Implanting Memories to Combat Addiction

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It’s called “false memory syndrome,” and it’s usually cited as a harmful mismatch between our memories and reality. But some researchers feel it may have a positive application for the treatment of addiction.

Remember the satanic panic of the 1980s? Kids began reporting abuse that never happened, and, more significantly, therapists were dredging up childhood memories from patients about satanic abuse. It looked to be a national crisis until investigators wondered why there seemed to be no evidence of the horrible activities except for the recovered memories reported by patients. Most, if not all, of the reports turned out to be entirely imaginary – but the significant thing is that the pseudo-victims couldn’t tell the difference between memories real or implanted.

Study: Planting memories can influence attitudes about alcohol

Fast forward to this year, and researchers think we can use some false memories to influence current behaviors in a positive direction. Time talked to one researcher about it.

"After decades of studying the creation of false memories, a few years ago we started to ask what are the repercussions," says Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology at the University of California in Irvine. "If I plant a false memory in your mind, does it affect later thoughts, intentions or even behaviors?"

The technique used to implant memories of getting sick from drinking rum or vodka in her experiments weren’t as sophisticated as one might think. No hypnosis or couch time was involved. Instead, Loftus had students take a personality survey that included questions about previous alcohol use and current attitudes about drinking.

A week later, students were given the results, but some information was intentionally altered, making it appear that participants had reported things that they didn’t – such as getting sick from drinking vodka. At this second contact, students were asked to elaborate on these fictional experiences they had supposedly reported. If they couldn’t, they were asked to imagine what it would be like and write that down.

The net result was that a repeat of the original survey showed a change in attitude about specific types of alcohol – matching the fake memories of a bad experience. At least 20 percent of them adopted the false memory as actually having happened.

Is it ethical?

Opinions vary. Should doctors be permitted to lie to a patient for the patient’s own benefit? A certain amount of this kind of deception is accepted already, as when a placebo is prescribed instead of an active drug. But here we are messing around with something pretty fundamental – implanting a false history. Dangerous ground.

Photo by Amy Clark

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