By Sharon Begley with Martha Brant
You Must Remember This
Science: How the brain forms 'false memories'
AT FIRST, CHRIS HAD ONLY THE foggiest recollection of
getting lost in the Spokane shopping mall at the age of 5.
His older brother, a psychology student at the University of
Washington, was doing an experiment on memory; would Chris,
14, read this brief account of an incident from his child-
hood, and write down everything he could remember about it?
After reading about getting lost in the mall, Chris wrote
variations on "I sort of remember the stores." But a few
weeks later, pressed by his brother, he offered a richly
detailed narrative: "I think I went over to look at the toy
store, the Kay-Bee store and, uh, we got lost . . . And then
this old man, I think he was wearing blue flannel, came up
to me . . . he was kind of old. He was kind of bald on top .
. . he had like a ring of gray hair . . ."
Chris had never been lost at a mall. But now he was
sure that he had.
The fallibility, and malleability, of memory is old
news to anyone who has ever had his vivid recall of a third-
birthday party shattered by a grainy old home movie.
Hundreds of experiments have shown that people easily slip
false details (from a TV report, for example) into their
recollection of a crime they witnessed. They even "remember"
events they have only heard about: after a sniper fired into
a Los Angeles school playground in 1984, one boy had vivid
memories of seeing someone lying on the ground, hearing
shots and running home. He had been on vacation at the time.
"It is possible," concludes psychologist Elizabeth Loftus in
a disturbing new book, "The Myth of Repressed Memory" (290
pages. St. Martin's. $22.95), "to create an entire memory
for a traumatic event that never happened." And now, says
Loftus, "some of the best minds in neuroscience are
interested in how that can happen." If they succeed, they
will have brought some much-needed science to the bitter and
heated debate over "recovered memory" in cases of childhood
sexual abuse, satanism and even UFO abductions.
Glimmers of how memories might be created out of mere
wisps of suggestion began to emerge this summer, after a May
conference at Harvard Medical School on the neurological
bases of false memories. Start with how normal memory is
thought to work: bits and pieces of an experience are
parceled out to different regions of the brain. Memories of
its sound settle in the auditory cortex, and memories of its
appearance into the visual cortex (diagram). "Each neuron
represents a little bit of the memory," explains
psychologist James McClelland of the Center for the Neural
Basis of Cognition in Pittsburgh. But all the scattered
fragments remain physically linked. The job of assembling
them falls to a part of the brain called the limbic system.
Like a neural file clerk, it pulls disparate aspects of each
memory from the separate file drawers scattered throughout
the cortex, gathering them into a cohesive whole.
Whatever reason evolution had for creating this scheme,
it practically guarantees people will "remember" things that
never happened. For one thing, people routinely take
perfectly accurate snippets and assemble them incorrectly.
Suppose you saw an accident in which a car ran a red light;
a year later someone asks, "Remember when that guy ran the
stop sign?" Neurons connected to the memory of the accident
click in--but so do memories of stop signs. Time goes by.
The next time you recall the accident, neurons holding memo
ries of stop signs get activated, too--and suddenly you
remember a car running a stop sign. Most chilling, says
psychologist Michael Nash of the University of Tennessee, is
that "there may be no structural difference between" a
memory of a true event and a false one.
False memories commonly arise in a condition called
"source amnesia." Thanks to the brain's frontal lobes, most
people can distinguish the memory of a dream from the memory
of a real event: these gelatinous folds of gray matter tag
each incoming image with how, when and where it was
acquired. But if the frontal lobes are damaged, their owners
cannot remember where a memory came from, explains
psychologist Daniel Schacter of Harvard. The patients
retrieve bits and pieces of a memory--the face of an old
teacher, a cinematic rape--and cannot distinguish which
fragment from where. "You could be remembering a dream, a
fear or something someone talked about," says Schacter.
'What gives the memory a feeling of authenticity is that
authentic parts are included." Even in people with perfectly
fine frontal lobes, a memory's origin deteriorates more
quickly than its other aspects, says psychologist Stephen
Ceci of Cornell University. (Do you remember your first day
at kindergarten? Or is it your mother's endless recounting
that you recall?) Source memory is also highly prone to
suggestion--that the vision of a man by your bed is a real
memory, for instance, and not an image drawn from hearing
tales of abuse. "If you've imagined it enough and you lose
the source of the information [your imagination]," says
Ceci, "then you have a false memory."
Although not everyone is so suggestible--75 percent of
the people in Loftus's lost-in-the-mall study refused to
"remember" what had never been--certain conditions can make
them so. "Severe emotional stress overcomes internal checks
on plausibility, and you are left with a false memory," says
neurologist Marsel Mesulam of Northwestern University. From
transcripts and session notes, Loftus, a psychologist at the
University of Washington, found therapists who routinely
told patients that if they cannot remember abuse, they
should imagine it as an aid to memory. "Picture [your
father] approaching the bed," one told her patient, Loftus
reports. "Think about what happened in the bathtub," said
another, "If you can't remember any details, just try to
imagine what it must have been like. " Many therapists also
use hypnosis, which makes patients willing to internalize
suggestions and to call any image they see a memory. "Under
hypnosis," says psychiatrist David Spiegel of Stanford
University, "you can create [memories] rather than retrieve
It was through hypnosis that a high priestess of Satan
was born. "Anne," seeking help for postpartum depression, be
came convinced by her therapist that she had been repeatedly
raped as a child by her father and his co-workers, and had
been a priestess in a satanic cult that ritually murdered
and cannibalized thousands of babies. She "had mastered the
ability to immediately incorporate the content of [a]
question into her memory," write Richard Ofshe, a social
psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and
Ethan Watters in their new book "Making Monsters: False
Memories, Psychotherapy, and Sexual Hysteria" (340 pages.
Scribner's. $23). Once Anne left the hothouse of therapy,
she disavowed her accusations. Last year she filed suit
against her therapist. More than 300 people have recanted
their retrieved memories.
Extreme trauma: Despite assertions that traumatic
events are repressed, strong emotions create strong memory.
Among children who witnessed the murder of a parent, for
instance, many distorted the memory--but not one lost it
entirely, say Ofshe and Watters. Experiments confirm only
one way for extreme trauma to impair memory: by preventing
it from forming. That which bas never been stored cannot be
Such skepticism about retrieved memories rankles people
who counsel survivors of abuse. Harvard psychiatrist Judith
Herman, for instance, Says "scientists have no business
using the term false memory. We have no way of judging
independently [reports of] childhood experiences." That's OK
if memories are used solely in therapy and treated as mere
expressions of the mind. But "memories" are sending people
to jail: 700 civil and criminal cases have bee filed based
on retrieved memories of childhood abuse, according to the
False Memory Syndrome Foundation. Some of the accused have
been convicted and sentenced to 40 years, as in a case
decided last week, based on nothing more substantial than
retrieved memories. At least, the accusers though they were