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.
Sitting in high school biology, listening to the teacher drone on about
genetics, I snapped to attention when she used male pattern baldness as an
example of a dominant trait. My heart started pounding with fear - with bald
men on both sides of my mother's family as far as the eye could see, I was
doomed to have a chrome dome.
I remained anguished about the prospect of being bald for the next 20 years
as my hairline retreated and my hair steadily thinned. Bald men seemed
disfigured to me....
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
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
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."