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.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Remembrance of things past

Sometimes science uncovers things that are profoundly unsettling.  The problem is, as Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out, "The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe it."

Believing it, though, can run counter to our own intuition.  Consider, for example, the work of Julia Shaw, psychologist and lecturer at London South Bank University, which indicates that much of what we think we remember is simply wrong.

Shaw is a specialist in "false memory," our brain's ability to craft completely convincing memories of events that never happened.  And they're not minor and uncommon glitches, but pervasive and unavoidable.  "The question isn't whether our memories are false, it's how false are our memories," Shaw says, in an interview with Scientific American earlier this year.  "Complex and full false memories (of entire events) are probably less common than partial false memories (where we misremember parts of events that happened), but we already naturally fill in so many gaps between pieces of memories and make so many assumptions, that our personal past is essentially just a piece of fiction."

Nor are they always about small and insignificant pieces of our past.  In a study by Maryann Garry and Matthew P. Gerry, of the University of Wellington (New Zealand) Department of Psychology, the researchers found that complex and detailed false memories could be implanted by the simple expedient of a cleverly doctored photograph -- inducing one test subject to "remember" taking a hot-air balloon ride that never happened.

[image courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons]

I find this deeply unnerving, mostly because of how rock-solid my memories seem to me.  "Of course it happened that way," my brain says to me.  "I remember it.  I can picture it.  It happened."

Shaw and others, however, have conclusively shown that this is a fallacious stance.  "I have always been self-conscious about my autobiographical memories, since I have always been really bad at remembering things that happen in my personal life," Shaw says.  "I am pretty good, on the other hand at remembering facts and information.  This is part of why I was confident my research on creating false memories could work, since if my memory was like this surely there must be others out there whose memories also don't work perfectly."

Which turns out to be an understatement.  "While I was always cautious about memory accuracy (as far as I remember, hah!)," Shaw continues, "now I am convinced that no memories are to be trusted. I am confident that we create our memories every day anew, if ever so slightly.  It's such a terrifying but beautiful notion that every day you wake up with a slightly different personal past."

For me, emphasis on the "terrifying" part, especially considering how much faith most of us have in our memories.  Eyewitness testimony is considered one of the strongest pieces of evidence in courts of law, and the work of Shaw and others has shown that it is in fact one of the weakest.  But on a more personal level, it's distressing to realize that so much of what we think of as our personal history might well be false.  It brings to mind the numerous instances when my wife and I have argued over the way a particular event happened.  Each of us was dead certain we remembered it right.  In fact -- it might be that neither of us was right.

The scariest thing to me is that there seems to be no way to tell the false memories from the accurate ones.  "[O]nce they take hold false memories are no different from true memories in the brain," Shaw says.  "This means that they have the same properties as any other memories, and are indistinguishable from memories of events that actually happened. The only way to check is to find corroborating evidence for any particular memory that you are interested in 'validating'."

Which, of course, isn't always possible.  So the unsettling truth is that what you remember of your past is a patchwork quilt of real events, partially misremembered events, and complete made-up bullshit your brain has invented.  The next time you're arguing with a friend over something in the past...

... remember that.

1 comment:

  1. This is why I write stuff down and obsessively check old emails, etc. to reconstruct the past.

    It drives Harry bats when I say, "I don't remember." But I really don't trust my memory.

    And all the ways that interrogations are improperly conducted and then applied legally is extra terrifying, as you point out.