From Loftus to Frankl to Fromm:
How a famous researcher, cognitive psychologist, expert on memories; a psychiatrist and Nazi camp survivor; and a neo-Freudian psychologist and philosopher can help those suffering from painful memories to heal, make sense of it all and to be able to love….
Therapists have done a lot wrong and although Loftus remains polite and even sympathetic throughout her book, it is clear that being faced with a double bind, therapists have been willing to accept fabricated memories.
This is not what this posting is about, and although passionate about what works in therapy and very skeptical about any non-scientifically validated method, this post focuses on another aspect of Loftus work which has often been misunderstood or overlooked. Starting with the false belief of the truth of the “flashbulb” memories. As many people from cognitive therapists to the lay person adamantly remain to defend, it is not true that one remembers where they were when a particular emotional event took place. E.g. the January 1989 space shuttle Challenger Explosion. To their astonishment subjects participating in research to investigate the phenomenon, were wrong on where they were when the event took place. Many explanations can be given. One is the rather vague idea that the memory was so vivid, that the brain provided a new spot for the memory (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994).
Further, in the book, no matter how good the intentions of the therapists “bodywork” -the body remembers aka somatic experiencing-, hypnosis in the sense of digging up repressed memories, dream interpretation and the interpretation of artwork, can all be very pleasant, but also not without danger. The problem lies in not being able to distinguish between believed fantasy and reality or viable memories of the past.
Loftus likes the metaphor of the mind as “a bowl filled with clear water and each memory as a teaspoon of milk stirred into the water…spilling into dream and imagination” (p.3-4). Loftus’ work and research and her many expert witness court appearances has resulted in the acquittal of many innocents charged with crimes based on unreliable memories of eye-witnesses.
For the Harry Potter fans, Dumbledore used his wand and a pensieve (a kind of large cauldron) to store his excess of memories and it would be great if the ordinary Muggle could make use of this fantastic storage system. Unfortunately, human’s milky memories float around before getting diffused and are in no way possible to retrieve in its full truth.
But herein also lies a gift…”experience is not what happens to man [sic], it is what man does with what happens to him” (Aldous Huxley, quoted in Loftus, p. 265) or as Freud said “it is how you remember and not what actually happened” (p. 268)….because when we struggle to heal and when we ask questions, we are not looking for explanations and answers as all fall short….like a dog we chase our own tail and only get exhausted in the process. We are looking for MEANING and insight. Therapy therefore becomes an opportunity to have “…our pain witnessed, [our feelings validated] and our memories celebrated as changing interactions between imagination and history” (Loftus & Ketcham, 1994).
So, people are not after truth as there is no such thing and even if there was a way to retrieve it, it would not be helpful as it would be just a series of observations and facts. So, what then…how can we heal? How can we progress from pain and how can we become full again?
What is missing is meaning.
Frankl (1956) in his famous book outlines the meaning of life, the essence of human existence. A first is to create a work and by doing a deed. Secondly, Frankl talks about love and “sex is a way of expressing the experience of the ultimate togetherness which is called love” (p. 112). Thirdly, and although suffering is not needed to find meaning in life, he writes, “we can find meaning by suffering” as it can enrich life when perceived as a predicament, a task that challenges us to change ourselves.
Finally, we need Fromm: “Love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality. Love is an active power in man [sic]; a power which breaks through the walls which separate man from his fellow men, which unites him with others; love makes him overcome the sense of isolation and separateness, yet it permits him to be himself, to retain his integrity. In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two…Love is an activity, not a passive affect; it is a ‘standing in’; not a ‘falling for’. In the most general way, the active character of love can be described by stating that love is primarily giving not receiving…Giving fills those who love with joy” (Fromm, 1956, pp 21-22).
Frankl, V.E. (1959). Man’s search for meaning. Boston: Beacon Press
Fromm. E. (1956). The art of loving. New York: HarperCollins
Loftus E & Ketcham, K (1994). The myth of repressed memory. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.