Researchers have long known that false memories can be created in humans by using clever deceptions plucked from the Official Researcher Bag-o-Tricks. According to a recent New York Times article, “Now scientists at the Riken-M.I.T. Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they have created false memories in mice, providing detailed clues into how such (false) memories may form in human brains”. According to Norwegian neuroscientist Edvard Moser, “At this level of brain activity the difference between a mouse and a human is quite small.” This fact is reinforced whenever Congress is in session.
Here’s how scientists create false mouse memories. First, they install electrodes into their tiny mouse brains. Then, they create situations in a diabolical electrified maze that fool the mice into believing that something awful happened to them in one part of the maze when it really happened in another part of the maze. Then, they build a tiny campfire, gather the mice together for a few beers and let them swap stories. The test mice get it all wrong. The control mice get a laugh out of the whole process. Scientists get Federal grants for this sort of thing. Your tax dollars are working.
A careful reading of the study points me to two possible reasons that humans have memories of things that never actually happened to them. Either (1) they accidentally got involved in lab research wherein their brains were wired with electrodes and then they had to find their way through a maze and, as a reward, got to have sex with the hottest researcher available or, (2) they simply make stuff up, like having sex with a hot researcher, and then claim it’s true.
False memory examples abound. For instance, my late cousin recalled walking ten miles, barefoot through deep snow to get to school. The fact that he grew up in Houston didn’t shake his conviction.
My older brother recalls many adventures very differently from the rest of the family. As the rest of us are quick to point out–and we usually have the votes to prove it–he’s often full of sh…I mean he’s having a false memory. His defense is to resort to colorful memories of things that happened when none of the rest of us were around. His memories of fighting in the steamy jungles of the Philippines during the great Huk Insurgency are not dampened by the fact that this rebellion ended in 1951 when he was in the 5th grade at Lincoln Elementary. He didn’t actually join the Navy until 1961 and, even then, he was a nurse or something.
My younger brother is somewhat more reserved in the false memory department but he can be counted on to trot out some whopper when the occasion suits. His favorite, and he recounts it often, occurred when he was but an infant. His version is that I, a mere toddler at the time, surreptitiously removed him from the cradle and purposely dropped him on his head onto the hardwood floor. This can’t be true as I have always loved infants, even ones who suddenly show up in the household and suck up all of Mommy’s attention. Besides, the little bugger was only a few weeks old, how could he possibly recall this particular trauma? He doesn’t claim to recall his circumcision. Now that’s trauma. Case closed.
My current wife has the occasional false memory but I’ve learned that to correct the record is often a marital harmony deal breaker. I find that a cleverly concealed patronizing acceptance of her false memory is the best way forward. Conversely, should I have a momentary memory lapse, not false exactly, more like slightly inaccurate, the current wife feels it her duty to gently correct me so that I can go through life knowing that my word is my bond, thanks to her diligence.
Actually, in what I have to imagine is a scientific oddity, I, my-own-self, have no false memories. I should offer my brain to the research community for study, as long as they agree that no electrodes will be involved.
I have many high point memories of my life that others swear never occurred. It is their failure to remember correctly that is the real problem.
One of my most cherished memories is from the summer of 1963. I was 17 and alone in the Harvey House Restaurant in the Newton, Kansas Railway Station. It was well past midnight when the Santa Fe Super Chief, on its way from Chicago to L.A., made its nightly stop for fuel, a crew change, water and supplies. The train stopped for 40 minutes or so and one or two sleepy passengers always debarked for coffee or a snack. On this warm summer night, Annette Funicello, then 21 and in full blossom, slipped in the door wearing jammy bottoms and a baby doll top that left very little to the imagination. (Annette was on her way to L.A. to begin filming “Beach Blanket Bingo”.)
What happened next was something that would later appear in lewd detail in the Letters to the Editor section of Penthouse magazine (see the October edition, 1972). Our eyes locked, she walked straight to my table, took the fork from my hand, cut off a piece of strawberry rhubarb pie, fed it to me and then licked the fork slowly, all the while peering deeply into my limpid blue eyes. She took my hand and led me to the train and introduced me to “sleeping compartment bingo”. I was officially deflowered. Words were never spoken and I never saw her again in the flesh. The Super Chief took Annette west into the arms of that fey little crooner, Frankie Avalon.
Many claim that this never actually happened. Well, they were wrong weren’t they?
Another, more searing memory comes from my U.S. Army tour. In the summer of 1971 I was called to help quell the Great Indianapolis Medicaid riots. I had been fully trained to be in harm’s way but this was to be my first real test.
An overwhelming force of 50 or 60 angry Medicaid rabble rousers had forced the local police to ask for Army reinforcements from Ft. Harrison. Donning riot gear, I directed my platoon to advance toward the sound of gunfire. Well, actually no gunfire was involved so we advanced toward downtown Indy from the fort (home of the Defense Information School whose combat motto is “Never Retreat, Backspace”) along a quiet neighborhood street.
The scene we found near the capitol building was shrouded in the fog of conflict. A phalanx of protestors, many outfitted with full-metal wheel chairs and high-impact aluminum walkers with tennis balls fitted over the front legs for battle traction, had cornered some local police, who had no escape route, a dangerous situation. Canes were being waved menacingly and threats filled the air. Leaders of the group bellowed instructions to make certain that the harder of hearing in the mob would execute the correct flanking maneuver, thus sealing the officers’ fate. The sound of conflict was thunderous. Shouts of “What?”…”What’d he say?” filling the air.
My platoon waded into the mob, dividing them into smaller groups so that the force of their numbers could be suppressed. On my own, I disabled five of the miscreants (actually, they were already disabled but you know what I mean) using only a cattle prod and my unloaded .45 sidearm for pistol whipping, should it come to that. I fell just short of earning a Purple Heart that day only by the fact that my knuckles, severely barked on one of the protestor’s oxygen bottles, never actually bled.
Again, there are doubters who deny that this event ever happened. Well, it certainly did. I know, I was there.
Observoid of the Day: In heaven they give you a harp. In hell they give you a banjo.