Is a false memory a true memory?

Fans of crime fiction and keen observers of the law courts will be familiar with the idea of False Memory Syndrome (FMS). Witnesses and crime victims make statements that turn out to be untrue — not, it seems, because they were lying, but because they genuinely seemed to remember something that hadn’t happened.  In quite a few cases, these false memories appear to have been suggested by psychotherapists, counsellors, police interviewers and other professionals seeking to help troubled individuals remember difficult circumstances.  So serious have the resulting miscarriages of justice been that victims of FMS have set up the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and the British False Memory Society.  Examples of false memories of sexual abuse are discussed in this article.

As this is a blog devoted to competing truths, one might think false memories need not concern us.  They are, surely, by definition not true.  Yet in a fascinating Radio 4 documentary, Past Imperfect, FMS expert Professor Elizabeth Loftus challenged this basic conception of false memories: “Memory does not work like a video-recording device, where you just record the event and play it back later.  It’s a little bit more like a Wikipedia page, where you can go in there and change it… but so can other people.”  All memories are “reconstructive”, because our brains aren’t designed to capture every detail of an event, but rather to recall the broad brushstrokes and then fill in the detail in a plausible manner.  Do you really remember what your daughter was wearing and which way she was looking when she spoke her first word? Even if you can picture it, you may not be right.  Inevitably, most memories will include some distortions, which means false memory is not black and white: some memories will be more accurate than others, but a false memory is as real as any other memory you hold.  It is a fragment of your mind and therefore a kind of truth.

Certainly, false memories have real consequences.  Several researchers have shown they can reliably implant false memories in the lab, making their guinea pigs believe they have seen or done things — even in the very recent past – which they have not.  This can lead to significant behaviour modification.  For example, a subject implanted with a false memory of getting sick from eating turkey became significantly less keen on the meat.  Some researchers suggest this kind of false memory could be deployed to steer us away from poor nutritional choices: if you can be convinced you were once made ill by fatty, sugary foods, you may be more likely to choose fresh vegetables in the future.  Would you rather your child had obesity or a few benign false memories, asks one advocate.  Needless to say, this is a very slippery slope.

False memories, like other competing truths, can fundamentally shape our realities — and could be used to manipulate our beliefs and actions.  Whether or not you view false memories as “true”, they are manifestly real enough to take seriously.


Our deteriorating minds

If you’re getting on a bit and find it takes longer to remember something, you will be cheered by Frontiers’ shaping of the reality of ageing.  We are invited to “reframe” our understanding of data retrieval in the brain by thinking about all of the extra information (memories) that an older brain contains.  Put simply, a younger person has fewer memories to search through for the required information and consequently is bound to find it more quickly.  This was likened to a brand new computer which runs faster than it ever will once it’s been filled with all your data.  So taking longer to remember the name of an acquaintance isn’t a sign of mental deterioration — it means you simply have more hay to search through for the needle than that sharp youngster beside you.

This model of mental data processing may or may not be accurate (and it is disputed).  But the same programme offered another, unqualified case of shaping reality.  In mental agility tests, people who held a negative view of the effect of age on the mind performed worse than those who did not.  If you believe age is slowing you down, it will slow you down.  How’s that for a reason to choose your truths carefully?

How the IPCC decides which version of climate change to present

The UN’s intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) has just published a new report warning of flooding, storm surges, droughts and heatwaves.  ‘No one will be untouched by climate change’ quotes the Telegraph in its headline.  The reporting is widespread and dramatic, and perhaps it should be.  But there are dissenting voices, including one of the report’s authors, Richard Tol, who withdrew his name because he considered the language of the report summary “alarmist”.

That there should be IPCC scientists who do not agree with the IPCC’s conclusions should not surprise us.  This report was the work of  more than 300 scientists from 70 countries, who in turn were drawing on the research of thousands more climate scientists (it’s quite an industry now).  Chris Field, one of the co-chairs of the working group behind the report, made the point on the Today programme this morning that the report — and particularly its summary — is therefore an exercise in consensus building between hundreds of different opinions.  He said something along the lines of All of the authors think that the report would have been better if it had been closer to their own point of view.

All of which is entirely reasonable.  This is an international body trying to put across a single position for the entire global community of climate experts.  Yet it does make you ponder on the many different versions of the report summary which might have been published.  That the IPCC chose this one, rather than something more optimistic, more pessimistic, more measured or more urgent, does not make it any truer than a dozen other versions of reality they might have proposed.


Wood: a burning question

Wood Pellets

Wood Pellets (Photo credit: Alternative Heat)

Yesterday a little-noticed but important policy reversal took place. The UK government announced that subsidies for dedicated biomass-burning power plants are to be capped, and subsidies for biomass burning in existing power stations will end by 2027.  There are many competing truths flying around the question of burning wood for power generation, and the misguided subsidy policy was inspired by one of the worst of them.

Wood has for some time been touted as a big part of the solution to our carbon problem.  European governments see it as one of the easiest ways to meet their emission reduction commitments.  Drax, the largest coal-fired power station in the UK, has announced its intention to transform itself into a predominantly biomass-fuelled generator.  Wood is carbon neutral, we are told, so we can burn as much as we like with a clear conscience.

Lets challenge that truth head on.

It is true that if you grow a tree (or any other plant matter) from seed, without expending any energy on its cultivation (by irrigation etc) and then burn it in the same location then no net carbon is released into the atmosphere.

That never happens.

Leaving aside the fuel burnt in tractors, chainsaws and foresters’ cars, and the electricity used to irrigate saplings, a great deal of energy is typically expended in hauling biomass around the world.  Drax CEO Dorothy Thompson recently had to admit on the BBC’s Bottom Line that most of the biomass to be burnt in their furnaces would come from North America.  Furthermore, Drax — just like domestic biomass boilers — needs its wood converted into pellets, a process that requires considerable energy inputs.

Proponents of biomass pellets assure us that notwithstanding the “embodied carbon” resulting from pellet manufacturing and transport, biomass pellets still have a far lower carbon footprint than coal.  That’s a truth that depends entirely on the type of biomass being used to make the pellets.

One of the most important truths ignored by fans of biomass burning is this: burning a tree can release just as much carbon into the atmosphere as burning the energy equivalent in coal.  The only way to make the action carbon neutral is to plant another tree in its place and wait the many years it takes to grow to the same size.  In other words, if you burn an established tree you run up a carbon debt which cannot be paid off for decades.  It is true that this process might be carbon neutral over the very long term but, as campaigners keep telling us, our greenhouse gas challenge is rather more urgent than that.  If you are concerned about melting icecaps and rising temperatures over the next few years, you’d better make sure your wood pellet provider is not using established trees as their biomass source.

Some claim that we can get all the biomass we need from the offcuts from the timber industry and the waste residues from sustainable forestry.  Really?  Drax alone will burn seven million tonnes of biomass each year; the UK’s total wood production is ten million tonnes.  Although Drax likes to give the impression it will only be burning “energy crops”, offcuts and forestry residues, a recent Freedom of Information request by Biofuelwatch has uncovered evidence from the Department of Energy and Climate Change that Drax’s boilers will require wood from whole trees; “waste” biomass is unsuitable for their equipment.

The other truth that is routinely ignored by biomass burners is the opportunity cost of the land on which the biomass is grown.  Say you have a hypothetical empty piece of fertile land: you could grow biomass to cut down and burn, or you could grow food, cotton and other essential plant products (including wood for construction and furniture).  If you choose to grow biomass for burning, then the food, cotton, building materials et al to feed, clothe and house a rapidly expanding and increasingly demanding global population will have to be grown on other land.  Often that land has to be first cleared of primary forest — probably by burning it and releasing all of its stored carbon into the atmosphere.  An even more tragic case of this perverse outcome is the large-scale clearing of rainforest that has taken place in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia to make way for palm oil plantations to feed our demand for another type of “carbon neutral” biofuel.  Leaving aside the desperate loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, this kind of outcome is hardly helpful to our net global carbon emissions.

“Carbon neutral” has become one of the most highly prized labels of our age.  There is always going to be some way to present it as a truth.  But next time someone proposes a grand solution to all our climate and energy problems that involves burning a load of trees, please challenge them with a few competing truths.

Is nicotine good for you?


CRUSH THE EVIL NICK O’TEEN (Photo credit: Leo Reynolds)

When I was growing up, Nick O’Teen was a villain so heinous that even Superman struggled to contain him.  Created by DC Comics in 1980 as part of the US Health Education Council’s anti-smoking campaign, Nick O’Teen was a vivid warning to impressionable young minds on the perils of tobacco.  I never did take up smoking.

After such clear childhood messaging, it was something of a surprise to hear that e-cigarettes, which contain nicotine, are to be licensed as medicines in the UK from 2016.  As medicines are generally understood to be products that improve or at least stabilise our health, one might take this to mean that e-cigarettes, and the nicotine within, are now considered good for you.

In fact, the rationale for licensing is not so positive. With e-cigarettes becoming more popular, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has become concerned at the poor quality, efficacy and safety of some brands.  Licensing allows for tougher quality regulation.

Nevertheless, the move raises the question: will people be misled by one truth, that e-cigarettes are (from 2016) medicines, into forgetting another truth, that nicotine is a highly addictive substance that…?

That what?  Is nicotine in fact bad for you?

A photo of 117mm e-cigarette

e-cigarette (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not at all, it seems.  It’s the tar and various toxins in regular cigarettes that makes them so damaging, not the nicotine.  E-cigarettes don’t contain these substances.  Nicotine was only ever bad for smokers in the sense that it made them want to inhale more tar.  Mr O’Teen was cruelly defamed.  Indeed nicotine even has some health benefits, with possible applications in treatments and therapies for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD and Tourette’s syndrome.

So there’s one staggering truth: Nicotine is good for you (if you have certain medical conditions).

But the competing truth is still valid: Nicotine is bad for you (if you become addicted to it and so keep smoking regular cigarettes).

There’s a whole different debate to be had (with competing truths on both sides) as to whether nicotine (in promoting smoking) is good for the economy and the Treasury…

Are you mad?

If you break your leg, or pick up an intestinal parasite, or suffer a stroke, diagnosis and treatment are usually straightforward.  There’s a single truth about what’s happened to you, and therefore a clear recommended course of action.  Not so with mental illness.  The recent publication of the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) — after 14 years of hard work by the American Psychiatric Association — has reinvigorated an already passionate debate about the definition of mental illness.

American Psychiatric Association

American Psychiatric Association (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The DSM classifies mental disorders.  It decides what is normal and what is abnormal.  In America, it more or less dictates what mental conditions qualify for medical insurance cover or special school provision, and what treatment (drug) should be dispensed.  It therefore is a tome of great consequence, and can be seen as a kind of bible of the psychiatric profession.  It is, in its authority and effect, a form of Truth.

But there are many mental health professionals who champion a different truth.  The DSM classifies disorders based on symptoms not causes, largely disregarding the genetics and neuroscience that might explain why a patient is manifesting any given symptom.  This is analogous to a biologist classifying birds, pterosaurs and bats in the same taxonomic group because they all have wings, ignoring the fact that those wings have evolved in three completely different ways, from three very different genetic stocks.  Just as biologists recognise the fundamental difference between birds, reptiles and mammals, so some psychologists and psychiatrists are calling for greater recognition of the diverse biological causes that may lead to similar mental syndromes.  Theirs is a very practical concern: how can the same drug be effective on completely different pathologies?  Yet those biological truths — what’s physically going on — are currently in competition with the DSM truths that determine most of the financial and therapeutic realities of American psychiatry.

Then there’s the question of whether someone is actually ill at all.  If your condition’s in the book, you’re ill; if it isn’t, you’re fine.  As the DSM is updated, truths about illness are changing.  Since May 22, a child throwing temper tantrums may be considered to be afflicted with disruptive mood dysregulation disorder; a newly bereaved spouse may be suffering from major depressive disorder; and incorrigible binge eaters may well be mentally ill.  On the other hand, anyone wishing to change their gender is no longer considered to be suffering from a mental disorder (gays were similarly reclassified as normal in 1973).

You don’t have to be transgender to feel uneasy at the somewhat arbitrary way the APA gets to decide whether or not you’re ill.  “At a certain point, you can say everybody’s sick,” argues Professor Ronald Kessler of the Harvard Medical School. “The question is, where do you draw the line.”  You could say that… or you could find a more useful definition of the word “sick”.

With psychiatrists, biologists, psychologists and doctors all taking different views on the question of what defines a mental disorder, competing truths in this field are bound to proliferate.  The question is how many millions of tablets will be inappropriately prescribed, and how many thousands of “worried well” will take to their beds as a result.