Most of us are healthily deluded by memory biases that inflate our self-esteem. We remember more positive personal events than negative, for instance, and we selectively recall or even edit memories in a way that bolsters our favoured view of ourselves. A pair of psychologists at Lomonosov Moscow University propose that for people with persistent anxiety, this process goes awry. The worrier’s negative self-concept is instead reinforced by the selective recall of previous painful and awkward memories, harming their confidence and fuelling anxiety.
Imagine if it were possible to implant more positive autobiographical memories in these anxious individuals. This could boost their self-esteem, increase their confidence, thus dialling down their anxiety levels. In an intriguing new study published in Memory, Veronika Nourkova and Darya Vaslienko have provided preliminary evidence that such an approach could work, although they found that hypnosis was required to make the memory implantation convincing enough.
One hundred and twenty adult volunteers completed a measure of their trait anxiety. Next, they recalled three episodes from their past that demonstrated aspects of themselves that fuel their anxiety (for instance, one man recalled a time he lost his temper after failing to land a job role; a woman recalled a childhood memory of being unable to recite a poem in front of her father and teachers).
One group of the volunteers then attended more sessions during which they discussed with an interviewer how to modify these autobiographical memories to create false, edited versions in which they behaved in a more impressive way consistent with the kind of person they’d like to be. This was repeated weekly with a different memory targeted each session. Another group did the same but under hypnosis (of the Ericksonian conversational style). Yet another group went under hypnosis but listened to sounds of nature rather than editing their memories. A final control group didn’t edit their memories or go under hypnosis and simply spent the same time listening to sounds of nature.
A few days after these sessions ended, and again four months later, all the volunteers completed the trait anxiety measure again. They also described any changes in themselves that they experienced since taking part in the study.
The control group, and the group that created edited versions of their memories without hypnosis, both showed no changes in anxiety. The group that underwent hypnosis but performed no memory editing showed immediate reductions in anxiety but this didn’t last (if anything there was an unwelcome rebound to even higher anxiety). However, the group of volunteers who, under hypnosis, edited their memories to be more positive, enjoyed a significant reduction in anxiety at the four-month follow up. In their open-ended answers, they also described more experiences that suggested they had benefited from an increase in their self-esteem.
For the relevant memory-editing groups, the researchers tested how well the volunteers could distinguish between their real memories and the new, more positive versions. The group who created edited memories only through discussion could tell the difference quite easily, which suggests their falsely positive memories were not very plausible. In contrast, the group who edited memories under hypnosis found it difficult to tell the two apart, suggesting that the implantation of positive memories had been more successful and convincing. This might explain the apparent benefits they enjoyed to their self-esteem, which possibly contributed to increased confidence, thus explaining their lower anxiety at the later follow-up.
The researchers said they had “demonstrated that the intensification of positive construction [of false self-defining memories] may decrease trait anxiety in the long term by affecting the autobiographical knowledge base and thereby the working self.”
The results suggest it may be possible to exploit the known malleability of memory to edit people’s very sense of self, to make it more positive and closer to the kind of person they would like to be.
However, the findings should be considered preliminary and the explanation for the effects is quite speculative. There was no direct measure of self-esteem, for instance, and while the participants’ initial average levels of anxiety were on the cusp of being considered clinically significant, this was not a clinical sample with diagnosed anxiety problems. The very idea of therapists deliberately implanting false memories in people, even if they are positive, also raises obvious ethical issues.