DR. MAX PEMBERTON: The Queen was right: We psychiatrists know that memories really do vary

DR. MAX PEMBERTON: The Queen was right: We psychiatrists know that memories really do vary

Amidst all the debate about the accuracy of Prince Harry’s all-encompassing memoir Spare, a quote from him in the book caught my eye that Harry’s ghostwriter JR Moehringer later tweeted: “…there is just as much truth in what I remember as there is in what I remember.” remember how it is in so-called objective facts.

It’s the derogatory term “so-called” that gets me. The strong hint, of course, is that truth, reality, facts and objectivity are not important. But these things are the cornerstone of enlightenment and the foundation of science.

All of this is part of a disturbing notion that has become entrenched in modern society, namely that an individual’s subjective beliefs are above, or at least as valid as, provable facts.

It’s completely absurd – and it’s also fundamentally dishonest.

I was particularly struck by a quote from Prince Harry in Spare: “…there is as much truth in what I remember and as I remember as in the so-called objective facts.”

If I made any wild, utterly untrue claim – that Harry and I went skinny dipping together in Loch Ness last Tuesday, for example – he would quite rightly contradict it, providing facts to refute it.

It doesn’t matter if I claimed it was “my truth” or not. The objective truth of the matter trumps everything. Or of course it should be very much.

Many factual errors were found in the book, particularly in the Saturday’s Mail, such as the Duke’s recollection of where he was when he was told the Queen Mother had died. He wrote extensively about being in Eton when the call came in, but it turns out he was actually on a ski trip in Switzerland.

He claims to have been given an Xbox for his 13th birthday in 1997, although it wasn’t released for another four years.

Retailer TK Maxx has pointed out that despite Harry’s claim that he loved his annual sales, he actually has no sales. He also said Meghan bought her father a first-class ticket from Mexico to the UK, only for the airline to explain that it has never operated flights between the countries and does not offer first-class service.

And of course there’s the blunder of his claiming his stepmother Camilla leaked details of their meeting to the press – despite what’s public knowledge that wasn’t the case and it was her assistant, who promptly apologized and resigned, who was responsible was for the news to get out.

As a psychiatrist, this shouldn’t really surprise me: there is a considerable amount of psychological research showing how unreliable our memories are.

Memories become muddled and confused. Feelings, emotions and a host of other things fuse events together, creating scenes that never happened and clouding our memory of conversations and experiences.

As a psychiatrist, this shouldn't really surprise me: there is a considerable amount of psychological research showing how unreliable our memories are

As a psychiatrist, this shouldn’t really surprise me: there is a considerable amount of psychological research showing how unreliable our memories are

Despite what we might think, we’re actually very bad at remembering details accurately. For example, very often we play around with timings and chronology in our heads.

There was an intriguing study that was conducted after September 11, 2001, in which researchers asked people to remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard about the terrorist attacks. Years later, researchers went back and interviewed the same people again and asked the same questions. But this time the answers were surprisingly different – about 60 percent of the details had changed.

Despite this, they swore blindly that not only had they correctly described what they had experienced, but that this new version of events was what they had originally told the researchers.

Here’s the really incredible part: When the researchers then confronted the respondents with the discrepancy, they were still adamant that these new “memories” were, in fact, the right ones.

Pregnant women abandoned by the NHS

Pregnant women are being abandoned by the NHS, a damning report for the CQC has found. Having worked as a mental health officer in an obstetrics department, I’m not surprised. I often suggest to pregnant friends that they hire a doula to help them through the process. It shouldn’t be necessary, but unfortunately it is.

When participants heard the transcripts of the first interviews, they sat stunned and confused, saying things like, “I don’t know why I said that; it’s not true’ and still clinging to their latest version of events.

The point is, all of this psychological research on the fallibility of memory is certainly incredibly important to understand if you’re going to write a tell-all book that will effectively throw your family under the bus. Isn’t that something to think long and hard about before putting a (ghost) pen to paper? That your “truth,” as Harry likes to put it, isn’t always, or even very often, objectively true?

“Your truth” is, of course, the focus of therapy.

What you should say in the safe – and private – spaces of the therapist’s room is how you experience things and understand what you believe and how it makes you feel. Facts are irrelevant here.

But then comes a second, crucial step. Over time, you explore this understanding of events and you begin to appreciate that there are alternatives to your story; different ways of understanding and interpreting it. That things may not be as clear and simple as you once thought.

It seems that part of the therapy passed Harry by completely. He insists that only his version of events is “true,” but he has made glaring mistakes in terms of memory. How could he not wonder if he made a mistake about other things as well, such as the argument with his brother or a series of private conversations he disclosed?

He should have listened to his grandmother, who summed it all up perfectly and really scientifically. “Memories can vary,” she said. Pretty much.

WHY LOVE ISLAND IS SO HARMFUL

Love Island is back. As regular readers of this column will know, I’m not a fan of the show. The participants are everything that is wrong in society – ignorant, superficial, vain, arrogant, narcissistic.

I understand it’s just something to gossip for a lot of viewers, but I’m still concerned about the impact it’s having on younger people.

Love Island is back.  As regular readers of this column will know, I'm not a fan of the series.  The participants are everything that is wrong with society - ignorant, superficial, vain, arrogant

Love Island is back. As regular readers of this column will know, I’m not a fan of the show. The participants are everything that is wrong in society – ignorant, superficial, vain, arrogant

The fact that they are all so emphatically attractive – the women all have slender figures with pneumatic breasts; the chiseled, leathery torsos of the men with rippled abs – suggests that type of physique is normal when it isn’t. Worse, the guaranteed fortune in post-show earnings each contestant will make once they leave the island sends the worst possible message. Character, personality and what one achieves in life through hard work count for little; It’s about how “fit” you look to the opposite sex. Depressing.

DR MAX PRESCRIBE…

Mind Over Mood, by Dennis Greenberger and Christine A. Padesky (£19.99, Guildford Publications)

Mind Over Mood, by Dennis Greenberger and Christine A. Padesky (£19.99, Guildford Publications)

If YOU are struggling a bit with the January blues then check out this fantastic book Mind Over Mood by Dennis Greenberger and Christine A. Padesky (£19.99, Guildford Publications). One of the most successful self-help books ever written, it uses cognitive behavioral therapy to help people challenge unhelpful thoughts and fears.

  • Random acts of kindness have been shown to help people with depression. Contrary to intuition, new research shows that the benefit accrues to the person performing the kind act. That’s one of the reasons I’ve recommended volunteering to those who have come to me with depression. Showing kindness can boost your own mood tremendously. I remember a young patient of mine who was so depressed he could hardly get out of bed. He was suspicious of medication, so I suggested he volunteer while he waited for therapy. So he started helping out in a nursing home. Over the months the transformation I saw in him was incredible. In the end, he was released from psychiatry altogether. Depression is a disease of isolation: a disease of separation. Being nice to another person connects you. It’s just part of the arsenal for fighting depression, but it’s undoubtedly a useful tool.