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.
I was having sex with a Dutch girl when my wife walked in. “What do you
think about this?” I asked.
“Um,” she said. “It’s a little weird.”
The Dutch girl wasn’t real. Well, not really real? She was an avatar
in Second Life, the online, 3D, digital world developed by San Francisco
company Linden Labs. But there was a real person on a computer somewhere in the
world making her avatar have sex with my avatar by clicking a pink ball on the
ground. I don’t know where the real user was located,...
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."