This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 02 table of contents.

Hallucinated Memories

Penfield believed he was activating real memories by stimulating the brain. He wrote a famous article titled, "A Permanent Record of the Stream of Consciousness" (Penfield, 1954) arguing that the preservation of such apparently arbitrary or random memories was evidence that nothing is ever forgotten and that long-term memory contains a permanent record of every experience. This leap of logic was severely criticized by prominent experimental psychologists such as Ulric Neisser and Elizabeth Loftus. They pointed out that, even if arbitrary memories could be triggered by brain stimulation, that would be no reason to conclude that all moments in life were stored permanently.

What did Penfield believe his experiments demonstrated? What do Penfield's "memory" findings really demonstrate?

Penfield's theory had other problems. Some of the "memories" were clearly hallucinatory. For example, one patient visualized herself giving birth. She said she felt as though she was reliving the experience and watching it from above. Another patient reported hearing both sides of a private telephone conversation...from across the room. None of the experiences reported by Penfield's patients could be verified as true and accurate memories; they just felt like real memories to the patients. Penfield's reports do not demonstrate "a permanent record of the stream of consciousness." They demonstrate that the human brain, under certain conditions, can produce dreamlike constructions that feel like vivid memories.

PBS (the Public Broadcasting System) has pages with more information about Wilder Penfield, including one titled: "You Try It: Probe the Brain."

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