In “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play ex-partners who have had each other erased from their memories in order to keep from reliving their painful shared past. It seems like an overly dramatic reaction, to be perfectly honest. But for those who have suffered from trauma, such as from abuse or war, the desire to erase a memory would be pretty understandable. According to new work in neuropsychology, replacing or enhancing real memories with false ones might actually go a long way towards giving those people peace of mind.
Let’s be frank — not only does this sound like something out of a science-fiction movie (because it literally is), but it also sounds downright creepy. Yet once you get over your initial stay-out-of-my-brain reaction, you may start to wonder what a false memory might do for you. According to a new study by psychologists Veronika Nourkova and Darya Vaslienko from Lomonosov Moscow University, people who experienced anxiety associated with a particular memory felt less anxiety when the researchers altered that memory via hypnosis.
For example, say you have a deep-seated fear of performing. It goes way, way back; you can even remember a time when you tripped on stage in front of the entire school back in seventh grade. The researchers then take that memory and alter it to make it more positive. Instead of falling on your face in front of all your friends, you turned it into a somersault, and everybody started applauding. And then your crush started making out with you. Participants in the study experienced this memory modification in one of two ways. Some met with the researchers every week for three weeks, transforming a different memory every time; others did the same thing but while under hypnosis. The control groups didn’t have any memory alteration — one group was hypnotized, and the other one just listened to sounds of nature during their sessions.
All four groups — hypnotized, not hypnotized, hypnotized control, and non-hypnotized control — were given trait-anxiety tests before they began the experiment, a few days after their final sessions, and one last time four months later. These tests told researchers which of the participants’ characteristics gave them the most anxiety, and how badly they experienced that anxiety. Both of the non-hypnotized groups showed little to no change in their anxiety, and while the hypnotized control group — the people who didn’t alter their memories — demonstrated less anxiety at first, the effect didn’t last very long. However, those that had constructed new memories under hypnosis showed significantly reduced anxiety, even four months after the therapy sessions.
Perhaps even more interestingly, that group also experienced the greatest confusion in articulating which was the real memory and which was the false one. The group that helped come up with alternate-memory versions of real embarrassments without the aid of hypnosis were easily able to tell their real memories from the false ones they’d created with researchers.
But the hypnotized people couldn’t do the same, which might be because the hypnosis cemented the false memory within their brains more firmly, or because the memory invented while under hypnosis was simply more convincing than one made by a more superego-driven mind. Either way, it might suggest that the perceived reality of a false, happy memory could be a part of a real-world cure for some anxiety disorders.
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