Jan 052011

Everyone knows that people, including themselves, can be mistaken. Our egos get bruised when we are confronted with our own mistakes of memory, and we often secretly believe that our memory is better than that of others. In day to day life, being mistaken is usually no big deal, but when it comes to the criminal justice system, it becomes a vitally important subject. Just how accurate is eyewitness testimony?

Only quite recently in the history of psychology has this phenomenon been studied in a careful and scientific way. One of the most well known researchers on the subject is Elizabeth Loftus. In the course of Loftus’ research, she went as far as to introduce false memories into test subjects; fortunately the false memories were of a benign nature!

Skeptics often point to the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, as much of what constitutes “fringe science” is based on eyewitness accounts of transient phenomena.

I believe that it’s important for anyone seeking to develop their own critical thinking skills to learn about the phenomenon of false memory. While there is now a great deal of information available on the Internet and in various books and magazines, I should like to offer a simple test that anyone can do that should really drive the point home.

As an aside, I’d like to share how I discovered this. It was quite by accident. Back in the mid to late 1970’s VCRs were expensive and uncommon. Hollywood resisted distributing movies on tape for years. In many cases, the only way you could see a film more than once was either if it was shown on television, or else if it became a “cult” movie and shown at midnight in a theater.

I remember seeing the movie Tommy when it was originally released. At the time, I was really only familiar with the song Pinball Wizard, which was a big radio hit. As time went on, I became a huge fan of The Who, and bought as many of their albums as I could. Several years after its original release, Tommy was re-released as a midnight movie. I waited anxiously to see it, and would re-play certain scenes in my mind’s eye again and again. I remember being particularly taken by the hang-gliding scene during the song Sensation.

When I was watching the film the second time, the song Sensation came on, and I was shocked to realize that my memory of the scene was quite different from what was actually on the film! At the time I was quite shaken by this experience, and had no resources available to understand how or why this had happened to me. Back in the 1970’s there was no World Wide Web, and no popular literature on the subject, at least that I knew of. I don’t know if the term “false memory” was even in use back then.

As I said earlier, people often secretly believe that their memory of events is superior to that of other people. It’s easy to see when other people make mistakes of memory, but it’s much tougher to accept that one’s own memory is not infallible. But it’s my opinion that realizing one’s one infallibility is a much better learning tool than simply seeing the phenomenon in others. The trick is to do it in a relatively painless way.

Now that most of us have either a DVD player, Internet access or both, it’s easy to perform the following simple self-test. Just pick your favorite film or TV show episode, hopefully one you have watched multiple times. Pick a scene that you feel you know well. Now, write down or at least make mental notes of certain details of a technical nature. What exactly was the character wearing? What position was the camera in? Did the camera move, or was it static? Did character X move right or left during the scene? Where was character X positioned in relation to character Y? While on the bridge of the Enterprise, did Kirk’s evil duplicate in the episode “The Enemy Within” have scratches on the right or left side of his face?

When I saw the movie Tommy the second time, the mental picture I had of Tommy hang gliding differed markedly from what was actually on the film in both the distance and angle from the camera. I’ll bet your memory is good, but I’ll also bet it’s not perfect, and that’s the point. If you’re like me, you will think you know your TV or movie scene perfectly, but you will not.

Advocates of various “fringe sciences” often buttress their claims by appeals to the good moral character or high-status job of the witness. The reality is that human perception and memory is simply not a function of one’s character or job description. My hope is that my simple thought experiment should demonstrate that “if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.”

 Posted by on 01/05/2011 Science

  2 Responses to “A Self Test for False Memory”

  1. Excellent example and suggestion. I like your tone and the way you lead with your own experience of being mistaken. You provide an engaging story and an invitation for others to test their own memories in a playful and non-threatening way. Bravo!

    A wonderful book on memory is “Context is Everything” by Susan Engel (http://www.amazon.com/Context-Everything-Nature-Susan-Engel/dp/0716739658/). One of the central functions of memory, it turns out, is not to make perfect recordings of events. Instead, memory is similar to imagination, and it tends to create narratives in which we are the central actors, and in which our current beliefs, emotions, and worldviews are continually confirmed. Memory is one of the ways that our brains maintain the illusion of an unbroken narrative of the self.

    It’s astonishing when you know this, and I empathize with the shock you felt upon realizing that your memory wasn’t correct. Once you really grok the purpose of memory, it makes you amazingly humble — and very reliant on fact-checking with multiple sources!

  2. I have had this happen often enough to convince me that either my memory is untrustworthy or (as seems more likely) reality is fundamentally unstable. Remember the scene in Star Wars where Tarkin discovers that Leia lied about the location of the rebel base, and says “Terminate her – immediately!” And then Vader holds his hand up to him, one finger pointed, and says “Wait, I have a plan.” Which is why Leia is still alive a good while later when Luke and Han find her, and rescue her, and then lead the Death Star right to the rebel base on Yavin IV thanks to the tracking device Vader had planted on the Millenium Falcon?

    Except one critical line got cut. “Wait, I have a plan.” It’s in the book, it’s in the comics, but it’s not in the movie. Vader still wags his finger, but he’s not saying anything. So the fact that Leia is still alive when the boys find her suggests that Imperial bureacracy moves very slowly, even when it comes to processing death warrants.

    Yet I would swear on a stack of books from the Jedi Archives that that line WAS in the movie. (For all I know, my memory of what IS there as described above could be completely faulty.) I just filled in the blanks with what I knew should have been there, what I wanted to be there.

    I have a very hard time remembering anything at all about The Phantom Menace.

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