Everybody will tell you that memory can't be trusted. When they say that, of course, what they mean is other people's memories can't be trusted. We don't like to think that everything we know about the world is based on a deeply flawed and illogical storage system.
We're not talking about being bad at matching faces with names here. Science has found that your memory is basically a pathological liar, just making it up as it goes along. For instance ...
There was quite a stir recently when it turned out that a growing number of people believe the President of the USA is a Muslim. Regardless of whether or not you intend to vote for the man, this is just an issue of fact, and the fact is that at various times we have all seen video clips of Mr. Obama drinking alcohol, eating pork, getting sworn in on a Christian Bible and sitting in a Christian church.
But according to the Pew Research Center, for almost 20% of the people they polled, those memories have been trumped by the mere act of hearing commentators assert that Obama is a Muslim, over and over and over.
Obama, posing with a statue of the famed Imam Ali bin Superman.
You can laugh at them all you want, but that technique works on all of us, to various degrees. Nobody likes to think of themselves as susceptible to advertisements, or propaganda, or liars. Too bad. It's just part of the mechanical workings of our brain: when we hear a statement enough, we'll start to believe it.
They call it the "Illusion of Truth" effect. We judge things to be true based on how often we hear them. We like familiarity, and repeating a lie often enough makes it familiar to us, the repetition making it fall right in with all of the things our memory tells us are true about the world. Every advertiser or propagandist knows this. Humans are social animals, and there is a primal part of us that still says, "If other members of the tribe who I feel close to believe this, there must be something to it."
"We will never regret any of these decisions."
And no, simply showing us the correct information doesn't fix it. Quite the opposite: research shows that once we've seized on an incorrect piece of information, exposure to the facts either doesn't change what we think, or makes us even more likely to hold onto the false information. You can guess why this is: our self-image triumphs over all. It's more important that we continue to think of ourselves as infallible than admit we're wrong. This is how people continue to believe admitted hoaxes after they have been proven to be fake.
"Who would fake something like that?"
But wait, here's the best part:
Most of you will still think of this as something other people do, and that you of course are the unbiased observer who can clearly see their stupidity. There is a reason for this, too. They call it the Bias Blind Spot. The biases in your system cripple even your ability to examine your own biases. So just now, when you thought to yourself, "Ha, I've caught myself doing that! But at least I'm not as nutty as those 'Obama is a Muslim' nutjobs!", you just saw your own bias at work. You're trying to examine a broken mechanism with a broken mechanism. It's like trying to perform surgery on your own ass, with a scalpel that is itself clenched in your ass.
"So we're out of gloves..."
Most people seem to think of the brain as an incredibly complex machine that can do amazing things, but, at least when it comes to processing visual information, your brain is actually quite lazy, filling in what you are seeing with generic information it figures is probably there. This half-assed method of construction is known, in technical terms, as the Teamster approach . The best and most ridiculous example of this comes from the Invisible Gorilla study:
In the study volunteers were asked to watch the above video of two basketball teams and count how many passes there were. Try it.
During the video a person in a gorilla costume walks across the court. Half the people who watch that video don't notice the gorilla. All of them saw it, but they didn't know they had seen it. When they watched the tape again after being told there was a gorilla they all saw it, but still had no recollection of seeing it before. Because we are told to focus on the ball, our brain immediately makes assumptions about everything else in the scene and lazily fills it in (in this case, it assumes an empty, gorilla-free room), whether it's accurate or not.
Likewise, when you walk into an office, you will notice the hot receptionist, but you won't notice what her phone looks like, what color her chair is, or the fact that she has twenty glass cat figurines displayed on her desk. You saw all of that, in the sense that the light reflecting off all of those objects hit your eye, but without focusing on it you won't actually remember any of it. If pressed to remember it later, you'll just fill in generic images.
"...there was a pretty neat lamp in the corner?"
What is surprising about the above experiment was that even when those unnoticed details contained something unexpected, striking or even shocking (such as a rogue gorilla), your brain still just smoothed right over it. "Nothing to see here!"
So take a moment and wonder how many of your life's most striking or world-changing sights have fallen into this black hole of inattention.
"Holy shit, someone dropped a quarter!"
If you're unfamiliar with the controversy over so-called repressed memories, hang on, because this is going to be the weirdest thing you read today:
This, however, will be the weirdest thing you see today.
There are two famous cases, involving Nadean Cool and Beth Rutherford. Cool, despite having a Fonzie worthy name, was convinced by her therapist during regular sessions that she had, among other things, been in a satanic cult, eaten babies, been regularly raped as a child, watched her friend get murdered, and that she had sex with animals. In reality none of that actually happened, yet she was completely convinced that it did. All it took was enough prodding from a therapist insisting that she had merely repressed the memory. The act of inventing the ludicrous scenario from whole cloth felt to her exactly the same as "uncovering" something she had forgotten.
Likewise Beth Rutherford, being treated in this case by a church counselor, was convinced that she had repressed memories of being regularly raped by her father (a clergyman) and was occasionally held down by her mother during the rapes. She even "remembered" having to self-abort on two separate occasions. Medical evidence later on proved that she was actually a virgin until she was 22 years old and that she had never been pregnant. Thus prompting what must have been the most awkward family reunion of all time.
"Let's all share a hearty laugh about the time you accused your mother and me of vicious rape!"
For a while a lot of weight was given to recovering these supposed repressed memories, and it was thought that with the right person guiding you, you could unlock secrets of your past that had been hidden away by years of repression and massive alcohol consumption. More recently people have begun to understand that most repressed memories are complete bullshit.
How is this even possible? Well, we've all experienced it to different degrees, whether we knew it or not. Have you ever vaguely remembered an interesting fact or story, but couldn't remember whether you saw it on the news, or in a movie, or in a fictional novel? Or sometimes you don't even question it, you might walk around for years citing a statistic to people, not remembering that you actually heard it in a dream, right before you fought a bear made of mashed potatoes. It's so common that the phenomenon has its own word: Confabulation. Essentially the brain confuses an imagined event with an actual memory.
Like the time you went skiing with that gorilla.
There are differing theories about exactly why it happens, both boiling down to "the brain kind of sucks." One theory is that we try to fill in gaps to make partial memories make sense (they did experiments where children were asked later to recall a story they had been read, and they found the children tended to alter the story in their memory so that it was more logical than the original). Others think it's just because we are terrible about remembering exactly where we heard something. So memories, particularly vague ones, seem equally valid regardless of whether we're remembering real events or imaginary ones, because the exact origin of a memory is often blurry.
Dream, acid trip or invented memory? There's really no way to know.
That's how you get weird-ass situations like the fake repressed memories; experiments show that if you run into someone who knew you as a child and they tell you about an event you don't personally remember, you'll construct a memory to match it--even if it didn't actually happen. It's like we have evolved to be able to lie, but still haven't gotten to the point where we can get our minds around the fact that other people do it. As with the first entry, we find our memories are putty in the hands of people who know how to manipulate them.
Speaking of which...