The Accuracy and Malleability of Memory

This blog post is another in the series inspired by the book, The Scientific American Brave New Brain.1 That book presents a table contrasting the way the brain once was regarded, the way it is presently regarded, and some conjectures about what tomorrow might hold. According to Brave New Brain, we once thought that memory is accurate and unchanging. This statement is itself inaccurate and oversimplistic. Gestalt psychologists believed that memory was governed by autocthonous forces which moved memories to a good form, basically improving on them. The British psychologist Sir Frederic Charles Bartlettt conducted research on the memory of prose stories and how they were altered during recall. The research was reported in his book, Remembering (1932). I don’t believe that anyone ever held that memory was entirely accurate and unchanging. Forgetting and errors in recall could not be ignored. In the popular culture there was a belief that memory was like a video tape of your life. I do not believe that memory researchers held to this view. The brain surgeon Wilder Penfield, during the course of brain surgery, would electrically stimulate a part of the brain and the patient would start recalling an event that presumably happened, say a birthday party, in vivid detail. This made its way into the popular culture. This belief also led to a belief in truth serums or in hypnotic trances that presumably would allow the accurate read out of this videotape. All of this has been thoroughly debunked, but you will still find it in movies and novels. It is nonsense.

According to Brave New Brain, today the belief is that memory is changeable and that events are “recollected” in a new context and slightly changed. I would revise this statement to read …that memory is more changeable and that events are “recollected” in a new context and changed, sometimes quite markedly. Current research has shown that memory is quite malleable, and that events can be implanted and believed that never occurred2. Eyewitness testimony has been shown to be quite fallible. Many have been falsely imprisoned and sent to death row to the mistaken confidence placed on eyewitness testimony by the courts and juries3.

According to Brave New Brain tomorrow, “Memory is manipulated. You can keep the memories you want and erase the ones you don’t.” I would argue that today many of us already do this. We tend to remember and believe that we did better than we actually did and that we are more liked that we actually are. Presumably Brave New Brain is referring to futuristic manipulations using chemicals, electrical, or magnetic stimulation that would allow such manipulations. Such interventions could be quite helpful for those suffering from frightening memories, depression or low self esteem, but they could be dangerous to the majority of us. Memories, sometimes painful, of what we’ve done wrong or who we might have offended are critical to learning and making necessary adjustments to our thoughts and .behavior. Someone choosing to eliminate all negative or painful memories would be well on the way to becoming a world class jerk, at best, or a sociopath, at worst.

1Horstman, J. (2010). San Francisco” Jossey-Bass.

2Loftus, E. (1997). Creating False Memories. Scientific American., 277, pp. 70-75.

3Loftus, E. (1979). Eyewitness Memory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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