reprinted with permission.
Memory: Gift and Curse
Chapter 1: The Illusion of Memory
Memory is the selection of images; some elusive; others printed indelibly on the brain. Each image is like a thread … each thread woven together to make a tapestry of intricate textures. And the tapestry tells a story. And the story is our past … Like others before me, I have the gift of sight. But the truth changes color depending on the light. And tomorrow can be clearer than yesterday. —Eve’s Bayou, screenplay by Kasi Lemmons
In early 2015, Brian Williams, a highly respected journalist and broadcast media star, retreated in shame and defeat over “lying” and inflating his exposure to extreme threat in his warfront coverage. We now know these facts: Williams was flying behind a helicopter that had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. Over time, his story mutated to a version where he recounted that he was riding in the helicopter that came under fire. Public and pundits alike were astonished that he would risk his reputation with such specious heroism and self-aggrandizement. We all asked ourselves how we could have been duped by this sincere and earnest reporter.
Yet consider other similar “missteps” by public figures: Hillary Rodham Clinton once claimed that she was under sniper fire in Bosnia, only to later admit that she “had her facts wrong.” Not to be partisan, let us not forget that Mitt Romney remembered a Detroit jubilee that took place nine months before he was born! Are all of these notables outright liars, or is something else going on? The real answer is that these kinds of memory distortions, particularly when laid down in times of high stress and danger, are something to which we are all readily susceptible. On a lighter note, we can identify with Romney’s “pre-birth memories,” as many of us have incorporated a family photo or oft-repeated story into our “factually recalled” personal reminiscences. Indeed, the meaning we attach to a particular event can have a significant effect on the content of that memory. In the words of the psychoanalyst Alfred Adler: “Out of the incalculable number of impressions which meet an individual, he chooses to remember those which he feels, however darkly, to have a bearing on his situation.
Aristotle believed that humans are born as a tabula rasa—a blank slate—and that we are the product of a life imprinted as a series of memories, just as an impression is made in wax. However, memory is no such thing; we must live with the uncomfortable acceptance that memory is simply not something concrete, definitive, and reproducible, like a video recording that can be retrieved at will. It is instead more ephemeral, ever-shifting in shape and meaning. Memory is not a discrete phenomenon, a fixed construction, cemented permanently onto a stone foundation. Rather, it is more like a fragile house of cards, perched precariously upon the shifting sands of time, at the mercy of interpretation and confabulation. Indeed, memory is a continual reconstruction, more akin to the wayward, wildly unpredictable electrons in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Just as the very act of observing electrons changes their position or momentum, so does the warp and woof of memory interweave to yield a soft fabric that changes hue and contour with the movement of light and shadow throughout the day and over the seasons.
Literature and film have long been fascinated by the fallacies of memory. The fragility and inherent subjectivity of memory are brilliantly portrayed in Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon, in which four characters each recall their starkly contrasting memories of the same event. Just as in the movie, memory is like a fleeting dream: Just as one tries to grasp it, memory slips away, leaving us with the stark consolation that the ever-changing eye of the beholder may be the only truly reliable defining quality of recollection. So can we observe our memories without changing them in the process of recall? The short answer is no.
Philosophers and filmmakers, along with a growing number of contemporary cognitive neuroscientists, question the validity of recollection per se. Mark Twain once confessed, “I am an old man and I have known a great number of misfortunes, but most of them never happened.” In other words, his immediate and current misery caused him to “remember” (i.e., construct) events that never really happened. Indeed, recent research resoundingly demonstrates that memory is a reconstructive process that is continuously selecting, adding, deleting, rearranging, and updating information—all to serve the ongoing adaptive process of survival and living.
In the following chapters we’ll explore the implications of the mutability of memory, as well as pursue an understanding of the types of memory that pertain specifically to trauma. A central premise to be explored in this work is that our present feeling state may be the major factor determining what and how we remember a particular event. Indeed, first changing our current feeling state is a sine qua non for effective work with traumatic memories. What has been poorly understood in clinical work with traumatic memories is that our present mood, emotions, and somatic sensations (generated for whatever reasons) profoundly influence what we are “remembering.” Remembered images and thoughts that appear in our field of awareness are evoked and (unconsciously) selected to match our current emotional state. Our current moods and sensations play a key role in how we remember a particular event—they structure our evolving relationship to these “memories,” as well as how we deal with and reconstruct them anew.
The key to investigating the utility and reliability of memory lies in studying its biological roots, together with its psychological, developmental, and social functions. If memory proves to be decidedly elusive and illusive, then what is its value, and what are its inherent limitations? When can a memory be trusted and when will it betray, leaving us floundering in a sea of ambiguity and uncertainty? Furthermore, when is the memory a fabrication perpetrated by “magicians,” be they therapists, family, lawyers, or politicians? When might it be a twisted distortion of history fostered by the collective unconscious of societies, tribes, or clans? And when are the actions of these sorcerers and forces deliberate, and when are they unwitting?
With regard to transforming trauma, many therapeutic modalities seem to misunderstand or even ignore the essential questions: Under which conditions might a memory be a healing force and when might it be destructive? When might it generate self-inflicted pain and unnecessary suffering? Ultimately, and most importantly, how can we tell the difference?
A Walk Down Memory Lane
Memories form the very bedrock of our identities and help define what it means to be human. Though not necessarily entirely accurate or permanent, memories are a magnetic compass that guides us through new situations. They help us render a context for these emerging experiences so that we are able to confidently plan our next steps while developing coherent stories about our life’s trajectory. It is, in short, via memories that we find our way in the world. Problems and difficulties that arise when taking up new hobbies, learning new dance steps, connecting with strangers, and understanding new concepts can be directly correlated to our lack of previously established templates around which we organize new information and new experiences.
Memory, when reduced to its most vital function, has to do with securing a future that chooses selectively from the past and builds on what was effective, while not repeating those responses that were deleterious or harmful—in short, securing a future that is influenced, but not overly constrained, by our history. Through memory we maintain a thread of continuity by linking present with past. In the ongoing process of comparing similarities and differences, times of threat and those of safety and contentment, as well as important accomplishments and failures, we sort through and then reorganize this information to shape our present and upcoming choices. In this way we aspire to create a future more adaptive, rewarding, and beneficial than our past. The words of the country singer Vince Gill ring true: There simply “ain’t no future in the past.”
Memories, such as the recollection of a wonderful walk in the woods on a crisp and colorful day while kicking piles of leaves into the air and sharing intimate thoughts and feelings with a close friend, are pleasantly welcomed back into the folds of our consciousness. Though sometimes distant, these reminiscences are often infused with faint sensory impressions such as the musty scent of the leaves or the crackling sounds as they are kicked aloft, the cool nip in the air or the exquisite colors of autumn foliage. Just as familiar are unpleasant memories from which we recoil and would prefer to forget. These negative recollections are often very powerful in seizing our attention. When, for example, we are rejected by a lover or passed over for a promotion, we cannot get these events out of our minds. And, indeed, they may linger, pungent and poignant, for years, sometimes seeming to have the same bite when they are recalled as when they first happened. Any smells, sights, sounds, and sensations associated with these memories can be disturbing, distasteful, aggravating, or even repellant. Such responses compel avoidance of voluntary and subconscious contact with any reminders. Nonetheless, we may find ourselves sharing these painful reminiscences with friends or therapists as relatively sensible and coherent stories—whether describing pleasurable or disturbing past experiences. We are usually able to reflect on these memories, learn something from them, and move forward with our lives. We are potentially enriched and empowered by our mistakes and failures, as well as by our great or little triumphs and achievements.
The most salient of our memories are imbued with sensations and feelings, whether good or bad, joyful or sad, angry or content. It is, in fact, the emotional impact associated with a memory that is largely responsible for initiating and strengthening learning. Indeed, what we call learning is actually a process of importing the patterns, affects, behaviors, perceptions, and constructs recorded from previous experiences (i.e., “memory engrams”) to meet the demands of current encounters. In short, past imprints influence present and future planning, often under the radar of conscious awareness. In contrast to a repetitive news clip, our memories are mutable, molded and remolded many times throughout our lives. They are continuously in flux, perpetually in a process of forming and reforming.
No worst, there is none.
—Gerard Manley Hopkins
In contrast to “ordinary” memories (both good and bad), which are mutable and dynamically changing over time, traumatic memories are fixed and static. They are imprints (engrams) from past overwhelming experiences, deep impressions carved into the sufferer’s brain, body, and psyche. These harsh and frozen imprints do not yield to change, nor do they readily update with current information. The “fixity” of imprints prevents us from forming new strategies and extracting new meanings. There is no fresh, ever-changing now and no real flow in life. In this way, the past lives on in the present; or as William Faulkner wrote in Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Rather, it lives as a panoply of manifold fears, phobias, physical symptoms, and illnesses.
In sharp contrast to gratifying or even troublesome memories, which can generally be formed and revisited as coherent narratives, “traumatic memories” tend to arise as fragmented splinters of inchoate and indigestible sensations, emotions, images, smells, tastes, thoughts, and so on. For example, a motorist who survived a fiery car crash is suddenly besieged by a racing heart, stark terror, and a desperate need to flee when he catches a whiff of gasoline while filling his tank at a service station. These jumbled fragments cannot be remembered in the narrative sense per se, but are perpetually being “replayed” and re-experienced as unbidden and incoherent intrusions or physical symptoms. The more we try to rid ourselves of these “flashbacks,” the more they haunt, torment, and strangle our life force, seriously restricting our capacity to live in the here and now.
Traumatic memories may also take the form of unconscious “acting-out” behaviors. These include, for example, repeatedly having “accidents” or unwittingly exposing oneself to dangerous situations. A couple of cases in point are the prostitute who, molested as a child, now seeks liaisons with violent men or has unprotected sex; or the war vet, “addicted” to thrill and danger, who applies for the police SWAT team immediately after discharge from the military.
“Relived” traumatic memories erupt involuntarily as raw tatters of experience, suddenly imposing themselves on the vulnerable sufferer. These shards seem to come out of nowhere, cutting into their victims’ lives, whether waking or sleeping. To be traumatized is to be condemned to an endless nightmare, replaying these unbearable torments, as well as being prey to various obsessions and compulsions. Traumatized people have their lives arrested until they are somehow able to process these intrusions, assimilate them, and then finally form coherent narratives that help put these memories to rest; or said another way, to come to peace with their memories. This completion restores continuity between past and future, and prompts a motivating perseverance and a realistic optimism and forward movement in life.
The role of trauma memories in the treatment of “neurosis” was the Rosetta stone of early twentieth-century psychoanalysis. While Freud was hardly the first to deal with such pathogenic and hidden (“repressed”) memories, he became the best known. In truth, he stood tall on the broad shoulders of giants who came before him, notably Jean-Martin Charcot and Pierre Janet working at the Salpêtrière in Paris. They really were the first to appreciate how traumatic memory can be walled off from consciousness by the mechanisms of what they called repression and dissociation, and then how therapy consisted of bringing these split-off parts into conscious awareness. Their pioneering contribution must have been an inspiration to Freud, influencing his early trauma theory.
However, as Freud abandoned the recognition of trauma’s origin in overwhelming (external) events and turned to the internal machinations of the “Oedipal” and other “instinctual conflicts,” Janet’s great contribution was eclipsed. With Freud’s charismatic dominance, and the messy reality of familial abuse and molestation, trauma from overwhelming external events all but disappeared from the radar of psychology—that is, until the “shell shocked” soldiers of World War I returned home. Society and psychology preferred to follow Freud’s new focus on internal conflicts (such as the “Oedipal complex”), while veering away from the murky and disturbing family dynamics of childhood sexual abuse, perpetrated even in the Victorian homes of respectable doctors, lawyers, and bankers. Fortunately, Janet’s profound understanding of trauma, its etiology, and its implications for treatment were revisited some hundred years later by Bessel van der Kolk and Onno van der Hart in a seminal paper celebrating the centenary of Janet’s landmark book, L’automatisme psychologique, first published in 1889.2,3. This foundational history in the understanding and treatment of trauma is elegantly treated and respectfully honored in van der Kolk’s recent comprehensive book The Body Keeps the Score.
Memory Wars: The Truth about False Memories, the Falsity of True Memories, and the Unholy Grail of “Memory Erasure”
Memory is the historical accumulation of lies … Like memory, good fiction must have specific dates and times; that way it seems to be true.
—Daniel Schmid, Swiss film director
At the turn of the twenty-first century, memory had become the elusive Holy Grail of contemporary cognitive neuroscience, snagging a Nobel Prize for Physiology in 2000.* In contrast, fifteen years earlier, the pivotal role of memory in the treatment of trauma had fostered a violent schism, a virtual memory war. On one side of this highly polarized clash were therapists who vehemently pushed their clients to “recover” long-forgotten, “dissociated,” or “repressed” memories of childhood molestation and abuse. This agonizing dredging was generally accompanied by repeated dramatic abreactions† and often by violent catharsis. These highly charged, “expressive” therapies were frequently carried out in group settings where participants were encouraged (or often pressured) to scream out their anguish and rage as they “recovered” horrific memory after horrific memory.
Many of these patients were female college students suffering from depression, anxiety, and panic disorders who were desperate to discover a cause, and in doing so, find a cure for their suffering. Their crippling anguish made them frantic to find a denouement, an absolution, in the temporary relief afforded by these intense abreactions. The perceived veracity of these “recovered” memories helped them to “explain” to themselves and to find an anchor for their states of profound distress. These catharses also stimulated the release of highly addictive rushes of adrenaline and a flood of endogenous opioids (endorphins). This biochemical cocktail, along with the potent group bonding (also opioid mediated) derived from the sharing of similar stories, was powerfully compelling. Indeed, many of these sufferers did have family histories of abuse and horrors that were being uncovered by these therapies. Unfortunately, they were often confused or inaccurate. And even when accurate, they frequently did not provide deep and enduring healing. In many cases, this dredging caused great amounts of unnecessary suffering. Many of the guiding therapists believed, wholly and completely, in the veracity and therapeutic value of these “recovered” memories, even if that meant sometimes believing things that could not possibly have happened, as well as denying the deleterious effects of the so-called recovery on the lives of patients and their families.
On the other side of this developing skirmish was a group of academic memory researchers who were just as vehement in their assertion that these “recovered” memories were often false— that they were confabulations. They based this conclusion largely on experiments in which they had successfully implanted “traumatic” memories of events that were verifiably false. The most impressive of these experiments involved getting college subjects to believe deliberately implanted false memories of being lost in a mall as a small child. These “memories” often included clear images of being found by a stranger and then being taken to their parents. However, prior interviews with the students’ parents had confirmed that events like these never actually took place. In a rebuttal of this experiment, Bessel van der Kolk points out that the student subjects did not exhibit the visceral distress that would most certainly have accompanied remembering such a terrifying childhood episode.6 Nonetheless, experiments like this led many memory researchers to conclude that many, if not most, therapeutically recovered memories were subconsciously implanted by unwitting—or in some cases willful—therapists. But first, the telling story of Beth.
It was under suspicious circumstances that the mother of thirteen-year-old Beth was found dead, drowned in the family swimming pool. The grief-stricken teen must have also been tormented by the possibility that her mother had taken her own life. Two years after this devastating shock, Beth also lost her home. A brush fire destroyed the house while sparing others on her block.
Imagine the stunned, motherless girl standing outside her burning home, holding a ragged teddy bear close to her chest. According to one report, she was particularly troubled by the disappearance of her diary. Her biggest fear was not that it was lost in the fire but rather that it might fall into another person’s hands. One can only imagine what memories and private secrets this vulnerable adolescent shared with her diary.
What did Beth make of all this loss? How did she deal with the lurking presence of these haunting ghosts? How had she managed the ambiguity of her mother’s death followed by the sudden destruction of her family’s home? Like the contents of her diary, we will never know these answers. And yet, in time, the direction of Beth’s adult life came to tell its own revealing story of courage, fortitude, perseverance, and concentrated focus: Elizabeth Loftus grew up to become a renowned expert on memory.
For years, Professor Loftus crusaded against recovered memory therapies, obsessed with proving that many of these therapeutically evoked abuse memories are false. She then began a determined inquiry into the possibility of memory erasure with research on student attitudes concerning the elimination of disturbing memories. Undergraduates were asked whether they would want to take a memory-dampening drug in the event that they had been mugged and beaten. Nearly half stated that they would want the right to access such a drug. However, only 14 percent said they would actually use it. In a similar inquiry, only 20 percent of a group of firefighters who were “Ground Zero” rescuers at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, said they would want a pill to erase their horrific memories. To say that Professor Loftus was surprised by this data would certainly be an understatement. In her own words, she asserted that, “If I had endured an assault I would take the drug.” Indeed, although she doesn’t seem to have quite made the connection, Beth had, of course, actually undergone an “assault” with the wrenching losses of her mother and her childhood home.
No matter how much a hurt child, like young Beth, wants to flee from her memories, they will still trail after her, insidious ghosts lurking in the shadows. Who wouldn’t want to eradicate these hauntings from the vaults of their memory banks? But, one wonders, at what risk and at what cost to our unique humanness? We shall discover that there are more constructive and life-affirming ways to approach and engage our difficult memories.
Painful memories shape our lives in ways we might not ever suspect. Like the many-headed Hydra (and our beleaguered futile fight to cut off head after head), these memories will come back to bite us, haunt us, and mold us, no matter how much we aspire to eliminate, deny, or sanctify them. How might we work with rather than against them, accessing and utilizing their “compressed energy” to liberate us from their stranglehold?
Let us recognize that ultimately, both views of memory, false or recovered, are off the mark, particularly with regard to the role of memory in healing trauma and other wounds of the psyche and soul. Both camps and their remedies are arguably slamming into their own unresolved traumas, psychodynamic issues, scientific biases, prejudices, and the “cherry-picking” of data to support their hardened positions. It is as though each group sees the other side as inherently dishonest or worse, and assumes that all of their beliefs and data are automatically wrong, even when the research or clinical observations were carried out methodically and rendered results consistent with other data. Both groups seem unnecessarily defensive and profoundly unwilling to learn from each other. Unfortunately, their differences have played out not in the halls of science, objectivity, and open inquiry, but rather in the courts of law, tabloid “journalism,” and public opinion—often via the stories of media celebrities.
Even more fundamental to these “memory wars” is the broad misunderstanding about the very nature of memory itself.