“True or false?” – that is the question

Your mind is a trickster

By Karolina Weryńska

We are built by our past and it acts as a foundation for our future. Everything that has happened has been woven into our psyche. There is no way around it, just simple physics: action-reaction. Waking up, you safely know who you are, where you are and what brought you there. This safety is provided by your memories, good or bad, they stabilize your universe by setting a context. However, consider for a moment that what you deem a fact is actually a fallacy, your memories are false. Could that be? You are probably thinking: psychosis! Give the poor fellow anti-psychotic drugs and be done with it. Unfortunately, the issue is more complicated.

Surprisingly, false memories are quite a common occurrence. Scientists agree that memories are highly suggestable and can be altered by external factors. Most likely, all of us have some memories that are not our own. A photo or a story about the early childhood could make us believe we remember the event first-hand. There have been indications that probing questions or hypnosis can induce false memories. In fact, there is a therapeutic process called a recovered memory therapy, where allegedly repressed memories are restored. In the most severe cases patients started wrongly believing themselves to be victims of child sexual abuse. Naturally, there is much controversy around the subject, and it is not included in mainstream psychiatry.

On the other hand, there is another face of false memories. Imagine, a sudden, overwhelming belief enters your life that you are a murderer. You know that is true, you remember after all. The strength of the experience remains haunting, orientating your very being around it. Furthermore, all contrary evidence is ignored or avoided. In that case anti-psychotic drugs will probably be involved. False memory syndrome could be dangerous and shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Confabulation is another syndrome associated with false memories. Induced by brain damage or dementia, this disorder is manifested by fabricated, misconstrued memories. It leads to bizarre lies, with no malicious intent as people believe the information is correct. Simple confabulation may have its origin in damage of the medial temporal lobe (where the hippocampus is located and memories are formed), whereas the more fantastic form is assumed to be caused by dysfunction of the frontal cortex (abstract thinking).

Another intriguing phenomenon is cryptomnesia. Here, a memory returns, but is not recognized – therefore, considered as a novel thought. This brilliant idea appears just waiting to be used and there is no doubt in your mind – it is your own creation. The situation could very easily lead to unwitting plagiarism. Indeed, it has happened before. Let’s look at a case of a great, albeit controversial thinker, Frederick Nietzsche. In his book “Thus spoke Zarathustra” he describes an incident almost identical to the one included in a book he read as a young boy. His progressive neurosyphilis and (suspected) frontotemporal dementia could very well be a reason behind that cognitive deterioration. He’s not the only one! Lord Byron (one of the greatest British poets) or Robert Louis Stevenson (the author of “The Treasure Island”) are also suspected of a bout of cryptomnesia.

Trust your mind! Just not unconditionally. Whilst in most cases memories are more or less accurate, never forget that they are fluid and mischievous beings. Considering, they can subtly transform without your notice, a hint of doubt could prove beneficial if the situation demands. Time changes everything, memories included. A distortion now and then is not yet pathological, the worry should start once the quality of life is influenced.

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