Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The False Memory Wars: A Short Primer

Do you remember the false memory wars?
Probably not,  but I do.  Its effects continue to linger in a way that troubles me. 
This was a “controversy” that consumed the field of trauma therapy throughout the 90’s
It did incredible damage to the field of trauma therapy.   Therapists and patients alike were victimized by the charges of “the false memory foundation (FMSF),” that patients who were being treated by either misguided or malicious therapists were being guided to “mis-remember” childhood
events of sexual violence perpetrated against them.  Therapists lost their licenses,  patients lost their nerve,  and the whole field of trauma treatment contracted in the face of the onslaught.

Unfortunately the media embraced wholeheartedly and uncritically the charges of the FMSF.  There was a shocking lack of balance in the coverage of this controversy.

Interestingly it took the trauma of 911 and the treatment of psychological victims of that catastrophe to bring the field back to respectability.  Trauma treatment programs proliferated after 911.  Now trauma was and is about terrorism and war,  not sexual abuse.

The phenomena that was being questioned by the FMSF was the way some individuals who in the course of therapy,  or indeed just in the course of life, would be blindsided by previously unremembered events from their childhood of savage abuse usually at the hands of trusted caretakers or other family members.  Jane Smiley, in her wonderful Novel  A Thousand Acres has a wonderful description of the phenomena of being struck by such a memory.  Jane Smiley does this so artfully that the reader is “assaulted” by the information much as the character is.

How can such a thing happen?  Being literally assaulted in living color by a previously unremembered event.

We all know how unreliable our memories can be.  I could swear that I hid my expensive jewelery  in the freezer.  Why isn’t it there??  Didn’t my oldest daughter walk at 9 months?  I distinctly remember that she did.  These might be distorted, they might be wishful thinking, or they might not.  Plenty of psychological research has establish that memory deteriorates over time.  Eyewitnesses to crime are notoriously bad witnesses. This is established science.

What isn’t so well accepted and understood is that traumatic memory is different.  Through a mechanism call “dissociation” child victims of horror, torture, abuse, betrayal find a magical way to cope.  Adaptation is well served by filing away, sequestering these memories, severing them from the mainstream of experience so as to be able to go on, grow up, continue to stay attached to important attachment figures who might also be perpetrators. By the way there is neuroscience to back up this understanding of "dissociation."

When it is safe,  sometime in adulthood these “dissociated” memories can return unbidden.  And when they return they are intact—they haven’t degraded at all.  The smell of the room, the smell of the perpetrator,  the texture of the rug,  the cracks in the ceiling, they are all there.

This is the nature of traumatic memory.  And almost always these are unwelcome events, the return of the repressed.  The adult individual doubts their veracity, disowns them,  tries to forget, hides them from the therapist.  I have never known a victim of childhood abuse who didn’t try to run as far away from these memories as they could.  Trauma therapy is a torturous enterprise because the memories are so unwelcome,  so painful, at times almost unbearable.

 It is not like my memories of where I hid my jewelry.

Which is not to say that there are not unscrupulous or poorly trained therapists who prime the pump and  solicit “false memories.”  There are also individuals who present a false narrative for some secondary gain in psychotherapy.  Those are not so difficult to spot.

There have been a few and pretty small studies that have sought corroboration for their trauma patients narrative and have found a high rate of  veracity.  But for me the acid test has always been,  is the patient getting better as you lend them your unqualified support in their attempt to remember.  If the answer is “yes”  that’s all the corroboration that I need.

Monday, November 8, 2010


 I’ve just read a book that combines two genres: science fiction and historical fiction.  In Galileo’s Dream, Galileo  is teletransported in time and space—the time is 3020- the space: the 4 moons of Jupiter, known as the Galilean moons. 

Much of the science, fictional or not, is beyond me.  But the psychology is not   If I understand correctly the purpose of these periodic teletransportations is to manipulate the outcome of Galileo’s life.  In real life G. was tried and found guilty of heresy by the Catholic Church for, among other things,  arguing for the correctness of the Copernican view of the universe,  that the earth rotated around the sun, and not as the Biblical view had it, that the earth was the center of the universe. 

The bad guys on Jupiter want G. to be burned at the stake.  They think this would mark the end of religion and clear the way for the ascendancy of science.  But not everyone agrees.  The good guys attempt to teach G. about his life so that he can maybe even avoid the heresy charges altogether.

What caught my eye was the third millennial version of a psychotherapist or even psychoanalyst,  a mnemosyne.   In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne is the Goddess of memory and the mother of the Muses.  With the help of a helmet-like device the Mnemosyne accesses nodal points in the brain where intense emotional memories are filed.  The  subject “remembers” in the deepest way.

If the,  poorly remembered past could be vividly recalled,  the theory goes,  a person will be changed and their future will be changed, not just their current “symptoms” but their future.  In the context of the book  G. held a better chance of surviving what was in store for him at the hands of the Catholic church, if  he knew himself better.  What gets changed is not the past, but one’s experience of the past and thus the future..

One of many things that caught my attention was that the technology described in this imagined Jovian future already exists.  Its called EMDR (eye movement, desensitization, reprocessing).    The modern mnemosyne (read psychotherapist) uses the protocols of EMDR to access connections between the presenting problems and the past.

In EMDR one stimulates alternately the two hemisphere of the brain by way of sound,  eye movement, tapping, or some such.  Very little special equipment is necessary, maybe ear phones for sound, or a light bar with which the subject follows lights without head movement.  This process seems to faciliatate both relaxation and a kind of free association,  so one starts with a target image and quickly begins to link to other images, that are cognitively if unconsciously connected to the original target image and symptom.  Typically what comes up in a session is an early memory that has set the individual up for the difficulties they are now experiencing.  These image and the memories that arise are “re-processed” and the anxiety, the symptoms diminish.  They really do.

The EMDR protocol  is typically part of an overall treatment process, and my description here is barely adequate.  For more information see   http://www.emdr.com/briefdes.htm 

My point here, is that with the aid of this technology we can help an individual revive the relevant memories from the past that can change the present:  ameliorate symptoms and perhaps even change the future. 

The Mnemosymes of Jupiter have nothing on us.