Monday, 14 March 2016

Memories:  How we retain them

One of the most interesting criminal cases that has ever been held in a Canadian courtroom is one referred to as the Ghomeshi case. This former popular radio host was fired from the CBC after it was learned that he battered and choked women simply for the thrill of it. He was later charged criminally with sexual assault (kissing the victims) and choking.

The three complainants testified about events that took place many years prior to the trial. The questions on the minds of those who are aware of this case are asking themselves, “Were the victims telling the court the real facts or were some of their statements based on mistaken memories?”

We are all prone to forgetting some of what has happened to us or what we have seen or heard. As time moves us away from those events in our lives, we are susceptible to errors in our presentation of the facts that we are trying to conjure up. Memory distortions are basic and widespread in humans, and it is highly unlikely that anyone is immune.                                

These are the kinds of specific details that writers of memoir, history, and journalism yearn for when combing through their memories to tell true stories. But such work has always come with the caveat that human memory is fallible.

At last scientists have an idea of just how unreliable it actually can be. Three years ago, research that was released had found that even people with phenomenal memory are susceptible to having “false memories. according to the authors of the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

Memories can become contaminated with people remembering—sometimes quite vividly and confidently events that never really happened. Loftus has found that memories can be planted in someone’s mind if they are exposed to misinformation after an event, or if they are asked suggestive questions about the past.

One famous case was the civil case of Gary Ramona, who sued his daughter’s therapist for allegedly planting false memories in her mind that Gary had raped her. To persuade the jury at his trial, his family and the world that he was a wronged and loving father, he spent the bulk of his assets and what little remained of his family's privacy and that of his own. 

Ramona sued counselor Marche Isabella, psychiatrist Richard Rose and Western Medical Center of Anaheim for malpractice for $8 million, charging that they had implanted false memories of sexual abuse in his daughter Holly —the abuse done to her by her father  and him alone.

Gary was a loving and bewildered father whose daughter's therapists had implanted false memories of incest resulting in his daughter believing that her father had sexually molested her.         

His daughter, then a student at UC Irvine, had gone to Isabella in the fall of 1989 for treatment of depression and bulimia. (eating disorder) Isabella concluded that there was a link between bulimia and sexual abuse and had interpreted her fleeting images as memories of incest. Dr. Rose then gave Holly a false sense of certainty about her memories by dosing her with sodium amytal, a drug popularly and inaccurately considered a truth serum. On March 15, 1990, in a small windowless room at Western Medical Center, Gary’s wife, his daughter and her therapist had all accused him of molesting his daughter.

His three teen-age then daughters refused to speak to him. And he was put on leave and later fired from his $500,000-a-year job as sales and marketing vice president of the Robert Mondavi winery in St. Helena. 

The next Christmas, his daughter filed a $500,000 suit against him charging him with sexual abuse against her. In the spring of 1991, Gary still protesting his innocence, responded by suing his wife for slander-a portion of the suit he later dropped-and Holly's therapists for malpractice. He traced all of his troubles to March 15, 1990 when he was accused of sexually abusing his daughter.

The jury, in a complex 10-to-2 decision, ruled that Holly's memories were probably false. Her therapists, they said, had not implanted them but had reinforced them. But they awarded Ramona only $475,000-far less than the $8 million he had sought and less than the $1 million he had spent on the trial. Gary had been falsely accused of abusing his daughter based entirely on Holly's supposed induced memories that were the results of drugs and quackery and not anything Gary allegedly did to his daughter.

In the early 1950s, I served in the Canadian navy and when it became apparent that I could hypnotize people, I was approached by two navy doctors to prove that I could do it. When I hypnotized one of the doctors and put him asleep, I was later called upon to hypnotize a fellow sailor who had to be operated on without anaesthesia since it would stop his heart if he was put asleep with that drug.  I gave him a post hypnotic suggestion three days prior to the operation that he would sleep through the operation and would only be awoken after the operation. The operation was a success.

Now in this particular instance, he was induced to sleep and that was what he wanted to happen. But could someone be induced to do something he or she didn’t wish to do?  A highly respected American psychiatrist claimed that would be impossible while he was asleep under hypnosis or a hypnotic drug. I decided to test his theory.

I talked a fellow sailor into letting me test that theory. After he was asleep in a room in which only I and he were in it, I told him that the voice he heard was that of his mind and that he was alone in the room. He looked around the room and didn’t see me sitting two feet from him.  Now I was ready for the test.

I told him that there was a man with a gun in another room coming into the room my test was being conducted in and that if he didn’t shoot the man coming into the room, the other man would shoot him. As soon as a sailor entered the room with an imaginary gun in his hand, my test subject fired his imaginary gun and the other man then fell to the floor as previously arranged. I told my test subject that he would remember what had just happened as soon as he woke up. When he woke up, two sailors accused him of shooting their friend. My test subject told them that he read the dead man’s mind and that the man he shot was going to kill him.

As you can see, it is easy to induce someone to do something that person normally wouldn’t do. For example, if a woman was hypnotized or given a certain hypnotic drug and she is standing in the middle of a street, she will upon a command, strip off her clothes if she is convinced that she is alone in her bedroom and getting ready to take a shower.

I remember years ago telling some friends about a trip my wife and I had in Egypt. My version of an incident on that trip brought a response from my wife. She said it didn’t happen. She was right. I don’t know how my mind conjured up an event that really didn’t happen. Maybe I had seen it in a movie and the memory of that event in the movie transferred itself into my memory of an event in our trip in Egypt.

I am a composer of piano music and performed some of them in concerts. Many years ago, I composed a piano concerto and everyone said it was beautiful. Then months later, I heard the same piece being performed on the radio. To my horror, I learned that the piece I thought I composed was actually written by a famous composer long dead. It seems that I had heard that piece many years before on the radio and I began composing the same piece. The memory of having first heard it on the radio had remained my brain and surfaced when I first began playing it. 

As you can see, our memories play tricks us. It makes us believe things that happened when in fact, they didn’t happen.

The problem that the trial judge in the Ghomeshi trial has to decide (it was a trial by judge alone) is if what the three victims testified to was in part, false memories.

All of our memories are colored with bits of life experiences. When people recall events, they are reconstructing events. It doesn't mean it’s totally false. It means that they’re telling a story about themselves and they’re integrating things they really do remember in detail, with things that may not actually be true. The further back the events in our lives occurred, the greater is the risk that some parts of those events may be inadvertently false.

For all of us, the stronger the emotion attached to a particular moment in our lives, the more likely those parts of our brains involved in memory will become activated.  If you witnessed a deadly car crash, you would likely remember in vivid detail that moment in your life. Memories that stick with us are tinged with emotion. That is why I believe that the three women who testified against Ghomeshi and said that he physically assaulted them unexpectedly were moments in their lives that they would never forget.

The human mind and its memory do not just record and retrieve information and experiences, but sometimes it also fills in gaps, and reconstructs the memory.

How does the human memory work?

When you experience something, this event is converted into a pulse of electrical energy that zips along a network of neurons. This information first gets stored in short-term memory, where it's available anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. Then, the experience gets transferred to long-term memory areas such as the hippocampus — the center of emotion, memory, and the automatic nervous system and finally it reaches several storage regions throughout the brain. If two neurons communicate repeatedly, at dedicated sites known as synapses, this improves the efficacy of communication between them. This is known as long-term potentiation, the mechanism by which memories are stored long-term.

Memories are embedded into our psyche the most when we're paying attention, when we're deeply engaged, and when information is meaningful to us.

There are several factors that contribute to bad memories such as age, chronic stress, and mental health conditions including depression. As we age, synapses begin to change and weaken, affecting how easily we can recall memories. This deterioration has been attributed to the brain shrinkage as the hippocampus loses five percent of its neurons every decade. The drop of production of neurotransmitters like acetylcholine which is vital to learning and memory can also affect how we store information.

Chronic stress can turn our bodies into a state of being in hyper alert, which is a response that evolves from the physiological mechanism that ensures survival in a crisis. During chronic stress, the body gets flooded with stress chemicals, resulting in a loss of brain cells and the inability to form new ones. This affects our ability to retain information. Lastly, isolation tied to depression is another way to lose memory. However, this can be offset with social integration. A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that elderly adults with high levels of social integration had a slower rate of memory decline over a six-year period.  This gives the brain a mental workout. Those unfortunate persons who live alone are prone to losing more of their memories.

Just like muscle strength, we need to use our brain or risk losing it. Physical activity (gets blood flow to the brain), eating well (provides the brain with nutrients), and challenges (like learning a new language) are the best ways to preserve your memory and keep your brain healthy. I personally don’t wish to learn a new language but writing lengthy articles like this one three times a week and writing books is what keeps my brain active and therefore, my memories alive. Having an IQ Of 122 also helps.

The exiaitence of memory is so intriguing that we’ve come up with more metaphors for it than for any other mental phenomenon. Early theories predicted a memory “engram,” a literal text written by the body to describe past experiences. Freud popularized descriptions of repressed memories, experiences physically buried in the depths of the subconscious. Modern descriptions are dominated by analogies to computers, in which the human brain is a hard disk that stores experience in electronic files and folders. Typical of biology, the truth is at once more complicated and more beautiful than any of these descriptions.

Fundamentally, memory represents a change in who we are. Our habits, our ideologies, our hopes and fears are all influenced by what we remember of our past. At the most basic level, we remember because the connections between our brains’ neurons change; each experience primes the brain for the next experience, so that the physical stuff we’re made of reflects our history. Memory also represents a change in who we are because it is predictive of who we will become. We remember things more easily if we have been exposed to similar things before, so what we remember from the past has a lot to do with what we can learn in the future.

Scientists divide memory into categories based on the amount of time the memory lasts. The shortest memories that last only milliseconds are called immediate memories, memories lasting about a minute are called working memories, and memories lasting anywhere from an hour to many years are called long-term memories.

While you are walking on a sidewalk, each step will be forgotten in a millisecond. If you stumble briefly, that will be remembered for about a minute as your mind is concentrating on other matters. If you accidently place your hand on a hot burner of your stove—that will definitely end up being a long-tern memory. These three women who were attacked by Ghomeshi are experiencing long term memories. I have serious doubts that they are making up their stories about their experiences with Ghomeshi.

Our memories are rich because they are formed through associations. When we experience an event, our brains connect the sights, smells, sounds, and our own impressions together into a relationship. That relationship itself is the memory of the event. Unlike computer memories, a human memory is not a discrete thing that exists at a particular location; instead, it is an abstract relationship amongst thoughts that arises out of neural activity spread over our entire brain.

But how is our memory relationship actually made? The process from both a biological and a behavioral perspective is critically dependent on reinforcement. Reinforcement can come in the form of repetition or practice; we remember that two plus two equals four because we’ve heard it so many times. Reinforcement can also occur through emotional arousal. For example, most people who were old enough will remember where they were when they heard that John F. Kennedy was shot because of the highly emotional content of that event. I even remember the moment I knew that he had been shot. A woman ran into our office and exclaimed, “President Kennedy has been shot!” That moment in my life occurred over half a century ago.

Arousal is also a product of attention, so memories can be reinforced independent of context by paying careful attention and consciously attempting to remember previous events in our lives.

Reinforcement is important in forming memories because it moves the memory relationship from short-lived categories to longer-lasting ones. For example, if you met a man called John Byrd at a party, you’d see his face, hear his name, and you’d be aware of the social context of the event. At first this information is loosely held in immediate memory, just long enough for the event to play itself out. Immediate memories are held in various modality-specific regions of the brain, meaning that immediate visual memory is probably held in visual parts of the brain, immediate auditory memory in auditory parts of the brain.         

Reinforcement is important in forming memories because it moves the memory relationship from short-lived categories to longer-lasting ones. For example, if you met a man called John Byrd at a party, you’d see his face, hear his name, and you’d be aware of the social context of the event. At first this information is loosely held in immediate memory, just long enough for the event to play itself out. Immediate memories are held in various modality-specific regions of the brain, meaning that immediate visual memory is probably held in visual parts of the brain, immediate auditory memory in auditory parts of the brain, and so on.

If you paid attention during the introduction, the relationship between sight, sound, and awareness is brought together into working memory, somewhere in the prefrontal lobe of the brain. When the event moves from immediate memory to working memory, certain features will be lost. You probably won’t remember background conversations from the party, and you may not remember the color of the Mr. Byrd’s shoes. The loss of distracting information is an important feature of human memory, and is critical for efficient storage and recollection of experiences.

At this point you might rehearse the event by saying the name to yourself, or by making up a mnemonic (John Davis, who has a big hook nose like a bird). The mnemonic and the rehearsal cause the memory to move from working memory into long-term memory, a change that starts in the brain’s hippocampus. The process of converting working memory into long-term memory is called consolidation, and again, it is characterized by the loss of distracting information. Several days after meeting Mr. Davis you may not be able to remember what color his tie was or whether he wore a wristwatch, but you will still remember his face, his name, and the person who introduced you to him. The consolidation phase of memory formation is sensitive to interruption; if you are distracted just after meeting Mr. Davis, you may have trouble remembering his name and features later.                            

The three women who testified against Ghomeshi had no difficulty remembering this man and what he had done to them ten years earlier in their lives. I remember in great detail being raped by my father as many as seventy years ago. Some things that happens to us are never forgotten.

Reinforcement through practice causes more consolidation and the most critical relationships in the event (the name, the face, and the context) were collected together in the hippocampus in our brain. From there, the memory of events in our lives are stored diffusely across the cerebral cortex of our brains.  

I hope that my readers find this article interesting and informative.

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