False memory syndrome.

Several thoughts about false memories, which are apparently quite easy to create. What are the wider social implications of sneaking ideas and affects into our heads via the back door?

Elizabeth Loftuss article in SciAm records an experiment in which subjects were told of a supposed childhood incident (being lost in a shopping mall at the age of five). This incident was mixed in with genuine incidents reported by an older relative in a booklet handed to the subject. “The participants recalled something about 49 of the 72 true events (68 percent) immediately after the initial reading of the booklet and also in each of the two follow-up interviews. After reading the booklet, seven of the 24 participants (29 percent) remembered either partially or fully the false event constructed for them, and in the two follow-up interviews six participants (25 percent) continued to claim that they remembered the fictitious event.”

She also reports an experiment to implant impossible memories. (Impossible because they were formed at a very early age when the brain cant yet form memories). Subjects were told that “they were born in hospitals that hung swinging, colored mobiles over infant cribs.”. Half the subjects were hypnotised, half took part in a “guided mnemonic restructuring procedure that uses age regression as well as active encouragement to re-create the infant experiences by imagining them”. Surprisingly, the latter was more effective than hypnotism. Loftus says: “Both groups remembered the colored mobile at a relatively high rate (56 percent of the guided group and 46 percent of the hypnotic subjects). Many participants who did not remember the mobile did recall other things, such as doctors, nurses, bright lights, cribs and masks. Also, in both groups, of those who reported memories of infancy, 49 percent felt that they were real memories, as opposed to 16 percent who claimed that they were merely fantasies. These findings confirm earlier studies that many individuals can be led to construct complex, vivid and detailed false memories via a rather simple procedure. Hypnosis clearly is not necessary.” (Id like to know more about Spanoss guided mnemonic restructuring – theres a little more from Loftus here and a review of Spanos here.

Corroboration by another person can help to form memories: in one US experiment by Saul Kassin, “individuals [were> falsely accused of damaging a computer by pressing the wrong key. The innocent participants initially denied the charge, but when a confederate said that she had seen them perform the action, many participants signed a confession, internalized guilt for the act and went on to confabulate details that were consistent with that belief.”

MIndblog refers to a recent paper which finds that: “False beliefs and memories can affect peoples attitudes, at least in the short term. But can they produce real changes in behavior? This study explored whether falsely suggesting to subjects that they had experienced a food-related event in their childhood would lead to a change in their behavior shortly after the suggestion and up to 4 months later. We falsely suggested to 180 subjects that, as children, they had gotten ill after eating egg salad. Results showed that, after this manipulation, a significant minority of subjects came to believe they had experienced this childhood event even though they had initially denied having experienced it. This newfound autobiographical belief was accompanied by the intent to avoid egg salad, and also by significantly reduced consumption of egg-salad sandwiches, both immediately and 4 months after the false suggestion. The false suggestion of a childhood event can lead to persistent false beliefs that have lasting behavioral consequences.”

Also, Mindblog refers to the 1974 Reconstruction of automobile destruction experiment, also by Elizabeth Loftus, in which people who had seen videos of car crashes were asked questions about the. The way the questions were phrased signficantly altered the answer, eg:

Question Reply (average, mph)
1) About how fast were the cars going when they collided with each other? 40.8
2) About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other? 39.3
3) About how fast were the cars going when they bumped into each other? 38.1
4) About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other? 34
5) About how fast were the cars going when they contacted each other? 31.8

Question Yes/ No
when they smashed into each other, was there broken glass at the scene? 16/34
when they hit each other, was there broken glass at the scene? 7/43
[no question about broken glass> 6/44

(there was no broken glass on the video)

Mindblog also reports another article by Diekelmann et all which says: “People sometimes claim with high confidence to remember events that in fact never happened, typically due to strong semantic associations with actually encoded events. Sleep is known to provide optimal neurobiological conditions for consolidation of memories for long-term storage, whereas sleep deprivation acutely impairs retrieval of stored memories. Here, focusing on the role of sleep-related memory processes, we tested whether false memories can be created (a) as enduring memory representations due to a consolidation-associated reorganization of new memory representations during post-learning sleep and/or (b) as an acute retrieval-related phenomenon induced by sleep deprivation at memory testing. According to the Deese, Roediger, McDermott (DRM) false memory paradigm, subjects learned lists of semantically associated words (e.g., night , dark , coal , ), lacking the strongest common associate or theme word (here: black ). Subjects either slept or stayed awake immediately after learning, and they were either sleep deprived or not at recognition testing 9, 33, or 44 hours after learning. Sleep deprivation at retrieval, but not sleep following learning, critically enhanced false memories of theme words. This effect was abolished by caffeine administration prior to retrieval, indicating that adenosinergic mechanisms can contribute to the generation of false memories associated with sleep loss.” (I think this means they were read a list of black-related words, and then read a second list and asked to say which from the second list hadbeen included in the first. Black-related words that were not in the first list were more often thought to have been than other words. (ie the subjects had consciously or unconsciously found the common denominator and then worked from that. Alas the article doesnt seem to give the word lists.)

Im not quoting these to make a point about the way childhood memories are recovered in legal proceedings. But when you think about it, what is simulation but the creation of false memories? A pilot who encounters freak conditions whilst landing an aircraft knows how to handle them, because he remembers how he did it on a simulator. On a trivial level, computer game players have a tendency to recount in great detail what happened to them in a game session. Their memories of it are vivid.

The technology involved leads inexorably to Gratch and B J Fogg. Foggs Blog (its not his really but I couldnt resist) has an interesting piece on Barack Obamas use of Facebook = see 14/11/2008, (“Barack Obamas Facebook Page has unprecedented activity for a leader and will continue to serve as a growing social media monument. Just think about it for a second… will your actions online persist alongside Obama for generations to come? When else in history have you seen millions of people from across the world contribute themselves to a digital movement?”) Gratch, according to his web sites, doesnt seem to have done much in 2008.

We worry about social workers and psychologists manufacturing child abuse memories: but what about the wider social use of the technologies?

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