5 Mind-Melting Ways Your Memory Plays Tricks On You
Everybody will tell you that memory can't be trusted. When they say that, of course, what they mean is that other people's memories can't be trusted. We don't like to think that everything we know about the world is based on an unreliable storage system designed by that angry drunk known as "evolution." But it is, and we're not just talking about being bad at matching faces with names here. Science has found that your memory is basically a pathological liar, frantically making things up as it goes along ...
Your Memory Can Be Fooled By Manipulated Images
Here's a photo you've seen a million times, unless you're behind China's censorship filters:
A guy standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square, as the tanks roll 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. We'll come back to that in a a second.
The problem with memory is that it's not etched onto an unchangeable physical medium. Your brain operates on vague notions and occasional sharp details that stick in your mind, somgetimes for no apparent reason (like how you can never forget your third-grade teacher's weird earlobes, but can't remember what grade you got). The problem with that system is that it is incredibly easy to manipulate. If someone offers your brain a reminder of those fuzzy details -- say, a photograph, or just a very convincing person telling the story -- it will latch onto it and make you remember things that way.
All that matters is that the version you're given is similar to something that could have happened, or even better, seems like it should have happened. Like that famous photo with the tanks, and the guy, and the crowd of protesters. See, there actually 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 in their memories of watching it on television. Keep in mind, for people of a certain age, we're talking about an image they may have seen 5,000 times at various points in their life. One plausible piece of doctored evidence, and all those memories were rewritten. So your brain is less like a hard drive and more like a sandy beach people write shit on with their fingers.
Slate also tried a similar experiment, using an elaborate system of showing people fake images and asking them if they remembered them. They found that 15 percent "remembered" the faked images as real. And when asked if they remembered the event, if not the photo, up to 68 percent remembered certain events happening that never did. Their brains manufactured the memories 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, and the 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; your brain still has a knee-jerk impulse to trust what it sees.
The best part is that instead of admitting that there's a conflict between memory and evidence, the brain lies and pretends as if it knew the answer all along. "Of course I remember those people, for I am an efficient machine of knowledge and am definitely not a haphazard pink wad of misfiring nonsense!"
Your Brain Constantly Confuses Reality And Imagination
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.
There are two famous cases involving Nadean Cool and Beth Rutherford. Cool 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 had sex with animals. In reality, none of that truly happened, yet she was completely convinced that it did. All it took was enough prodding from a therapist insisting that she had repressed the memories. 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 that she 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 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.
For a while, a lot of weight was given to recovering supposed buried 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, in a movie, or in a novel? Or sometimes you don't even question it. You might walk around for years citing a statistic to people, not remembering that you 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.
There are differing theories about exactly why this happens, both boiling down to "The brain sucks at its job but is good at convincing you otherwise, even though it's in no danger of being fired." One theory is that we try to fill in gaps to make partial memories make sense (they did experiments wherein 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 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.
That's how you get weird-ass situations like 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 really 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. We'll let you pause for a moment to consider some ways this might be harming society.
Your Brain Is Half-Blind
So by now, we've established that there's one fundamental problem here: In order to save effort, your brain kind of fills in gaps with generic information it figures is probably there. Your visual processing is no different, and the best and most ridiculous example of this comes from the Invisible Gorilla study. Volunteers were asked to watch a 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 brains immediately make assumptions about everything else in the scene and lazily fill it in (in this case, the brain assumes an empty, gorilla-free room), whether that picture is accurate or not.
Likewise, when you walk into an office, you will notice the attractive receptionist, but you won't notice what their phone looks like, what color their chair is, or the fact that they have 20 glass cat figurines displayed on the 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 remember any of it. If pressed to remember it later, you'll fill in generic images.
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 smoothed right over it. "Nothing to see here!" So feel free to pause once again to wonder how many of your life's most striking or world-changing sights have fallen into this black hole of inattention.
Other People Can Manipulate Your Memory With Repetition
Not long ago, there was quite a stir when it turned out that a ridiculously large number of people think Barack Obama is a Muslim. Regardless of whether or not you supported him, 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 percent 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. You can laugh at them all you want, and they deserve it, but that technique works on all of us to various degrees. Nobody likes to think of themselves as susceptible to advertisements, propaganda, or liars. Too bad, because it's part of the mechanical workings of our brain. When we hear a statement enough, we will start to believe it.
They call it the "Illusion of Truth" effect. 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 memories tell 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!"
And no, simply showing 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 on to the false information. By now, you can guess why this is: Our brains hate to be seen as fallible, especially in the company of other brains. This is how people continue to believe admitted hoaxes after they have been proven to be fake.
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 right 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 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 which is itself clenched in your ass.
Your Mood Skews Your Memories
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 he was growing up during brutal wars and race riots, or 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 in those days, folks were decent to their fellow man."
That's the positivity effect. Happy memories tend to remain in your mind in more vivid details, while negative memories fade
Now, you probably have a moody friend who is scoffing at this, because they can spout a long list of ways life has wronged them over the years. 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 a vague memory of how lame everything is all the time because their life just sucks and stuff.
In general, 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.
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 it now, try making yourself depressed again. It'll come back to you (seriously, it works in experiments).
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 20 times. We'd give you our foolproof technique for getting every memory right, but why bother? You're not going to remember anyway.
Looking to do some memory altering of your own? Try Adobe Photoshop today!
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