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February 18, 2003 11:40 AM   Subscribe

This article concerning the power of suggestion will be even more fascinating than my post yesterday about the brand new Wilco album. Psychologists have presented a paper documenting the previously underestimated capacity of the brain to manufacture memories based on planted suggestions. Interestingly, one of the experiments seems to have been inspired by the infamous democRATS political ad (discussed here) of the 2000 presidential campaign.
posted by 4easypayments (31 comments total)

 
Where is this Wilco post?
posted by Satapher at 12:05 PM on February 18, 2003


From the article:
Richard McNally of Harvard University studied 10 people who had reported being abducted by aliens and subjected to traumatic experiences. Participants recorded these experiences on audiotapes, which were played back to them later in the laboratory while researchers measured their heart rate, skin sweating and muscle tension.

The physiological symptoms of emotional distress shown by the abductees during playback were similar to those of people suffering from real post-traumatic stress.
It's amazing to me that something one would think gives some credibility to alien abductees is now being used as evidence in an entirely unrelated area, on the assumption that aliens are not real. These "scientists" even assume that people don't pretend to be aliens! This is skepticism taken to the point of ridicule.
posted by son_of_minya at 12:06 PM on February 18, 2003


(it was a joke put down the gun)
posted by Satapher at 12:07 PM on February 18, 2003


It seems like just yesterday I was looking up the word paramnesia and considering the purchase of paramnesia.org.
posted by cratchit at 12:15 PM on February 18, 2003


It's amazing to me that something one would think gives some credibility to alien abductees is now being used as evidence in an entirely unrelated area,

It's amazing to me that you think there's a world where alien abductees have credibility. While all of the so-called symptoms or indications of "alien abduction" are explainable by perfectly normal and natural phenomena (sleep paralysis, "lost time," etc.) the abductees have yet to offer any serious proof of their claims. And false-memories are not an "unrelated area" - in fact they are precisely the point. That memories can be falsely implanted during hypnosis has been known for years now - especially since the recoverd-sexual-abuse and satanic-cult-abuse craze of the early/mid '90s. (See Remembering Satan by Lawrence Wright.) Also see The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan for a thorough dissection of the alien abduction tales.

As this linked article states - the fact that the "abductees" fervently believe their interpretations of what happened to them does not actually mean their interpretations are correct.
posted by dnash at 12:26 PM on February 18, 2003


I remember a post like this from a while ago.

I HATED IT!!!! I REALLY, REALLY HATED IT!!!
posted by yhbc at 12:26 PM on February 18, 2003


yhbc: Yeah, that post sucked! I'm certain Bugs hated it too.
posted by buzzv at 12:37 PM on February 18, 2003


It's amazing to me that you think there's a world where alien abductees have credibility.

Agreed. I prefer the Penn & Teller style of debunking, myself.
posted by teradome at 12:42 PM on February 18, 2003


10 people who had reported being abducted by aliens.

Implant false memories in ten people, then study them. Over 100 people, for that matter. To just flat-out assume that nothing had happened is ridiculous. It is completely unrelated...unrelated to the subject of false memory...and especially unrelated to false memory due to subliminal messages. The only scientific thing about this is the word "science."

This is like saying, "10 women who reported being raped were studied. They did react as if they'd been raped. Of course, as scientists, we know they were just drunk whores."

It would be just as offensive, but I'd like to see some scientist types disprove the Holy Spirit. Holy Ghost Power, Power of Jesus, Love of God, what-have-you. This is the feeling Christians reportedly have during church services, which affirms their belief. They can come out in white lab coats and explain that people physically reacted as if they were having an intense and completely unimagined experience, then explain that because God isn't real, this is evidence of some other thing.
posted by son_of_minya at 12:44 PM on February 18, 2003


Just to be a little more clear, and grounded in concrete terms:

They have no idea whether this has anything to do with false memories.

Why? Because I have experience being abducted by aliens, while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. I remember it all very clearly. I have witnesses who can confirm every part of the story. This is not a false memory, an implanted memory, or the result of anything vaguely related to what these "scientists" were supposedly studying.

Extrapolate on your own. You can come up with examples of how these people were sloppy. I say it's skepticism taken to extremes because it's a popular belief (or non-belief) taken to a conclusion that is not called for. It's almost like these people want to be popular, so they threw in some sloppy anti-aliens bit.

Also, I have not read all the information available. I'm going off the article. Maybe it is just the writer who makes it seem so bad. Going off this, though; I'm thinking these scientists are flakes.
posted by son_of_minya at 12:53 PM on February 18, 2003


Because I have experience being abducted by aliens, while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.

Me too. Or maybe I was drunk at a Greek restaurant. Same result.
posted by yerfatma at 1:04 PM on February 18, 2003


SOM, I think your story is an excellent example of psychological phenomena that the article refers to. And I'm glad you brought it up because it also has the added dimension of the creation of a shared social reality. The more I learn about social psychology, the more I find that what we each think of as "reality", individually and collectively, is often skewed beyond recognition by social and cognitive processes.
Can you think of any alternate explanations for your experience? I can.
(And Elizabeth Loftus, by the way, is an established and well-respected psychologist in the field. That alone doesn't make her right, but there's been a glut of theoretical and experimental work on the selectivity, construction, and plasticity of memories.)
posted by statisticalpurposes at 1:19 PM on February 18, 2003


It's almost like these people want to be popular, so they threw in some sloppy anti- aliens bit.

I can't condemn that. Bad-mouthing aliens is a sure route to popularity. My chief tactic for picking up women is to go down to my local bar and then start talking shit about extraterrestrials.

And it WORKS!
posted by Mayor Curley at 1:42 PM on February 18, 2003


Because I have experience being abducted by aliens, while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.

And you're asking me to believe your hallucinations were real, only on the basis of your say-so - which, given the admitted drugs, is highly unreliable. I hope that doesn't sound harsh or insulting, because I don't mean it to be. I mean, you do understand how your admission of being influenced by hallucinogenic drugs calls everything you saw or experienced under such influence into question, right?
posted by dnash at 1:43 PM on February 18, 2003


Yo, Son_Of: Read the article more carefully. The research by Mr. Mcnally has nothing to do with false memory. What he was researching was how much stress the abudction-reporting individuals were displaying in relation to a contol group. To quote another article:

“The fact that somebody shows this reaction does not prove that the event actually occurred,” he said. “What it does seem to indicate is the sincere belief in the emotional intensity of the memory, whether true or false.”

All he's saying is that self-reported abductees show the same level of stress as other subjects who were subjected to verifiable trauma. The point of the article (both, actually) is that you should not assume somebody has actually experience trauma simply because they show the signs.

He goes on to say that none of the subjects were considered to be mentally healthy and not requiriung treatment.

On the otherhand, he also says that he thinks these are false memories, but only expresses this as an opinion not a result of the study.
posted by daver at 2:01 PM on February 18, 2003


dnash: And you're asking me to believe your hallucinations were real, only on the basis of your say-so - which, given the admitted drugs, is highly unreliable.

No.

I never said aliens actually abducted me. I said I had the experience of being abducted by aliens. I said I saw them, heard them, and thought they were real. I also said I had witnesses that could confirm every part of the story. Going back through witness testimony, combined with my own recollection, I can confirm that I did actually see/hear/think what I remembered.

My point is that it was not a false memory. It was a real-time hallucinatory experience. A completely different thing.

It is a really good story, but I'm not going to repeat it here. More important than the entertainment value of drug stories is the implications on social psychology and whatnot. I've always thought of it as the ultimate roleplaying...a chance to see what it feels like to be abducted by aliens, witness a miracle (once I thought my vision had been miraculously restored by God or some other invisible force and I struggled with the implications of that), know that the world is going to end in 24 hours, etc.

More on the topic of false memory, you can try a little experiment yourself tonight. (This is extremely dangerous and not smart.) Overdose on Dramamine. It causes unbelievably realistic hallucinations at high dosage, and more importantly it causes one to believe that their dreams are real. Waking up, and not knowing whether your dream was real or not is a real "wake up call." Any memory can be questioned, anything can be imagined.
posted by son_of_minya at 2:04 PM on February 18, 2003


daver: I do think I'm overreacting a little. The article seems to imply that these speakers were all discussing one topic, but the actual context is unknown. I'm assuming the worst.

The fact that alien abductees or "alien abduction phenomenon self-reporters" show stress levels similar to real trauma survivors is interesting. It's maybe a good puzzle piece for someone to pick up later and work into something. I don't think it fits here, as anything more than an anecdote.

And to say that he expresses an opinion is a little off. Skeptics are practically Creation Scientists. That "opinion" about alien abduction is a rock-solid assumption, upon which his entire argument rests. Without that, it's at best an interesting little tidbit and may actually support the claims he's trying to refute.

Have come across similar statements in the past. That alien abductees can pass polygraph examinations, for example. This is really nothing new. I had not read that particular article about McNally, though. The guy really does seem to be a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic -- a real die-hard UFO basher.

My initial reaction was "this guy seems to be an expert on the subject of trauma survivors, it's a shame he didn't say something serious about that." Instead he just bashes the UFO freaks. I am overreacting, and I'm nit-picking, but that bothered me. I will say that I don't think this thread has been derailed yet, so I don't regret bringing up the complaint here.
posted by son_of_minya at 2:27 PM on February 18, 2003


This reminds me of the somewhat controversial book Hystories by Elaine Showalter. In it, she examines social phenomena like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Gulf War Syndrome, Recovered Memory, Multiple Personality Syndrome, Satanic Ritual Abuse and Alien Abduction as, basically, syndromes of hysteria.

A very interesting read. These are excerpts from a couple of reviews:

"In an alien abduction report, for example, we can easily see a stereotyped, media-spread tale which people use to make sense of sexual conflicts and strange experiences like sleep paralysis. We also notice therapists who collaborate not so much in revealing what happened as creating the story in the first place. Showalter, however, uses her background as an English professor to explore the stories and the cultural and political landscape that the stories take life in." One review

"Showalter does not question the reality of the pain and other disabilities reported by the sufferers; as to whether there "really" is something underlying their claims, she tends to be agnostic. Instead, she argues that even if there is a physical basis for some of the complaints (and recent news reports indicate that such may be the case at least with poison gas in the Gulf), the diagnoses of these syndromes are largely political, in that they serve the interests of those making them, just as the diagnosis of hysteria served the interests of those who made and perpetrated it." Another review
posted by cx at 2:59 PM on February 18, 2003


My point is that it was not a false memory. It was a real-time hallucinatory experience. A completely different thing.

Erm...isn't a memory based on an hallucinatory experience by definition a false memory? You're remembering something that didn't actually happen, or confabulating an explanation which is not matched by the verifiable facts.
posted by biscotti at 3:00 PM on February 18, 2003


Interesting article. It has been observed many times that suggestion, especially repeated suggestions, can create 'false memories' and a 'false' sense of identity. Cults use brainwashing, corporations use advertising and my cat probably doesn't love me as much as he is suffering from Stockholm syndrome. One way to think of the "I" (that is, the viewer or the person viewing "reality") is that we are nothing more than receivers of shuffling sensations. We can only know what we experience. We can only control our experiences up to a certain limit and after that things like culture and our environment take over and deliver experiences to us. In this view it should be relatively easy to plant false memories, since false memories aren't fundamentally different (in terms of how memories work in the human mind) from true memories. The average person receives "false memories" almost daily in the form of advertising, government propaganda news and other media. It's strange how some memories, even after being refuted, remain true to many people.
*puts $5 in envelope, whistles tunelessly*
posted by elwoodwiles at 3:28 PM on February 18, 2003


"I will say that I don't think this thread has been derailed yet"

No, absolutely not. Try harder.
posted by y6y6y6 at 3:28 PM on February 18, 2003


biscoti: Now that I think about it hallucintary experiences are different from false memories, they are just both equally unreliable. A hallucinatory experience is an event, that is, something did happen to the observer and their memory isn't false as much as the event was exclusive to the location and chemicals flowing through the observers spinal column. A false memory is'nt an event at all, it's an idea of an event that has been planted in the mind in such a way that the observer thinks it is an event. Remembering being abducted by aliens while under the influence of Dramamine isn't a false memory because what is being remembered is the hallucination.
Why in chuthulu's name would anyone drink Dramamine? If locally available I'd suggest DMT or shrooms.
posted by elwoodwiles at 3:39 PM on February 18, 2003


biscotti: What elwoodwiles said. ^_^ Thanks.

Mayor Curley: My chief tactic for picking up women is to go down to my local bar and then start talking shit about extraterrestrials.

You obviously missed my point. If you want to pick up chicks, talk shit about dorks. Whatever you do, don't mention aliens.

statisticalpurposes: Bookmarking Elizabeth Loftus' site. Comment was so polite, I couldn't tell if you agreed with me or not. Really interesting comment, though.

y6y6y6: I think I get your point. Putting it to rest now. Really was not my intention, though. This is a topic I am interested in. Will drop back into the discussion later, now that the whole alien issue is resolved.
posted by son_of_minya at 3:48 PM on February 18, 2003


A hallucinatory experience is an event, that is, something did happen to the observer and their memory isn't false as much as the event was exclusive to the location and chemicals flowing through the observers spinal column. A false memory is'nt an event at all, it's an idea of an event that has been planted in the mind in such a way that the observer thinks it is an event.

Not really. Most alien abduction memories are thought to be the brain's interpretation of actual events like sleep paralysis. You wake up, you can't move, certain biochemical events take place, your brain interprets them as an alien abduction. It is, more or less, a hallucination (an LSD hallucination in externally imposed by the drug, an alien abduction hallucination is internally imposed by your brain chemistry). Therefore a memory of a hallucination is materially no different from a memory of an alien abduction, you are remembering something which did not happen the way you remember it, therefore a memory of a hallucination is a false memory.
posted by biscotti at 4:04 PM on February 18, 2003


Terradome already mentioned Penn & Teller. If the human mind wasn't susceptible to suggestion, magicians and illusionists would be out of business. What would the world be like with no David Copperfield, no Doug Henning, no Siegfried and Roy?
Okay, bad example.
posted by stevefromsparks at 4:57 PM on February 18, 2003


Ah, but what is it that is being remembered? To go out on a limb, (but somehow closer to topic) the interpretation of sleep paralysis is effected by suggestion. That is, when somebody experiences something they don't understand the mind tries to create a meaning. This is where false memories come in. A patient tells his therapist about an episode of sleep paralysis, now the therapist responds that perhaps the patient was abducted by aliens (never trust a therapist who got their degree online.) The patient will then equate the experience of sleep paralysis with alien abduction. As time goes on the mind will form actual memories of the event and Bingo! False memory. this is how advertising works too

I think an important difference between false memory and memories that are inaccurate due to hallucination is the belief in those memories by the observer. If the observer, through time, says something like "I was abducted by aliens while hallucinating," then yes, you are correct to call that a false memory. If our little junkie says "I hallucinated that I was abducted by aliens," then my earlier point comes into play. There is no false memory, but a distorted one.

Further, why would the brain equate sleep paralysis with alien abduction? The power of persuasion, my friend. A hundred years ago we would have called it witchcraft, but now that we have a technological society our fears have changed.

And lastly, I hold to the idea that son_of_minya isn't suffering from a false memory (a memory without an event) but he is remembering the hallucination (a memory with a drug induced perception of unreal events.)
posted by elwoodwiles at 4:58 PM on February 18, 2003


I hold to the idea that son_of_minya isn't suffering from a false memory (a memory without an event) but he is remembering the hallucination.

I'm not suffering from anything. You should have stuck with "our little junkie" so I could assume you meant the hypothetical person who remembers hallucinating something. Now I'm thinking you just called me a "little junkie," and that you're a "little bastard."

I agree with your point, but I think you just insulted me. Now I gotta break out the proper use of "one" and whatnot, so as not to accidentally offend people. Note to self: always act as if everything is hypothetical. Do not assume people will accept that and leave it be.

Sent biscotti an e-mail explaining this in more detail. Think I should have posted it here. To sum up: Having a hallucination is no different from watching a movie. The projector just happens to be inside one's head. Would one say someone was suffering from False Memory Syndrome if they described seeing Titanic?

No, one would not say that. Unless one is purposely being a dick. Drug-induced hallucination: same thing. In other words, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is not the result of False Memory Syndrome. Do not confuse this.
posted by son_of_minya at 6:32 PM on February 18, 2003


Having a hallucination is no different from watching a movie.

Yes, it is. When you watch a movie, there is in fact an image on the screen visible to everyone in the room. When you hallucinate, only you can see it...it's not really there.

As for being False Memories - both the the memory of a hallucination and the memory of an "abduction" are actual memories of events that did not occur anywhere but in the person's own mind.
posted by dnash at 7:58 PM on February 18, 2003


son_of_minya: Hey, sorry, didn't mean to offend you. Sometimes I forget that avatars represent real people. I slipped and I apologize. If it means anything I've had similar experiences and should've known better.
posted by elwoodwiles at 9:07 PM on February 18, 2003


dnash: Having a hallucination is no different from watching a movie (in the sense that they are both happening in real-time and the viewer is a witness to them). In context, in terms of this discussion, I don't see the relevance of other people witnessing it.

Of course there are differences between hallucinations watching a movie. In the context that statement was made, there is no difference. There is no practical difference.

Think about this:

Are dreams false memories? I remember my dreams really well. Lucid dreaming is a skill I've practiced for years, so that I can dream longer and remember more of them. Are you telling me I have never really dreamed, but only think I had dreams? Am I suffering from False Memory Syndrome in my mistaken belief that I have had dreams?
posted by son_of_minya at 9:40 PM on February 18, 2003


Remembering that you had a dream is not a false memory. It's only a false memory if you believe the events in the dream actually occurred in external reality (i.e. outside your own mind).

The same goes for a hallucination: one can hallucinate fire-breathing dragons, and remember it as a hallucination. It's only a "false memory" if afterwards you are convinced you saw a real dragon, and start hunting for one. The dragon never existed outside the hallucinator's mind.

A movie is a projection of sound and light that does exist outisde the viewer's mind. I suppose a movie could be the source of false memories in the same way a dream can - if one sees "Apocalypse Now" and then believes one is a Vietnam veteran; however that would be easily shown to be false - anyone who'd seen the film and then heard you call it your memory would know you were either deliberately lying, mentally unhealthy, or perhaps convinced under hypnosis that the film was your real memory.
posted by dnash at 7:29 AM on February 19, 2003


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