Memory is imagination pinned down. – Mason Cooley
Many people believe that human memory is like a video camera, in that it objectively records perceived events and stores the images and sounds in some sort of indelible medium which can be erased, mislaid or purposefully hidden, but never distorted; the whole principle of “eyewitness testimony” in our legal system derives from this belief. But as a great deal of research going back to the beginning of modern psychology has demonstrated, it simply isn’t true. The human mind doesn’t passively record events as a camera does; memory is an active and dynamic process which retains information by fitting it into schemata, mental frameworks which shape our thinking and give meaning to perceptions. For example, a chess master shown a board in the middle of a real game can quickly memorize the positions of the pieces with a high degree of accuracy and retention, but if shown a board in which the pieces are randomly arranged he cannot memorize the positions any better than anyone else. This is because in the former case the board layout fits neatly into his highly-developed schema of chess rules and strategy, while in the latter case it’s just a bunch of objects with no discernible order or meaning.
As Victor Frankl observed, human beings have a deep need for meaning; we look for order in even the most chaotic arrangement of objects or events. The same psychological mechanism which causes us to find pictures in Rorschach’s inkblots also causes us to fit memories into the complex web of schemata by which we interpret the world. And just as we ignore those topological elements of a cloud or inkblot which do not fit the meaning our minds have imposed upon it, so do we forget or distort elements of a memory which fail to conform to the schema in which we have embedded it, or even invent elements which were not in reality present, but which the schema predicts should be. This is an extremely important point, so I’ll repeat it: The human mind often completely fabricates memories in order to impose conformity with one’s weltanschauung. One simple example involves police lineups: people will often identify the man whom police imply (subtly or overtly) is their preferred suspect because they believe police to be expert assessors of guilt who would never implicate someone falsely, and this schema of police authority and infallibility actually shapes their memories, sometimes to the point of identifying a person who is later proven to look absolutely nothing like the actual criminal.
Traumatic events tend to induce psychological imbalance which renders the victim even more subject to suggestion by perceived authority figures, which is how False Memory Syndrome develops; a person suffering from depression, anxiety or even nightmares seeks therapy (or has it forced upon her by a court or family) and develops a psychological dependence on a manipulative (and usually agenda-driven) “therapist” who convinces her that all of her problems result from childhood sexual abuse, and then proceeds to “help” her “recover” those memories as one might dig through a closet for a lost videotape. But memory does not work that way; in reality this procedure does not “recover” existing memories but creates completely new ones which conform to the “therapist’s” narrative, and reconfigures existing ones to agree with the confabulations. The syndrome was largely responsible for the Satanic Panic, and also for witchcraft hysteria of past centuries; in the latter case the pressure to reshape memories was inflicted by religious authorities and by the culture as a whole rather than by individual agents such as therapists.
It is important to recognize that people who form false memories are neither stupid nor weak-willed, and their memories are not lies but essentially misfiled fantasies. Everyone files memories for recall by linking them to other cognitive artifacts (memories, ideas, thoughts, beliefs, etc), and when a dream, delusion, fantasy or the like is filed in the same way as a memory the brain treats it as one; moreover, when the false memory is linked to positive reinforcement (such as the approval of a group or authority figure), it is apt to become even more persistent than the memories of real events which lack such powerful associations. If the false memories serve as the passport into an identity group, they are likely to become the person’s most intense memories because they form an essential keystone of self-identification.
There are a number of psychological criteria shared by the majority of those who are unusually susceptible to remembering experiences that did not happen in objective reality (including alien abductions, demonic possession, cultic victimization, etc); research conducted on such people has revealed that they tend to share a majority of the following characteristics:
* They are easy to hypnotize
* As children they played in a fantasy world
* They believed in fairies, guardian angels, etc.
* As children they had invisible playmates
* Even as adults they spent a significant part of their time fantasizing
* They often believe they have psychic abilities
* Most have had out-of-body experiences
* They often believe they have healing powers
* They are subject to hypnagogic experiences
* They have very vivid dreams
* They have good memories
* They receive messages from unknown forces
Though everyone is susceptible to memory distortion to some degree, those who are so vulnerable that they can be readily convinced that bizarre, unusual, fantastic or even impossible things really did happen to them are called “Fantasy Prone Persons”; they make up roughly 4% of the population. Most FPPs are also extremely sexual; many of them can achieve orgasm through fantasy alone, and their false memories usually have a strong sexual element, often with powerful BDSM overtones. Have you ever wondered why supposed “memories” of witchcraft, Satanic ritual abuse, alien abduction and the like often include sexual elements, especially ones in which the person was raped, subjected to bondage, sexually tortured, mind controlled or “hypnotized”, etc? It’s because they all come from the same shadowy part of the brain, and the identity of the abusers (and other particulars of the false memory) are just window dressing. Studies demonstrate that these details depend on the individuals’ beliefs and associates: traditionally-religious FPPs are likely to believe they’ve been possessed by demons or sexually abused by cultists; those with a strong interest in science fiction or UFOs are likely to identify their imaginary tormentors as aliens; and women with an unhappy history of sex work, or who become too immersed in “sex trafficking” porn, remember lurid experiences of vast pimp networks and over a dozen clients a day, etc.
Next time you see one of these “survivor” narratives, compare it to the now-discredited accounts of Satanic ritual abuse and the widely-ridiculed tales of alien medical experiments. Many “survivors” report savage beatings, being shut for days in scorpion-filled sewage barrels or being dragged down the street behind a pimp’s or client’s car, yet never have any permanent injuries to show for it…just as the McMartin Preschool children bore no scars from anal knife rapes, and alien medical examinations likewise leave no marks. Consider the eerie similarity of “survivor” narratives and their convergence since the beginning of “sex trafficking” hysteria, just as Satanic abuse narratives resemble those from 16th-century witch trials and alien abduction stories converged after the release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Think also about the impossible logistics of the situations described by people like Theresa Flores, who claims to have been “abducted” from her upper-middle-class family home every night for two years and forced to prostitute herself, yet was freed every morning to attend school; supposedly neither her parents nor siblings ever heard her come or go, nor did she ever show any signs of sleep deprivation or psychological trauma sufficient to raise any suspicion. The same miraculous immunity to detection and circumstance protected the McMartin cultists: no parent, delivery person or other outsider ever showed up while everyone was downstairs in the secret Satanic temple, and no child ever suffered trauma or said a word about seeing people fly until the “investigators” questioned them. And nobody else in the neighborhoods from which alien abductees are taken ever see or hear ships, aliens, or hypnotized levitating test subjects. It’s clear that people who recount such stories believe them, and can therefore easily pass the polygraph tests which are sometimes used to prop up their unbelievable tales. They are not lying in the strict sense, because they really do remember these events; however, as the dreamlike (or nightmarish) character of their memories and the lack of physical evidence amply demonstrate, their adventures took place in an unreal Twilight Zone rather than in the mundane world where normal events occur.
(With grateful acknowledgement to the observations of Eileen Lang.)
One Year Ago Today
“Public Service Announcement” politely asks men to stop sending women pictures of their penises.