Planting False Memories of Drinking Binge May Curb Alcoholism
Helping Problem Drinkers
Once a person has become an alcoholic, meaning he is fully dependent on alcohol, changing his behavior and his desire to drink is extremely difficult. When someone is dependent on alcohol, he experiences very uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. The shakes, tremors, sweating, headaches, irritability, nausea, insomnia, and other unpleasant feelings lead an addict to drink again and again, just to feel better. Helping an alcoholic means detox and intensive rehabilitation as well as lifelong therapy and support.
Before a drinker gets to this point, though, he is simply an alcohol abuser. Someone who binges on the weekend may not be an alcoholic, but he is still engaging in dangerous and harmful behavior. Any new techniques that could be used to keep him from drinking this way could prevent health problems, legal problems, and future addiction.
The idea of planting false memories of binges to prevent people from drinking comes from earlier research. Studies have found that memories can be planted and that people will believe that they really happened. It can be done by using personal information, by using family members to insist it happened, and other suggestive strategies. These techniques have been used in negative ways, such as when therapists try to get patients to remember repressed memories. Sometimes, the therapist inadvertently plants false memories.
Memories and Drinking
Instead of using the planting of memories for negative purposes, researchers at the University of California, Irvine, wondered about doing so to help people. To try it out, they selected 147 undergraduate students to volunteer. The students were told that they were being asked about food and drink choices related to personality. They filled out questionnaires that included several questions about bad experiences with rum and vodka as well as questions about food and non-alcoholic drinks.
A week after taking the questionnaire, the students were given a personality profile based on their answers. Some of the students received profiles that included false statements about how they got sick as teens when they drank rum or vodka. These students were interviewed and asked to talk in detail about their false experiences. If they did not remember them, they were told to imagine what it would have been like to get sick from drinking as a teen. After the interview, the students filled out another form and indicated whether they believed they had had the bad experiences.
Nearly 20 percent of the volunteers developed false memories about getting sick on vodka and rum. The rest believed they had gotten sick as teens, but did not necessarily have the memory of an experience. Those with the strongest false memories reported a reduced preference for vodka and rum. In other words, because of the false memory, they no longer wanted to drink rum or vodka.
Is It Ethical?
While the research is promising, not everyone thinks that manipulating memories is right. The researchers imagine that the technique could be used in many positive ways. For instance, parents could train their children to dislike fatty and unhealthy foods to combat childhood obesity. Critics of such ideas believe that any deception used in medicine or psychology is wrong.
Those who conducted this research admit that their work is controversial. They do see the study as having potential, though. While manipulating memories and planting false memories may be too complicated and unethical to be used for any real treatment, it could lead to similar, but more acceptable ways of curbing impulses. Simple tricks to resist the urge to drink may be developed from such controversial research. Although it may not be right to manipulate a person’s memory, any research that leads to better ways to combat addiction are welcome.