Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Creating the past

Okay, this post may be a bit off-the-wall.   I'm perfectly willing to believe that what I'm going to say here might be entirely bogus.  That said, bear with me for a moment, and if you still think that by the end, feel free to let me have it right between the eyes.

A friend of mine told me an interesting anecdote a while back.  Her teenage son had lost his car keys, and she knew that his keys were on a worn blue carabiner.   She suddenly had this mental picture of them, sitting on a blanket or a bedsheet, and was convinced she'd seen them earlier that day.

"I think they're either in your bedroom or on the sofa or something," she told him.  "I know I saw them, on some kind of blanket or cloth or something, just recently."

So the two of them tore the house apart, looking on every such cloth surface they could find.  Oddly, the more they looked (without finding them) the more certain she became; she had a clear visual image of the keys on a tangled-up blanket.  Finally they gave up, but it was driving her crazy, because she knew she'd seen them earlier that day.

Well, when the son went out to his car (using a spare key), he found the key ring -- still hanging from the ignition, where he'd left it the night before.

My friend was baffled.   The visual image was so clear, so real, that she couldn't imagine that it wasn't true.   I asked her if she might have seen them a day or two ago on a bed or something, and simply misremembered when she'd seen them.

"No," she said. "I talked to my son about that afterward.   He said he almost never leaves his car keys anywhere but on the kitchen counter.   He was confused, himself, when I told him I'd seen them on a blanket, because he couldn't imagine how they'd have gotten there, but he said I sounded so sure.  And not only did I have a crystal-clear visual image of them, I was certain that it was that day that I'd seen them."

So, off and running my mind goes, and I say to her: "That makes me wonder how much of what we remember of our past actually happened."

And her eyes got really big, and she said, "I know.  I've been wondering the same thing.  Are our memories of our past real, or are they just stories we've told to ourselves long enough that they have become what we actually remember?"

The human memory is a remarkably plastic thing; well-controlled experiments have been performed which have conclusively demonstrated that memories can be implanted.  This was the subject of a final lab project from one of my AP Biology student groups some years ago.  The experiment was ostensibly to test people's memory of a variety of objects on a table, but the actual question had to do with implanted memories.  Subjects were given three minutes to study a set of twenty objects; then, during the test, one of the experimenters (who had before been hiding, out of sight) came out and took one object off the table, and then walked back out of the room with it.   A read-aloud questionnaire given afterwards asked (along with a number of irrelevant distractor questions), "What object did the girl in the blue shirt take off the table?"  Well, the girl had been wearing a red shirt, but not only did not one single subject mention that when the question was read, when they got to the last question -- "What color shirt was the girl wearing who came in and took an object?" -- almost every test subject answered "blue."  Further, when the subjects were told that the girl had been wearing a red shirt, several of them simply didn't believe it -- to the extent that one test subject demanded that the partner come back into the room, and when she appeared wearing a red shirt, he accused the pair of a ruse wherein the hidden partner had changed her blue shirt to red while she was out of the room the second time!

Of course, this has major implications for "leading the witness" in criminal trials -- given the right prompting, people can be induced to "remember" something that didn't actually happen.  While this is an interesting topic, what concerns me is more personal.  I wonder how many of my own life's memories are of events that didn't happen?  How much is implanted memory, formed of what my parents or friends told me happened, and which I then incorporated into my brain as if I actually remembered it myself?  What parts are memories of events which occurred but were remembered inaccurately, and then repeated so often that the inaccurate memory seems real?  What memories are an out-and-out fabrication on the part of my rather capricious brain?   I consider myself to be a fairly truthful person; but how can you not lie when an untruth has become part of your remembered past?

Worse yet, with no corroborative evidence, how could we ever tell factual memories from fictional ones?  As my friend's experience shows (however insignificant the actual event was), we can talk ourselves into believing, fervently, something which is entirely false.  When you remember your past, is your memory really a composite of truth, half-truth, and cleverly (if inadvertently) crafted fiction?

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