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False Memories: As Believable as the Real Thing?

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WebMD Feature

Dec. 4, 2000 -- Did you take your medicine this morning? Or did you only imagine you did? The mysteries of memory, and how they are processed in the brain, extend to more serious questions about disputed memories of childhood abuse or trauma, recalled by patients seeking therapy. Were the events real, or only imagined?

In recent years, the medical community has become increasingly aware of a phenomenon known as "false memory syndrome", where through therapy, people become convinced that they were sexually abused as children. In these cases -- which occur mostly in women -- the memories of abuse, although vivid, are false, induced by suggestion in therapy. This unfortunate, yet uncommon, side effect of therapy can tear families apart, and leave therapists confused and bewildered about what to do.

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Now, new laboratory research measuring brain activity during the process of recall has produced results that may help scientists understand better how the brain creates false memories. Specifically, the brain appears to record as real those events or images that have more visual detail, says Kenneth Paller, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the Neuroscience Institute and the department of psychology at Northwestern University in Chicago.

And the degree of visual detail can be measured using a test that monitors the amount of brain activity taking place in the part of the brain believed to be related to visual perception, Paller says.

Attaching electrodes to the back of the head, Paller and colleagues measured brain activity when subjects tried to recall an object which they had been shown an actual picture of, as well as objects they had not been shown a picture of, but had only been asked to visualize in their minds.

In some cases, people falsely remembered being a shown a picture of the object, when they really had not. In those cases, there was increased activity. And there was even greater activity measured during recall when a picture of the object really had been shown to them, Paller says.

What it means is that the more visual detail a memory has, the more likely it is to be remembered as real -- even if it isn't real, Paller tells WebMD. "The more visual your memory is, the more likely you are going to ascribe it to an actual event."

But Paller is cautious about extending his laboratory results to controversies surrounding "false memory syndrome". Yet he notes that previous work has shown that false memories can be induced. And his own research provides a glimpse -- through the measurement of brain activity -- of how that might be happening, he says.

"We are learning some of the mechanisms that could lead to false memories in the laboratory, and they may lead to false memories in some situations in real life, but we wouldn't want to infer that that is always the mechanism in false memories," he tells WebMD. "We don't have a way to determine whether someone has a true or false memory."

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