If you want your memory to stay strong, you probably already know what to avoid -- excessive alcohol, beating your head on things, getting any older. What you probably didn't know is that there are other, lesser known everyday threats that may be slowly turning you into that guy from Memento.
Between now and Election Day, you're going to see a variation of the ad below from dozens of candidates, several million times. The candidate will talk about how we need to bring back the America of the past, and you'll see images of 1950s-style white picket fences:
... post-war era storefronts:
... and maybe even the Old West:
Remember the good old days of living in filth and getting trampled by cows?
Those are all from a current ad for Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign, but you've seen variations of it from every politician who has run for office since television was invented. The ads are aimed at older voters, and all hit the same button: "Don't you vividly remember how much better things were before?" It's not just politics, either -- around the holiday season, watch how many ads hammer the "Remember how great Christmas was when you were a kid?" message, like this Acura ad that cuts from happy kids opening presents to an adult buying a new car. The tagline: "The joy is back."
Well, those nostalgic ads work because they can not only make you remember the past, but can totally plant fake memories in your mind. The reason your grandpa remembers the 1950s as nothing but friendly neighbors and soda fountains is because ads and TV shows have been hammering his brain with those images for five straight decades.
Ah, the atomic age was the best!
Science has proven it; we described once before an experiment in which scientists were able to convince a bunch of people that they had met Bugs Bunny at Disneyland as children, just by describing the event to them. Participants were suddenly able to "remember" all the details, despite the fact that there has never been a Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, not unless Bugs got very lost (he's not a Disney character, for those of you who haven't caught up).
Advertising works the same way. Researchers did another study where they had a group of people watch a series of advertisements that described the experience of eating a popcorn product that the scientists just made up. Half of the participants were then fed this so-called brand of popcorn (which obviously didn't exist and was hopefully called Falsepop). The rest had to make do with cucumber sandwiches or whatever scientists usually serve for lunch.
When grilled about the experience just one week later, those who had seen the most vivid commercials were just as likely to remember actually having eaten the popcorn, whether they actually did or not. Think about that for a moment -- whether or not they actually ate the popcorn was not as important as how convincingly some advertising executive told them they had. And this wasn't months or years later -- it was seven freaking days.
The experiment was testing a theory of memory known as reconsolidation -- in short, the idea that our memories are not fixed and static, but can be altered and updated based on what our brain thinks is helpful new information. If you vaguely remember that your first grade teacher's hair was black and somebody shows you a photo proving it was brown, you will actually update your memories to remember it as brown ... even if the photo is a fake. We didn't just pull that example out of our asses -- a simple Photoshopped image was enough to convince test subjects they had taken a hot air balloon ride as kids, even though they'd never set foot in one.
"And that's how your mother died."
And while we're focusing on incredibly disturbing things ...
The above points out what is going to be a running theme in this list: Human memory isn't really an individual thing but more of a dynamic process that gets shared and altered by the people around us. That's useful when the people around us are telling the truth, but not so handy when everyone keeps bullshitting each other.
"No, really, you're a ghost, and nobody can see you if you get naked. Kim will back me up on this."
A group of neuroscientists wanted to test something called the social conformity effect by showing a film to a group of peers and then quizzing them about it afterward. The participants were allowed to see the answers that their friends gave to each question. Or so they thought. These answers were actually written by the researchers and were deliberately wrong. Because if there's one thing that every neuroscientist loves, it's being a douche. What they discovered was that around 70 percent of the participants agreed with the fake answers rather than what they had actually seen.
"And then Dr. Muntz pulled out his octo-dong and pounded every girl in the room at the same time."
But then, that doesn't necessarily mean that their memories had changed, it could just mean that they didn't trust their real memories in light of contrary evidence. The researchers realized this, and that's why they quizzed the participants a second time -- but this time, they admitted that the first test was bullshit and those answers weren't reliable. So everyone relaxed and just stopped worrying about looking like a moron in front of their friends, right? Actually, 40 percent of them opted not to change their answers, which means that they weren't just bluffing to save face, but actually remembered the fake details. Their memories had changed to conform to what their friends thought had happened.
"I could have sworn that Star Wars was about a high school dance-off."
Actually, it's kind of titillating to think about the prank applications for this phenomenon. "Hey Steve, remember when you ate that entire bucket of turds? I've got six friends who'll back me up on that. Sign this affidavit saying it happened."
As you have probably already noticed in your life, there is a "use it or lose it" element to your brain. For instance, we're guessing that most of you reading this haven't used your high school math skills since your cellphone started coming equipped with a calculator. And by age 22, you've probably forgotten every little bit of algebra you ever learned. Your brain is constantly rewiring itself depending on what you use it -- or don't use it -- for.
That same principal of use-it-or-lose-it applies to information in the 21st century, only now instead of losing your ability to do long division, you're slowly losing the capacity to retain anything in your head. Why? Because of the search engine. Your brain is changing to accommodate the fact that everything you could make the effort to remember is readily available on the Internet inside of three seconds.
Most of us won't ever need this info.
In one study, students were loaded up with a buttload of trivia, then told to record what they had learned into a computer. Half of them believed that what they had written would be erased, and half believed it would be saved forever, as computers are apt to magically do. Both groups were told they needed to memorize the facts they were given, regardless of what the computer was doing.
But when the time came to test the students on their recall, those who believed their answers had been erased scored 40 percent better than those who thought theirs had been retained. In other words, test participants' actual ability to remember was impaired by the idea that they could look up the answers, even when given equal instructions to memorize it. The act of storing the facts on a hard drive made their brain subconsciously delete them.
"I'm almost certain we're related, but I can't find you in my phone."
In another experiment, students were asked to remember both a piece of trivia and which folder on a computer the answer was stored in. They discovered that the students could actually remember the location of the answer on the computer better than they could remember the actual answer.
If you think all of this is "The Internet is making us stupid!" scaremongering by old people, keep in mind that this is how memory has always worked. It's just that it used to be with the people around us instead of Google. Ask a married man when his nephew's birthday is, and he'll ask his wife.
That's called the transactive memory effect, and it's the flip side of what we talked about earlier with other people being able to manipulate your memory. It means that in humans, memory is a collective thing -- there's no need to clog up your brain with facts that your friend has already memorized. We cooperate to build our collective memory base. It's just that recently, our brains have started treating the entire Internet as a friend who we can ask if our own memories fail us. A friend who, if he doesn't know the answer, always suggests, "Titties?"
"Hell yes, I meant titties."