 'false memory syndrome', systematically editing out private, individual experience in favor of the group version. When a society demonizes and invalidates individual experience and gives it no place for expression and integration, it risks sailing off the edge of sanity itself.

We see this all the time in cults. And technology. 

Other cultures have always found ways to integrate private and symbolic experience into the reality of the tribe without denigrating or invalidating the individual. The fact that our culture has not yet found a way to do this causes sporadic outbreaks of social hysteria, all manner of mental, physical, and emotional illness, and no small measure of mainstream delusional behavior--much of it within science itself.

One look at our earth reveals instantly that for all its hubris, science lacks even the most basic grounding.

Maybe we need a new term, a term for the tendency to debunk and invalidate all uncomfortable personal and social phenomena: Maybe, False Memory Research Syndrome?


The truth?

Seriously, some psychologists can't handle the truth.


  1. Cognitive psychology is a fascinating area. Thanks for this insightful essay.

  2. Thanks a lot for sharing on this awesome information for sure I learn more knowledge from here.

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