Saturday, January 17, 2015

When Memory Tells Lies

It ought to be well known, but Freud began his career by trying to induce young hysterics to recall forgotten traumas, in particular forgotten sexual abuse.

Thus, the first step to what was supposed to be a cure was recollecting forgotten traumas.

After a time, Freud changed his mind. He decided that it was not so important that the traumatic events had really happened. What mattered was that the patients had wanted them to happen. He set out to persuade people that, if they misremembered or forgot traumas, the reason was that they wanted to be molested and abused.

He did not forasmuch abandon the notion that a traumatic event had necessarily produced a neurosis. In the case of a patient we call the Wolf Man, Freud concocted a primal scene, insisted that it had really happened, and declared that it explained all of the patient’s neurotic problems.

(For more detail, see my book The Last Psychoanalyst.)

Freud was right to distrust memory. He erred in thinking that people contracted mental illnesses because they refused to accept that they had wanted to be molested, or, later, because they denied their intention to commit horrific crimes. He erred in positing that people had become neurotic because they could not wrap their minds around the fact that they had wanted to murder their fathers and commit incest with their mothers.

Freud believed that these criminal impulses lay hidden in dreams and fantasies. He created psychoanalysis to help his patients to accept these impulses as their own.

Research has confirmed that memory is not the most trustworthy of mental faculties. To take a grotesque example, a few decades ago our nation launched a witch hunt against nursery school teachers. In the course of the investigations social workers induced preschool children to “remember” having been subjected to horrific acts of abuse.  

The most rudimentary knowledge of biology would have persuaded even the most skeptical social worker or prosecutor that these acts could not have happened. Nonetheless, they forged on and convinced juries to send innocent people to jail.

We are not shocked to learn that children can be manipulated into believing things that could not have happened.

We should be shocked to see that adults would accept at face value a child’s assertion that he had been impaled on a ram’s horn during a satanic ritual when his body showed no signs of trauma.

Recently, psychologists have taken it a step further. They have found ways to persuade adults that they committed crimes as children when the crimes never happened. If the adult could not, at first, remember the crime, he must have repressed it very deeply, indeed.

New York Magazine has the story:

Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter of the universities of Bedfordshire and British Columbia, respectively, got permission from a group of Canadian undergraduates to send surveys to their primary caregivers in which the caregivers were asked to provide details of negative, emotionally charged events (animal attacks, losing money, and other stuff like that) the students had experienced when they were younger. 

Then, with these details in their hands, the researchers interviewed the students three times, with each interview lasting for about 40 minutes. Some were asked to remember things that had actually happened to them — the animal attack or whatever — while others were asked to remember details of a crime they hadn't actually committed.

And then:

… the key takeaway is that by the end of the third interview, after a bunch of carefully crafted nudging to do their best to remember, a full 70 percent of the students said, "Yep, I committed that crime when I was younger," and they "volunteered ... detailed false account[s]" of those crimes.

The author adds, correctly, that this research helps explain how people can confess to crimes they never committed. We know that false confessions happen. We know that skilled police interrogators have occasionally gotten people to offer false confessions.

If you can convince a vulnerable human being to confess to a crime that he did not commit, would it really be that difficult to persuade him that he has spent the better part of his life repressing his wish to copulate with his mother.


Sam L. said...

NYT, WaPo, LATimes, the Alphabets, all continue what Freud began.

Ares Olympus said...

These are certainly interesting questions, but I'm not sure what the conclusion should be.

The objective "scientific" conclusion might error on the side of caution, and say its better for 1000 sexually abused kids (with no physical evidence) to be disbelieved, than falsely accuse one innocent adult who can't defend himself against false memories of a suggestable child under the influence of a manipulative therapist.

So what we've learned is we can't trust a kid's memory, can't trust a parent's behavior, can't trust a therapist's skills.

Well, maybe if I've deconstructed all possible access to objective truth in a subjective world, is there anything that can be done?

It certainly helps to have experiments where you can demonstrate suggestability, and the fallibility of memory.

So for me the next experiments should try to test how memories can contain objective integrity.

I remember watching a video on how to interact with police, and it noted that police are trained to write down all their observations during a stop, and afterwards, and this is good behavior for anyone who just experienced something "tramatic", a high stress or emotional event where things happened faster than you could process.

So the video suggested it in the context of court, but it seems useful in general, since you may be spending hours, days, weeks reliving that event, trying to understand what happened and what you should have done differently, and through all those iterations, subtle fabrications can be inserted to fit a not quite true narrative, and so if you tried to write as many factual, observable details immediately, those details might help unwind the false details added later.

Well, I'm not saying kids can be in a position to do this, but I would say, if you're a 10 year old kid being physically or sexually abused, and you can't tell anyone, if you knew writing down the details like a crime report, just the facts ma'am, who knows, but I'd think such a kid would have more clear thinking than one who refused to verbalize his experiences at all.

Not to say such writings could be trusted by adults later either, but at least they would be "virgin pure" so to speak.

On the other side, I've heard mixed analysis on "deprocessing trauma", like kids in a school after a suicide or whatever. I accept anything we put our attention to gets bigger, and I don't know how to "give integrity to memory through writing" without risking making those memories more intense or more dangerous to our sense of self and our sense of reality.

And maybe in the end of all our experimenting we'll find no objective answers, because all individuals are different, with different strengths and vulnerabilities, and we're basically guaranteed to do everything wrong, and the only lesson comes from running out of wrong ways to help, until a person finds their own right way, and still we'll never know.