In the 1958 film Gigi, an older couple recalls in song how they met decades earlier:

  • Him: We met at nine
  • 130730 memory4Her: We met at eight
  • Him: I was on time
  • Her: No, you were late
  • Him: Ah, yes, I remember it well
  • Him: We dined with friends
  • Her: We dined alone
  • Him: A tenor sang
  • Her: A baritone
  • Him: Ah, yes, I remember it well

It’s happened to all of us.  I will attend my 40th high school class reunion next week, an opportunity for memories that are anywhere from pleasantly fuzzy to outrageously inaccurate.     “The vagaries of human memories are notorious,” wrote James Gorman recently in the New York Times.

Many years ago, when I was trained as a psychotherapist, the role of memory was undergoing a radical transformation.  Child sexual abuse was being addressed in psychotherapy and in our culture as never before.  The diagnosis of Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), a condition that develops in the mind of victims to cope with chronic trauma, was increasingly popular, earning even its own scholarly journal.  

The diagnosis of MPD was based on the theory that trauma victims would dissociate, cordoning off life-threatening experiences into fractured slivers of personality.  The construct, while labeled by some as fashionable and unscientific, was actually first identified by Pierre Janet in the late 1800’s, then called hysteria.  In the 1980’s the term became so popular that the definition itself fractured into overinclusive and underinclusive camps.

Of particular controversy was the validity of memory.  Recollections of sexual abuse by a family member, ritual Satanic abuse and sex cults created alarming reverberations through the culture.  Could all of these be true?  The revelations destroyed families and even communities.  To combat these accusations, alleged offenders coined the term False Memory Syndrome, suggesting that not all memories, however vivid, were true.  Therapists sniffed at this sacrilege, calling it the “Perpetrators Club.”  Not being believed, they said, retraumitized the victims of abuse.

Of course, this was true.  However, the truth of what actually happened was much more difficult to determine.

Not only are false, or mistaken, memories common in normal life, but researchers have found it relatively easy to generate false memories of words and images in human subjects. But exactly what goes on in the brain when mistaken memories are formed has remained mysterious.

130730 memory2Now scientists at the Riken-M.I.T. Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say they have created a false memory in a mouse, providing detailed clues to how such memories may form in human brains. Mr. Gorman wrote about the study this week.

Edvard I. Moser, a neuroscientist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, says that although mice are not people, the basic mechanisms of memory formation in mammals are evolutionarily ancient. At this level of brain activity, he said, “the difference between a mouse and a human is quite small.” In both, memories form in an area of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus.

“What I find fascinating about this,” Dr. Moser said, “is that you actually can point to a physical substrate to memory.” Neuroscientists have long talked about this, but Dr. Moser said the recent research is the closest they have gotten to pointing to a spot in the brain and saying, “That is the memory.”

130730 memory3All of us long to know the exact details our story, from the adopted child to the traumatized teen to the aging patient.  Usually, we never get our wish.  But we get something better: we have the blessing to rely on the support of friends, family and professionals.  I know from years of experience in the consulting room that when we share our story – whatever details we do have – we heal.   I am always honored and humbled when individuals choose to involve me in that process, and am reminded of what Ram Daas said: “We are all just walking each other home.”

For more about trauma treatment in Sarasota, read on.