Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What Does It Mean That Many of our Memories are False?

The vagaries of human memory are notorious. A friend insists you were at your 15th class reunion when you know it was your 10th. You distinctly remember that another friend was at your wedding, until she reminds you that you didn’t invite her. Or, more seriously, an eyewitness misidentifies the perpetrator of a terrible crime. Not only are false, or mistaken, memories common in normal life, researchers have found it relatively easy to generate false memories of words and images in human subjects.

This passage is from a New York Times article about research just published in the journal Science: false memories were successfully implanted in mice.

What does it mean that it is common for our memories to be false?

When I was fourteen my parents divorced (the event was so traumatic I’ll admit to being a little fuzzy about my age). This was totally unexpected; my four siblings and I had no inkling that anything was amiss in our parent’s marriage. One night the whole family was called into the living room, and my father told us he’d decided to separate from my mother and was moving out that night. We talked for some time and then he left. I have a very strong memory that all my brothers and sisters cried, but I didn’t.

Years later at a family gathering we discussed that night. All my brothers and sisters were there, along with our mother. Everyone shared their memories and how this had affected their lives at the time. One thing was stunning: each one of us had the same false memory. Each one of us thought everyone else cried but he or she didn’t. Our mother told us that we all cried.

The fact that all of us believed we didn’t cry says reams about our family psychology. But the point here is that all of us had operated for years from a false memory that slanted our perception of a pivotal event in our lives.

The premise of We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity is that everyone is deluded about reality; we are all confused about what is true. Optical illusions are wonderful illustrations of how we don’t perceive sensory information accurately (see blog post). False memory research shows we don’t accurately remember what happens to us.

Our mind-generated reality is largely constructed from sensory input and memories; if both of these are faulty how can our reality be anything but false?

“Delusion” means a “fixed, false belief resistant to confrontation with actual facts.” Even after my mother had told me I cried that night, I was resistant to believing her because my false belief was so strong. It had been reinforced by years of remembering.