Is subconscious memory a dangerous belief?
By Elizabeth F. Loftus, University of Washington
In our world, transformed by science, pseudoscientific ideas are still alive. Such crazy and dangerous beliefs had the most serious consequences for Nadine cool, a 44-year-old nurse from Appleton, Wisconsin. At the end of 1986, she went to a psychiatrist to help her cope with a nervous breakdown caused by a reaction to her daughter's mental injuries. In the course of treatment, the psychiatrist used hypnosis and other methods, trying to evoke memories of the alleged abuse suffered by the patient. During the course of psychotherapy, Nadine became obsessed with the idea that her subconscious contains memories of her belonging to a satanic cult, of devouring babies, of being raped, engaged in bestiality, and how as a child she was forced to watch the murder of an eight-year-old friend. Nadine came to believe that she had 120 different personalities-children, adults, angels, and even ducks-all because of what she was told about her harsh childhood, full of sexual abuse and abuse. With the help of hypnosis and other suggestive methods, the psychiatrist tried to exorcise the evil spirit from Nadine. One such exorcism lasted for five hours and was accompanied by copious sprinkling of Holy water on the patient and calls for Satan to leave her body. When Nadine realized that false memories were introduced into her memory as a result of suggestion, she sued, accusing the psychiatrist of criminal negligence; the lawsuit was considered in early 1997, and the court ordered her to pay compensation in the amount of $ 2.4 million (to get information about other similar cases, see: Loftus, 1997).
Hundreds of people, mostly women, during psychotherapy sessions recall cases of cruelty shown to them, thoughts of which they previously suppressed, and then refuse to speak. How do we know that recollections of incidents of cruelty are fictitious and that rejecting them is not a mistake? One possible answer to this question is that sometimes these women recall events that simply could not have happened for psychological or biological reasons, such as detailed descriptions of abuse at the age of three months, or one woman's recollection of being forced to perform an abortion with a hanger, even though the examination confirmed her virginity.
How is it possible for people to describe their memories of events that never happened in such detail and with such conviction? In the early 1970s, I began studying the so-called"disinformation effect." When a person is a witness to an event, and then new and often unreliable information appears about this event, their memories can be distorted. False information, like a Trojan horse, invades our brain, because we can't recognize it.
Recent research has shown that inculcated information can not only distort the details of a recent event, but also create completely false memories and beliefs in people's minds (Loftus & Pickrell, 1995; Hyman et al., 1995; Porter, 1998). According to research, almost half of the people who were interviewed using suggestion had either completely or partially distorted memories of their childhood. Hypnotic suggestion is one of the most effective ways to introduce information into the human brain and make it accept it (for example, Orne et al., 1984). By making a person imagine that an event happened to them as a child, they can be convinced that something like this really happened (Garry, Manning, Loftus & Sherman, 1996).
You can, of course, dismiss the results of these studies as going against the practice of psychotherapy. However, recently an experiment was conducted that carefully recreated the psychotherapeutic situation (Mazzoni & Loftus, 1998). In this study, subjects were twice told about their earliest memories of childhood. In the interval between these two stories, a part of the subjects had a conversation in which the psychologist interpreted their dreams. Regardless of the content of the dreams, the researcher deliberately told "patients" that, according to their dreams, when they were less than 3 years old, a certain event happened to them (for example, they were lost in a public place or their lives were in danger). A few weeks later, when these people were asked again to talk about their childhood, most of them were convinced that they were lost or their lives were in great danger. Sometimes the subjects were quite sure of this, despite the fact that they initially denied even the possibility of such an event and the low probability that they could retain detailed and distinct memories of an event that occurred to them at this age (think of the phenomenon of childhood amnesia).
Of course, the ability to give subjects false memories of childhood does not necessarily mean that those memories that arose as a result of hypnosis, imagination, or dream interpretation are necessarily fictitious. This does not in any way call into question the claims of many thousands of people who were actually subjected to ill-treatment and later recalled it. However, it should be borne in mind that even an experienced specialist is not able to distinguish actual memories from suggested ones if he does not have objective evidence of what happened. The heated debate over memories stored in the subconscious has been going on for more than a decade, and modern research is opening up new possibilities for influencing human memory and new ideas about the shaky veil that sometimes separates memories from the imagination.
Introduction to psychology. Chapter 9. Thinking and speech
The greatest achievements of the human race are due to the ability to generate complex thoughts, exchange them, and act on them. Thinking involves a wide range of mental activities. We think when we try to solve a problem set in class; we think when we dream while waiting for these classes in class. We think when we decide what to buy at the grocery store, when we plan a vacation, write a letter, or worry about a difficult relationship. We will begin this Chapter by discussing the language through which thoughts are conveyed.