That One Spooky Thing (part 3.2) July 17, 2014Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
Tags: Bicycle, Cognitive Biases, critical thinking, Elizabeth Loftus, memory, reason, Skepticism
I’ve been writing on the topic of how to think about that one thing lingering in your mind that might still make you wonder about the supernatural. As before, the possibilities that I have thought of are these:
•It’s a natural occurrence that’s rare or unfamiliar to you
•It’s somebody deliberately tricking you
•It’s a problem of faulty perception and/or faulty memory, perhaps combined with some of the above
So this time I’d like to talk about memory. We like to think of our memories as video recorders, perfectly recording what happened and playing it back the same way every time. But, sorry to say, this is not the case. Our memories are buggy, subject to change, and just not very reliable, especially about details.
As I discussed in the last two posts, the first problem with memory lies in perception. If we have misunderstood what we saw or heard, then we are remembering it incorrectly from the start. So that’s one strike against us to begin with. Let’s try a simple memory exercise before you read the rest of this post; take a pencil and paper and draw a simple line drawing of a bicycle. Should be easy right? Take a minute and give it a try.
Done? That should have been easy. Most people are familiar with what a bicycle looks like. But a lot of people have a real problem drawing out how the frame goes, and where the pedals and chain hook up.
Let’s make this simpler. Which one of these pictures is the actual configuration of a bicycle frame?
If you are a cyclist this may have been easy. But if not, why is it so tricky to remember such a common object, one you’ve probably seen a thousand times? We really don’t have as good a memory for details as we think we do. We carry a general idea of objects in our heads, and we recognize those objects when we see them, but we aren’t really good at specifics. And when we’re trying to describe an unusual event, we need to recall just those specifics.
Even when we’ve just seen an event, and are actively trying to recall details, our accuracy is really not very good. Here’s a link to a video on that: When Eyes Deceive – Eyewitness Testimony
Additionally studies have shown that our later recollections can be seriously altered. My understanding from reading and videos and talks on the subject, is that our brain is like a word processor that does not have an “exit without saving” function. Each time we retrieve a memory, that retrieval becomes a part of the memory too. So if you recall a story but embellish it, or fill in a missing detail with our best guess, that addition then becomes a part of the permanent memory of the event as well. So those memories morph and change, and if you write down an account of something that happened years ago, and then compare it with an account you wrote at the time, it would not be at all the same.
It’s also possible to remember an event that didn’t actually happen at all!
Elizabeth Loftus has done extensive research on how malleable and fragile our memories are. The results are amazing. Using suggestion, researchers have been able implant false memories of childhood events into research subjects. Here’s a TED talk about how they did it. I really recommend this one.
And one more good video about out unreliable memories:
So that one weird thing that happened to you way back? Remember to consider the possibility that it never happened at all, or that what you remember isn’t the way it really happened.
More on drawing bicycles: http://www.liv.ac.uk/~rlawson/Cycology.htm
Other posts in this series: