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 our 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 our brain’s language areas in response to input from the cerebral areas that recalled the emotional memory.

Clinical principles of Primal Therapy that follow are:

  • A patient 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 how emotional memories were stored because they didn’t attempt to engage the subjects’ limbic system and lower brain areas.


Let’s illustrate the study’s inappropriate characterizations with an example. I burned my left index fingertip last week 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 the accident if they created problems with my verbal 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 researchers intentionally conflated the falsifiability of emotional memories with a strawman definition of false emotional memories.

They purposely misidentified both:

  • The subjects’ recalls of post-9/11 emotions; and
  • The subjects’ descriptions of their recalls

as emotional memories.

The researchers’ strawman (“The illusion of having completely refuted or defeated an opponent’s proposition through the covert replacement of it with a different proposition (i.e., “stand up a straw man”) and the subsequent refutation of that false argument (“knock down a straw man”) instead of the opponent’s proposition” ) treatment of emotional memories was simply wrong. It was lawyering, not science. The researchers DETRACTED from science.

Maybe their purposeful error could be overlooked if it was confined to this study. But it isn’t.

Imagine the damage this viewpoint creates when mental health professionals deny the reality of 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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