Scientists treat anxiety by implanting false memories

A new study suggests that it’s possible to replace anxiety-producing unpleasant memories with new ones implanted under hypnosis.

Memories have a funny way of changing as time goes by. For many people, the unpleasant memories drop away, leaving behind only remembrances that produce a warm nostalgia. For, others, notably those who suffer from chronic anxiety, the opposite may happen: Painful experiences reach out from the past with such intensity that they ravage the present day, making it impossible to overcome the emotional damage they inflict. We also know memory can be suggestible. Two psychologists at Lomonosov Moscow University have been exploring the potential benefits of implanting false positive memories in anxiety sufferers to see if they can be freed from their difficult pasts. Veronika V. Nourkova and Darya A. Vasilenko have just released a paper that suggests this can indeed work if it’s augmented with hypnosis.

Assessing anxiety and memories that trigger it

The researchers recruited 120 volunteers—73 female and 47 male. Each individual was assessed to identify those with a greater tendency to anxiety. The study employed Taylor’s Manifest Anxiety Scale (TMAS), getting subjects’ reaction to a set of 50 statements that reveal their emotional state, and in particular, their “anxiety proneness,” as the study puts it. Scores can range from 0 to 50, and anyone who scored 21 or above was deemed to be demonstrating clinically significant levels of anxiety.

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Next, anxious subjects were asked to relate memories of past events that still bothered them with the instructions: “Recollect, in as much detail as possible, three episodes from your past that represent to the maximum degree your personal traits that force you to be worried and anxious.”

Dealing with memories

The 120 participants were divided into groups that could work on neutralizing their troubling memories—or not—using four different approaches:

  • The Discussion group attempted to work verbally through the memories.
  • The Hypnosis group was hypnotized and directed to imagine pleasant locations on a multi-sensory level, for example, imagining a beach and smelling the sea and hearing birds. Afterward, they were played soothing natural sounds.
  • The Memory Implantation in Hypnosis group was hypnotized and instructed to imagine re-experiencing their uncomfortable memory, at which time they were guided by hypnotist Vasilenko to a positive outcome.
  • The Control group listened to sounds of nature for 35 minutes.

The tests were repeated twice at weekly intervals for three sessions in all, one per unpleasant memory.

Two examples cited in the study

”ZL,” from the Discussion group

One of the three past incidents that 45-year-old male ZL related to the researchers was this one:

Six years ago, I was invited to rehearse the role in opera. I was invited by a director personally. And there was another singer who was rehearsing the same role in parallel with me. I sacrificed so much effort to make my best, to be part of the premiere. After all, the uncertainty remained until the last day. The cast composition was not announced. This, perhaps, was the moment when I insisted on looking at the schedule and realized that I was assigned to being a cover. I felt crushed; I couldn’t cope with being rejected. I trudged to my make-up room almost crying. Five minutes later the director came in smiling and enthusiastic about the premiere. I was not able to control myself. I jumped up and pushed the director out the door. In a moment, I lost not only my part in the premiere but everything else, too.

In the Discussion group, ZL revisited this memory and attempted to neutralize it by working his way through it:

It would have been better if I’d understood that the director did not want to insult me, but in fact, he worried about the success of the performance. Being the cover was not actually such a disaster. I should have politely thanked him for his advice and guidance. I should have endured the indignity. And then, perhaps, later, I would have been transferred to the main cast ... Even now I could clearly see the surprised face of the director.

”AS”, from the Memory Implantation in Hypnosis group

AS is a 41-year-old woman who told this story from her past:

I was in my second grade. There was a kind of concert at the school. All parents were there. Children stood in a circle and performed one after the other. I wanted to make my father proud of me. I wanted it so much. I was absolutely sure that I’d learned a poem by heart. I felt as if all stared at me ... and suddenly I was speechless. I opened and closed my mouth and I could not say anything. I did not live up to expectations. I had to perform well. Dad in such a case would be proud of me. But I did not succeed. It seemed to me that my father was very unhappy with me.

Under hypnosis using the Ericksonian conversational method, AS was guided to a revised version of the incident:

DV: Could you see the place? Who is there? What do you see around you?
AS: It is loud and hot, and stuffy. Many people around. Parents, teachers...My dad gently pushed me into the circle.
DV: Are you dressed in a uniform?
AS: Yes, a brown dress and a white apron. All girls are festively dressed. I can’t recognize anybody except Vicky. She starts telling a poem. Everybody is applauding. It is my turn now. I get up and start speaking loudly and boldly. About friends ... Words are forgotten.
DV: How would you like to behave from this moment? Try to live through the situation doing your best.
AS: Ok. I am starting “friends, friends.” I cannot remember how to proceed. I’m looking around and make curtsy. I feel mischief and fun. I say “Dear all, I am so sorry I forgot the poem. I can tell you the story in prose”.
DV: How do people react? Your Dad? How are you feeling?
AS: Everyone is smiling and laughing. Dad is laughing, too. I take my place. Dad leans toward me and whispers, “Honey, recite the poem for me at home.”

A few days, and then four months later…

Shortly after the tests, the subjects were again tested with TMAS, and about four months later tested once more to see if their tendencies toward anxiety had changed. Two groups, Discussion and Memory Implantation in Hypnosis, were also tested at that later date to ascertain how strongly their altered memories had been implanted.


All groups MTAS scores from beginning to end (Credit: Nourkova/Vasilenko)

The Discussion and Control group showed no significant change in their TMAS scores either immediately or in the final tests. Also, the Discussion group could easily recall the memory-editing they’d done—their original unpleasant recollections persisted.

The hypnosis group exhibited a reduction in anxiety during the testing just after the experiments, but that effect was gone four months later—in fact, they were more anxious than when they’d started!

Hypnosis group results (Credit: Nourkova/Vasilenko)

For the Memory Implantation in Hypnosis group, though, anxiety had been reduced and remained that way four months later. These subjects also couldn’t differentiate false memories from real ones, meaning that their memory implants had stayed in place.

Memory Implantation in Hypnosis group results (Credit: Nourkova/Vasilenko)

This result suggests that implanted memories can stick and that they can help with anxiety. Research Digest, however, cautions that “the findings should be considered preliminary and the explanation for the effects is quite speculative. There was no direct measure of self-esteem, for instance, and while the participants’ initial average levels of anxiety were on the cusp of being considered clinically significant, this was not a clinical sample with diagnosed anxiety problems.”

And of course, there are the obvious risks—and ethical considerations—in implanting false memories. What could possibly go wrong? (See Total Recall.)

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type ''?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes in 28th place, and in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of,,, and — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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