(False) Memories of Childhood: Part 1


Professor Chris French, a former Editor in Chief of The Skeptic, is Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London (www.goldsmiths.ac.uk/apru). His previous books include Why Statues Weep: The Best of The Skeptic (with Wendy Grossman) and Anomalistic Psychology (with Nicola Holt, Christine Simmonds-Moore and David Luke). His most recent book (with Anna Stone) is Anomalistic Psychology: Exploring Paranormal Belief and Experience. He also writes for the Guardian. Follow him on Twitter: @chriscfrench .

This was originally published in The Skeptic. Read the original article.

On 5 October 2017, I, along with four other memory researchers, read out an essay on memory in front of an audience at the Wellcome Collection Reading Room in London. The following week, the essays were broadcast on Radio 3. Mine went out on 10 October 2017 and can be listened to here. Part 1 of the full text is reproduced below and Part 2 will be reproduced in my next column.

What is your very earliest memory? As a psychologist with a particular interest in memory, this is a question that I have often pondered for myself – and I’m still not sure that I can answer it. When I try to mentally time-travel back to my childhood, several images appear in my mind’s eye. I can picture a reading book we used in school when I was learning to read, featuring Old Lob the farmer and I can even remember the pictures of some of the animals on his farm – Dobbin the horse, Mr Dan the dog, and especially Percy the bad chick. I am sure other memories predate that one though – mental images of things like the gas fire we used to have in my bedroom, Peter my much-loved one-eyed toy Panda, and the stairs in my Grandma’s house. But they are just images and they seem to be a pretty random selection. Unlike my more recent memories, there is no narrative structure, no sense that first this happened and then that happened. As appears to be typical for everyone, these fleeting images are hard to date, so I suspect I’ll never be able to confidently choose just one as my first real memory.

Some people, however, claim to be able to clearly remember events from the first year or two of life, including remembering actually being born. Indeed, some go even further and claim that they can remember life in the womb. We can be fairly sure that such apparent memories are almost certainly false memories, no matter how real they may feel. All of the evidence strongly supports the idea that it is simply not possible to encode accurate and detailed autobiographical memories in the first year or two of life, probably because the brain is simply not mature enough to do so. Also, at that age we do not have the language skills that are thought to be necessary to produce the narrative structure that characterises later memories.

One very famous account of a false memory from early life is provided by none other than the famous Swiss developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget. “I was sitting in my pram,” he recalled, “which my nurse was pushing in the Champs Elysées, when a man tried to kidnap me. I was held in by the strap fastened around me while my nurse bravely tried to stand between me and the thief. She received various scratches, and I can still see vaguely those on her face. Then a crowd gathered, a policeman with a short cloak and a white baton came up, and the man took to his heels. I can still see the whole scene, and can even place it near the tube station.”

The only problem with this exciting memory, as Piaget himself later realised, is that none of this ever happened. At the time, the family had been so grateful to the nurse for her courageous actions, they had even given her an expensive watch as a reward. The tale was often recounted at family gatherings. Years later, tormented by guilt, the nurse had written to the family confessing that she had made the whole thing up.

False Memories Feel Real

Such false memories feel subjectively just the same as memories for events that really did take place. It is just that the events in question either never took place at all or else were so different to the way you remember them as to bear little resemblance to what really happended.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that all memories of childhood are false memories. The problem is that, in the absence of independent evidence, it is simply impossible to say which memories are more or less accurate reflections of events which really did occur, which are distorted versions of what really happened, and which, like Piaget’s, are entirely false. Contrary to what many people believe, memory does not accurately record every detail of every experience you’ve ever had. Instead, remembering is a reconstructive process.

Think of a holiday that you have been on. Think of some specific event that happened on that holiday. Try to remember a scene from that event as clearly as you can and picture it in your mind’s eye. Now, ask yourself this question: Can you see yourself in your mental image? Many people, though not all, report that it seems to them as if they are watching the scene from the vantage point of an outside observer, clearly demonstrating that this memory is not simply a mental replay of what they experienced through their own eyes at the time.

Furthermore, memories are always fragmentary and incomplete. We tend to remember the general gist of what happened but forget many specific details. We often unconsciously and automatically fill in any gaps in memory with what we think we must have seen, rather than what we actually did see. A nice illustration of this is to ask people how the four is represented on most clocks and watches with Roman numerals on them. The vast majority of people will reply “IV”. The correct answer is “IIII”. In all other contexts, the number four really is represented as “IV” – but not on most clocks and watches.

For most of us, most of the time, it does not matter too much if our childhood memories are more or less accurate or not. If we have what appear to be fairly clear memories of childhood episodes, that will be enough to satisfy us that those pictures in our minds are reflections of things that really did happen to us – especially if no one ever challenges their veracity.

A Modern Witch Hunt

Sometimes, however, false memories of childhood can have extremely serious and damaging consequences. Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, particularly in the USA but in many countries around the world including the UK, vulnerable people entered into therapy in the hope that this would help them to deal with a wide range of troubling but fairly common psychological problems – such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders or problems with relationships. When they entered therapy, they had no memories of ever being the victim of childhood sexual abuse. By the time their treatment had ended, they were convinced that they had been so abused – typically by their own parents. What is more, they had detailed and horrific memories of their abuse. In some cases, the alleged abuse was particularly extreme. It was claimed by some, for example, that they had been victims of ritualised Satanic abuse. These rituals, often described in graphic detail, were said to involve the sacrifice of animals and babies, cannibalism, rape, and every sexual perversion imaginable. The consequences were that families were torn apart, alleged victims were tormented by nightmarish memories that had replaced those of relatively normal childhoods, and alleged abusers were arrested and sometimes sent to prison.

The central question was, of course, were these apparent memories recovered during therapy accurate reflections of real events – or were they completely false memories of events that had never happened at all? Psychologists were – and to some extent still are – divided in their opinions on this question. Those clinical psychologists who favoured a psychoanalytic approach to the question found it easy to believe that these recovered memories were probably memories for real events. They accepted the psychoanalytic notion of repression – the idea that when someone suffers a trauma, an automatic psychological defence mechanism kicks in that pushes the memory for that trauma deep into the unconscious mind where it can no longer be accessed by the conscious mind. Psychoanalysts believe that such repressed memories can still have a damaging effect, however, leading to the types of psychological problems in later life that might lead to someone seeking the assistance of a therapist.

In sharp contrast, experimental psychologists typically doubt the validity of the very concept of repression. They point out that traumatic experiences are far more likely to be remembered than forgotten. After all, no one ever forgot being held in a concentration camp. If repression is a myth, albeit a widely believed myth much loved by writers of fiction, it follows that most, possibly all, memories “recovered” during psychotherapy are in fact false memories.

Whereas there is no compelling evidence in support of the psychoanalytic notion of repression, there is a vast amount of evidence to support the notion of false memories. Statements supporting the dangers of false memories arising during therapy can be found in official pronouncements by numerous national professional psychological and psychiatric associations around the world.



Sleep problems are influenced by our genes – but this doesn’t mean they can’t be fixed

Alice_Gregory_Oct_2015Alice M. Gregory is Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is a member of the Advisory Board for a digital parent education endeavor on infant and toddler sleep that is being supported by Johnson’s Baby. She is a Corresponding Editor (Sleep) for the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. She has previously received funding to support her work from multiple sources including the MRC, ESRC, Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy. Alice’s book Nodding Off: The Science of Sleep was published by Bloomsbury in June, 2018. .

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Some people struggle greatly with sleeplessness, whereas others appear to be able to nod off effortlessly, regardless of the circumstances. Perhaps the most obvious explanation for differences between us in terms of our sleep is the environmental challenges that we face. An unrelenting stint at work, relationship difficulties or receiving bad news are just some of the many life challenges that can lead to sleepless nights.

It’s no surprise that stressful life events are associated with disturbed sleep. The way we respond to sleeplessness in terms of our thoughts and behaviours can then perpetuate the problem – it’s not helpful to lie in bed awake willing ourselves to sleep, or to catastrophise about our sleeplessness.

Studies focusing on large numbers of twin pairs back up the idea that environmental influences are an important explanation for why sleep quality differs between one person and another. But they also highlight that sleep problems run in families: if you struggle with your sleep, it’s likely that your parents or grandparents did too. Looking at why this might be, it seems that our genes are important when it comes to our aptitude for sleeping soundly.

We’re learning more all the time about which specific genes might be important, as I explore in Nodding Off, my new book on the science of sleep. Some more recent research into this has been conducted on a vast scale. For example, one study of over a million people identified genetic variants associated with insomnia, enriching our knowledge of the biological pathways by which insomnia develops.

Read more:
Insomnia is not just in the mind

The complexity of the underlying causes of sleep problems goes further than this, and it’s been proposed for some time that genes and the environment go hand-in-hand. For example, some people are more likely to be exposed to certain environmental experiences (such as work stresses) in part for genetic reasons. Their sensitivity to these experiences (such as whether they will keep them up at night) is also influenced by our genes. Another example of genetic and environmental interplay is epigenetics, which means “above genetics”. Our genes do not change, but how they influence us (whether they are “switched on or off” or “turned up or down” like a dimmer switch) can be influenced by the environment.

Do your genes cause you to sleep badly?
Konstantin Faraktinov/Shutterstock.com

Can it be fixed?

So what does this all mean for resolving a sleep problem? You may think that the discovery that genes explain some of the differences between us in terms of our sleep quality means that some of us are destined to sleep poorly and there is nothing much we can do about it. But, thankfully, that does not follow.

One of the very first lessons that a student of behavioural genetics learns is that just because something is influenced by our genes does not mean that changing the environment can’t be the solution. The example so often given is that of phenylketonuria (PKU). This is a disorder in which the substance phenylalanine (found in certain foods) can’t be broken down by the body and can lead to brain damage. While this is a genetic disorder, the solution lies in the environment: by carefully considering diet, the negative effects of this disorder can be prevented from developing.

It’s clear that cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) which addresses thoughts about sleep, as well as behaviour (including a relaxation component and making sure people do not spend time in bed awake) is the best initial treatment for those who suffer from chronic insomnia.

But understanding more about differences between people might also eventually be useful when it comes to treatment. There is current research interest in personalised medicine, with the hope that treatment can eventually be further tailored to the individual.

Read more:
How science is using the genetics of disease to make drugs better

Nobody should feel that sleeplessness is something they simply have to endure. If you are struggling with sleep problems, talk to a doctor and try to reach a sleep expert. Different CBT-I online courses are being developed and tested and some appear to be helpful. Despite an array of different causes of sleeplessness, there is help at hand for a better night.

Alice M. Gregory, Professor of Psychology, Goldsmiths, University of London

Alice rests on Twitter  @ProfAMGregory