Messing with Your Mind

An article about current memory research, originally published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

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Messing with Your Mind
by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty

On the TV screen, a psychic mutant covered with phlegm asks Arnold Schwarzenegger what he wants.

"The same as you," Arnold says. "To remember."

"But why?"

"To be myself again," Arnold responds.

The movie is "Total Recall," a action/adventure flick based on the Philip K. Dick story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale." Arnold plays an ordinary guy who is frustrated by dreams of Mars, where he has never been. So he goes to a memory shop to buy a false memory, the memory that he was a secret agent on Mars. While Arnold is unconscious, the folks at the shop discover that they can't implant the false memory because they find that Arnold really had been a secret agent on Mars! Then, of course, all Hell breaks loose and there's plenty of running and shooting and diving through windows and flames and explosions and all that other good stuff.

The interesting part (unless you really like explosions) is Arnold's continuing uncertainty: was his ordinary life false, a dream imposed on him when he stopped being a secret agent? or is the current shoot-em-up situation all a dream? He can't trust his memories--and so he can't tell what is real and what is false.

You, of course, don't have any such difficulties. Your brain hasn't been tinkered with by secret agents or memory technicians. You can trust your memories--can't you?

Don't count on it. At the Exploratorium, we're working on an exhibition related to current research into memory and how it works. Some of the things we've learned are a little disturbing. So, in a spirit of generosity, we thought we'd share them with you.

Thanks for the Memories

Before you read any farther, try the experiment at the end of this article. You can try it yourself by having someone read it to you--or try it out on a friend, by reading it to them. Do that, then come back and read the rest of this column.

No really--don't just keep reading. Try the experiment first. If you keep reading, we're going to spoil it so that you can't do the experiment.

Have you done it? Okay. (Yeah, we know that some of you haven't. Too bad. Your loss.)

If you are like most people, these lists caused you to create a false memory--most people remember the word "sweet" as being on the first list and the word "angry" as being on the second list. Psychologists Henry L. Roediger and Kathleen McDermott, experimenting with people's responses to these lists, found that more than half of their experimental subjects remembered the word that wasn't there. Roediger and McDermott noted that people don't just believe that they heard the word; they remember it quite vividly. Memory researcher Daniel L. Schacter reports that he has tried this experiment in lectures with audiences of nearly a thousand people--and had 80 to 90% of his listeners remember the false word.

Remembering a word that wasn't there might make you begin to doubt the orderly workings of your own mind, but that's just the beginning.

The Devil in the Details

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist noted for his studies of childhood development, believed for many years that he remembered something that had happened when he was just two years old. He wrote, "I can still see, most clearly, the following scene, which I believed until I was about fifteen. I was sitting in my pram, which my nurse was pushing in the Champs Elysées, when a man tried to kidnap me. I was held in by the strap fastened around me while my nurse bravely tried to stand between me and the thief. She received various scratches, and I can still see vaguely those on her face. Then a crowd gathered, a policemen with a short cloak and a white baton came up, and the man took to his heels. I can still see the whole scene, and can even place it near the tube station."

A vivid memory of a traumatic event, right? Well, not exactly. Piaget goes on: "When I was about 15, my parents received a letter from my former nurse saying that she had been converted to the Salvation Army. She wanted to confess her past faults, and in particular to return the watch she had been given on this occasion. She had made up the whole story, faking the scratches. I, therefore, must have heard, as a child, the account of this story, which my parents believed, and projected it into my memory."

Piaget's memory is an anecdotal example of a memory of an event that he was told about, but never experienced. Memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus has experimented extensively in the laboratory with how memories can be changed by things that you are told. Your memories are vulnerable to what she calls "post-event information"-facts, ideas, and suggestions that come along after the event has happened. You can, unknowingly, integrate this information into your memory, modifying what you believe you saw, you heard, you experienced. Over time, you can integrate post-event information with information you gathered at the time of the event in such a way that you can't tell what details came from where, combining all this into one, seamless memory.

The information that you integrate can come from something as subtle as a leading question. In laboratory situations, Loftus has documented such memory modifications. After showing a group of college students a film of an automobile accident, she asked a number of questions about the event. Among other questions, one group of students was asked "About how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?" Another group was asked ""About how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?" A third group was not asked about the cars' speed.

The students who were asked about the cars' speed when they "hit" estimated speeds significantly lower than the students who were asked about the cars' speed when they "smashed into" each other. A week later, Loftus asked the students another series of questions about the accident, including "Did you see any broken glass?" The film had shown no broken glass, but the students who had been asked about the cars "smashing into" each other were much more likely to remember broken glass--which makes sense since an accident at a higher speed is more likely to result in broken glass.

With the same sort of questioning, Loftus has led people to believe that they saw a yield sign where they saw a stop sign, to remember a clean-shaven man as having a mustache, to recall straight hair as curly.

Lost in a Shopping Mall

Maybe that doesn't seem like such a big deal to you. Sure, the details may be off, but the basic memory itself is still correct. It's not as though I've created a false memory--like being a secret agent on Mars, say, or having someone try to kidnap you from your pram.

But Loftus' research doesn't stop there. Working with her students, she has created whole memories, as detailed as Piaget's memory of the attempted kidnapping. The mother of eight-year-old Brittany, under the guise of telling an interesting bit of family folklore, suggested to Brittany that she had been lost in a condominium complex when she was five. According to Brittany's mother, Brittany had been found by a nice old lady who gave her a cookie.

Brittany accepted the story and ran with it. A couple of weeks later, interviewed by a friend of the family under a pretext, Brittany provided details about that imagined time that she was lost. She remembered that there were pumpkins around, and hay, that the old lady had made cookies; she remembered the exact words that her mother had said when she found them: "Thank goodness I found you, I was looking all over for you."

Another student of Loftus' provided Chris, his 14-year-old brother, with one-paragraph written descriptions of four childhood events, one of which was false. (The false event was that Chris had been lost in the shopping mall when he was five.) Over the next five days, Chris wrote about whatever details he could remember about all four events, adding details to his "memories."

A few weeks later, Chris was asked to describe each event and rate the clarity of each memory on a scale of 1 (not clear at all) to 11 (very, very clear). The shopping mall memory got his second-highest rating, number 8. He could describe being lost in detail.

Finally, Chris was told that one of his memories was false. When asked which one he thought it was, he chose one of the real memories. When told that the shopping mall memory was fabricated, he had a hard time believing it.

Other researchers have produced similar results. Dr. Stephen Ceci and his colleagues asked preschool children about things that had happened to them and, in the same conversation, about something that had never happened: for instance, the time they got a finger caught in a mousetrap and had to go to the hospital to get the trap off. Once a week, for ten weeks, the children were asked to think hard about the events and try to imagine them. Finally, the children were asked about the imaginary events.

More than half the children remembered the made-up events, complete with details about how the mousetrap got on their finger and what had happened at the hospital.

I Never Forget a Face

themselves; they get confused about the nature of reality. But you're an adult and (despite your taste in reading) you know the difference between fantasy and reality.

Well, adults get confused too.

Consider, for instance, the experience of memory researcher Donald Thomson. Thomson appeared on a television show on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. Not long after the show aired, he was picked up by the police and placed in a lineup. A distraught woman identified him as the rapist who had attacked her.

Thomson had an unshakable alibi--the rape had occurred when he was on TV, describing how people could improve their ability to remember faces. The victim had been watching Thomson on TV before the rape, and had confused her memory of Thomson with her memory of the rapist.

Memory researcher Daniel L. Schacter links this case with what he calls source memory, the ability to recall precisely when and where an event occurred. The rape victim remembered Thomson's face, but misremembered where she had seen it.

Telling the Truth

People tend to think of memory as being like a tape recorder or a camera, capturing what's out there. That doesn't match with the current thinking of most memory researchers. Their research and writings imply that your memory of a event is really not something you capture. Instead, that memory is something you construct from bits and pieces: from what you saw and heard and experienced and felt at the time, from things people told you afterward, from suggestions and thoughts and implications, all filtered by your attitude, by who you are. Daniel Schacter writes that "memories for individual events resemble jigsaw puzzles that are assembled from many pieces" and suggests that all rememberers normally "knit together the relevant fragments and feelings into a coherent narrative or story."

Elizabeth Loftus discusses this in a way that is, for a fiction writer, extremely compelling. Loftus writes about "story-truth" and "happening-truth," terms she borrowed from Tim O'Brien's Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried. Happening-truth is the bare facts--what happened at such and such a time. Story-truth is the story you tell yourself about that truth, the details that you fill in, the technicolor version that helps you make sense of the world.

In story-truth, you are trying to make a pattern, to make sense of the world. To do that, you may unconsciously fill in a little bit here, adjust things a little bit there--in the same way that a fiction writer consciously edits and recasts a narrative.

Both the authors of this column keep journals--and both of us consult them, every now and then. Recently, the Exploratorium needed true stories of personal encounters with weather for a book. Paul dug out his journals to read his journal entry from the day one of the two ropes of rock climbers that he was leading up Mt. Hallett in Colorado had been hit by lightning.

Paul and his partner, Martin Meyer, had reached the summit and had descended to a lower, safer, position to wait out the afternoon thunderstorm. The second rope was still on the cliff when lightning struck the summit. Paul remembered being on the summit after the storm cleared and greeting the second rope of climbers as they arrived. He clearly remembered a smiling but shaken Mike Bolte climbing up the summit gully. Mike had been hit by some of the ground current from the lightning and had a burn mark on his hip to prove it.

When Paul went back to his journal, he was shocked to discover that the story he read in the journal differed from his memory. According to the journal, Paul and Martin had alternated visits to the cold and windy summit to wait for the second team with periods of warming-up in a wind shelter. Martin, not Paul, had been at the summit when Mike arrived. Paul first saw Mike when he arrived at the wind shelter. According to the journal, Paul's memory of the event is false.

How could that have happened? Well, Paul is a good storyteller. And it makes a much better story to be at the summit greeting the climbers. The story-truth, the way that Paul wanted to remember the event, was stronger than the happening-truth, the bare and unsatisfying facts. But better story or not, Paul was shocked and disturbed to find out that his journal and his memory didn't match.

Who are you, anyway?

After reading his journal, Paul was convinced that his memory wasn't always trustworthy. But that doesn't mean that all of his--or your--memories are inaccurate. Most of the details that Paul recalled matched the account in his journal quite closely. Human memory can be, in many circumstances, very accurate. But research has demonstrated that memory can also be prone to distortion and occasionally untrustworthy, a discovery that many find unsettling.

Elizabeth Loftus writes about some of the reasons that people are disturbed by her research: "Human beings feel attached to their remembered past, for the people, places, and events that we enshrine in memory give structure and definition to the person we think of as our 'self.' " If we accept that memory spills over into dreams and imagination, then how do we know what's real and what's not?

In Total Recall, the psychic mutant asks Arnold Schwarzenegger why he wants to remember. Arnold answers, "To be myself again."

It is easy to think of yourself as the sum of your memories-the end product of all that you've ever experienced. But after doing research into memory, we find that it makes sense to reverse that statement. Your memories are the end product of all you've ever thought and done, filtered through your perceptions and opinions. Who you are is shaped by your memories, and your memories are shaped by who you are. #

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