False Memories.

“I remember when this blog was all about the truth of Christian Doctrine.”
“Hmmm…Jesus, I think you might have what is called a false memory.”

Human memory is an amazing thing, but it is rooted in biology of the brain. It does not float about in immaterial pixie dust where it can be entertain immaterial essences in timeless dimensions. We know this because memory is destroyed when certain parts of the brain are damaged. Of course it doesn’t work like a computer where if you damage memory components at certain addresses, those particular articles of memory are lost. The brain is significantly more fault tolerant than that, but as a result it is certainly more imprecise. If you consider the types of things we can actually remember (sensory patterns and experiences, general events, dialogs, stories, facts, thoughts, processes, people, objects, abstractions, rules, relationships, choices, changes, feelings, etc.) and the multitude of properties associated with those memories such as a sense of time, spacial patterns and reference to other memories, it is incredibly staggering.

It is not surprising that we tend to suspect that there is some magical layer, a ghost in the machine, behind the the network of cells in some hidden dimension that non-physical in nature. But even if we allow for the soul as some life source that animates our biology, we now know enough about the brain to understand that memory is very much dependent on our matter. Memories are born and memories die with neurons and their connections that twist throughout our heads. When something gets damaged, a memory can be destroyed…lost forever. It’s not safely tucked away waiting for us in an eternal domain. The memory is part of the brain’s physics, when the material part is gone, the memory is gone.

What we’ve learned about the brain tells us much about the way we tend to remember things. Concepts are related in very intricate ways such that memories of the past continue to grow as we encounter new experiences. Think about as children how we struggled to remember something simple like a simple fact or process step. Not only are these improved over time as we continue to enforce them, but they change. A person who grew up in a Republican household who adopted a more liberal mindset after going off to college frequently remembers political discussions from his youth much differently than the true experience. We protect ourselves from bad memories by changing them and when we tell stories of our past, these stories frequently change as we hone them according to how listeners respond, much like the stories of a verbal tradition evolve over time. There may certainly be cases when we are aware of these tweaks and exaggerations (our report differs from our memory) but there are also times when the memory itself changes and we remember the tweaks and exaggerations.

“And from now on, instead of watching some stupid show on television,
you’re going to log onto TryThought.com.”

I heard a story told on a podcast where an individual told a story of a dream he once had. In the dream, he went to a store, bought a scratch-off ticket, and won $50,000.  A month later, as the story goes, he was in that same store he dreamed about and although he doesn’t usually play the lottery because of the dream, he used a spare dollar to buy a scratch-off ticket lo and behold, won $50,000. A skeptic who was interviewing him was impressed by the story agreeing that was quite amazing and if all the details were accurate, it seemed too unlikely to be mere coincidence. The host then suggested as a possible explanation that perhaps this was a false memory. The storyteller immediately denied it, saying something to the effect, “No, this was the dream. I remember it. It’s not a false memory.” It seemed to escape his reasoning skills to understand that if it was indeed a false memory, he would be unable to distinguish it from reality, so his memory obviously cannot be the gauge to evaluate whether or not his memory was false. The way he seemed to hear the suggestion was a suggestion that perhaps he was making the story up, but this is entirely different than a false memory, of course; this is a lie. Of course people remember things incorrectly all the time. Often we fill in details much later that themselves become part of the recollection. Thus a person who dreamed they won the lottery and then won the lottery is a pretty neat story, but it doesn’t seem like an impossible coincidence. But to the individual who wins (a highly emotive experience that stirs all sorts of elated feelings which impact the way we remember things) it is an amazing coincidence and it becomes very easy to fill out the memory with false details. In the dream, a store similar to the one dreamed about (and convenience stores have that tendency to be similar) becomes the exact same store; dreaming about winning and then winning becomes dreaming about winning the exact amount that was eventually won.

“I blocked the memory of my 3-way with Tom Riddle and that Whore with the Crutch.”

The new memory, though, becomes indistinguishable from the true memory. It is not a lie; this is the part that is hard to fathom. Most have heard stories about the controversy around recovered memories. It is believed that many cases of recovered memories about past sexual abuse were actually false memories that were implanted in vulnerable minds seeking for an explanation for the psychological difficulties which commonly plague us during our mid-lives. Many books have been written about this phenomenon, but we often have trouble appreciating a false memory around such a traumatic event. Thus we hear ‘false memory’ as ‘lie.’ The subject is lying about the memory…certainly they would be able to remember whether or not they were molested as a child! The answer, of course, is perhaps not. In fact, each of us likely has several quite vivid memories in our past that do not align at all with reality. When we tells stories of the past with old friends and run into that familiar disagreement when our friend tells us “That’s not the way it happened,” we of course naturally assume our friend is mistaken. Often, it is just as likely that your memory is the incorrect one. Memories are influenced by our experiences, emotions, biases and histories. Their fallibility is what makes eye-witnesses notoriously unreliable.

When I was a kid, I was hit by a car. According to my brother, who witnessed it, the car stopped as it hit me, throwing it forward, and the driver got out of the car and carried me off the street. My memory is very distinctly of the car passing completely over me while I was on the street, and then I crawled off the road and into the grass on my own. In this case, of course, it is a little bit easier to accept the inaccuracy of my memory because it did come with a head injury; however, the memory remains as the false one, and even with my knowledge, it seems absurd that I remember something so clearly that is not anything like what actually happened.

The brain is an amazing, mysterious, complex and wonderful thing. And the more we learn about it, the more amazing it seems to become. Alas, everything we’ve learned reminds us that it is indeed a ‘thing.’


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