Memories... you're talking about Memories

Most of us are pretty certain about who we are as people, what opinions we have and what we believe. Isn't most of that based on memories? We have an experience, react to it, store it away and then pull it out again at a later date to use in relation to some new situation. Obviously, that's how we learn as infants and children, but it doesn't seem to take long to become very sure of our 'certainties'. We know what we know and are ready to argue to defend it.

I used to see things in black and white. My opinions were strong and I would stand up for them pretty vehemently in certain situations. I know where I got that from. My father has always seen things either His way or the Wrong way and you better watch out if you didn't agree. Moody and prone to bouts of explosive and vindictive anger, he is the only person I have known that will argue even if you share the same opinion. Though he was never able to share his childhood with us, he has been a victim of his memories his whole life. Nightmares, conspiracy fears, and bitterly comparing his life under apartheid against our peaceful life meant that he always felt his suffering was worse than anyone else's. It wasn't hard to see that a terrible past had left scars and mental illness. But empathy only goes so far when illness is ignored and danced around, and people get hurt.

Living with fibromyalgia gives you a chance to learn some difficult lessons. When you start to experience inconsistant memory loss along the lines of early alzheimer-style symptoms, it's certainly an opportunity to reflect on the nature of brain function. I might think I am sure of something - remember it as clearly as if it was a moment ago. Then Gagan will point out that I am definitely wrong. I used to fight about it - argue against it, and he would have to patiently work with me until I realised that my so called memory was false and I was fighting for nothing. It's a lot to take in. But I have to say - it's a leap forward. To be released from that strong ownership and vehemence of certainty. How many times in the past have I argued over something and been wrong I wonder? How pointless to argue at all over things based on a memory.

So to get to the nitty gritty, there is some interesting research on all this.

The day after the 1986 Challenger shuttle accident, psychologist Ulric Neisser asked 106 students to write down exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard about the explosion. When he interviewed the students two and a half years later, 25 percent of them gave strikingly different accounts. But when confronted with their original journal entries, many students defended their beliefs. One of them answered, “That’s my handwriting, but that’s not what happened.”

Neurologist Robert A. Burton has written a fascinating book about the entire subject, from which the above quote comes. How many of us have really strong memories about significant events? I remember my brother and I were watching Space 1999 when the news came across the screen that John Lennon had died and we ran to the kitchen to tell Mum. Is that even remotely what happened, I wonder? Will I continue to remember waking up in my bedroom in Thailand to see that Michael Jackson had died, or will that memory change over time? If things that seemed a bit of a shock at the time may not be correct - how can I be sure of mundane memories at all. Isn't that truly what we are getting at?

Here is a tiny clip showing how easy it is to trick someone into believing they remember something that never happened.

How fascinating. How alarming.

So in light of all this I really try not to argue over things that are memory based any more. I can remember emotions I have had but not details. It's much better to look up facts, learn and be willing to be flexible. Seeing the anger and bitterness of my father, I can't possibly be sure how true his memories are vs. a tortured unwell mind creating its own painful justifications. After all, this is a man who recalls beyond a shadow of a doubt seeing both a cougar and skunk in the wilds of Africa in his youth. Not much you can say to that really. It certainly would rewrite some of the planet's natural history if he had.

It feels like no coincidence I have been mildly obsessed with Blade Runner ever since it came out in 1982. Strangely I can remember every little thing....



1/12/10, 8:46 AM

There's also that experiment with the guy in the monkey suit that no one saw...

Which just goes to show that not only are memories in error, but so are our perceptions of the world, on which we base those memories!

That's one reason I started blogging, and keeping an online diary of my vacations. Truth be told, I'll read some of those early trip reports and be like "aha! I'd forgotten that!"

Our minds work in strange ways, that's for sure.


1/12/10, 2:23 PM

Oh man there's so much to say....

Indeed, it's well established that human memory is not very accurate. If you think about it, having memory is of course evolutionarily advantageous, but one doesn't need an extremely accurate memory to survive.

But what's really nightmarish about memory is how one's confidence in a memory is faulty. Our levels of certainty are somehow separate from actual facts. So we might feel strongly that we remember something accurately when we don't. This is particularly bad in the justice system where witness testimony can sway a jury more than anything else. ("That was the man who robbed me! I'm sure of it!")

In fact, I've heard that the situations which give rise to the highest levels of certainty are exactly the ones in which people's memories are the least accurate: Highly emotionally charged ones. (More about certainty and its evils after you post on it. There's an episode of "The Ascent of Man" about that which you must see.)

So what is it about memory and emotion? Well, if you think about it, it makes sense that strongly emotional things should be remembered. If you got scared out of your wits there probably was a reason for it and therefore something to avoid in the future. Likewise, if something good happened, you'd want to remember that too.

Arguably, we have emotion in order to remember things. In fact, you can think of emotion as the mechanism for encoding memory. Ever hear that you encode memories while you sleep? Are your dreams highly emotional? Scary perhaps? Could that be a side-effect of encoding the memory? Or the mechanism itself?

And lastly, regarding Bladerunner, is her life any less valid because her memories came from someone else? What does "someone else" really mean in this case? As time passes and your memories change, are they wrong, or is the past just malleable? I'm not the same person I was 20 years ago, should my memories be?



1/14/10, 10:33 AM

All fascinating. Hard to accept that our memories are not reliable, especially as we get older. But perhaps it doesn't even matter in the wider scheme of things.


1/15/10, 3:05 PM

Yes Steve, that monkey suit thing threw me for a loop when I first saw it (or rather didn't see it). Working in the visual arts I think it made all of us feel particularly ashamed, didn't it ;) How could we miss it! But then it just shows how our brains are built and how we focus on one thing at a time. You're right - we base our memories on perceptions, and yet we still fight so fiercely about the truth of it all.

Ah Keith, what a pleasure. Yes.. the fact the memory plays any role in the justice system is pretty scary really.

I think your theory that emotion exists in order to remember things is a powerful one. Perhaps we are just in the process of evolving, and haven't reached an optimal stage for this function. The dials are not tweaked correctly? ;) It would be interesting to see into the far distant future and see how humans act in many millions of years.

Memory and certainty can get mixed up with moral beliefs too... like you said, the more emotionally invested you are in something, the stronger the memory, and people can talk themselves into all sorts of things (religious delusions come to mind).

As far as sleep goes, I think I've written about that before. With fibro I sleep very badly, sometimes just a couple of hours of light sleep a night, which is mostly why I have a very bad memory (fibro has other cognitive issues as well). My long term memory is much better than my recent one as I used to sleep a bit better when I was younger. Interestingly I remember emotions rather than specific details, so I can tell you how a book made me *feel* but not what it was about! Fascinating, I'd love to know more about how these two kind of memories are being encoded and why one is more successful than the other. Are the details more neocortex (new brain) and emotions more ancient brain? I must read more about it.

Sigh... yes, Blade Runner has always been an asker of wonderful questions. How are any of us more 'human' than a replicant? What does 'human' mean? Wonderful movie.

I just listened to an interesting episode of the Radiolab about memory and forgetting. One section that is particularly poignant looks at the idea of erasing memories. Just like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ... another movie that delved into areas so compelling. Here is an article about the research -

Yes M, I know what you mean. But it is a big lesson to see how my father has spent 80 years ruled by memories, tortured by them and not dealing with them at all. Many of them may not be what he believes they are (after all, other family members have different stories to tell), but rather a construct that allowed him to stay in that angry state - or perpetuated it. It's certainly something to try and be aware of.

Perhaps it doesn't matter if our positive memories are not exactly true, just that we have them. They are still our own thoughts, and make us care about loved ones or places or things, whether or not there is 'absolute truth' in them.


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