Read this exclusive guest post about lies and memory formation from author Cate Holahan, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win her latest thriller, Lies She Told!
My first clear memory is of a lie.
Closing my eyes, I see a backyard. Hot and buggy. Ants stumble across papers laid atop a wooden table. The most unfortunate stick in gloppy paints the color of liquefied lollipops, passionately smeared by my chubby toddler fingers. I am drawing a palm tree. It resembles a ripped beach umbrella. I can do better.
My mother calls me inside through the windows of the screened porch. She can’t come out and leave my infant brother.
I grab a fresh paper and dip my green finger back into the paint.
“No. Now.” Her voice is serious and tired. Its tone tends to precede swats on my backside.
I agree and watch her shape retreat from the windows. Then, I paint my palm tree.
The finished picture is my best work of the day. As I rinse my hands in the trickling hose, I think of tacking it to the center of the fridge with the banana and strawberry magnets. And then I think of the trouble I’ll be in for disobeying.
“Your lunch is getting cold.” Again, my mother shouts from the house. “Did you paint another one?”
“NO.” The word slips out. I freeze, waiting for some heavenly voice to testify against me.
“Ok, well come on in.”
The painting is no longer a masterpiece. It’s evidence. I need to hide it.
I pick it up, still wet, and hold it to the side of my itchy, smocked dress. Then, I run into the house, through the kitchen, and up to my room. The painting goes behind the bookcase.
My mother never found it, to my knowledge. And, after a tense week, I forgot about it. But I did not forget about lying—or getting away with it.
The fact that this transgression is still so vivid in my mind 33 years later has made me wonder about the nature of memory and lying. Why are some experiences burned into the highlight reel of our past when others fade away? How much control do we have about what we remember? How much of it is even true?
These questions are at the heart of my upcoming book, Lies She Told, which will be published by Crooked Lane Books on September 12.
Protagonist Liza Cole is a writer whose work-in-progress thriller provides clues to a disappearance in her real life. A once bestselling author whose career has faltered since her blockbuster debut, Liza has thirty days to finish a draft of her book about Beth, a new mom who discovers her husband cheating. Liza’s tight deadline is further complicated by experimental fertility treatments and a distracted husband that is struggling to keep his firm afloat after the unexplained vanishing of his law partner and close friend, Nick.
Chapters alternate between Liza and Beth’s stories. When the paramour is murdered in Beth’s tale and Nick’s body is found similarly mutilated, Liza begins to question whether she knows more about Nick’s murder than she realizes. Is her subconscious picking up on clues to Nick’s disappearance, or is it all coincidence? And who can she trust when she doubts even her own conscious perceptions?
As part of my research for the book, I read articles from Psychology Today and other publications about how memory works. One of the things I learned is that we are wired to remember moderately stressful and emotional experiences better than everything else.
According to the book Neural Plasticity and Memory: From Genes to Brain Imaging (CRC PRESS, 2007), memories are often cemented when an experience involves the production of a moderate amount of stress hormones as well as an aroused emotional response. When animals and people are injected with significant doses of epinephrine, aka adrenaline, during or right after an experience, they tend to remember it in detail. However, when they are injected with the same hormone hours after an event, they don’t recall it as well. Similarly, when they are injected with small doses of epinephrine, they don’t see much of a memory impact. In fact, they may even remember it less well than they would have otherwise. This suggests that the important thing for memory is the production of a moderate amount of stress hormones during the experience.
In a Darwinian way, the findings make sense. A person or animal that remembers details about stepping on a snake pit is less likely to accidentally step on anything that looks like a snake pit again. As a result, that person or animal is more likely to continue living and procreating than the individual who can’t seem to recall what the snake pit looked like despite nearly dying the first time.
The authors also found that for a memory to end up in long-term storage, there needs to be an engagement of the amygdala—aka the brain’s fear center (though it deals with a variety of strong emotions). The combination of stress hormones plus amygdala stimulation, apparently, equals a lasting experience.
Anecdotally, these findings probably jive with most of our memories. We recall things that frightened us or made us especially sad or nervous better than what we had for dinner a few days ago (unless it was a particularly emotional meal).
But there’s a catch to this rule of stress and memory. Acute stress and long-term exposure to fearful situations actually kill neurons in the hippocampus, the part of our brain used for memory storage, according to studies by scientists at the University of California, Irvine.
The forgetting aspect of acute stress is particularly prominent with developing brains, say neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley. Prolonged acute stress early on can create a brain that is particularly vulnerable to mental disease, according to the researchers. Child abuse was shown to shrink the hippocampus in a study of nearly 200 adults in the Boston area by a Duke University researcher, leading to a higher incidence of mental disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe memory problems.
Large sustained doses of stress hormones aren’t the only hormones that impair memory. High levels of sex-related hormones, present in pregnant women and those undergoing fertility treatments, are also associated with memory decline and reduced cognitive function.
How I use all this information in the book is part of the mystery. But if you read Lies She Told, you won’t forget it anytime soon.
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Cate Holahan is the acclaimed author of Lies She Told (Sept. 2017), The Widower's Wife (August 2016), and Dark Turns (November 2015), all published by Crooked Lane Books. The Widower’s Wife was named to Kirkus’ Best Books of 2016. An award-winning journalist and former television producer, her articles have appeared in BusinessWeek, The Boston Globe, The Record and on many websites. She graduated from Princeton University, sang in an original rock band for years, and has a pet pig named Westley. In the spirit of Lies She Told, one of the aforementioned biographical items is not, strictly, true.