People don’t trust science.
And why should they? Science is devious stuff. It’s always trying to tell you that your strongly held religious beliefs are wrong, or toying with nature in a way man was never supposed to, or doing something hard to understand with big machines and long words that’s probably going to destroy the planet.
All of which is deeply offensive to the most basic human sensibilities. And worst of all is when scientists – those cold-hearted emotionless robots in white lab coats, or madmen incapable of seeing any beauty in the world who don’t care how much harm their experiments cause – try telling you that they even know what you think better than you do.
I mean, how dare they! Obviously you know your own mind. And if you woke up in the middle of the night and there was an owl on the bedpost with your mother’s face and a demon hovering over you whose genitals were singing Happy Birthday with the voice of Richard Simmons, then you know what you saw. Do these scientists think you’re crazy?
No, they don’t. Most scientists really wouldn’t tell you anything so condescending. But they do think that the human brain can be the epicentre of some pretty weird goings-on, and that the people who cohabit with these brains aren’t always in the best position to interpret what’s going on.
It’s really important to understand that, when scientists suggest that the way things seem to you might not match up perfectly with reality, they’re not being patronising or calling you stupid. There are lots of things that your brain gets wrong, which simply come with being human.
Optical illusions are a good example. These parallel lines ought to look more skewed than they really are. These white dots should appear to blink on and off somewhat disorientingly as you move your eyes around the picture. It’s to do with the way your brain processes visual information, and it’s fun finding out ways you can fool yourself.
Then there’s dreams. Chances are, your subconscious regularly makes up completely bizarre imaginary scenarios out of nowhere, and presents you with an entirely fictional version of reality – and often stops you from noticing that anything is out of the ordinary. This is so common that it’s considered unusual for anyone to say they never experience it.
But while certain very common and popularly recognised phenomena are generally accepted as just being quirks of the squishy grey stuff between our ears, some such quirks aren’t so familiar. There are some ways in which we just feel that our brains shouldn’t be able to let us down – it’s unthinkable that we shouldn’t be able to trust our own perception and intuition in certain areas. Which is why some things are harder to accept, and people may be inclined to respond to such suggestions by saying “I’m not crazy”.
And yet numerous other such phenomena are real and well understood. Some of these I’ve written about before: sleep paralysis, where you more or less continue dreaming but also can’t move; the ideomotor effect, where you find your body making tiny movements without you choosing to do so; pareidolia, where even a random mess of nonsense can throw up something that looks like an underlying pattern once in a while; and a wide range of logical fallacies, which show just how bad we can be at analysing data rationally if we’re not careful. And ignoring any of these cognitive oddities can lead you to get things wrong.
If you’re unaware of dreams, you might get some very funny looks from your co-workers on Monday when you describe how your teeth all fell out one night over the weekend but were magically back in place by the morning.
If you weren’t that hot on statistics, you might think that you’ve discovered a miraculous new remedy, when actually you just rubbed pineapple juice into your elbows three times a day until your cold got better anyway.
And if you aren’t familiar with false memory syndrome, then… well, things can get pretty horrifying.
In a way, it feels intuitive to expect your memory to be entirely accurate. If you remember something happening, that must be because it happened. What other reason could there be? But most of us regularly remember dreams, even though they didn’t happen. And most of us have, at some point, misremembered the way something took place, or disagreed with someone else about the exact details of a past event. Why would that ever happen, if human memory wasn’t prone to making serious mistakes?
The fact is, as in the case of dreams or optical illusions, we’re sometimes obliged to follow the data and mistrust what our brains tell us, in the case of memory too.
The most disturbing example of this relates to the sexual abuse of children.
Now, I need to be careful after a sentence like that. Clearly one extremely disturbing thing surrounding this topic is the actual sexual abuse of children. This is by no means a trivial or minor side issue, and I wouldn’t want any of my surrounding discussion to come across as apologist or dismissive of any serious cases of this.
And yet, precisely because it’s such a serious and heated issue, the occasions when people get unfairly tangled up in it are themselves especially serious, and merit particular scrutiny.
With that in mind, the history of false memory syndrome as regards childhood sexual abuse is quite horrific.
In fact, the whole idea of repressed memories that need “recovering” in therapy is controversial. People who’ve suffered through a childhood trauma often experience something like post-traumatic stress disorder, where the problem isn’t that they can’t remember what happened, but that they keep remembering it, and re-living it, constantly. If you don’t remember a particular childhood trauma, that’s probably because it didn’t happen to you…
…but that won’t necessarily stop you from “recovering” the memories in therapy anyway.
An article by Elizabeth Loftus reports some very disturbing specifics. A woman seeing a psychiatrist in 1986 became convinced that she had suffered serious physical and sexual abuse as a child, and that she was uncovering memories of “having been in a satanic cult, of eating babies, of being raped, of having sex with animals and of being forced to watch the murder of her eight-year-old friend”. Another woman, after therapy sessions with a church counsellor, “remembered” having been repeatedly raped by her father and forced to perform abortions on herself twice. On medical examination, it was shown that she had never been pregnant, and was apparently still a virgin. (I know the latter point isn’t always obvious from examination, but it was clear she hadn’t undergone anything like the several years of regular sexual assault that she was reporting.)
These two women both sued their therapists, and received seven-figure out-of-court settlements, and they’re not alone. But the damage this sort of intervention can do if the results are taken at face value is almost unimaginable. Meredith Maran has had to deal with the fact that her family spent years in turmoil because of her accusations that her father had abused her. In her case, this entirely false impression didn’t even result from any therapy sessions or hypnotic suggestion, but apparently just from being immersed in a sort of “incest survivor culture” for so long.
I don’t want to downplay the fact that, for many people, all kinds of abuse, sexual or physical or psychological, in childhood or adolescence or adulthood, is a very real and terrible problem. These people don’t need things made even worse for them by an exacerbation of any victim-blaming culture, or the worry that they’ll be accused of making it all up if they speak up and ask for help.
But, at the same time, our appreciation for critical thought shouldn’t just fly out the window because a serious accusation has been made.
A self-help book that was recently being promoted by the Church of England was criticised by scientists for its failure to take false memory syndrome into account. It told readers things like “If you are unable to remember any specific instances… but still have a feeling that something abusive happened to you, it probably did”. They’re putting forward “a feeling” as solid evidence that you were sexually assaulted as a child and just don’t remember it. This is incredibly reckless and irresponsible, especially given how much we now understand about the role of suggestibility in forming false memories that seem entirely real.
The main thing to take away is that memories don’t always relate to genuine events with perfectly reliable consistency. We have good evidence that the recollection of perfectly ordinary and totally sane people can be completely wrong, despite how real and reliable such memories feel. This is not a dangerous thing to know. It is not intrinsically antagonistic to genuine abuse victims for us to be aware of this. Understanding false memory syndrome should only give us a better chance of approaching the truth, by letting us more closely estimate the likelihood of the testimony being false, when assessing unlikely claims about demonic cults and baby-eating.
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