Huh, what? Oh yeah, I remember

Until the 20th century, most people in the western world believed in objective memory, that what we remember is an accurate mirror of events that actually happened.

With the birth of psychoanalysis and concepts of the Id and unconscious mind, that began to change. Modern brain research confirms that not only do memory and imagination overlap, but that memories can be deliberately changed or altered.  Such manipulation is a core element of The Cloud by Matt Richtel, a page turning thriller I started to read after seeing this interview with the author on

The Persistence of Memory by Salvadore Dali, 1931

Freud was ambivalent about the accuracy of his patients’ memories. At the start of his career, he attributed several several cases of hysteria to real childhood sexual abuse that his methods uncovered.  Later he said that such episodes were patient “phantasies.”

The issue surfaced again at the end of the 20th century, with “recovered memory” therapy causing tremors in the field, to say nothing of lives disrupted by allegations of sexual abuse, in what is now widely viewed as abuse by helping professionals who implanted memories in the course of trying to treat patients.  “False memory syndrome” still evokes passionate disagreement in the field.  The AMA and the American Psychiatric Association, as well as the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Britain have condemned recovered memory therapy, and in the late 90’s, a number of patients who once believed they’d been victims of childhood abuse successfully sued the therapists who had led them to that belief.

Since the turn of the century, the “hard science” of biology has confirmed what most therapists since Freud have known – that memory is always mixed with imagination.  The area of the brain that perceives an object overlaps the part of the brain that imagines the same object.  In 2009, scientists implanted memories (involving smells) in flies by using light signals to trigger “genetically encoded switches.”

The day after I started reading The Cloud, I heard “Sure, I remember that,” on Marketplace, in which the work of Elizabeth Loftus was highlighted. Loftus, of UC Irvine, is one of the key researchers who have demonstrated how easy it is to implant memories, in this case using altered photographs.  I invite you to listen to this timely piece, which is only five and a half minutes long.

Yep.  We now something new to worry about – hacking at the cellular level!  I’ll have to remember to worry about it later, though.  Right now I have to get back to my novel…

10 thoughts on “Huh, what? Oh yeah, I remember

  1. The thing about photographs is certainly true. When all you have about a certain time of your life, an incident or a relationship is a fading or ambiguous photograph, the temptation to fill in details to aid your faltering memories is very strong: speculations become fact, intentions are read into that snapshot of faces and context is guessed at and then firmed up. We all become unreliable narrators and the sad thing is that we can even fool ourselves. A stimulating post, thanks!


    • Did you notice in that video that Elizabeth Loftus, who has devoted her career to studying these things, said no amount of knowledge or education can shield you from the effects. It really is fascinating.


  2. A topic I’ve been thinking about very closely this week! I’m actually reading Loftus in relation to a class in oral history I am taking. Of course, oral history all involves fieldwork and probing the (sometimes very old) memories of interview subjects, so there is always that question of how much is truth and how much story.


    • What an interesting class. I know that subjectively, my memories change in relation to later events. I also know that the older the memory, the more imagination is mixed in with it. On the other hand, the fantasy (as James Hillman would call it) of objective memory as the criterion of truth is a pretty modern notion, I think.


      • It’s true. The class has got me thinking that history is always a story told about the past out of the bits & pieces of information that are left behind, instead of the wholly objective truth. Not typically how the subject’s approached in the modern world, though.


      • “The world is made of stories.” I’m not sure who first said it – possibly the poet, Gary Snyder, but I think there’s a lot of truth in it.

        I think the myth of objective truth is an artifact of the age of reason. Even hard science has moved beyond it, in the realization that observation alters experimental results. How interesting it must be to discuss this in the context of history.


      • Thanks, I was trying to find the original attribution for this quote and it sounds like that’s it. The World is Made of Stories, 2010, is a book of related quotations and commentary compiled by David Loy, writing along the lines of Zen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s