Understanding False Memories: Why Your Mind Makes Stuff Up

It is very distressing to be able to recall specific experiences that happened to you only to have other people insist that you’re just making stuff up and that your memories are false. Memory creation is a very fascinating and complex subject which is very poorly understood, and this results in people leaping to all kinds of wrong conclusions about their mental health. Before you accept the shattering conclusion that you’re “going crazy,” or that every human you know is conspiring against you in some evil way, read this post. My purpose in writing this post is to help those who are feeling stressed and confused by false memories. The mind always has logical reasons for doing what it does, so when we are confused by something our minds are doing, we should seek out more education, not just accept theories about ourselves that make us feel terrified and hopeless.

Definitions

There are two kinds of memories: those that include sensory data, and those that do not. Sensory data means any kind of data that you’d associate with your body’s physical senses: sights, sounds, smells, tactile sensations, etc. If you take a moment to review any single memory file, you’ll discover that that file is loaded with sensory data. If I ask you to recall who your best friend was as a child, you’ll see a face in your mind, you won’t just think of a name. If I ask what your favorite animal is, more images will flash into your mind. If I ask how much you liked the food you ate yesterday, you’ll find your mind flashing through a series of images and you’ll also be recalling how those various foods tasted.

When humans talk about memories, they tend to think exclusively about memories with sensory data. This is the most common type of memories for humans, so this is the type I’ll be discussing in this post. Memories that do not contain any sensual data are a different concept which involve different mechanics than the kind I’m going to explain here. But since these are not the kinds of memories that are involved in cases of people stressing over “false memories”, I’m not going to confuse things by delving into that topic.

As a human, you have four distinct elements to your being: your body, your conscious, your subconscious, and your soul. The kinds of memories we’re discussing in this post are both created and stored by your subconscious. Your subconscious is the only part of you that is capable of performing these tasks, and this is why focusing on the subconscious is vital to understanding any kind of memory issue. While modern scientists often talk as if memories are formed and stored by the physical brain (which is just one of many components in your physical body), this is absolutely false. You will never understand memories correctly by focusing on components of the body because the body is not capable of forming and storing memories.

Misleading Labels

Memory formation is a fascinating and complex subject. Interestingly, there are many different ways for memories to form. Depending on which method is used, the resulting memory file may or may not reflect an actual experience that you have had. But here we need to be more cautious about the labels we use. In general, when people talk about “false” memories, they mean memories which depict experiences that you never had in real life. For example, if you’ve never been in a swimming pool, yet you have a clear memory of swimming in one, that memory would be considered “false” because it is portraying you doing something that you didn’t actually do. For a memory to be considered “true”, its details would need to clearly match the details of something you experienced in real life. For example, suppose you own a green car and it’s the only car you’ve ever driven. A memory of you driving in a car that looks exactly like your car would be considered “true”, but a memory of you driving a blue car or a green car that looks different from the car you own would be considered “false”.

The problem with labeling memories as “true” or “false” is that it’s heavily implied that “false” memories either have no value, and that they are intrinsically “bad”. Yet from the perspective of the element that is creating your memories–your subconsciousall memories have value. Your subconscious strongly disagrees with the idea that some of its memories are nothing but useless guff that were only created by some random fluke. Your subconscious would argue that it doesn’t do anything without purpose, and that it certainly isn’t inventing a bunch of random memories for no reason. Your subconscious also takes issue with the theory that reviewing exactly what happened to you in accurate detail is the only useful form of mental reflection. How can you possibly learn anything if all you do is keep replaying images of exactly what happened to you like some short YouTube film that is stuck on endless replay? To your subconscious, such behavior is absurd. Your life experiences must be analysed and pondered if they are going to be of any value.

To your subconscious, the experiences you collect are like many chests, each of which contains treasures of various value. Clearly the only way to benefit from such things is to open the lid and start rifling through the contents. That rummaging process is what leads to the creation of different kinds of memories, many of which are technically “false”, yet all of which have immense value to your subconscious.

To delve deeper into this topic, I’m now going explain the mechanics of how various types of “false” memories are created. By looking at these things from the viewpoint of the subconscious, we can gain a better appreciation of how complex memories are, and why we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss them.

Alternate Scenarios: Creating False Memories to Improve Future Defenses & Resolve Current Problems

This first type of false memory is one that we all experience many times in life. Consider what happens after you have a heated verbal conflict with another human being. That argument keeps replaying in your head for a long time afterwards, doesn’t it? But those replays are far from accurate–instead, your mind begins to produce alternate versions of how the argument could have gone. Hours after you and your antagonist have separated, you find yourself coming up with some clever verbal zingers that you wish you could have thought of in the heat of the moment. If you said some things that have really pained someone you care about, you will find yourself wishing you hadn’t let those particular words fly out of your mouth, and you’ll start imagining various ways that you might attempt to make ammends the next time you see that person.

Whenever your subconscious feels threatened, stressed, or dissatisfied by a specific experience, it instinctively goes into analysis mode by comparing what actually happened with a whole series of other possible outcomes.  Those other possibilities are created when your subconscious uses its impressive imagination to dream up a bunch of “what if” scenarios that you never actually experienced.  But here’s a key point to understand: once an alternate scenario is invented and reviewed, that data file is stored in the same mental archive as the original memory of what happened.  In other words, your subconscious’ massive memory database contains a mix of both true and false memory files which are stored side by side as if they are all of value.  To your subconscious, they are of value because it feels it gains very valuable insights from pondering “what if” scenarios.

If you doubt the value of “what if” scenarios, consider the mental process you go through whenever you are trying to create something.  When you are assembling a piece of furniture, for example, and you come to a step that is poorly explained in the instruction manual, what do you do?  You sit there staring at the pieces in front of you, trying to imagine how it will work out if you attach piece A to piece B versus piece D.  When the imaginary scenario of you attaching A to D results in an image that doesn’t look right, you decide that that can’t be the right way to go about things, so you do something else.  A similar process is at work when you decide to reorganize the furniture in your home: before you start shoving things about, you first try to imagine how things will look in various locations.  When you bring home a new piece of wall art, you walk about your house visually imagining how it will look in various locations before you decide where to hang it.  Your subconscious’ ability to create very persuasive “what if” scenarios is extremely helpful to you, and something you constantly benefit from without even realizing it.  As for all of those false memory files that get amassed by you going through these mental processes, you greatly benefit from those as well.

When you are trying to decide what the best tact to take is in a certain situation, your subconscious pulls up both true and false memory files to help it decide on the best course of action.  Should you tell your wife to stop whining so much in this moment?  No, because when you imagined doing that the other day, your mind logically concluded that she would probably react with a lot of hostility which would result in the two of you having an angry argument.  Thanks to all of the alternate scenarios your mind invented the day before and has now pulled up for your review, you can see that it will work out better for you to force a patient smile and not choose this particular moment to start a fight even though your wife is really getting on your nerves.  In this scenario, it is false memory files that are saving the day and helping you avoid a mess.  If your mind was in a habit of immediately erasing false memory files and only storing true ones, you would make a lot of very foolish choices in life and create a lot of unnecessary problems.  

Symbolic Interpretations: Trying to Understand Traumatic Experiences By Identifying & Focusing On Critical Elements

This second type of false memory is often involved when people claim that some terrible thing happened to them in childhood which really didn’t.  A woman claims that her father impregnated her well before it was anatomically possible for her to become pregnant.  A man claims that his mother molested him when he was an infant, yet in reality his mother did no such thing.  In these scenarios, the person who has the false memory is often accused of having malicious intentions, and the contents of the memories often have very destructive effects on human relationships.  Yet for the person who has the memories, these experiences feel very real and the memories feel undeniably true, even when they are confronted with hard evidence to the contrary.

So what’s happening in these cases?  First, let me caution you that this type of false memory is not always self-generated.  There are some shady counsellors out there who try to manipulate the mind into creating these kinds of traumatic false memories.  In these cases, the counsellors’ motivations can be very malicious, although some of them are just acting out of ignorance and accidentally misdiagnosing a situation only to then refuse to admit they could have made a mistake.  Correctly diagnosing psychological mechanics requires patience, understanding, and immense respect for the mind you are working with.  To correctly diagnose any mental issue, a counsellor needs to listen to what a mind is saying, cultivate a dynamic of trust, and wait for the mind to reveal what its true motivations are.  Your subconscious is extremely intelligent and self-aware.  It knows exactly why it does what it does.  The purpose of talking to a counsellor is to have them help you interpret what your mind is saying—not to have them add a bunch of extra information into the mix.  In the case of shady counsellors who try to plant false memories in the minds of their clients, the counsellor is adding false information to the mix, and making up stuff that the mind is not saying.  Clearly this is a revolting abuse of the counselling role, and  the fact that this sort of thing occurs has resulted in many people believing that all memories of this type must have been falsely implanted by some shady third party.  But this assumption is not true.  There are times when the mind will create this kind of false memory all on its own, and when it does, it has strategic reasons for doing so.

Traumatic experiences are negative experiences which cause immense distress and confusion to your mind.  What makes a bad experience traumatic is when the mind can’t find a way to quickly resolve its distress over what happened to you.  Since your mind relies on your past experiences to help it interpret and understand present experiences, the more life experience you gain, the more material your mind has to refer to.  The main reason children are more easily traumatized than adults is due to their lack of life experience.  Their minds simply haven’t had the time to amass enough material to help them put distressing experiences in perspective.  When children find themselves extremely distressed by an experience which they cannot make any sense of, they end up mentally obsessing over what happened to them.  When there is stress, minds obsess. But this obsession is not without purpose. By reviewing what happened over and over again, the mind is trying to logically understand why that event occurred, what it means, and how it should be dealt with in the future.  In other words, the mind is trying to resolve the problem so it can put the whole subject to rest and stop feeling so bothered by a past experience.

Now whenever the subconscious goes into deep analysis mode, its brilliant imagination goes to work pondering all kinds of “what if” scenarios as well as trying to find similarities between what actually happened and other concepts that currently exist in the mind’s memory databanks.  For a young child, a frightening real life experience can easily become associated with other frightening material that exists in his memory banks, such as bedtime stories involving evil beasts or disturbing imagery that he saw on television.   Once associations are made, the mind often creates symbolic re-enactments of what actually happened.  Those symbolic re-enactments will often include images and concepts from the memory database which technically have nothing to do what happened in real life.  For example, a child who was attacked by a large dog might reimagine that experience as him being attacked by a huge dragon.  The dragon is pulled from a scary story that the child was read at some point by a relative who was being far too casual about his selection of child-appropriate material.  Once this symbolic replay is formed, it gets filed away as a legitimate memory file which can be used for future reference.

When adults claim to have had horrifying things happen to them when they were children which sound either impossible or highly improbable, instead of immediately discounting them as being deceptive or delusional, you should consider the possibility that the memory they are describing could be a symbolic reinterpretation of what happened to them.  Because the subconscious is the element coming up with these interpretations, and since the subconscious’ preferred language is symbolic imagery, deciphering these kinds of memories is quite similar to deciphering the meaning of dreams.  The key thing to pay attention to are the main emotional themes (fear, anger, sorrow, etc.).  Wild, fantastical elements (such as mystical beasts or children bearing babies) should be viewed as symbolic representations of real life events as would likely be seen through the eyes of a child.  Noting what age the adult claims to have been at the time of the traumatic experience is very important, because the age is likely very close to when something highly stressful really did happen to them.  Understanding the approximate age they were at the time can help you do a better job at decoding the symbolism and understanding why it was chosen in the first place.  A four-year-old, for example, has no context for understanding something like sexual assault, so he (or she) will focus on how the experience makes him feel internally and externally, then link those concepts to any other experience he can locate in his limited memory files.

Since both true and false memories of these kinds of events get retained, why does the mind sometimes choose to focus on false ones over real ones?  Once again, youth is an important factor here.  To a young child who does not have any language to accurately describe what has happened to them, a symbolic interpretation of that event which does use familiar concepts, such as monsters and dragons, can feel easier to understand.  In these cases, the mind will sometimes lock onto the memory that it feels best captures its distress over what happened, even if the details of that particular memory are highly symbolic and fantastical.  Remembering that the mind always has strategic reasons for doing what it does helps us listen better to those in distress and to not be so quick to apply the unhelpful and distressing label of “crazy.” The goal in these cases is to interpret the symbols the mind is using in order to understand what real life event caused it such distress. Steps can then be taken to help the mind deal with its distress in a strategic way (see Practical Steps for Correcting Traumatic Beliefs).

Dreams: Reviewing Current Strategies, Venting Stress, & Reviewing Priorities

Far from being random, nonsensical brain events, dreams are carefully constructed films which are essentially a case of the subconscious talking to itself.  The next time you remember a dream, reviewing the dream’s imagery will give you a good example of how your subconscious likes to communicate. Each of your elements has a “native language” which is different than its partner elements.  For the subconscious, it prefers to communicate using symbolic imagery, sensations, and concepts over just using verbal words.

A good way to understand how the subconscious communicates is to assign a color to every kind of sensory data that your physical body is capable of collecting.  Sensations collected through touch can be represented by blue.  Smells could be red.  Sights could be green, etc.  Your subconscious essentially collects these colours onto a artist’s pallet, then uses them to create an endless stream of original paintings which symbolically communicate various concepts, feelings, and concerns.  What makes dream imagery seem so bizarre is that you find your subconscious mixing and matching colour combinations that don’t exist in real life: a blue horse, a purple forest, an endless staircase, a bee the size of a house.  To the logical conscious and soul, such imagery is bizarre and nonsensical.  But to the subconscious, its creative combinations do a superb job of communicating its feelings.

What better way to depict how burdened you feel by your annoying sister than to represent her as a large rock that is permanently chained to your ankle?  The frustration you feel as you haul that rock about in a dream is expressing the frustration you feel in real life by your sister constantly calling and texting you over every little thing. 

To your subconscious, verbal language is far too limited to be of much use.  Certainly your subconscious can use words when it has to, and it will often give its dream characters specific lines to say.  But to just say “My job is boring” is so lacking in depth.  To dream of yourself struggling to keep your eyes open as you read page after page of an endless book that is filled with line upon line of a single, meaningless word—that communicates “boredom” in a way that words simply can’t.  To then depict your co-workers like huge gears that are endlessly ticking along beside you, brainlessly going about their business while being totally unavailable for any kind of emotional connection or conversation—now we’re getting somewhere.  Your subconscious is an incredible artist and a master communicator.  Every time you sleep, it begins to create its highly metaphorical films that are all about you and your experiences in this world.  As well as reflecting on recent events, dreams also focus on reviewing the subconscious’ current list of unresolved problems.  Negative dreams are more common than positive ones due to the fact that your subconscious is so focused on protecting you from harm, and this causes it to spend most of its time anticipating danger and trying to resolve current stresses.  Because every human is unique, the kinds of symbols and metaphors that show up in their dreams will vary quite a bit.  Within the same cultural group, we will often find minds using some similar themes, such as Americans often using cars or houses to represent their personal lives and water to represent stress.   But for every trend, there are countless exceptions.  Dogs will likely be a negative symbol in the dreams of someone who is afraid of them in real life.  But the same animal will likely be used as a positive symbol in the dreams of someone who prefers dogs to humans. 

Due to your subconscious’ love of symbolism and metaphors, dreams very rarely give an accurate accounting of your life experiences.  But once they are created, they become stored in your memory database, boosting the number of false memory files.  Recurring dreams happen when the subconscious pulls a dream out of its memory banks and replays it.  It does this when it feels that that particular dream is doing an especially excellent job of communicating a major distress that is still unresolved. 

Whether or not you can remember your dreams when you wake up depends on whether the subconscious has allowed that data to be accessed by your conscious.  Most of your dreams are kept out of the conscious’ reach, but sometimes your subconscious allows access.  When you wake up with dream imagery filling your conscious, it often feels so real that it takes you a moment to realize you were merely dreaming.  There are important insights to be gleaned from noting how easily humans can get confused between reality and fantasy.  We are creatures who can be very easily deceived, especially when dealing with antagonists who understand our inner mechanics better than we do.

Fantasizing/Daydreaming: Blocking Out Stress, Reviewing Current Needs, & Identifying Ideal Scenarios

We all do a fair amount of daydreaming in life, but some of us become so obsessed with the fantasy worlds we invent that we begin to prefer them over the real world.  Spending too much time in a fantasy world can cause you to start feeling genuinely confused by what is and isn’t real. This is because the fantasies your subconscious creates can feel as real as your experience of reality.  As your mind’s mental database collects loads of false memories from your daydreaming sessions, those false memories get pulled up along with true memories whenever your mind is trying to assess future experiences.  You find yourself comparing real people to the characters in your fantasy world.  You find yourself reflecting on conversations that never happened in real life, only in your fantasies.  As long as your fantasy characters remain obviously different to the real people that you know, it’s easier to keep a grip on what is real and what isn’t.  But when your mind decides to use copies of real people in its fantasy world, and edit the way they behave, you can start becoming very confused over what kinds of experiences you’ve actually had with those individuals, and which ones you’ve just imagined having.  

Occasional daydreaming is often the mind’s attempt to review its current needs and desires, as well as work out preparations for various “what if” scenario.  Suppose your house were to suddenly catch on fire—what would you do?  What things would you try to salvage on your way to safety?  Some kinds of daydreams can actually help you feel better prepared for certain kinds of real life situations.  Others remind you of what your current desires are, like when you find yourself fantasizing about being a rich and famous celebrity.  From a self-growth point of view, the themes that show up the most often in your daydreams can give you useful insights into your current priorities, fears, and longings.  But when you spend hours on end staring off into middle space or physically going through the motions of interacting with characters that only exist in your mind, then things have become unhealthy.

So why do some minds spend so much effort on creating and maintaining false realities for people to hide out in?  Managing stress is the key agenda here.  Whenever the mind starts producing mass amounts of false memories—which is what is happening in the case of obsessive fantasizing—it is struggling to cope with high levels of ongoing stress.  While such behavior is often labelled as a form of “escapism”, the mind is not just trying to escape dealing with the real world.  It is also trying to come up with practical ways of helping itself feel better by obsessively focusing on imaginary scenarios in which it is either trying to review and analyse some past trauma, or it is trying to manufacture resources that will help it feel that it is getting its own needs met.

A desperately lonely girl spends most of her time fantasizing that she is living in a world where she is super popular.  In such a case, the girl’s mind is trying to produce what it can’t find in real life: other humans who will give the girl the emotional affirmation and social stimulation that she needs to feel calm and happy.  It’s rather like a hungry man visualizing himself eating a sandwich.  An imaginary sandwich provides no real nutrients, but the mind is so powerful that if the man really focuses, he can experience some temporary relief from hunger merely by imagining that he has eaten a huge meal.  Of course such tricks don’t work for all of us.  Minds have different personalities and different ways of going about things.  While one person can gain a strong sense of satisfaction through their fantasy worlds, another person will find it impossible to really “immerse” in something that they know isn’t real.  When it comes to managing stress, there is a wide array of strategies for minds to choose from, and they don’t all reach for the same ones.

Unintentional Hallucinations (Dementia Type Memory Confusion): Stress-Induced Breakdown of Conscious Shielding

Hallucinations are another situation in which people get caught up in false realities—either briefly or for extended periods of time.  Being in the presence of someone who is hallucinating can be very alarming and uncomfortable. Since you can’t see what they are seeing, their reactions often seem bizarre and nonsensical.  So what is going on here?  Well, there are different types of hallucinations, each with their own mechanics.  The first type of hallucination that I’m going to explain here is commonly associated with folks who are diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s.  In these cases, the conscious keeps getting flooded with data from various memory files—both true and false.  As I said earlier, the conscious is limited in how much information it can cope with at once.  A sudden flood of data from the subconscious can completely consume the conscious’ focus, causing it to be incapable of thinking about anything else.

This first type of hallucination is essentially caused by the barrier between the conscious and subconscious malfunctioning to the point that the conscious is no longer being protected from data overload.  Under normal circumstances, your subconscious is constantly grappling with far more information than your conscious is.  If your conscious can only read one book at a time, your subconscious is capable of reading 10 books simultaneously.  When your subconscious is having its way, you go through your days oblivious to most of what your subconscious is doing.  There are many reasons why your subconscious wants to keep most of its activities shrouded in secrecy.  I’m not going to try to explain all of those reasons here, but they are all motivated by a desire to keep your entire system running as well as possible.  In other words, your subconscious acts secretive to help you, not just to play games.

Protecting the conscious from information overload is a constant challenge which your subconscious is staying on top of during all of your waking hours.  But doing this requires spending mental resources, and like all of your elements, your subconscious has a limited resource budget.  Unresolved stress is one of the biggest drains on your subconscious’ budget, and unresolved stress tends to worsen over time.  When its resources become too strained, your subconscious starts having to make strategic cuts.  Certain key mental processes are put on hold or entirely abandoned in order to keep other critical functions online.  Here it’s useful to remember that your subconscious doesn’t only have your conscious to manage—it has your body to tend to as well.  Your body is incapable of taking care of itself without constant assistance from your subconscious.  But when the subconscious finds itself getting hammered with more demands than it can possibly meet, something has to give.  Every mind will make different decisions in the crisis moment, but for some stressed out minds, one of the areas they decide to scale back in is protecting the conscious from knowing too much about what the subconscious is doing.

All day every day, your subconscious is rifling through its massive memory banks and reviewing countless memory files as part of its efforts to carry out its normal activities.  Normally it prevents the conscious from being aware of this kind of activity.  But when the subconscious drops its guard, its like having the volume of a conversation that is happening one room away suddenly getting cranked up so loud that you can’t help but focus on what is being said.  As more of the subconscious’ personal activities get revealed to the conscious, the conscious instinctively gives those activities its full attention.  As the subconscious reviews the contents of various memory files, the conscious finds itself getting immersed in a replay of that file.  The effect is rather like getting caught up in a very intense daydream.  The person feels transported to a different time and place—wherever the memory file takes them—and the whole thing feels so natural that they simply go along with it. 

Memory files contain many kinds of sensory data.  If I ask you to describe your favorite moment in the trip to Paris that you took last summer, the files you will pull up will contain loads of sensory data.  There will be sights, sounds, smells, and textures all recorded in that file.  The only reason you can review a specific file without feeling like you are literally being transported back in time to that lovely Parisian café is because your subconscious is very careful in how it communicates the contents of the file to your conscious.  Your subconscious never transfers an entire file into your conscious because it knows that would be too much of a shock to its more delicate counterpart.  Instead, your subconscious carefully splices out a tiny fragment of the file’s content, and only allows those limited details to transfer to your conscious.

When Jane’s mind is functioning properly, she can easily recall her favorite moments from her wedding 60 years ago in order to answer her granddaughter’s questions about what that day was like.  But when Jane’s subconscious becomes too taxed to maintain control over how much data gets transferred to her conscious, then as soon as Jane pulls up the memory of her wedding, she finds herself so overwhelmed by the intensity and complexity of the memory that she actually feels as if she is reliving it.  Her current surroundings and her granddaughter are completely forgotten as she sees herself once again walking up the aisle just as she did 60 years ago, clutching her bouquet of white roses.  When the pastor speaks to her in the memory, Jane answers just as she did 60 years ago, oblivious to the confused look on her granddaughter’s face.  This hallucination continues until her subconscious resubmerges the file into its massive memory database.  When that happens, Jane’s conscious feels yanked back to the present, and she feels confused and distressed by the abrupt change in her surroundings.

The kind of hallucinations we associate with things like dementia and Alzheimer’s demonstrate the frailty of the conscious and the critical role that the subconscious plays in protecting it from being overwhelmed by too much information.  Without an intimate understanding of the conscious’ skills and limitations, the subconscious couldn’t do the stellar job that it does at helping the conscious run as well as it does.  Once you understand how dependent the conscious is on the subconscious, you can see why subconscious distress should always be considered as a possible cause of conscious problems, such as an inability to focus on basic tasks (see  Understanding Conscious Stress: Two Causes of Scattered Concentration).

Self-Induced Hallucinations Type 1 (Paranoid Type with Strong Fear Themes): Hypervigilance Due to Unprocessed Trauma

A classic example of this second type of hallucination is the soldier who is plagued with horrific flashbacks of battlefield horrors whenever he hears explosive sounds, such as fireworks or a car backfiring.  Flashbacks like these are almost always negative, and a sign of psychological panicThe panic is usually triggered when some element in a person’s current environment feels too similar to an element in one of his subconscious’ most distressing memory files.

When you undergo traumatic experiences, your subconscious flags those memory files as being extra important.  It then keeps them in a special section of its memory archives that is designed for quick access.  As you go through the day and your subconscious performs its constant, routine analysis of your surroundings for signs of danger, it crosschecks the sensory data your body is collecting with its quick access files first, then it runs a standard check through its main memory archives.  The fact that quick access files get this special treatment affects the judgments your subconscious makes.  A memory that contains information about a time that you were severely harmed is considered critical to your subconscious.  To keep you safe, your subconscious wants to keep you away from any of the elements in that critical file—at least until it has had a chance to analyse what happened to you and find a way to make peace with it.  As long as your subconscious feels extremely agitated, confused, and threatened by something you went through in the past, it is likely to go into red alert whenever it senses that you are in danger of re-experiencing that original situation.

According to the contents of one of Ryan’s traumatic memory files, he was walking by a row of hedges one day when a small alligator suddenly charged out of them and viciously attacked him, doing permanent damage to his legs.  Ryan lived near swamps at the time, and alligators were often found lurking in people’s yards.  A year after his alligator attack, Ryan’s mind still feels very traumatized by what happened to him.  Ryan no longer lives near swamps; he has moved to a large city where there are no alligators.  But whenever he goes for a walk and sees a row of hedges up ahead, his subconscious flies into a panic.  In an effort to protect Ryan from danger, his subconscious activates the memory of the original alligator file and focuses on it with great intensity in a frantic effort to identify some way that Ryan can behave differently than he did before and thus protect himself from physical injury.  In these moments, the subconscious is so focused on the goal of protecting Ryan that it yanks extra resources from other areas to spend on its analysis efforts.  One of those areas is maintaining the protective information shield between itself and the conscious.  When this shield drops, the conscious becomes exposed to the alligator memory file with such intensity that it feels like it is actually reliving that past event.  Suddenly Ryan sees the very hedges that he walked past a year ago, he hears that terrifying rustling noise, and sees those deadly jaws rushing towards him.  To the people walking by Ryan on the public street, he looks like a raving lunatic as he screams and leaps about, trying to avoid the snapping jaws that only he can see.

In this second kind of hallucination, the subconscious is trying to do something positive.  It is trying to rush to your defence and provide you with better guidance than it did in the past.  Your subconscious is extremely distressed by the idea of failing to protect you from harm, and this is often what it feels happened when you go through traumatic experiences.  Because your subconscious is so devoted to your well-being, it does its utmost to not fail you a second time by hyper-focusing on the memory files which it feels must hold critical clues as to what went wrong the first time.  While its intentions are certainly noble, it gets a bit too carried away in its singular focus, and this causes the conscious to be plunged into a state of confusion when it gets blasted with more information than it can handle.  Until the subconscious restores its protective shielding, the conscious is unable to focus on anything other than the traumatic memory file. 

Once you understand what is happening with people who experience these kinds of hallucinations, you can understand why it is more effective to try to talk to them within the context of the memory they are reliving instead of trying to shock them back to the present by yelling at them or physically shaking them.  The goal here is to get the panicking subconscious to calm down as quickly as possible so that it will restore its protective shielding over the conscious.  Once that shield is back in place, the conscious will be able to turn its attention back to the present, although it will feel very distressed and confused by what just occurred.  Using a gentle, compassionate tone is important here, as is getting the person help to resolve the original traumatic memories that are making them so vulnerable to these panic attacks.

Self-Induced Hallucinations Type 2: Paranoia

This next kind of hallucination is similar to the one I just explained, but it results in a less dramatic form of behavior.  In this next type, the subconscious is once again panicking when it detects similarities between a current experience and the contents of a traumatic memory file.  But in this second scenario, the subconscious maintains its conscious shielding, thereby enabling the person to stay aware of their present circumstances.  But while the conscious is being protected from information overload, the subconscious starts strongly warning all of its partner elements that they are in immediate danger.  It typically provides a clear reason why the danger is so real, and that reason is the part that sounds very bizarre to other people.

When Maria’s father tries to get her a cup of tea, she refuses to take it, insisting that he is trying to poison her.  Naturally Maria’s father finds this accusation very upsetting because he knows that he would never try to harm his daughter.  But Maria has been acting strange for several years now, exhibiting a growing paranoia that someone is out to harm her, and that she can’t trust anyone—not even her loving parents.  As Maria sits in her chair, eyeing her father with angry distrust, he doesn’t know how to respond to her hurtful accusations.

Many years ago, Maria was severely traumatized when her best friend at boarding school intentionally slipped a strong laxative into her drink so that Maria would become terribly ill in the middle of class.  Maria did indeed become ill, and she had an embarrassing toilet accident which she was then bullied about for years afterwards.  While the entire episode was deeply distressing, the aspect that Maria found especially crushing was that her best friend was the one to sicken her, and that she did it on purpose.  The friend was desperate to gain the approval of the school’s biggest bully—a very popular girl named Charlene who had a love of sadistic pranks.  After trashing Maria, the friend did indeed win the favor of Charlene, and Maria found herself utterly abandoned and unable to escape the daily persecution of her peers.

A decade later, Maria is a young adult and no longer in boarding school, but she is still deeply traumatized by her friend’s evil prank.  As a result of that experience, Maria’s ability to trust other humans has been shattered.  When traumatic beliefs are left untreated, they grow worse over time, and today Maria is starting to see an enemy in everyone that is close to her—even her parents.  She has grown especially paranoid over someone slipping something into her food—especially her drinks—and she is having increasing difficulty eating anything that didn’t come sealed in a package which she personally opened.

In this example, we can see a clear connection between the original trauma and the kinds of fears Maria has today.  But in other cases where these kinds of hallucinations are being produced, the hallucinating person can come up with some pretty fantastic theories about what they are in danger of, such as the theory that aliens are trying to dissect their brains or that their family members have been replaced by evil clones.  In such scenarios, the subconscious is feeling immensely stressed by unprocessed trauma.  Often in its attempts to understand real life events, it has created several symbolic re-enactments of those events—the kind that we talked about earlier in this post.  Those false memory files now exist in its database along with true memories, and the mind reviews them all whenever it feels threatened by present events.  The younger the person was at the time of their original trauma, the more likely it is that one of their symbolic re-enactment files will receive greater attention than their true memory files.  As I explained earlier, symbolic re-enactments often feel like a more accurate depiction of what happened to the subconscious because it prefers to think in symbolic imagery.  Having aliens trying to gain access to your brain can feel like a very fitting metaphor for humans psychologically tormenting you in the past.  Effective metaphors can lock into place close to the traumatic event or a long time afterwards when the person is exposed to new information.  For people who are already in a state of mental distress, reading other people’s horror stories online can give the mind new ideas to work with when it is trying to come up with symbolic ways of expressing its feelings about what happened. Once the mind decides to lock onto one of its metaphorical replays of what actually happened, the person can begin to feel as if those metaphorical elements are real (aliens are out to get me; succubi are trying to impregnate me). The problem is that when they try to talk about their fears, other people write them off as “crazy” as soon as they start referring to fictitious monsters and absurd sounding situations.

So what is the best way to respond to someone with this kind of issue?  A critical rule here is never invalidate someone’s distress. If a person is very upset, then no matter how bizarre their descriptions of what happened to them are, there is a logical reason for why they feel the way they do. Instead of pressuring them to discount the metaphorical concepts that their minds have come up with (“There’s no such thing as emotional ray guns”; “It’s just a magazine, not a government code book”) listen for the underlying fears and beliefs the person is expressing. In Maria’s case, her father is tempted to focus on the ludicrous idea of him trying to poison his own daughter. But if he wants to understand what is driving his daughter’s fears, he needs to listen to the underlying beliefs she is expressing (“I can’t trust anyone. Even people who claim to be on my side end up betraying me. Everyone is secretly plotting against me.”) It’s the beliefs that provide important clues as to what real life event traumatized the person. The imagery can also provide important clues, but it takes a bit more work to decipher as it is often very metaphorical in these cases.

Third Party Induced Hallucinations: Real or False Input Provided by Supernatural Entities

I’m including this next type of hallucinations in our list because externally it appears that these people are reacting to a false reality. But in many of these cases, people are reacting to things that are quite real and upsetting, yet they are the only ones who can see them, therefore their experiences get discounted by others.

Unlike the hallucinations I just discussed which were self-induced, this next type is a result of third parties intentionally manipulating the subconscious. Demons are especially fond of using this kind of trick, but God can also use this method. The difference is motivation. When God presents our subconscious with false data, He does so for positive reasons—to help us in some way.  When demons do this, they have malicious intentions and are trying to make us miserable, either now or in the future.  Since the demonic version is the one that causes people intense distress, that is the kind I am going to focus on here.

For humans, defining reality is a two step process.  First, our bodies collect data about their surroundings using their physical senses.  That data is then transferred to the subconscious where it is analysed and interpreted. Is that black spot on your carpet a piece of lint or a bug?  Your body can only collect the raw sensory data—it can’t interpret what that data means.  It is your subconscious that interprets what the black spot is.  Sometimes it starts with an educated series of guesses (“it’s either lint or a spider”).  Sometimes it can’t provide a final conclusion until you move closer and collect another round of data (“it’s just sock lint”). 

Demons understand how this process works.  While humans are incapable of bypassing the body’s senses when they are trying to communicate with each other, demons are able to bypass the body and drop batches of sensory data directly into the subconscious.  This ability enables demons to trick your mind into “seeing” all sorts of things that don’t actually exist.

While your subconscious is a brilliant analyst of sensory data, it isn’t good at determining where that data originated from.  This means that it can’t tell the difference between data that your body picked up and data that demons directly delivered.  To your subconscious, both kinds of data seem the same, so it treats them both as valid and processes them in the same way.

When Tom sees a ghostly apparition that no one else in his group sees, this second process is at work.  While Tom clearly “sees” a ghostly figure hovering about 10 yards away from him and his pals, no figure actually exists.  Demons have simply dropped false data into Tom’s mind—data that creates the image he is now seeing. 

Now demons are capable of causing an actual ghostly figure to appear in front of the whole group if they want to.  In that case, both Tom and his pals would be able to scan that information using their physical senses, relay it to their subconsciouses, and they’d all end up seeing the same thing.  But demons always have a deep game when they start playing ghost tricks, and they often want their apparitions to only be seen by specific individuals.  Whether demons deliver data directly to the subconscious or create real external images within the body’s scanning zone depends on what specific goals they are trying to accomplish.

Traumatized minds are especially easy to torment, since they are already trying to operate under a lot of stress.  For this reason, demons especially target traumatized people, enjoying how easy it is to mess with them and trying to keep them so frazzled that they’ll give up on the idea of ever trying to recover.  Among those diagnosed with schizophrenia, we find a lot of demon-induced hallucinations occurring.  People legitimately see all kinds of stressful and sometimes terrifying images that no one else can see due to demons dropping all kinds of manufactured data into their minds and entirely bypassing the body’s senses. 

Because the kinds of data demons invent imitate sensory data, once the mind interprets that data, you end up concluding that those experiences actually happened to you.  Victor is regularly tormented by the horrific experience of having an enormous beetle drop down on him from the ceiling and crawl all over his body, giving him painful bites with its vicious jaws.  Victor has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and because of that, people discount his hallucinations as “random brain malfunctions.”  Yet Victor’s mind isn’t “malfunctioning.” The sensory data his mind is receiving is real data that is being fed to him by real entities who have malicious intentions towards him.  Because no one is acknowledging the involvement of third-party entities, Victor is not being given any help in dealing with his supernatural antagonists.  Whenever Victor is traumatized by another horrible bug assault, he gets told that his meds need adjusting, because clearly his condition is getting worse.  In other words, Victor is being taught to take the blame for what demons are doing to him—to believe that his own mind is inventing the horrible visions all on its own because it’s just “broken.”  Well, no, that’s a bunch of rubbish. 

As a trauma counselor, one of my major pet peeves is seeing people who are clearly being harassed by demons being told that demons aren’t real.  It’s very common in trauma cases to have a combination of issues going on, with the subconscious resorting to its own desperate defence measures in addition to supernatural beings getting involved and manufacturing new stresses for the person to deal with.  Supernatural entities need to be dealt with using spiritual methods; psychological problems need to be dealt with using psychological methods.  If we try to deal with psychological problems using only spiritual methods, we won’t get the results we need.  If we ignore spiritual factors that are complicating psychological problems, we’ll end up teaching someone to accept devastating lies about their own ability to function. 

The subconscious is a brilliant entity, but it is very easy to for demons to deceive and manipulate. This is why we need to be open to the possibility of demonic involvement whenever someone is being tormented by terrifying hallucinations.  No matter how wild and fantastic the details of the hallucinations are, we should never fluff off the distress they are causing.  As terrifying as demonic harassment can be, there is a lot of hope to be gained by understanding that what you’re experiencing isn’t evidence that you’re just “going insane.”   With the right combination of false sensory data, demons can make you feel as though you have actually had a wide range of distressing experiences—from sexual assault to physical torture.  Demons can also inflict real injuries to the body, providing visual evidence that makes their dramatic hallucinations seem all the more credible.  But while demons can seem infinitely more powerful than we are in the crisis moment, the truth is that they are extremely limited in what they can do to us, and their options are always being controlled by a God who wants to help us thrive.  When you suspect demons are targeting you personally, it is essential that you get better educated about how they operate, what their goals are, and how you can respond to them wisely (see A No-Nonsense Guide to Demons).

Denial (Memory Suppression/Blocking): Rejecting Threatening Realities to Keep Stress Manageable

In this last example of false memories, we find people rewriting their own history and dramatically altering facts that others know are true. John’s parents are alive and well, yet he claims to be an orphan who never knew his parents. Susan is a chronic liar who exasperates all of her coworkers with her constant boasting about expriences that she’s never really had (see Understanding Trauma Coping Methods: Chronic Lying). Naomi has a clear memory of her brother Avery seeing their father sexually assault her, so she finds it deeply wounding when Avery insists that that shattering event never happened.

What is happening in cases like these, when people are obviously trying to invent a false version of reality? In these cases, the subconscious is trying to keep stress levels manageable by blocking access to traumatic memory files. Which specific strategy is used–chronic lying, pretending not to know someone, claiming certain life events never occurred–depends on what specific fears the subconscious is grappling with.

The subconscious knows what a critical, central role it plays in keeping your entire system operational. It understands that it can’t afford to “take a sick day” and simply go offline when it is feeling stressed. Since taking a break is never an option, the subconscious comes up with other ways of trying to protect itself from becoming paralyzed by too much stress. One of the ways it does this is to move traumatic memory files into a special kind of vault where they can be kept out of view. This process is what is happening when people refer to memory blocking or memory suppression (see Memory Suppression: How The Subconscious Protects The Conscious). In these cases, the subconscious tries to hide certain distressing files from itself as well as all of its partner elements. If hiding the files creates awkward blanks in the person’s history, the subconscious will often invent fictitious material to fill in those blanks. The stories it invents will often include themes that are quite opposite to what really happened. Ivan is a good example here.

In real life, Ivan’s father was an abusive jerk who made his life hell. Because his father’s abuse was so traumatizing, Ivan’s subconscious has decided to lock away many of his father memories. In fact, the topic of Ivan’s father is so stress-inducing, that his mind has decided to further protect itself by inventing a fictitious family for Ivan. As an adult, Ivan describes his parents as being warm, loving people who are constantly showering him with gifts and accolades. The more he talks about his fantasy parents, the more they feel, and the easier it is for him to keep blocking out the memories of his real father.

Now the trouble with this kind of extreme blocking is that the subconscious knows that it’s playing a game. While it can successfully deceive its partner elements (your soul, conscious, and body) into believing in a false reality, the subconscious can’t completely deceive itself. Blocked memories are like a dangerous monster that you trap in a closet, only to then hear it constantly growling, snarling, and clawing at the door. While your other elements are far enough away to not hear those sounds, your subconscious is sitting right there, constantly being reminded that the monster still exists, even though it’s temporarily out of sight.

Now suppose your closet door has no locking mechanism, so the only way to keep the monster trapped inside was to keep your body firmly pressed against it. This is how it works with blocked memories: it takes a lot of mental resources to keep them submerged. Just as you will eventually get too tired to keep pressing against that closet door, your subconscious eventually gets too fatigued to keep its blocked memories submerged. Once the subconscious eases up on its blocking efforts, those stressful memories can spring back into view like an ugly toy joker popping out of its box with a disturbing squeal. When blocked memories suddenly resurface at a time when the subconscious is feeling burned out, the person’s mental and physical health can drastically deteriorate. To prevent this kind of crisis, it’s important to help the mind deal with stressful memories as soon as possible.

In Ivan’s case, the mind was consistent in the lies it invented about Ivan’s past. But other times, minds are very inconsistent, often contradicting themselves as they create lies on the fly. Chronic liars are a good example here. These folks tend to make wild, exaggeratory claims that are very easy to disprove. They also tend to contradict themselves from day to day, yet if you try to get them to own up to these contradictions, they’ll just deny their own words and refuse to admit what they are doing. In these cases, highly stressed minds are using a different kind of battlefield strategy. To understand how this strategy works, lets use a metaphor.

Suppose you are standing on an open dirt battlefield having to deal with a constant volley of fruits pelting you. The fruits fly in from all directions in a random, unpredictable order. All you have with you is a large shovel. How can you protect yourself in this situation? One method would be to use your shovel to start digging a pit for yourself to hide in. As you pile up damp dirt, you can then form it into walls around your pit until you have built yourself a nice dirt fort. It will take constant maintenance to keep those dirt walls standing as they keep getting pelted with fruit. And while you’re trying to build the fort, you’ll be getting heavily pelted on all sides. But if you can just stick it out long enough, soon you’ll have a pretty good solution to your fruit problem.

Now suppose you simply can’t stand getting hit with fruits. Forget about digging a fort–you want protection now. If this is your mentality, you might use your shovel like a large metal tennis racket and start batting away each fruit that is flying towards you. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at hitting your targets, and soon you’ll find that hardly any fruits are getting past your clever defence. Sure, this is a method that is going to take quick reflexes and a lot of energy, since you’ll have to keep ducking, dodging, and spinning about to meet your fruity assailants head on. But it’s a plan that’s as valid as the fort idea, and one that provides more immediate protection.

Minds have different personalities, and they naturally default to different kinds of defensive strategies. In cases of chronic lying, minds are using a strategy like the second one I described in the fruit battle example. Instead of carefully crafting a single, complex fantasy that they will consistently stick to, these minds focus on the goal of batting away threats the moment they show up. Whenever a subject comes up that makes these minds feel threatened, they simply invent a spur-of-the-moment fib to bat that threat away. Being consistent isn’t a priority here–the goal is to just keep batting away incoming threats.

Justine’s miserable childhood experiences have caused her to feel extremely inferior to the rest of humanity. Feeling so inferior makes her feel quite vulnerable to being harmed, and that really scares her. She is so threatened by feeling one down to other people that whenever someone says something that makes them sound superior in any way, Justine fires back a fib that makes her sound even better. When her co-worker starts talking about her amazing trip to China, Justine butts in with a claim that she’s been to the same areas twice, seen all the same sites, and got an even better deal on her travel fares than her co-worker did. When another co-worker says she’s working hard to reach her goal of being able to run five miles at a time, Justine immediately claims that she runs 6 miles every day. No one can say anything in Justine’s presence without her immediately claiming to have already “been there, done that better than you.” Her co-workers find Justine’s constant bragging very annoying, especially when she’s obviously lying. After all, it’s a physical impossibility for Justine to have spent all of August doing charity work in Zambia and spent the same month on an amazing Alaskan cruise. Justine’s self-contradictions are so frequent and extreme that her co-workers routinely mock her behind her back. Yet whenever someone tries to get Justine to own up to her obvious fibbing, she simply says, “You’re delusional, I never said any of that.”

To a mind on the defensive, the end justifies the means. Stressed subconsciouses are willing to put up with a lot of sloppiness, inconsistency, and even a certain degree of harm to their partner organs if it will protect their own ability to function.

In many cases of denial, since your partner elements are being blocked from accessing certain memory files, it’s easy for your conscious and soul to assume that the false realities your subconscious invents are accurate versions of what happened to you. Many chronic liars end up honestly confused about their own history and unable to consciously separate truth from lies. Many people who are using an extreme form of memory suppression are consciously oblivious to the traumatic events that occurred in their past. But effectively deceiving your soul and conscious about your experiences in life doesn’t protect you from the effects of trauma. Those distressing memories still exist, and your subconscious finds them very threatening. Over time, memory suppression becomes harder and harder to maintain. As your subconscious becomes more agitated, your conscious and soul sense its growing distress and they become stressed as well. There are no shortcuts in trauma recovery: at some point, we must directly confront the memories that are haunting us, face our fears, and start taking practical steps to heal.

Conclusion

In this post we have learned that there are many reasons why the mind will manufacture false versions of reality. Once those false versions are formed, they get filed into the mind’s massive memory database for future reference. While the term “false” has negative connotations, in real life, we are all daily benefitting from our mind’s ability to manufacture alternate versions of reality. When it comes to mental health, “false memories” play a vital role in helping our minds anticipate danger, resolve problems, and keep stress manageable. The mind always has logical reasons for doing what it does, which is why we should put more effort into giving the mind’s methods the respect that they deserve.