“Suggestible You” is the title of a book by Erik Vance. The subtitle is “The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal. This post is about the placebo response and related phenomena. This is the eighth post on this book.
“Satan Worshippers, Aliens, and Other Memories of Things That Never Happened” is the title of Chapter 6. It begins with the following quote from Josh Billings, “There are lots of people who mistake their imagination for their memory.” This post will explain why this is so, and that a misunderstanding of memory and how memory works led to much misery between and among families and to the false imprisonment of innocent people.
As healthy memory blog readers should know, we do not have direct contact or knowledge with the physical world. See the healthy memory blog posts “Understanding Beliefs,” “Revising Beliefs,” and “More on Revising Beliefs.” We construct mental models based on the data coming from our senses. As we experience more and learn more we develop new models, revise old models, and form connections among related or associated models.
Too many people think that our eyes and ears act like video cameras and tape recorders, that we see and hear what is and that these recordings are permanent and accurate. Consequently, in the courts a great deal of belief is put on eyewitness testimony, when data indicate that eyewitness testimony is flawed and prone to error.
In reality, our eyes and ears are taking light and sound and turning them into electrical signals in the brain. The brain then constructs a version of what is being perceived and what makes sense. Expectations from prior models play an important role in this process. Our brains have to make assumptions and take shortcuts and sometimes makes mistakes. Optical illusions, blind spots, and hallucinations are all examples of how our brains misinterpret what is being perceived—sometime to very confusing and dangerous ends.
Similarly, memories are not like flash drives. Memory is an integrated constructive process that is constantly refining itself, rebuilding, restructuring, and finding shortcuts. And sometimes, our memories play tricks on us, Memory processes can be divided into three stages. First the information has to be encoded. Then there is the process of consolidation during storage. The third phase is retrieval, which is the recall of the memory. Changes occur throughout this process and some changes can be erroneous.
The failure to understand how memory works and its malleability that can lead produce errors resulted in teachers and caretakers being falsely accused of sexually abusing children, and of Satanic rituals. As near as can be understood, the people who conducted these investigations honestly believed that these children were being sexually abused. But their beliefs poisoned their investigations. They asked leading questions and repeatedly questioned these children to the point of exhaustion. Unfortunately, the courts and juries, who were equally ignorant of how memory works, sent innocent people to jail. This problem continued for much longer than it should have, and it took way too many years for these erroneous convictions to be overturned.
There were also too many cases of clinical psychologists and psychiatrists, many with Freudian conceptions of sex and repressed memories, inadvertently place memories of sexual abuse in the patients’ and clients’ minds. Innocent parents were accused by their own children of sexual abuse. These nightmares outdid the fiction of Franz Kafka. Imagine the pain that this caused within families. HM thinks that most of theses errors have been corrected, but he still fears that there are still therapists who should be avoided. Be vary careful when choosing a therapist, and keep a watchful eye out doing the therapy.
Elizabeth Loftus is the leading psychologist who conducted research in this area, and who spent countless frustrating hours testifying in court.
Enter “false memory” into the healthy memory search block to find more posts on this topic.
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