Monthly Archives: June 2017

A serendipitous opportunity to validate teaching stories; are my memories veridical?

I found my January, 1997 monthly work schedule the other day.

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I’d just turned 33 and recently completed my Master’s much later than my original defense date and under a different supervisor than the professor with whom I’d started. My wife at the time was pregnant with our first child, but we didn’t know it. I was about to decide on a PhD program.

I was significantly older than other Boston-area research assistants I worked with and had a far more itinerant and objectively non-normal career.

I also had absolutely no idea the shape my career would take.

By January, 1997 I’d been at the Boston VA for a year and a half working with amnesic patients for the Memory Disorders Research Center of Boston University. Laird Cermak was the director and I worked primarily with Mieke Verfaellie, Bill Milberg and Dan Schacter. The MDRC atmosphere was friendly, productive, and everyone worked so collaboratively!  Mieke was one of my intellectual mentors and fortunately Twitter provides a platform to connect with colleagues from the past — and in this case to thank Mieke publicly for her mentorship.

As 1996 drew to a close, funding for the MDRC had not been renewed and I moved to Harvard to work full time for Dan.

Finding this schedule allows me to verify two personal stories I’ve told my students for 20 years, stories which are intended to illustrate, on one hand, some difficulty in conducting false memory research in the 90s, in the middle of the so-called “memory wars,” and also what it was like to work with anterograde amnesic patients from day to day.

Meeting Susan Clancy prior to controversy over her work:

Susan Clancy was a graduate student working with Rich McNally at Harvard when she decided to test two different populations of people for susceptibility to false memories, using the Deese-Roediger-McDermott associated word list paradigm. The two populations were women who had reported “recovered” memory of childhood sexual abuse and, subsequently, people who had reported alien abduction. Here’s abstracts of these key scientific papers:

To my mind, as a teacher interested in making clear the intersection of basic science and science directed toward the public interest, you have to talk about these findings carefully but directly. If there are similar mechanisms behind a tendency to claim a recovered memory of a traumatic or implausible event and memory errors in laboratory tasks, we should know this. And the consequences can be significant; in this case Clancy was hounded by people thinking she was denying the reality and/or the potential harm of CSA which she was not doing.

A 2003 New York Times article detailed her career to that point and the controversy surrounding her work.

Relevant to my teaching though, I tell students I can clearly recall the day Clancy came into my office to ask to use the DRM word lists we were using in our studies with amnesic patients. And low and behold, there is the date in black and white!

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My memories of Patient SS as a teaching example of working with amnesic patients:

I saw on the schedule that I had meetings to run a “Patient SS” in two experimental sessions a week apart late in the month and early in February.

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One thing Youtube videos of amnesic patients don’t show is how often they can tell you the same story (or story fragment) in a very short period of time. I think reporting these small details of working with brain-damaged patients is instructive and valuable to help students prepare for any clinical work they may undertake.

So I tell my students that SS was a relatively “self-taught” physicist who started his own optical company which made lasers. Upon entering his living room the research assistant sees a beautiful wall-mounted clock with colored crystals as hour indices. SS explained, often twice in a minute until the experimental work got underway, that the clock was a gift from his employees and featured many of the crystals that his company developed.

I looked up the original reports of SS and his condition, knowing that as in all neuropsychological reporting there would be comments on his occupation. Sure enough, in Cermak’s original 1976 report, here are the key verifications.  I still don’t know if the company made lasers or what the crystals were for, but I recall the clock and it was beautiful.

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Memory is quite fallible and these recollections which I embed in my teaching could have been wrong. I’m glad to have done this exercise and relieved that my memories of 20 years ago seem stable.

That doesn’t mean other memories aren’t wrong though.

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