We’ve just started discussing how memories are processed, stored, and retrieved and how this relates to our perception of the world around us. Our lectures have focused mostly on memory and recall as they pertain to simple stimuli such as words and numbers, but we are able to apply what we know about memory processing and recall techniques to more complex stimuli. In addition to discussing the processing of memories, we’ve also addressed both how our previous experiences affect how we process stimuli (top-down processing) and how the stimuli we encounter can determine how higher processing proceeds (bottom-up processing).
I recently began re-watching The Brain with David Eagleman, a six-part documentary series that explores some of the mysteries and complexities of the human brain. The second episode, “What Makes Me?” addresses how our experiences and memories shape how we perceive the world around us. At one point, David Eagleman addresses the issue of false memories with researcher, Elizabeth Loftus. Loftus has conducted a number of experiments that reveal how unreliable memories can be. One study that I found both remarkable and unsettling is similar to something we have touched upon in class as well.
To investigate just how vulnerable we are to the power of suggestion, Loftus designed an experiment to test whether individuals could be persuaded to believe in an elaborate lie. Researchers contacted relatives of study participants and recorded three stories from each participant’s childhood. A fourth story was completely fabricated. During the experiment, Loftus described the four stories (three true and one false) to the participants and asked them if they could recall details from those experiences. Every participant not only remembered the false story (described as an account of the participant as a young child lost in the mall who was eventually assisted by a kind, elderly stranger), but when they returned for a follow-up interview a week later, had recalled additional details about the false experience (e.g. what the kind stranger looked like, what they were wearing, etc.).
While it’s not a groundbreaking revelation that our memories are not accurate, I think it’s incredible that not only can we be convinced to believe a false memory, we also become so invested in that false memory that we fabricate additional details without prompting. When we explored the fallibility of memories in class and in the “False Memory” ZAPS, it was more along the lines of forgetting an experience that we actually had or confusing two different, but similar experiences. Seeing such definitive evidence that we can be convinced to believe a “memory” that is completely false was disturbing to me. It not only pulled the proverbial rug out from under my confidence in my own memories and beliefs, it also gave me more reason to doubt what other people tell me when describing past experiences.
I think, however, this also reveals another perspective that I find encouraging: no two people will ever share the same experience. As much as we try to relate and share experiences with one another, we can never have anything but an entirely unique experience. Each moment is a fusion of past experiences and present stimuli. Our memories, emotions, and beliefs all influence how we perceive the present and because no two people can have exactly the same history, our experiences will always be unique …our one private possession. We use our current knowledge to reconstruct our memories, but we also allow our memories and beliefs to influence our perception of the present. The dynamic relationship between expectations and data produces a reality that is unique to each of us. As David Eagleman put it, “we don’t perceive objects as they are, we perceive them as we are.”
If you’d like to watch the episode, here’s a link: