by Richard Boyd, Body Mind Psychotherapist, Energetics Institute, Perth, West Australia
Every one of us at some stage has faced the situation where we swore to having experienced a past situation in a certain way. Yet in doing so we faced opposition and conflict by others who also swore to a different reality. In this scenario no one party was lying but what may have occurred was we may have found ourself recalling past events through a faulty brain process we can broadly term mis-attribution.
There are two broad areas of neuroscience which contribute to the understanding of this fascinating but confusing part of our own human condition. Firstly there is cognitive neuroscience which informs us about the cognitive processes of attention, language, memory, and thought, irrespective of their social context.
Secondly there is social neuroscience which attempts to provide meaning and purpose to these same aspects of brain and mind, and provide implications around many of our psychological processes. The two are best understood together.
Anyone who has faced this situation may well have been labelled a liar by others in arguing the correctness of the memory concerned. However lying is a conscious choice and a concealment of the truth whereas mis-attribution is a natural sub-conscious process that is part of our human condition.
Mis-attribution is not lying but an honest but distorted reporting of our truth when it occurs. In general mis-attribution can be categorised as falling into 8 broad types which reflect different neural correction and retrieval issues of memory. The 8 types are:
- Forgetting through transience – this is where memories become less accessible over time due to changing neural connections and associations linking to that memory over time.
- Absentmindedness – these are lapses of attention that result in forgetting to do things. This is often a short term memory phenomena where a current memory state gets interrupted by another thought and we forget to go back and attend to that original thought action. For instance we may remember to get our wallet when about to leave the house and then suddenly remember the back door needs locking, which we do, but then walk out and forget our wallet.
- Blocking – this refers to information that has not faded out of memory as such, but is temporarily inaccessible but known to exist in the mind of the person concerned. This frustrating event can be where the answer or word is on the tip of my tongue but try as I might I just cannot recall it for now.
- Mis-attribution - is not an omission of memory but a recall something out of context, or attribute the memory to an incorrect source. This is how some people for instance often dream and imagine great events they would like to have happened to them, and then go on to report to others how it actually did happen to them. It has several forms. For instance a recent client would have a drink of Hennessy brandy or Guinness stout and then dream and report to others that they were flying around the world working for them in senior roles! Another client was convinced that they had paid for an item when they received an invoice in the mail. After much debate the shop owner showed him video footage in-store proving he did buy the item but not pay for it but leave a Tab. The man then realised he had paid a different bill somewhere else and had mixed up whose bill he had paid.
- Suggestibility – Is the introduction and integration into reality of implanted memories that are produced by trance induction, hypnosis, leading questions or suggestions. The "false memory" controversy of sexual abuse memories in clients of therapists is one example of this category. Hypnotic auto-suggestion is another.
- Bias – is the way in which our current knowledge and beliefs can skew or distort our memories. This is the accepted process of how what we know, believe, and feel in the present can powerfully influence a reframing of the past and how we then report that past in a new way through a new perceptual filter.
- Persistence – is the unregulated and unwanted memories or fragments of experience, often traumatic, that people cannot forget. These typically powerfully charged emotional memories then flood and affect our current disposition and reality as well as the past and the future. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder victims often suffer from this issue.
- Trauma Amnesia – In intense experiences such as sexual abuse of children, violence that implies death, or other highly charged emotional events that take us out of our nervous system Window of Tolerance, in terms of our ability to cope with sensory stimulus, the whole mechanism of timeline recording of events by the brain may be impaired.
In dissociative or "leaving the body" events in trauma where the overwhelm is intense, the memory may either become amplified and distorted in those moments, or they may not be recorded for later recall at all. This later outcome is a form of amnesia not reflecting an ability to recall but reflecting the fact there may not be anything recorded to recall.
These 8 types of affect may occur in isolation or together as a group. As a general rule the more emotionally aroused we are and the closer we are to our nervous system limits of our ability to contain incoming sensory stimulus, we are liable to start to experience one or more of these 8 types of mis-attributed memory situations.
We all could probably scan this list and identify with situations where we feel this happened to us. In these situations we are not lying but actually reporting the truth as we know it. The problem is our faithfully recalled reality is faulty and not concealed as a conscious choice.
Trauma sufferers often face the unfortunate reality of trying to recall events of a short or long term nature and struggling to do so because of the presence of one or more of the 8 types of mis-attribution mentioned above. They often are then labelled liars, unreliable, crazy, mad, or become the subject of anger, punishment or bullying as a result of struggling to respond in a way that satisfies the other person.
This often re-traumatises that person in the process and stigmatises them in a way that is unfair and not their fault. Many sufferers of these issues are often sent to mental/cognitive based therapists for CBT type treatment but these issues lie below the realm of top-down pre-frontal cortex processing that CBT typically addresses.
When these treatments often fail then such a sufferer they often re-victimise themselves by feeling they are failures. They feel no one can help them.
The body-centric nature of body psychotherapy is able to work with the underlying nervous system Window of Tolerance capabilities of sufferers of memory issues. Sufferers are basically of two key types.
The first type is that person who in fact may be either primarily "ungrounded" and so more liable to be "off with the fairies" which is a form of dissociation. They struggle to be mindfully present to their own thoughts and memory processes in general. They are often then unable to recall their own memories or be present to and recall events with others some of the time.
This is a form of transcience (category 1 of the 8 types), and affects many people who primarily "live in their heads" but tend to go off on fantasy trains of thoughts and struggle to stay grounded and present in their bodies moment to moment. This type of personality may have some form of early life developmental trauma and/or being living in a hyper-vigilant way due to concentrating on technology or stimulus a lot of the time from mental sense faculties in their jobs. The dissociative effect can then lead to some of the 8 other mis-attributions.
The second type of sufferer will be typically suffering a form of episodic or chronic trauma in their past or present and have the more severe dissociative issues with their nervous system limits or Window Of Tolerance as a result. They will tend to be either hyper-aroused (very activated and alert), or hypo-aroused (still, sluggish, silent, collapsed).
Memory and cognition issues of the 8 types will tend to be more intrusive and often more amplified in their traumatised condition. Trauma resolution therapy like that practiced at IBMP has a good track record with clients having either of these 2 types of trauma.
Understanding how faulty neural connections are formed during brain development or affected by ongoing stress and anxiety is important for understanding the suffering of clients as well as for utilising new therapies and strategies that may possibly correct mental health disorders and defensive strategies like dissociation.
At the childhood developmental stages of our neurobiology we now know more about what happens in the developing brain of foetuses, babies, infants, children and teenagers. The childhood developmental process is one of constant neuroplasticity windows of opportunity for wiring up new skills and biases in the orientation of brain and consciousness attention.
Researchers such as Norman Doidge and others have reported on how neural wirings are formed during brain development which takes place in first years of life. Basically as the brain develops, neurons continuously connect with each other, extending their axons to touch one another.
The brain is a neural computer which is wired to form multiple links or associations from any one point or neuron. This allows neurons to form a circuit between different parts of the brain and relay information through electrical signals.
We also have neural networks along pathways through the spine and into the heart and other key sites of the body. The concept of a brain is now no longer just about the grey matter in our heads but is a complex set of interactions and networks of sharing between brain and nervous systems in the body.
According to researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College it is very important that the axons are properly positioned in the spinal cord in the developing child else there is a risk that they will form wrong or faulty connections.
This is like faulty wiring in a house or between components in an entertainment system in as much as it can produce "noise", distortions, overloads, absences and breakdowns. In the person this could bring negative effects on brain functions as the electrical signals being sent to the wrong areas in the brain and creating personality disorders like Autism, or mis-attribution effects in different ways.
We know the earlier the faulty wiring occurs then the risk of it becoming truly embodied and then acting as a faulty foundational state for later complex neural functions and adaptations relying on that underlying foundational set of neural connections.
Weill University researchers found that at the tip of the axons are the so-called growth cones that are responsible for guiding neuron connectivity to where they should attach themselves and connect to other neurons. These cones have the ability to sense the environment, determine the target locations, and navigate axons towards them.
The Epigenetic research has previously found that the self guiding cones have this ability from DNA inherent properties. The researchers found that the molecule RNA, which is embedded in the growth cone, is the one that instructs the axons to move right or left, up or down.
This self guiding process creates neural networks and so can create healthy and compromised functioning neural networks. Ongoing stress in infants has been shown to affect this process in their developing brains.
There is evidence from researchers from such institutes as NeuRA that cortisol which our Autonomic Nervous System produces when we are stressed or anxious, can affect these growth cones in children as well as the neuroplasticity in adults.
In healthy children and adults the RNAs in growth cones of neurons are then translated in to create antenna-like proteins that steer the axons to create connections with other axons and establish a neural network. In highly stressed and anxious children and adults the cortisol sheathes or "methylates" over growth cones and prevents steering and connecting functions from occurring.
The outcome is suppressed brain development in children and a drop in neuroplasticity in adults. Adults and children may report being less able to adapt and learn or concentrate which we believe are the consciousness factors that arise when the healthy neuroplasticity growth cone process is occurring in the brain.
Dr Dilek Colak from Weill University noted that RNA does not only need to be present in growth cones to give instructions and create new learning, but also needs to be removed from the cones to take away those instructions at the right time in order to change thinking, associations, and logic.
Psychiatry and neurobiology research has previously found that there are many different brain disorders associated with ineffective RNA regulation. The effects of stress and anxiety in its longer term setting may explain one of the causes as to why this link between RNA and brain disorders exists.
The conclusions highlight the importance of RNA in forming neural pathways that are critical for a healthy brain. The role of stress and anxiety in children and adults as being a trigger for potential RNA degradation in brain axion development and faulty neural wirings that trigger brain disorders may become better understood over time.
So be careful when you go saying "Liar! Liar! Pants on Fire!!" as you may just be wrong by labelling another person in this way.