Rewinding the Memory Tape
Last month I wrote about the hypnotic mind-control myth, so richly represented in SF literature and in
other media. To review: Sure, humans are suggestible, and we're somewhat more suggestible during
neurologically definable trance states, but it's not like a couple of weekend classes in hypnosis are
going to turn me into Svengali.
This month, I want to address the other major pop-culture use of hypnosis: the recovery of repressed
memories, which I saw again just last month on Houdini & Doyle in a fluffy anachronistic alien
abduction story (UFOs were not a thing until after WW2).
Unlike mind control, a concept as old as folklore, repressed memories first appeared in Romantic
literature (remember that early SF novels were called "scientific romances"). I personally first
encountered repressed memories on M*A*S*H*, where psychiatrist Sydney Freedman helped patients
remember traumatic events.
Then during the 1980s there were a lot of news reports about bizarre court cases. In the most famous of
these, very young children accused their caretakers of sexually abusing them in Satanist rituals in
secret bunkers under their pre-school. Stuff that little kids would probably not make up on their own,
even if they had brain damage. It seemed as though their adult therapists were encouraging them to
confabulate these false memories under hypnosis. There is at least one study showing that it's possible
to induce amnesia hypnotically, and that subjects confabulate under these conditions. However,
Elizabeth Loftus and others have shown that it's not even necessary to hypnotize the subject; they can
cause at least a quarter of their subjects to "recover" false memories in everyday settings. It's even
easier to alter existing memories.
Again, as mentioned last month, there's no reason in this particular case to fall back on cranky doctor
Gregory House's favorite line:
It's enough to propose that with brain damage, memories can become unmoored in time, that a patient
who is searching for an answer to a question can plug in an old memory in honest desperation. The
scary part is the extension of that behavior to everyday life, where none of us has perfect access to our
unconscious motivations and very few of us have perfect access even to our own conscious memories.
All it might take is a little delay in finding the right memory for the wrong memory--or for a mutation,
a memory based fantasy--to be substituted into the ongoing stream of actions and reactions.
In fact, our entire neuro-scientific model of memory is changing. The idea of computation being
separated from memory as storage the way John von Neumann imagined it in the 1940s, using a tape
metaphor, is finally collapsing. Nerological cases like the famous H.M., who was completely incapable
of forming new personal memories after an epilepsy surgery removed both his hippocampi, supported
von Neumann's view for decades. To be fair to H.M. and the people who studied him, there was
evidence that he could still learn skills and experience classical conditioning, both more dependent on
other brain circuits. But these more nuanced findings did not seem to have the same effect on pop
culture as the simple tape metaphor (later, the hard drive metaphor).
In the past ten years or so there have been some very interesting experiments showing that every time a
memory is recalled, it is re-perceived by the sensory systems, and then re-stored, too--overwritten to
some extent. This is opening up all kinds of possibilities for memory management, such as weakening
traumatic memories and phobias. The micro-lesion method used on Jim Carrey's character in Eternal
Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a relatively crude fictional example based on this principle. He recalls
a memory inside a scanner, and as its location is revealed, that location is targeted and destroyed.
Chemical manipulations could potentially be much more subtle, simply weakening a memory or
weakening the emotional connection to a memory while leaving the content more intact.
Finally, just a few words about reincarnation, a common theme in science fiction stories from the
beginnings of the genre. Those first stories were about transmigration of souls, which is an ancient
religious idea. My personal favorite is the Tibetan idea that souls are not atomic; they can come apart
and recombine in different bodies, like in the movie Little Buddha. During the von Neumann age (and
even now, if you're a Singularity buff) science fiction embraced the idea of "recordings" of memories
and personalities being "uploaded" into other bodies, whether those bodies are organic or robotic.
Recent findings that memories are essentially recreated every time they are brought back into
consciousness causes some real problems for the idea of a stable, permanent recording. The best we
could achieve is probably a blurry snapshot, meaning that no two uploads from the same person would
be the same. A really fun story that plays with the computational idea of version control for human
experiences and personalities is here on Escape Pod.
I'm not entirely clear on when and how hypnosis became the preferred method for accessing past lives
in pop culture. I'm pretty sure it didn't originate in SF. One practitioner traces it to Freud's use of
hypnosis for recovering early childhood memories. However it started, by the mid-1960s it seems to
have been an accepted belief in certain therapeutic communities, with multiple books published about
it. The National Guild of Hypnotists has one line about it in their training materials:
"Very controversial. We will not discuss it."
Now, I don't have a dog in this fight. I'm not planning on making money off regression in my own
hypnosis practice. I haven't applied for any grants to study it as a scientist. And at this stage of my life,
as a healthy adult, I personally don't much care whether there is an afterlife or what form it might take.
But I am a scientist, and science has a conflicted history with crazy ideas, alternately dismissing them
and then championing them in somewhat predictable cycles. What's "reasonable" changes over time as
conceptual models get updated by outside information, often brought in by new technology or contact
with a new culture.
The history of my own field, neuroscience, is full of these dynamics. B.F. Skinner famously refused to
speculate about the inner workings of the brain precisely because he didn't trust the tech or the
conceptual models available during the early 20th century (not a bad choice). The problem is that those
temporary practical choices have a way of becoming permanent moral directives, especially when
money and reputations are involved.
Hm. I never thought about this before, but maybe it's a good thing that science fiction authors are
generally broke. Maybe having less to lose allows more room for a spirit of intellectual adventure.
As both a scientist and an entrepreneur, Randall Hayes is really, really sick of hearing the word
"paradigm" applied to every damn thing. In between tantrums, he also helps organize the Greensboro
(I had at least three current examples of classic mind-controllers, but none of them was a
hypnotist and only one of them, Charles Xavier, was in any way PG-13.)
Caution: This is a rabbit hole, going well beyond the entries with the "hypno" key-fix.
This one is a more manageable work in progress. Not too many links to other concepts and
there are only about 25 example works listed.
A guilty pleasure. Sort of an X-Files lite, with Houdini as the skeptic and Doyle as the believer,
with the arc being the backstory of their copper sidekick. Mostly I just like Houdini's suits.
And while we're being all parenthetical, "Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster" from this
season's X-Files revival was one of my favorite episodes ever. Absolutely classic. Watch first,
critique later. The review has serious joke-destoying spoilers. You have been warned.
This is a great book, a history of the weird ideas that invaded pop culture during the middle of
the 20th century, taking over SF for a while before being shunted off into the sub-genre we now
call paranormal. Thanks to Kernersville writer and GM Chad Bowser for loaning it to me.
longest, with etymology!
I'm ashamed to say that I had not anticipated M*A*S*H* fan fiction.
This dissertation, by an investigative journalist, is a exploration of all four of the title's key
phrases, plus a history of investigative journalism. It particularly discusses "explosive
amplification," when official and pop culture reinforce one another instead of opposing one
another as they so often do. Also my first introduction to the phrase "anomalistic psychology,"
which is awesome.
A more recent case, but vivid.
The top link is the study, which is only available in abstract form. Check out the other studies in
their research program, though, as they try to recreate all kinds of brain disorders through
suggestion. There's got to be a story in there somewhere.
To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the "memory wars" inside the discipline of
psychology is that they seem to take no notice of the well-established neurological syndromes
involving confabulation cited last month.
This article includes explicit links to the witch trials of the 16th century in Europe, a favorite
subject for SF authors and the prototype of moral panics.
This is a more general review of memory and its implications for the courtroom, a topic that
could be the basis for a large number of great SF stories.
Of course it's also true that people lie. Actually, a surprising amount has been written about
lying by patients (and by doctors).
To repeat a reference from last month, this book is a comprehensive treatment of confabulation,
both in patients and in "normal" humans. The first chapter is available at the publisher's
First case report of a woman with exceptional (and untrained) autobiographical memory from
A more systematic study of hyper-memory. Free article on PubMedCentral.
specific to Git, but easier to read
I never knew Thomas Kuhn was from Cincinnati. Above is a good starting place to read about
him, with links.
This is a more reflective interview with Kuhn, looking back on his work and the public's
reaction to it.
Read more by Randall Hayes