Agenda-driven research on emotional memories

I curated this 2013 study because one of the authors has made a career out of denying that people accurately remember and re-experience emotional memories. I’ll show how this viewpoint created problems with the study.

One relevant hypothesis of Dr. Arthur Janov’s Primal Therapy is that there are differences in the levels of consciousness of: (1) an emotional memory; (2) the recall of an emotional memory; and (3) a verbal description of the recall of an emotional memory.

  1. The retrieval and re-experiencing of an emotional memory can engage our lower-level brain areas without our higher-level brain areas’ participation.
  2. The recall of an emotional memory is a product of the cerebrum in response to input from limbic system and lower brain areas.
  3. The description of a recall of an emotional memory is a product of the brain’s language areas in response to input from the cerebral areas that recalled the emotional memory.

Principles of Primal Therapy that follow are:

  • People won’t re-experience an emotional memory when they only just recall it.
  • It’s another level of consciousness even further removed from an emotional memory when someone describes their recall of the memory.

The researchers asserted that they studied emotional memories in one part of this study. Their method was to ask the subjects to recall and verbally describe the emotions they felt the week after 9/11/2001.

The researchers introduced factors to try to confuse the subjects about their recall of their emotions, and their verbal descriptions of their recall. The researchers were very sure that confusing the subjects’ cerebral recalls and descriptions produced evidence that the subjects’ emotional memories were changed and falsified.

Can you see how far removed the researchers were from studying emotional memories? They didn’t demonstrate that they understood where emotional memories were stored because they didn’t attempt to engage the subjects’ limbic system areas.


To illustrate the study’s inappropriate characterizations with an example, I burned my left index fingertip last week being careless while toasting bread on an infrared oven grill. The pain is still stored with my emotional memory, and is probably why my memory is very clear.

I can recall the visual details of the grill, how my fingertip looked, the pain I initially felt, and the relief I felt when I held my finger under running cold water. I can retrieve and re-experience my emotional memory in a calm environment such as lying in bed with no aural or visual distractions.

Let’s imagine that the researchers analogously studied my burned fingertip accident. They would deny that I can accurately retrieve and re-experience my emotional memory of my accident if there were problems with my descriptions of my recall. For example, if I initially said that I pushed the kitchen faucet handle all the way in the cold direction, then after repeated questioning, I said that I wasn’t sure that the handle was pushed all the way over to Cold.


The problem the researchers’ viewpoint created with this study was that they were determined to produce a finding that emotional memories could be falsified. To this end, the study defined the subjects’ recalls of post-9/11 emotions and descriptions of their recalls as emotional memories.

The researchers’ strawman treatment of emotional memories was simply wrong.

Maybe their purposeful error could be overlooked if it was confined to this study. But it isn’t. You can imagine the damage this viewpoint creates when mental health professionals adopt it, and deny their patients’ feelings, experiences, and emotional memories.

http://www.pnas.org/content/110/52/20947.full “False memories in highly superior autobiographical memory individuals”

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