When memories go bad..


Everyone knows the moon is visible in the sky each night, don’t they? Surprisingly many people will think this simple statement to be true when in fact it is true only half the time. Although not as harmful as thinking Iraq was behind 9/11 or that aliens kidnap you for weird experiments every so often, memories which are wrong can be very persistent and quite believable. A recent article in the Washington Post goes through some recent research highlighting how flaky the human mind is when dealing with myths or other false memories. I’m not going to paraphrase that article, it’s pretty good as it stands IMHO.

Cutting to the chase, the basic problem is that any sort of access to memory, including just the act of recalling it, will strengthen the neural networks which decide it’s coherence. Lets go through an example with Alice, a hypothetical friend. One day she hears a radio report about planes crashing into buildings and turns on the TV. She sees footage and the story emerges that the perpetrators happened to be Muslim terrorists. She sees images on the TV, she hears the words of the newsreader and she is distressed by the death and suffering she seeing in the faces of the survivors. This sets up some initial memories. These episodic memories are effectively links between existing semantic knowledge of planes, buildings, Muslims and the time and date in her life when they occurred. The memories are quite strong due to the emotional content and as well as strengthening the episodic memory the semantic memories are also strengthened. It’s unlikely she will ever not associate collapsing skyscrapers with passenger jets.

As time goes on and she talks about the event the act of recalling it will further reinforce the memories of the event.  However this is now a memory of a past event but that doesn’t mean it is permanent or fixed, unlike writing something down. New memories about planes or skyscrapers can be formed and these new neural links activate are in the same ‘memory space’ as existing memories. In summary we don’t make a brand new memory if we see a new skyscraper, we link in the new information to the old. We can assume it has a foyer, lifts and lots of offices, perhaps some shops on the ground floor, even without seeing it. And until we do and discover it’s only an empty shell full of giant flowers (for example) our imagination will happily link together an existing memory and attach it to the semantic memory of the new building.

So when Alice hears talk of 9/11 and Iraq, 9/11 and terrorists, Iraq and terrorists, strange and wrong links can form in her mind.  The more often she hears these words and  the more often she talks about them the more often these concepts and reinforced and linked together. Sooner or later inside Alice’s mind we have the memory, seemingly as real as real, that Iraqi terrorists caused 9/11. Now this won’t happen to everyone, some people might first hear that the terrorists were from Saudi Arabia, some people might ignore certain media that is not very trustworthy and some through pure luck will hear the words “Saudi Arabia” more often than “Iraq”. In these people there is less chance for a false memory or myth to take hold. And even when those with false memories are told “Iraq did not cause 9/11” the actual act of hearing these words may well reinforce the link between 9/11 and Iraq, the negation is not always remembered as well.

The simple fact is that recalling a memory is not a passive act. In some ways ‘recalling’ or ‘remembering’ are poor words. Better would be ‘activating’. When you have related sections of memory that are activated then the links that lead to a cascade of activation are strengthened. When you think ‘9/11’ the first related items to be activated are those with the strongest links such as ‘airliner’,’terror’. This activation will then spread to other areas of memory that do not have as strong links. Note that all of your memories of event do not all appear instantly available, some have weaker links and take longer.

So now we have Alice with some pretty wacky memories and ideas in her head. It could just as easily be aliens, astrology or psychic powers. How do correct this situation?

And that’s where this little story gets interesting…her memories are corrected with great difficulty. We simply can’t say “Iraq did not cause 9/11” and expect success, it simply doesn’t  get rid of the memory, there is no competition to this wrong memory. A better method would be  “Al Qaeda caused 9/11”.  If this is done enough eventually the link between 9/11 and Al Qaeda will become stronger than the link between 9/11 and Iraq. A prompt  of 9/11 will lead to an activation of  Al Qaeda. Not recalling Iraq in relation to 9/11 will allow this ‘memory’ to fade through lack of use. But this is all much easier said than done when you have spin merchants in politics and the media wanting you think a certain way.

As skeptics this leads to what many see as an uphill battle, the ID arguments (it’s barely a debate) are case to point.  The best we can do is to learn more about how the mind works, speak our convictions with a loud voice and try to get as many people as possible to think and question what they hear and what is in their mind. To quote a rather left-wing friend from the 1980’s , who was quoting it from Zapata, who was was quoting it from Jose Marti, “it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees”.

Or we could just quote Zapata directly:”Ignorance and obscurantism have never produced anything other than flocks of slaves for tyranny.”

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