Quirks of Memory

A Retrieval System Roundup

The Danger in Probing Memory in the Spirit of Self-Discovery

The importance of being informed before embarking on any self-improvement method

Recently, I received a strange invitation from a friend: Register to attend a weekend retreat for women that changed her life, food and lodging included in the registration cost. She would pick me up at the airport and drive me to the retreat, though she would not be attending because she already had.

Envisioning a yoga or meditation type of retreat, I asked, “What is involved in this retreat? What exactly would I be doing?” “Its different for everyone,” she would say, and “If you knew ahead of time what you would be doing you wouldn’t do it.” I asked, “Well, what can I expect to get out of it?” She said she was able to discover “the true source of her anger” at her partner, and that this discovery improved her relationship. Apparently, the true source had come from her past, and she was unaware of this until discovering it through exercises that she engaged in as part of this group. I was curious to know what kind of exercises she engaged in to help her make this discovery, but I could not get an answer. I would have to experience it for myself by attending the retreat.

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That people may be driven by unconscious memories and unconscious motivations is an age-old idea in psychology, stemming from historical figures like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung: People may have “shadows” or hidden selves, driving behaviors. If we could uncover these “hidden selves” and bring them to light, we could learn to integrate them with our awareness to live better, more fulfilling lives.

Probing a person’s mind looking for hidden clues about the person’s past does not come without risk though. One risk is that the very techniques used to probe memory can themselves actually alter memory. This is much like the Observer Effect in physics (i.e., the act of trying to measure something affects what is being measured).

As I tell my students: Memory does not work like a video recorder. It is ever-changing. Even the mere act of remembering changes the memory: The more often a person retrieves a memory, the further away from the actual event the memory becomes; it becomes a situation of remembering remembering, or remembering remembering remembering, and likely blending and confusing these different episodes.

Techniques for probing memory can actually alter memory. In fact, some constellations of techniques, when used together, are a cookbook for implanting full-blown false memories. This reality came to light during the 1990’s, when an epidemic of cases emerged in which people were recanting memories that they had “uncovered” in therapy; many such memories were demonstrated to have been false. In these cases, the techniques used by therapists to uncover repressed memories appear to have been the culprit; these same techniques are well-established to contribute to distortions of memory in the laboratory, as noted in these two books.

The problem with not being informed about what will happen during the retreat to which I was invited is that I have no way of evaluating whether the activities in which I will be engaged will be beneficial or whether they might influence my memory in a way that I would not want. Do the techniques happen to form a “cookbook” for false memories?

What is in the “cookbook?” Among the techniques to look out for are:

Leading Questions: How a question about a memory is worded can influence how a person remembers.

Suggestion. From merely planting ideas about things that “likely” happened to you, to doctoring photographs of past events, researchers have repeatedly shown that exposure to suggestion changes what we remember. In effect, the exposure itself is an experienced event that may produce confusion.

Guided Imagery
Guided Imagery
Guided Imagery: While guided imagery can be very useful for things like motor rehabilitation, athletic training, or focused relaxation, in the context of using it to uncover unconscious memories or hidden aspects of oneself, it can be dangerous. The use of guided imagery in attempting to uncover memories can increase the likelihood of developing false memories. One reason for this may be that there is neural overlap between the networks used in imagining activities and actually performing them, and there is overlap between the neural networks used in imagination and those in remembering; this may contribute to false memory.

Imagination: A phenomenon known as imagination inflation occurs when imagining something leads to believing that it actually happened, and it can be brought on in the laboratory at alarming rates.

There are other factors to consider too, like mood manipulation. When questioned about a negative experience from your past, the wording can affect how close or far away from the experience you feel. Making you feel closer to negative experiences from your past will make you feel sadder. Importantly, relative mood can be induced, and being in a negative mood will tend to trigger negative memories—it will be easier to think of them. And the sadder you feel, the more negative memories you’re likely to conjure up.

When put together and couched in terms of probing hidden aspects of yourself, these methods can convince you that things that occurred in your past are causing you problems today.

Are these necessarily the things that go on at the retreat to which I was invited? Who knows? The problem is that without disclosure of what is done at the retreat, it is impossible to evaluate this without being subjected to the techniques.

In what little information I was able to find online about the retreat, it said, “It is a series of exercises, guided imagery and intense individual and group work . . .” It goes on to say, “It might be that there are events from your past and/or present that stand in the way of you living your life to the fullest. . .” Later it says, “We will not tell you exactly what will happen on the Weekend because in our experience when a woman is given too much information she may try to prepare for each experience and in this way not be fully present in the moment.”

When I looked for information on what types of organizations recruit you to retreats without informing you beforehand about what happens at them, I came across descriptions of LGAT (Large Group Awareness Training) groups such as this one. But I could find little else.

Before seeking any form of change that may involve altering my memories, I want to know: Who is controlling how my memories will be changed? Who do I want influencing my sense of past, thereby affecting my future?

Personally, I am not comfortable with handing my memory over to a group carrying out retreats with vague descriptions about what will be done.

It is important to be informed about what you will be doing before undertaking any form of self-improvement workshop, seminar, or retreat. Ask: What activities will be used, for what purpose, and do these techniques contribute to memory distortion?

Anne Cleary, Ph.D., is a professor at Colorado State University.

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