Here's a photo you've seen a million times:
Guy standing in front of a tank at Tiananmen square, as the tanks rolled in to break up the massive demonstrations there. If we hadn't shown you that image, you probably could have drawn it from memory. The line of tanks, the lone guy who had emerged from the crowd to oppose them, etc.
One problem with our memory is that it doesn't work through clear lines of communication. The brain organizes information in such a way that things that are somewhat similar are found near one another. By doing it this way we get the benefit of being able to quickly recall many different things that are associated with whatever stimulus comes our way. If somebody shouts "fire" a whole bunch of relevant things spring your mind at once. Water, fire extinguisher, run, panic, save yourself.
Women and children...at some point.
The problem with that system is that it is incredibly easy to manipulate. By skewing a certain stimulus, say a photo, you can trick the brain into thinking that it is remembering something that didn't happen, as long as it is similar to something that could have happened. Or, even better, if it seems like it should have happened.
Like the famous photo above, with the tanks, and the guy, and the crowd of protestors.
There wasn't a crowd. It was photoshopped in.
Experiments found that when showing people the crowd photo, they were much more likely to remember seeing crowds all the previous times they had seen the photo or video of the event--even though it had absolutely never been there. And for people of a certain age, we're talking about an image they may have seen five thousand times at various points in their life. One plausible change, and all those memories were overwritten.
Faked photos convinced many Americans Abraham Lincoln had a beard
Slate.com found the same thing; using an elaborate system of showing people fake images and asking them if they remembered them, Slate found that fifteen percent of people that took the survey "remembered" the faked images as real. And when asked if they remembered the event, if not the photo, they had responses up to 68% remembering certain events happening that never happened. Their brains just manufactured the memory spontaneously, because somebody showed them a picture of it. They could photoshop an image from a famous protest to add in riot cops and violence. People would swear they could remember hearing about the riots. It doesn't matter that photo manipulation has literally been around as long as photos have been around. A good fake can set itself up in our memory right alongside the real stuff.
At least once this month you've heard an old guy, either in life or on your television or on talk radio, talking about how we need to get America back to the good ol' days. You know, the way it was when he was a kid, when everyone was honest and worked hard and people cared about each other. It doesn't matter that the history book say he was growing up during the Holocaust, and it doesn't matter that his grandfather was saying the same thing when he was a boy. This guy knows he can remember a time when everything was wonderful.
"Back'n those days, folks were decent to their fellow man."
Now, you probably have a moody friend who is scoffing at this, because he can spout a long list of ways life has wronged them over the ears. Or, maybe you're that friend. That process doesn't work in people suffering from depression. They tend not to remember vivid details of memory at all, exchanging it instead for just a vague memory of how lame everything is all the time because their life just sucks and stuff.
But your moods affect your memory even if you're not suffering from depression. If you're down, you're more likely to remember experiences as being bad, or you're more likely to recall the negative parts. When you're sad you don't remember how much fun you had at your birthday party, just that they misspelled your name on the cake.
"This is the worst thing that has ever happened to anyone."
That's right; you think you're depressed because an endless string of terrible things have happened to you. In reality, it's the opposite. You only perceive that an endless string of terrible things have happened to you because your depressed memory stores them that way. It sounds obvious now, but wait until you're good and depressed and your friends try to convince you it's true.
And, maybe strangest of all, research has found that you are more likely to recall something if you're in the same mood you were in when you stored the memory. If somebody gave you a phone number when you were feeling depressed, and you can't remember now, try making yourself depressed again. It'll come back to you (seriously, they've done experiments).
We recommend bad whiskey and a Pogues album.
So in order to correctly remember something, you have to be in the right mood. You also have to have been in the right mood to store the memory correctly in the first place. And the memory you're storing has to be accurate, and not just some bullshit story someone told you twenty times. We'd give you our fool proof technique for getting every memory right, but why bother? You're not going to remember anyway.
Click here to see more from Matt Moore.
For more brain shenanigans, check out 5 Ways Your Brain Is Messing With Your Head and 5 Horrific Ways Your Brain Can Turn On You Without Warning. For ways other people can scramble your brain, see 6 Brainwashing Techniques They're Using On You Right Now.
And stop by Linkstorm to discover what measurement is used for stupidity on the Internet.
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