Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Flawed Machine of Memory

The most horrifying idea is that what we believe with all our hearts is not necessarily the truth.

-Dr. Elizabeth F. Loftus, Professor of Psychology

My future mother-in-law came for a visit last week and through the weekend to help finalize a lot of the wedding plans. It was a very accomplishing weekend and I think everybody feels that things are coming together nicely.

During lunch yesterday before she left for the airport, she asked me a very simple question. "How long have your parents lived in Georgia?"

Without too much hesitation I answered that it had been over ten years. For the last few years I have distinctly remembered them moving to Atlanta right around the same time I left for college.

The problem with this is that it is patently false, and I realized that as I said it yesterday at lunch. I suddenly remembered that I used to go home to Exton, Pennsylvania to visit every now and again for the first couple years while I was in college.

My parents are probably reading this and are horrified. How could I forget something so simple?

It's weird because I didn't forget going home. What got screwed up in my head was the timeline.

It was a pretty disturbing thing though, and my mouth kind of hung open there for a moment as I realized that there is a lot of fuzzy stuff during those first couple years of college. It was an altogether stressful time, but forgetting/misremembering something so basic really shook me up as I tried to reconstruct just what the heck happened during those couple years. As I said, I had a lot of memories but the order of events is all jumbled up.

I've always had a curiosity for human behavior. Things like mob behavior and memory, particularly as it applies to law, are really revealing about what we are. There are all sorts of examples of people being absolutely convinced that they remember something, and that memory becomes witness testimony, only to have completely contradictory evidence surface later that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the witness was mistaken in what they recalled.

One of the most famous cases involving memory is the Mary Bowman case in the UK. The short story is that in 1978, 44-year old Mary Bowman was found dead as a result of a lethal mix of alcohol and Valium in her body. Open and shut. Twenty years later however, her daughter, Diane, begin to vividly remember details about her mother's death, details which contrasted starkly with the simple explanation of an overdose.

Diane was five years old when her mother died in 1978. But now she remembered her father had abused her as a child and that he had murdered her mother. She recalled him punching her mother, hurling her against the fireplace, and force feeding her sleeping pills and alcohol.

Despite having no actual evidence to back this up, the police took the allegations very seriously and performed further investigation. They exhumed Mary Bowman's body, and the pathologist who performed the examination declared based on bone samples in the original autopsy that there was no doubt Mary Bowman had been strangled.

Keep in mind that Diane Bowman's new memories didn't suggest that her mother had been strangled. Not only that, there were a number of serious issues with the pathologist's declaration.

Regardless, on the basis of this Thomas Bowman was arrested, twenty years after his wife's death. Thomas Bowman had already been convicted of an unrelated sex offense involving an underage girl, so there wasn't a lot of sympathy for him.

Thomas Bowman was found guilty of murder in 2002 and sentenced to life in prison.

The whole story is incredible and I encourage you to read all about it. I can't seem to find anything after 2005 regarding the case, so if anybody knows anything I'd be interested to hear.

The whole point of this is that we rely so much on memory, and yet it has been shown to be an often deeply flawed device. Take for example the "lost in the mall" technique developed by Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, quoted at the beginning of this post.

In this experiment, Loftus read narratives to subjects supposedly provided by family members and asked the subject to describe memories of the event in as much detail as possible. What the subjects did not know is that one of the "memories" was completely false, conjured from thin air. About 25% of the subjects would recall the made up event in vivid detail, regardless of the fact that it never happened.

Initially the study was criticized since getting "lost in the mall" is something pretty innocuous. But since then the experiment has been recreated with much more outrageous false memories, such as hot air balloon rides, near drowning, and animal attacks that never occurred. Amazingly, the results are similar.

So I suppose there is some small comfort that my jumbled order of significant events during a 2 year period at the beginning of college isn't an entirely uncommon occurrence. It still has me pretty spooked though. Your memory isn't just an extension of yourself, it's pretty much one of the most important things that helps define you. It strikes me as a very human thing to create a narrative out of your memories, a story that says you've made progress, you've grown, you've overcome some obstacles and prevailed. If you can't trust the order of events though, you can't trust the narrative. You can't trust yourself.

But on the other side of the coin, being aware of just how flawed the memory mechanism can be can help you from being fooled. It can force you to be more critical. It can force you to keep a more open mind. And these are all good things.

For now, though, I'm just trying not to think too hard about it. After all, I've got a novel to write, and at least that's one narrative entirely in my control.


It should be noted of course that scientists do not universally agree over Loftus' results or any of this stuff I've discussed.


Anonymous said...

Just wait until you get old like me. I can remember exact bits of code I wrote 15 years ago, but I can't find where I set my freaking YMCA card down a few days ago and have to sign in every day.

"My mind is going, Dave. I can feel it."

jmansor said...

Does..."There was no men's basketball last night" qualify?!?!?!?

LastBestAngryMan said...

I'm pretty confident in my memory.

For example, I recall with startling clarity the night I first met you. It wasn't when we started playing D&D; in fact, it was a solid 3 years before that. We both lived in the same dorm (Katharine Hall) freshman year, which was having a problem with its card readers, namely, that they often didn't work, so you couldn't open the door and get in the building.

This, of course, led to people ripping the door open, and ultimately cost all of us that live there $64 in repair charges after the end of the year.

One night in the early spring, I decided to go for a walk at like 2 a.m. Another guy on my hall was still awake and he volunteered to let me back in if the card reader wasn't working, which it wasn't.

So I went for my walk up the "rape trail" and came back, and there was Mr. Yeager, wearing; a bathrobe, a hat of some kind, and Garfield slippers, smoking.

I distinctly remember the slippers, Mr. Yeager, so do not lie.

I began to try and call my hall-mate, but you decided to intervene, and ripped the door open despite my protestations. I think it might be possible that you were under the influence of some chemical other than nicotine at the time.

The point of this story? First, my memory is awesome. Second, I believe you owe me $64 for repair charges. Please wire the money to my factor.

Andrew said...

I remember when I met Yeager too.

He was smoking.

He also told me to put Kyle Boller on your fantasy football team. That's right, the mastermind behind that devious operation was YEAGER!!!

That's ok, just wait until Sunday when he has to face either John Kitna or his mighty "boy-wonder" protoge, the aforementioned Kyle Boller!!!

Dan Yeager said...

I remember when I met Yeager too.

I had just been born and he was 7 years old.

He was smoking...

Ed said...

Some evidence suggests that every atom of every cell in your body is replaced once every 7-10 years. As such, I think it is perfectly reasonable that you forget things that happened years ago since you, strictly speaking, weren't even there.

Julie said...

When Yeags and I first got engaged, I decided to create our own wedding web page. I thought it would keep the many, many questions from all relatives and prospective wedding guests to a minimum. It hasn't. But what really threw me for a loop was the section titled "How We Met." For the life of me, I could not remember the first time that I met Yeags. I asked him, and he couldn't even come up with the correct year that we met, big help that he is. Finally, I created a story from an event that I think happened, but who knows at this point. I guess the moral of the story is if you want to be able to tell your grandkids (or, in our case, Pumpkin) how you met the love of your life, you better start keeping a journal. Especially if most of your dates include beer.

LastBestAngryMan said...

Even if you can't remember when you met Yeager, I'm willing to bet he was smoking.

Neils said...

Interestingly enough, we can't really trust the present. The pathways between our brains and eyes, there are two of them. One goes to the cortex, the thinking and advanced part of our brain - but it takes awhile. The other, the "quick and dirty" thylo-amygdawateveric pathway, goes direct from the eyes to the amygdalae.

The quick one gives us a response right away.

The one that we actually think about, it takes a lot longer. So when you see something, you've usually already had a response.

And most of what we see, according to the popular theories, is projection. Our brain has learned to create mental images of situations and spaces, so that we can react - before - we would have otherwise had a chance to think about our course of action.

It's a branch of visual communications that I blew off when I first saw it, but now, in my mind, seems to be a central component to what immerses any of us in videogames, whether or not we can pull ourselves back out.

Anonymous said...

There is a book called "Searching for Memory" by Daniel L. Schacter. It's all about how memory works, all those things you sort of muse about how your memory is strange, how it works, but never really think about. It's so fascinating and reading it might change your life. No seriously. It's got a lot of case studies but isn't dry-- very interesting to read.