August 03, 2005
False Memories Decrease Desire For Food

UC Irvine psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has found that students can be fooled into believing that some foods caused them to get sick as children.

After 204 students completed questionnaires about their food preferences, they received computer-generated analyses – some of which included false feedback indicating they had gotten sick from eating strawberry ice cream as a child. Researchers used two techniques to encourage the participants to process the false information, which resulted in 22 percent and 41 percent of the participants believing they had such a childhood experience.

Participants even provided details of the experience such as “May have gotten sick after eating seven cups of ice cream.” However, both groups showed similar tendency to want to avoid that food now that they “remembered” getting sick from it as a child.

“People do develop aversions to foods; for example, something novel like béarnaise sauce may make someone sick once, and they can develop a real aversion to that food,” said Loftus. “And with alcohol, there’s a medication that actually makes alcoholics sick if they drink, and the idea is to develop an aversion so that the person avoids drinking. It may be possible to do something similar with food, but without the physical experience.”

Loftus points out that further research must be done to show whether the effects are lasting and whether people who believe the false memory actually avoid the food when it is in front of them, as they indicated in the surveys.

People are awfully gullible.

In experimenting with false memories about fattening foods, Loftus’ team looked at both chocolate chip cookies and strawberry ice cream. Because participants were more likely to believe strawberry ice cream had made them ill, the researchers speculate that only novel food items are effective with the false feedback technique – a finding consistent with research showing real taste aversions are more likely to develop with novel foods. How recently participants had eaten the food appeared to have no effect.

Their next challenge is to try to fool people into liking vegetables.

In next study, Loftus and her team will look at whether people can be led to falsely believe that as a child they really liked certain healthful vegetables, like asparagus, and whether that will make them more inclined to eat such foods as adults.

The techniques these researchers employed to implant false memories are too weak. But surely false memory implantation technologies will improve. But also memory erasure technology might work just as well or better. If you had no memory of a particular food's taste you couldn't crave that taste. If you had a bad memory you'd even be averse to eating that food.

Parents are in the best position to use false memories. Start telling a 7 year old that ice cream made his tummy hurt each time he ate it. Probably 5 or 10 years of telling him that lie and encouraging him to repeat it back would leave a lasting effect. But I suspect that obese kids would respond by finding other foods to pork out on. Unless one can create a more general aversion to calorie consumption or at least an aversion to junk food consumption this sort of deception seems pointless.

I can see memory erasure and false memory implantation technologies as useful to treat for the effects of traumatic events and to get over addictions and compulsions. But we really need better technologies for reducing cravings and compulsions. Such technologies will come in the form of neural stem cell therapies targetted to specific regions of the brain.

Using today's technology a constant stream of PDA messages could tell dieters that high fat foods are disgusting and nauseating or tell them how great they are going to look if they avoid snacks would provide some benefit. PDA message streams could be automated to send out an assortment of encouraging messages with all sorts of justifications and praise for sticking to a diet. The messages could include suggestions for low calorie foods to eat or activities to engage in instead of eating. The same could be done with cell phone voice mail.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 August 03 11:34 AM  Brain Appetite

me said at August 3, 2005 12:33 PM:

Thats interesting, I, as a child, remember eating certain foods and liking them fine, then getting sick from an unrealated cause and no longer being able to eat that food any more. I have heard others say the same thing. It does seem like such aversions fade over time however, and I haven't experienced this since I was young.

Lei said at August 4, 2005 2:20 AM:

Definitely true for me. One of the ways I used to control my eating in college was by thinking of something nauseating or just telling myself I felt nauseous whenever I felt the urge to eat. Not too hard to do when it comes to cafeteria food. Don't worry, I don't have a food disorder. It was just a passing fancy.

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