False memories can have ‘healthy consequences’ — and the good news is?


Regions of the brain affected by PTSD and stress.

Where would you let someone plant a false memory? Image via Wikipedia

This week, I came across a remarkable abstract from a study where adults were intentionally given false memories of having liked asparagus as a child … and as a result, suddenly liked it as adults:

“In two experiments, involving 231 subjects, we planted the suggestion that subjects loved to eat asparagus as children.  … These new (false) beliefs had consequences … including increased general liking of asparagus, greater desire to eat asparagus in a restaurant setting, and a willingness to pay more for asparagus in the grocery store. … These results demonstrate that adults can be led to believe that they had a positive food-related experience as children, and that these false beliefs can have healthy consequences.” Laney, Cara, et  al. “Asparagus, a love story: Healthier eating could be just a false memory away.”  Experimental Psychology, Vol 55(5), 2008, 291-300.

The researchers, led apparently by no morality except public health policy, came to what was for them a positive conclusion: adults can be given false childhood memories that will lead to healthier food choices in the future.

Memory is an extraordinarily tricky area of ethics for the psychologist. Who can blame the teams that are aiding veterans with post-traumatic stress to forget the emotional distress associated with memories of their war experiences? The experiences remain; the disabling fear and rage and anxiety vanish. And the veteran regains his or her ability to function within family and our home society.

In some ways, this psychological service only helps people crippled by horrifying experiences to accomplish what the Apostle Paul charges us each to do: forget what is behind, press onward toward the prize.

But how different this delicate psychological surgery seems — disentangle the devastating and deadening feeling from the memory, cut it out — from inserting a feeling that has no basis in reality.

One facilitates the return of a human; the other creates a Franken-being who believes in a past that did not occur.

There is an extent to which we all believe in pasts that did not occur. We imagine ourselves more (or less) liked than we were; we enjoy a happier home; we overcome greater challenges. We remember eating carrots, cool and fresh from garden earth, cleaned only with couple swipes across our jeans before we bit into their ineffable sweetness.

But whether based in fact, individual need, or the collective need of a family myth, the past each of us believes belongs to us. To create and insert a memory — even for the most altruistic reasons — is to steal what is most unique about us: our life history, our personal identity.

Do you have memories you would let someone change?

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About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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2 Responses to False memories can have ‘healthy consequences’ — and the good news is?

  1. Cec Barker says:

    Wow, Carlene – this one’s a doozy!

    As if we didn’t already have enough of [persons, organizations etc unnamed] messing with our heads.

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