False Memory Syndrome And The Brain
In the mid-nineties, a sniper's hammering shots echoed through an American playground. Several children were killed and many injured. A 1998 study of the 133 children who attended the school by psychologists Dr. Robert Pynoos and Dr. Karim Nader, experts on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among children, yielded a very bizarre discovery. Some of the children who were not on the schools grounds that day obstinately swore they had very vivid personal recollections of the attack happening (1). The children were not exaggerating, or playing make-believe. They were adamant about the fact that they were indeed there, and that they saw the attack as it was occuring. Why would these children remember something so harrowing if they didn't actually experience it? What kind of trick was their brain playing on them? Why did it happen?
False Memory Syndrome (FMS) is a condition in which a person's identity and interpersonal relationships are centered on a memory of traumatic experience which is actually false, but in which the person is strongly convinced (2). When considering FMS, it's best to remember that all individuals are prone to creating false memories. A common experiment in Introduction to Psychology courses include a test similar to this one: Look at this list of words and try to memorize them: sharp thread sting eye pinch sew thin mend After a few seconds, the students will be asked to recall these words, and are asked the following questions: Was the word "needle" on the list? Was it near the top? The majority of the class will vehemently agree that needle was, in fact, on the list. And not only that, it was actually quite close to being the first word. Some will attest to having vivid recollections of seeing the word "needle" on the page. These students have created a false memory. Due to the exposure of words similar to or related to the word "needle", they have very genuine memories of actually seeing the word on the list. Like the children who were absent from school on the day of the sniper attack, the false memories were stimulated by exposure to similar words (or in the sniper case, stories). In the school children's case, the false memories were created by the exposure to the stories of those who actually underwent the trauma. Our brain uses three diverse procedures to receive information, store information, and access it. These processes are: Sensory information storage, which acts like a very small holding tank, briefly storing information upon impact. Short term memory, in which the brain accounts for what has just happened, also based mainly on the senses. This has a bit more durability than sensory information storage because the brain can interpret the information it's receiving more so than in sensory information storage. Finally, there is Long term memory, the procedure in which the brain stores away significant or enduring information for retrieval at a later date (3).