Author Archives: nickg

Our Memory: Fact or Fiction?

Many of us have heard of the Mandela Effect, a term used for mass memory failure where large groups of people misremember information. Named after Nelson Mandela, the concept behind the effect took off from many people claiming to remember that Nelson Mandela died in prison, while in reality he lived for a decent amount of time after being released from prison, even becoming president after being released. While most Mandela Effects are very minor, such as misremembering a name or remembering the Monopoly mascot holding a moneybag while he wasn’t, some like the Mandela Effect regarding Nelson Mandela himself are somewhat disturbing to think about. While most of the Mandela Effect could be attributed to misinformation or retroactive memory, it is interesting to ponder even beyond that about how one could be led to believe a man died far before he truly did, especially when he went on to become a president. But surely, this only applies to somewhat minute details of our lives, or ones that hardly effect us right?

Unfortunately, that isn’t what the studies show. Largely, what has been shown with memory is that our memory, while it can sometimes serve us very well at being accurate for a long time, it can also begin to degrade very quickly- and no one is certain of the reasons why. The assumption is that a combination of genetics, working memory at the time, consolidation, retroactive interference, and external factors such as stress or misinformation can alter the accuracy of people’s memories. While some people can accurately recall particularly moving events for a long time (called flashbulb memories), studies have shown that many begin to misremember these events not long after they occur. One strong overlap between the Mandela Effect and strong memory failure is related to the World Trade Center attack of 9/11. Many people claimed to have seen the recordings of the first plane hitting one of the towers, while in reality no such video had been released immediately after the attack. One study showed that about a third of people surveyed a year after the events of 9/11 were not reporting the same memories they had immediately after the event. Three years after the event, that number went up to 43%. In addition to this, the mean reported confidence in memory of these surveys was about a 4.4 on a 5 point scale. Research with memories and events causing PTSD have also pointed towards similar findings, that even such traumatic events are often not accurately remembered. So what can we do to prevent memories from being misremembered? Ultimately, there are probably very few things one can do in attempts to prevent this. Reflecting on confirmation bias, researching information in an attempt to avoid misinformation effects and availability heuristics may help, but in the long run nothing can point us towards trusting or mistrusting any particular memories that someone may have. Any studies done researching factors regarding memory validity have shown little to no correlation, whether it be from confidence, emotion, detail, or even response speed.

While our brain for the most part does a fantastic job at remembering all it needs to and there’s no reason for worry that we misremember something incredibly important, its important to remember that some things fall through the cracks. For this reason, steps should be taken to ensure that no one person’s failure in memory might negatively impact the livelihood of another individual, as memory does make mistakes.

False Memory and How It Affects Us

We all have a tendency to trust our memory, and even other people’s memories should we have reason to believe them (whether it be from that person be considered trustworthy, they seem confident in their own memory, or among other possible factors). However, studies have shown that time and time again we actually consistently fail with our memories. Besides considering how heuristics and schemas broadly affect our ability to correctly remember information or process a situation, research has found startlingly large evidence to point towards the fact that even specific memories can be misremembered, if not outright fabricated.

To begin with, one needs to look at two major components that supplement false memories. First, the tendency to have a familiarity bias such as with the illusion of truth, and second with the issues that are accompanied by semantic priming. With the familiarity bias, information that one has previously processed is more likely to be believed as the truth, even if it is revealed that the information is completely false. Once again referring somewhat back to heuristics, we live in a world where information is spread at the drop of a hat. Any information that is “known” about a specific incident is reported about as soon as its heard, and its reported on constantly by friends, family, neighbors, media, you name it. When semantic priming is thrown in, where a simple change of words can largely affect how an incident is remembered, it becomes increasingly alarming how steadily yet drastically our memories can be altered. As some of Loftus’ experiments show, changing words such as “collided” to “smashed” in regards to a car accident can change how severe the accident was viewed. With suggestion from the person asking questions about the incidents, the studies show that signs such as yield signs and stop signs can be misremembered.

When discussing this, it is important to point out that most of the issues themselves arise from suggestion being posed towards a recollection rather than a recall. Studies on mugshots and suspect line-ups in particular have shown us that there is a strong false memory effect shown with familiarity in such identification trials, where someone will point out the “criminal” from the lineup even if they were nowhere near the crime simply because it is a face that they remember seeing previously, even if they cannot remember from where.

More of Loftus’ experiments have shown us that if the concept for the memory is somewhat vague or common (such as getting lost in a store/mall, or getting sick from food as a young child) that entirely false memories can be planted where none existed previously, with some people even being led to believe more dramatic memories such as almost drowning as a child. Some steps are being taken to improve the justice system in regards to semantic priming and familiarity bias, however the steps being taken are unfortunately small and slow to take root.

So far studies to prove which memories are true and which memories are false have been largely inconclusive. Some factors such as response time or emotional reaction have been weakly attached to memory validity, but even these can be manipulated to the point of untrustworthiness. Ultimately, not much can be done to change how false memories may take hold in someone from a non-legal standpoint, but hopefully the criminal justice system will soon change to take strides to match true criminal identification to the research about false memory that has been built up over the years

Stress and Memory

We’ve all been there. Whether it was during a test, at work, or even at home during a stressful situation, we manage to forget the information the most relevant to our current situation. But how does this happen? Essentially, what has been found is that higher levels of stress impair our abilities to correctly remember information. Release of cortisol during the stressful situation impairs our ability to retrieve the information that’s needed at that point in time. It makes sense, such a stressful event would certainly cause a trigger in the fight or flight response in our amygdala, essentially causing a panic for survival that overrides the logical thought and memory retrieval of the prefrontal cortex. However, its not all bad news. Interestingly, researchers have found that being able to properly utilize this stress (and even more so at the right times) can actually help us remember information. But how does this even work?

What researchers found was that some amounts of stress can actually help us learn. Unfortunately, we need to be able to utilize that stress wisely. Not only does the stress have to be in the correct amounts, it also has to be related to the content you’re attempting to learn. Basically, although higher levels of stress experienced during retrieval hampers our ability to accurately recall information, moderate amounts of stress during encoding actually helps us better store the information in our long term memory. As stated previously however, the context of the stress matters. Having anxiety about personal matters won’t aid you in studying for your upcoming math test. However, experiencing stress that is directly related to the task at hand can legitimately aid in your ability to later handle the task you were attempting to prepare for, as long as you prepare for it in a similar fashion. This makes sense, as experiencing the same levels of stress during study as during testing will help facilitate context based learning and memory.

So what are some examples of stress based context learning? Unfortunately, as the name implies the context matters, so you’ll have to personally tailor your preparation based on the task you’re trying to prepare for. If you’re preparing for a history test, prepare in a way as similar to the test as possible. Take a practice test on the information at midday (in a classroom, if possible). Time yourself in the fashion that you’ll be timed on the test. If there will be a writing section, practice your ability to fill out the minimum amount of space while still having relevant information. Don’t go back and review information until after you’ve already completed the practice test, then try another practice test after the additional review. Similar preparations can be taken for just about any situation, whether it be for tests, essays, interviews, and beyond. So in an interesting way, you might just be able to use your stress to become less stressed!

Heuristics and Media Consumption

News. We see it everyday. It’s all around us, and quite honestly there’s no escape from it. We see it by watching TV programs that report it (most often times on the platforms we most politically agree with. We hear it on the radios whenever we’re driving around in our cars. We see it on our phones whenever we’re scrolling through social media. We hear it from our friends, sometimes even from our classes. No matter what, we are surrounded by news- and most people spend a lot of time thinking about it. But do we think about the way we think about the news? In order to understand the way we process the information that is being fed to us nonstop, one has to first understand the concept of heuristics. Heuristics are basically a multitude of shortcuts our brain creates in order to store the most relevant information without excess, and most commonly aids us in decision making. That is to say that often times heuristics are a huge benefit to our capabilities to think logically but also quickly. That being said, heuristics can also be very, very bad when not properly considered in reflection.

There are a couple of different heuristics that effect how we process information.

  1. Availability Heuristic- We tend to judge how often an event happens based on how easily we can think of other similar events. This is largely reflected in media coverage especially with regards to sensational coverage. Whenever an event that occurs that rockets into the spotlight, the media will quickly begin covering other similar stories because the original story is what brought so much publicity in the first place. This, in turn feeds into the base rate fallacy.
  2. Base Rate Fallacy- This is the belief that atypical events happen more often than they actually do, and this is in no small part due to the fact that unusual events stick out more in our memory than normal ones do. This is unsurprising considering it functions as an evolutionary advantage to our survival, being able to recall particularly unusual events (for better or for worse). In particular, this is often utilized (perhaps unintentionally) in the reporting of particularly negative events, as we often tend to have a bias towards remembering negative stories or experiences over positive ones.

Essentially, both of these factors come together and reinforce each other and influence our ways of thinking. Functionally speaking, they have most likely been imperative to our survival for thousands of years and are in no way a bad thing. However, this function can be exploited. It can be exploited in the marketplace to build brand loyalty or distrust It can be exploited in the media for sensationalism regarding particular stories that get the most views. We remember reading about a terrible tragedy. It intrigues us and sticks out in our mind more than other stories, eventually creating a base rate fallacy. News outlets understand this and want to report things that will get more views, so they report similar stories. Eventually, these stories build up and create the availability heuristic in regards to these stories, creating a vicious cycle. This is actually how the American ebola scare of 2014 originated even though it was an incredibly small and contained case.

Essentially, heuristics are beneficial to our decision making, our memory processing, and our survival. But they also significantly skew how we view reality. Because of this, if people want to understand truth regarding frequency and severity of events, we have to learn to carry out the paradoxical action of thinking before we think.