‘We Can Implant Entirely False Memories’

'We Can Implant Entirely False Memories'

'We Can Implant Entirely False Memories'

You were abducted by
aliens, you saw Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, and then you went up in a balloon. Didn't you?

Alan Alda had nothing against hard-boiled eggs until last
spring. Then the actor, better known as Hawkeye from M*A*S*H,
paid a visit to the University of California, Irvine. In his new
guise as host of a science series on American TV, he was
exploring the subject of memory. The researchers showed him
round, and afterwards took him for a picnic in the park. By the
time he came to leave, he had developed a dislike of hard-boiled
eggs based on a memory of having made himself sick on them as a
child - something that never happened.

Alda was the unwitting guinea pig of Elizabeth Loftus, a UCI
psychologist who has been obsessed with the subject of memory and
its unreliability since Richard Nixon was sworn in as president.
Early on in her research, she would invite people into her lab,
show them simulated traffic accidents, feed them false
information and leading questions, and find that they
subsequently recalled details of the scene differently - a
finding that has since been replicated hundreds of times.

More recently, she has come to believe that lab studies may
underestimate people's suggestibility because, among other
things, real life tends to be more emotionally arousing than
simulations of it. So these days she takes her investigations
outside the lab. In a study soon to be published, she and
colleagues describe how a little misinformation led witnesses of
a terrorist attack in Moscow in 1999 to recall seeing wounded
animals nearby. Later, they were informed that there had been no
animals. But before the debriefing, they even embellished the
false memory with make-believe details, in one case testifying to
seeing a bleeding cat lying in the dust.

"We can easily distort memories for the details of an
event that you did experience," says Loftus. "And we
can also go so far as to plant entirely false memories - we call
them rich false memories because they are so detailed and so
big."

She has persuaded people to adopt false but plausible memories
- for instance, that at the age of five or six they had the
distressing experience of being lost in a shopping mall - as well
as implausible ones: memories of witnessing demonic possession,
or an encounter with Bugs Bunny at Disneyland. Bugs Bunny is a
Warner Brothers character, and as the Los Angeles Times put it
earlier this year, "The wascally Warner Bros. Wabbit would
be awwested on sight", at Disney.

Elizabeth Loftus' research has obvious implications for
the reliability of eyewitness testimony. And it was as a result
of her findings that in 1994 she co-wrote her book, The Myth of
Repressed Memory, and took a strong stand in the recovered memory
debate of the 90s, for which she was reviled by those who claimed
to have uncovered repressed memories of abuse - alien, sexual or
otherwise.

The American Psychological Association (APA) now takes the
line that most people who were sexually abused as children
remember all or part of what happened to them, and that it is
rare (though not unheard of) that people forget such emotionally
charged events and later recover them. But it states that,
"Concerning the issue of a recovered versus a pseudomemory,
like many questions in science, the final answer is yet to be
known." And the debate simmers on. Several new lines of
evidence suggest that the interaction between memory and emotion
is more complex than was thought. Powerful emotions, it seems,
can both reinforce and weaken real memories. We may be able to
actively degrade painful memories. And false memories, once
accepted, can themselves elicit strong emotions and thereby mimic
real ones.

To try to tease apart these complex relationships, the
psychologist Daniel Wright and his colleagues at the University
of Sussex have been looking into what it is that makes some
people more susceptible to false memories than others. On
average, studies show that around a third of those subjected to
the "misinformation effect" wholly or partially adopt a
false memory, but it seems to depend on both the person and the
memory. Alan Alda swallowed the hard-boiled egg story, to the
extent that he declined to eat one at the UCI picnic, but he
wasn't taken in by Bugs Bunny in Disneyland. In one study
published last year, 50% of volunteers were persuaded they had
taken a ride in a hot-air balloon when they had not. But when
Kathy Pezdek of the Claremont Graduate University, California,
tried to make people believe they had received a rectal enema,
she met with almost universal resistance.

Amid all this variability, Wright's group did find one
significant correla tion - though it was not dramatic: those who
were more vulnerable to false memories also tended to suffer more
frequent lapses in attention and memory. The trouble is, he says,
"People who have been traumatised also tend to score higher
on tests of lapses in memory." Their traumatic experiences
may contribute to their forgetfulness, but their forgetfulness
may lay them open to memory distortion - so true and false become
harder to disentangle.

Among the symptoms suffered by victims of post-traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD) are chilling flashbacks. But, says Michael
Anderson of the University of Oregon, "People who suffer
PTSD represent a very small fraction of the people who experience
trauma. The great majority of people who experience trauma never
develop PTSD and eventually are able to adapt in the face of
these events." He argues that they do so by suppressing the
memory, and that this suppression gradually erases it.

Two years ago, Anderson's group showed that people who
deliberately try to keep a word out of their mind find it harder
to recall later than if they had not suppressed it. Counter-
intuitively, this form of forgetting seems more likely to occur
when people are confronted by reminders of the very memory they
want to avoid. Anderson says an extreme example of this might be
a child who is forced to live with an abusing care-giver, and
must put the memory of abuse to one side in order to interact
with that care-giver. "If people continue to work at it, the
amount of forgetting grows with repetition and time," he
says.

At the annual meeting of the US Society for Neuroscience in
New Orleans last month, Anderson's group presented new data
on how this "motivated forgetting" might arise in the
brain. When people tried to suppress memories for certain words
while having their brains scanned in a magnetic resonance imaging
machine, not only did the researchers see a dampening of activity
in the hippocampus, a structure known to be critical for memory
formation, but the frontal cortex was highly active. Since the
frontal cortex is important for conscious control, they believe
that neurons here may be suppressing the representation of the
unwanted word in the hippocampus, and in the process impairing
its memory.

However, Anderson admits that his experiments ignore the
effect of a memory's emotional intensity on a person's
ability to suppress it. And there is plenty of evidence that
memory for emotionally charged events can be enhanced - albeit at
a cost. Also last month, Bryan Strange of the Wellcome department
of imaging neuroscience at University College London and
colleagues showed that people were more likely to remember a word
if it was emotionally arousing - "murder" or
"scream", say - than if it was neutral. And the words
most likely to be forgotten were neutral ones presented just
before emotionally arousing ones. The effect was more pronounced
in women than in men, and both the enhanced memory for the
emotional word and the forgettability of the preceding neutral
one could be reversed by dosing the volunteers in advance with
the drug propranolol.

Propranolol, a commonly prescribed beta-blocker, interferes
with the neurochemical pathway thought to be responsible for
making emotionally arousing events more memorable - the
beta-adrenergic system - and it has already been used
experimentally in the treatment of patients with PTSD. In one
study, published in October, Guillaume Vaiva of the University of
Lille and colleagues offered prop- ranolol to victims of assault
or motor accidents shortly after their traumatic experience, and
then invited them back for psychological testing two months
later. On their return, almost all the patients exhibited some
symptoms associated with PTSD, but they were twice as severe
among those who had not taken the drug.

The finding that propranolol can be effective at blocking
memory when given after an event as well as before is important
because, as Loftus explains, "In the real world you
can't be there to exert your manipulations right at the time
an event is happening, but you can get on the scene later."
It has been proposed that propranolol should be offered to
victims of rape as a standard measure to prevent them developing
PTSD. But could it also be used to erase false memories - for
instance, "recovered" memories of alien abduction -
that nevertheless elicit all the physiological responses
associated with harrowing, real memories?

"If the formation of false memories depends on
beta-adrenergic activation, then it would seem very possible that
propranolol administration could affect them," says the UCI
neuro- biologist Larry Cahill, who has also investigated the
effects of the drug in PTSD patients. But Ray Dolan of UCL, a
co-author with Bryan Strange of the study on memory for emotional
words, points out that not all false memories have a common
basis. If they are interpolations into gaps in memory, such as
the gap that opened up before the presentation of an emotionally
arousing word, or possibly the gap into which Alan Alda inserted
a memory of having over-indulged in eggs, then it is conceivable
the drug would work. But, says Dolan, "Other classes of
false memory, for example, where the memories are fantasies or
out-and-out fabrications, would be immune to
propranolol."

The idea of doctors having the power to wipe the memory clean
sends shivers down many people's spines. False memories could
safely be erased, perhaps, assuming there was a reliable way of
differentiating them from true ones. Although brain-imaging
techniques highlight some differences in patterns of brain
activation when a person recalls a true as opposed to a false
memory, these are statistical differences only. "We are so
far away from being able to use these techniques to reliably
classify a single memory as being real or not real," says
Loftus, "Yet that is what the courts have to do."

True memories, too, can get out of control and become
destructive, leading to PTSD and other anxiety disorders. But
they start out as an important self-defence mechanism - teaching
you, for instance, that too many hard-boiled eggs are bad for
you. Erasing them completely could be dangerous.

In the end, says Loftus, it will come down to personal choice.
"What would you rather be in the world, sadder but wiser,
all too well remembering the horrors of your past and feeling
depressed, or perhaps not remembering them very much and being a
little happier?"

Further reading

‘The Myth of Repressed Memory’ by Dr
Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham, 1996 paperback (St
Martin's Press, New York). ISBN 0312141238

American Psychological Association website with links to
questions and answers about memories of childhood abuse:
www.apa.org/pubinfo/

‘Suppressing unwanted memories by executive
control’
by Michael C Anderson and Collinn Green,
Department of Psychology, University of Oregon, 2001 (Nature, 410
[6826], 366-9)

 

Comment from Hazel

Neuroscientists admit that by administering beta-blockers like
Propranolol, they can induce false memories in susceptible
people, particularly those who have suffered a traumatic
experience, (torture) leaving them "open to memory
distortion - so true and false become harder to disentangle"
but for what purpose?

I can't think of a single positive application for
'False Memory Syndrome' except perhaps - "doctor,
make me imagine I tried on a size 10 dress today, and it
fitted" - which would be a real confidence booster for fat
ladies. It could be used to suppress recollections of a
distressing ordeal, but that is not healthy, it is far better to
confront your psychological demons.

However, I can think of numerous scenarios where a false
memory could be implanted for sinister reasons, such as - I was
molested by Sai Baba, when I wasn't, aliens abducted me, when
they didn't, or I killed two schoolgirls, when I haven't!
It could also account for many other misconceptions like, why
Neil Armstrong is convinced he set foot on the lunar surface - or
why George Bush thinks Saddam Hussein was responsible for
September 11th.

Elizabeth Loftus, a UCI psychologist explains, "In the
real world you can't be there to exert your manipulations
right at the time an event is happening, but you can get on the
scene later" - when a patsy is in custody and subjected to
"treatment" like Ian Huntley, who was a perfect
candidate, having previously had a nervous breakdown after
wrongful arrest for rape and is now on trial for murder.

"We can easily distort memories for the details of an
event that you did experience and we can also go so far as to
plant entirely false memories" says Loftus, "we call
them rich false memories because they are so detailed and so
big." Mind-control has come a long way since Nazi
concentration camp experiments, in fact, all the way to South
America with Dr. Mengele and into the USA via the CIA's
Operation Paperclip, where it is now respectable medical
practice.

This means that anyone could be made to admit to anything and
no "confession" can ever be trusted again. So, maybe
Bali's "laughing bomber" wasn't so funny after
all - or Moazzam Begg's ridiculous admission from Camp Delta,
of having planned to spray the Houses of Parliament with anthrax,
because it is so far-fetched and would be no easy feat for an
ordinary father of four from Birmingham.

With 'False Memory Syndrome' at the disposal of
"evil geniuses" we are all "Slobodan
Guantanamo" now! Therefore, when you see my face on the
front page with the Headline: - "I PLOTTED TO THROTTLE THE
QUEEN" (with my bare hands, at her next walkabout) think
twice - before congratulating me. Nothing is what it seems and
everything is a lie.