Memory is identity. It is our only window into the past, the most reliable evidence we have that life didn’t just start a moment. ago with everything in it’s present state. We use it to organise our lives, to distinguish friend from foe, even to convinct criminals.
Yet memory isn’t as reliable as we’d like to believe. In this article, Julia Shaw talks about memory hacking; the ability to convince people that they did things that never happened:
You try to get someone to confuse their imagination with their memory. That’s it: Get them to repeatedly picture it happening.”
For example, in a recent stud, she informed participants that they highs committed a crime when they were 14 years old, and that she was going to help them retrieve the memory. Using information she gathered from the subject’s parents and friends, she constructed a plausible, detailed story of the crime (a petty theft), and over the course of a few weeks, or sometimes less, the participants would come to believe it.
So how can we spot a false memory? Well, here’s the bad news. According to Shaw, all of our memories are false:
“I like to say that all memories are essentially false. They’re either a little bit false, or entirely false. There are entire experiences that never happened.”
Most of us spend a great deal of time and energy trying to be less forgetful. Yet it turns out that forgetting is an essential part of the brain’s strategy for processing and storing new information. I’m expecting the processing benefits of my appalling memory to kick ini any day now…
Traditionally, forgetting has been regarded as a passive decay over time of the information recorded and stored in the brain. But while some memories may simply fade away like ink on paper exposed to sunlight, recent research suggests that forgetting is often more intentional, with erasure orchestrated by elaborate cellular and molecular mechanisms. And forgetfulness is not necessarily a sign of a faulty memory. “In fact,” Wimber says, “it’s been shown over and over in computational models and also in animal work that an intelligent memory system needs forgetting.”
Far from signifying failure, forgetting may be the brain’s frontline strategy in processing incoming information. Forgetting is essential, some researchers now argue, because the biological goal of the brain’s memory apparatus is not preserving information, but rather helping the brain make sound decisions. Understanding how the brain forgets may offer clues to enhancing mental performance in healthy brains while also providing insights into the mechanisms underlying a variety of mental disorders.
To say that it’s tempting to use memory as the basis for our arguments feels like taking understatement to the level of high art. How else are we supposed to draw conclusions? Are we just supposed to overlook the information we have right there in our heads?!
Actually, there’s an argument for suggesting just that. Of course, I’m not suggesting that we stop trusting the contents of our minds, that way madness lies, but there’s no doubt that we depend too heavily on a faculty that we know is heavily vulnerable to manipulation, bias, and just plain error.
In this article for Knowable Magazine, Chris Woolston explores the research of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. Loftus has spent over 40 years pioneering research into the fallibility of memory. Her research has even changed the way that judges, lawyers and juries interpret the recollections of witnesses:
One 1975 Loftus paper that Roediger discusses with his students shows that memories of fast-moving events can be easily manipulated. Subjects in the studies watched film clips of car accidents and then answered questions about what they saw, and Loftus showed that when misleading details were slipped into the questions, the subjects often later remembered things that weren’t there. For example, when asked, “Did you see the children getting on the school bus?” 26 percent of respondents said they had, in fact, seen a school bus in the film, even though there wasn’t one. Of those given no misleading prompt, only 6 percent remembered a bus.
In another classic experiment, students watching film clips of car accidents were asked to estimate the speed of the cars involved. Loftus showed that the wording of follow-up questions had a big effect on the answers. When asked how fast cars were going when they “smashed” each other, the average answer was more than 40 miles per hour. When asked about the cars’ speed when they “contacted” each other, the average answer was just over 30 mph
Memory is one of the tools we have at our disposal, but shouldn’t be treated as the only tool, or the seat of a personal truth which nobody has the right to dispute. History has shown us that reason, logic and consensus aren’t guaranteed to protect us from making mistakes either, but if we take them as seriously as we take our memories, we give ourselves a chance of getting things right more often.