Is our memory really what we think it is?
By Alex Fargier
How good is your memory? Maybe you can remember your national insurance number? How about this morning’s conversation over breakfast? We usually take our memory for granted. We do know that over time, memories can degrade and fall into obscurity. The Disney Pixar animation ‘Inside Out’ (Intensamente) portrays this beautifully with memories wasting away in a chasm of forgotten memories. But, when we do remember, we can usually be sure of what we remember.
As Dr Weinschenk, a behavioural scientist, remarks in a blog post on the subject, our experience of our memories contributes to how we think about them. We watch them and rewind them like movie clips, which gives us the impression they can’t or haven’t been tampered with.
Elizabeth Loftus, who studies false memories and gave a fascinating TED talk in 2013, tells how although most people think of memory as a kind of recording device, «decades of work in psychology have shown that this just isn’t true» and that they are «more like Wikipedia pages. You can go in there and change it and so can others».
The power of suggestion
Really? Perhaps it’s the ‘so can others’ part which seems most absurd. How could someone else intentionally change your memories?
According to researchers like Loftus, it’s actually deceptively easy, and may seem to be due to our hard-wired willingness to socialise. Her own research has shown that just using language with stronger suggestion can be enough to coax someone to remember something differently. She would ask her study participants suggestive questions, which would affect how they recalled an event. Even in stressful situations, the same happens. Soldiers subjected to interrogation in one study misidentified their perpetrators when fed suggestive information.
This has had far-reaching implications not just in everyday life but in the justice system too. Loftus first became interested in memory because of a case in which a man was wrongly accused and convicted of being a rapist, because he looked similar to the actual offender. The victim identified him at first as being the closest fit, then during the trial said she ‘was absolutely positive” it was him, which resulted in the man’s incarceration. The decision was later overturned after an investigative journalist helped to establish who had been the actual offender.
Another researcher in this field, Scott Fraser, has talked of how ‘Project Innocence’ has so far revealed hundreds of cases in the U.S justice system to have been overly reliant on eyewitness testimony, thanks in large part to advances in DNA testing.
He finished a talk he gave by saying that “the accuracy of our memories is not measured in how vivid they are nor how certain you are that they’re correct”. Loftus also warns of the amount of misinformation we are fed in everyday life.
But not all researchers are worried about memory’s hidden defects though. One researcher thinks he could even take advantage of them after experimenting on genetically modified mice. Steven Ramirez featured late last year on a National Geographic show, in which he explained how he is working on isolating memories in mice brains. He hopes it could one day be used to ‘cure’ patients with psychiatric disorders, like former soldiers with PTSD.