In 1945, Jimmie G. was nineteen years old. He had his whole life ahead of him – the Second World War had just ended and Jimmie had his choice of what to do now. He could stay in the navy, where he had been thriving since he was conscripted at seventeen and keep working as a radio operator, or go to college. Years of peace stretched out ahead of him and Jimmie felt optimistic. He was young, bright, charming, totally in control of his future and flushed with the thrill of being part of a historic victory at such a young age. For now, though, he was talking to a doctor, although he wasn’t quite sure about what. But when the doctor held up a mirror, Jimmie’s easy confidence and light-hearted manner dissipated – what he saw was not a teenager, but the face of a man in his late forties, still handsome, but most definitely old, distinctly old. Jimmie was not dreaming, not in a nightmare. He was, in fact, forty-nine years old and it was 1975, and he was in the office of neurologist Oliver Sacks. Jimmie G. had severe amnesia. He remembered the events up to the year 1945 with exceptional clarity, but the rest of his life was a total blank, dissolved in the deep recesses of his mind. He was almost completely incapable of forming new memories, although occasionally he could recall recent events in a hazy way. Unable to remember his experiences of the present, Jimmie’s mind had latched on to what it could remember – his past – and created its image around him, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Jimmie was living in a world of his mind’s creation – something that, though it sounds extraordinary, is not at all unusual.
While we might think of living in this kind of mental space as very rare, in fact our entire realities are being created by our minds all the time. Our brains race to interpret the huge amounts of sensory data they are bombarded with every second. The realities our minds create are not the same as others’ either. Research shows that it is very likely that, although we all take in the same visual input, what we actually see in terms of colour vision is likely to be very different. While we might both call an apple red, what I see might actually look more similar to what you would call blue. The brain takes the information from the environment and creates a perception that helps us understand our surroundings better. However, there is no guarantee – and in fact it is exceptionally unlikely that – the perceptions created are the same for different individuals. The example of colour perception seems insignificant, but our minds create deceptive and astonishing different realities for us on a surprisingly frequent basis.
In 2013, Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, was the location of a horrific terrorist attack. This very public tragedy was disturbing enough alone, but in the days and weeks and months following the attacks, it became obvious that there was a gap between what people remembered about the four days that the mall was under siege, and the official reports. Many people vividly remembered that one of the attackers had been a British woman. They reported that there had been up to fifteen gunmen of different nationalities, and that one of the gunmen had escaped among the survivors. What the eyewitnesses could remember about the attackers made its way into mainstream news, but after a few days it became clear that the official line was very different. There had been four attackers, not fifteen. They were all Somalia men, not a group of different genders and ethnicities. None of them had escaped. But how could so many people be wrong about such a momentous day in their lives? Many of them had seen family members killed, and had made concerted efforts to remember details about the gunmen in case the police asked for a description afterwards. The difference between the witness accounts and the official account lead to conspiracy theories and doubt, until it came out that the official story was backed up entirely by CCTV. So how had the eyewitnesses been so wrong about something so personally important to them? The leading theory is that the stress of the situation combined with tiny misinterpretations of events and hearing other witnesses’ stories created distorted memories in people’s minds. There were many armed police in the mall during the siege as well, who may have been mistaken for gunmen. Some of these police officers were in plain clothes, perhaps leading to the story of a gunman escaping with the survivors. One of the four attackers was of a lighter build than the others and looked quite feminine, perhaps leading people to remember seeing a British woman among the gunmen. With time, and hearing the original report of the events repeated on the news, these uncertainties solidified into entirely false memories.
Our minds can even be tricked into creating entirely false memories without even starting from real events. In the early 1990s, many psychiatrists were trying to help patients with a vast array of different issues, from depression to anxiety to eating disorders. Using psychoanalytic techniques based on the work of Freud, they tried to discover whether their patients’ current issues could be traced to traumatic events from their childhoods, which they had repressed. And they found these events– in astounding numbers and with shocking details. Huge numbers of patients had repressed memories of being sexually abused as children, being part of satanic rituals, forced cannibalism and disturbing cult ceremonies, even witnessing murders. The only problem was that many of these memories appear now to be entirely fabricated. While it is possible for traumatic events such as abuse or witnessing a crime to be repressed, this type of total repression is, psychologists now think, very rare. The techniques used by the ‘Recovered Memory’ movement to discover the root causes of their patients’ distress – reading meaning into dreams, the use of hypnosis, guided imagery and age regression, automatic writing, even simply the act of the therapist repeatedly asking a patient whether they had experienced abuse and to try to remember what could have happened if they had – were in fact able to contaminate any memories they did have and to create false ones where none existed. The psychiatrists had no intention of creating false memories in their patients, but in trying to heal them by seeking a root cause for their mental health issues, they could in fact make them worse. Similarly, the patients were not lying – they truly began to believe that the memories they were building and ‘uncovering’ in therapy sessions were accurate. This illusion was reinforced by having the therapist, an expert in a position of power, tell them that they were repressing memories and should try hard to remember them. Tragically, the Recovered Memory movement grew out of an attempt to do better. Previously in psychotherapy, reports of childhood abuse had been seen as psychological fantasies rather than accounts of real trauma. In doing their best to be supportive of survivors of childhood abuse, the therapists began to see victims where there were none. The therapist and the patient became a ‘feedback loop’ – enforcing and reinforcing each others’ beliefs that the memories were real. The ‘memories’ themselves could cause trauma, making the patients’ condition deteriorate, leading the therapist to push them for more memories in an attempt to get to the bottom of the problem. The Recovered Memory movement only disintegrated when the more outlandish and bizarre stories – the ones about Satanic rituals and suburban cannibals – ran up against evidence that they could not possibly have happened. While childhood trauma can be and is repressed, it is beyond doubt that the Recovered Memory movement created more harm than it healed.
So can we, or can we not trust our minds? All three of these stories sounds extraordinary, but they are all examples of how our minds create reality for us every day. However, while the specific way in which we perceive the world may be a useful fiction created for us by our brains, when we are healthy this is not a concern. Disorders and malfunctions in the brain can lead to problems in our perceptions that we must turn to psychiatry and psychology to resolve, but the most important thing to take away from the slippery nature of our minds’ reality is the importance of looking after our mental health. While our minds are resilient, they are also suggestible and can be damaged in the same way as we can easily sprain an ankle or break a bone if we don’t look after them properly. Ultimately, whether or not our memories and perceptions are totally accurate is not a problem as long as we are caring for our minds as well as we care for our bodies.
Article by Imogen Whiteley