Sunday, March 9, 2014

Liza questions your memory

What good is your memory, if it isn't reliable. Turns out we alter our memories all the time. My past is less reliable than my novels. At least once I write them down, they won't change until an editor gets hold of them. And once they are published they remain unchanged...except I will fix typos and stuff when I discover them. By otherwise my fiction is what I dreamed up and wrote down.

Not so with the past. Every time we recall a past event we change it. 

Recently a study was done which strongly indicates nothing we remember is reliable. Subjects were shown a computer screen with an ocean background. On it were 3 objects. Then they were shown a new screen with farmland and asked to put the 3 objects exactly where they were in the prior screen. NO ONE COULD DO THIS. They all placed them incorrectly. 

Here's my theory why: Our brains try to make sense out of all the neurons it receives, and thus when it receives data that frankly doesn't make sense to it, it will alter what it needs to so what it receives makes sense. Thus, it changed the locations of the objects so they made more sense in the farmland shot.

Now here is where it get's weird.

The test subjects were shown the original screen again and asked to put the objects back in their original positions. Every test subject put the objects where they resided in the farmland pic, not the ocean pic as they were instructed.

Here's why: They really didn't pay attention to the exact location in the original viewing because they didn't know it was important.  Thus, when asked to replicate the location in the second test they didn't remember, so their brains worked out what made most sense and declared that the correct location. Now the location was a big deal, when asked to replicate the original, they didn't need the brain to be logical, they now had a memorized fixed location...even though it was the WRONG location.

Every one of them put it in the same wrong place.

Focus on a memory, recall it it, and you will change it as your brain tries to make it relevant to you.

I once witnessed a crime. Saw the teen clearly. Went home, reported the crime. An hour later, a cop drove me to the police station where I was asked to identify the boys. 

I had only seen one of the boys. The others had remained in the station wagon. The cop nodded to the four boys sitting in a room, scared half to death. "We just need you to ID them. We found the item they stole in the back of the wagon."

Before he said that, I had no clue if these were the right boys. But voila, yes, now I was sure. I remembered. (HA!) These were the boys.

All because my neurons received vital new information: found stolen item in station wagon.
and wrote in all of their little faces.

Had someone pushed for which boy actually stole the item, my brain would have been in trouble, because I had no idea which, for they all looked alike. (Seriously, I remember them all looking alike.)

Several months later, I get called to Newark NJ to testify against two of the boys who chose not to plead guilty. The other two pleaded.

During the grueling defense attorney questioning, he kept asking me the size of things. I told him I wasn't good at guessing how far away I was, or how many feet long something was. So he started throwing out ridiculous numbers. They had stolen a sun roof that was probably 3 x 2 feet, so he suggests it is 8 X 4 feet. If he can get such a crazy size in my head, then I'll lose all credibility. 

I stared at him and laughed. "Your sense of sizing is worse than mine. That's bigger than the entire roof of the car."  The judge chuckled and told him to move on. (He didn't like the lawyer anymore than I did...or that's how I remember it.)

I realize now, lawyers and cops must be very familiar with the 'flexibility' of the human brain and have been using it to their advantage for a very long time...inserting false memories in our brains without us knowing it.

Here's a personal memory confusion story:

I  have a friend from college who distinctly remembered me and my roomie kidnapping a cute guy, tying him up and putting him in my roomie's car. I'm not sure what she said we did with him, because what she said we did made no sense and my brain refused to record it.

I certainly didn't remember kidnapping the guy. So I asked my roomie. Nope, she didn't recall it either. So I wrote the guy and and asked him. (Facebook is so useful in these situations.) No. He had no recollection of being kidnapped.

So I wrote back to my bad memory friend and told her of my findings. She wrote back, assured me it had happened, and had left her very traumatized, Then to proved her trauma, she de-friended me.

I gave the matter more thought and pulled up a memory of the three of us kidding around and me suggesting we kidnap this guy and came up with weird stuff we could do. But it was just crazy, late night, girl talk.

Since the alleged abductee has no memory, I am sticking to my insistence it never happened. However, to my ex-friend, this memory had become a life long source of guilt and pain, which she had shared with all her friends, retold a hundred times. It is one of her strongest memories and one she wished keep.

Or at least that's how I remember it. Perhaps the cute guy told me I had kidnapped him but I refuse to remember that. No, Liza only kidnaps authors and books, not cute guys from her past.

I also remembering having an excellent memory when I was a kid. I could recall conversations verbatim months afterwards. I loved repeating conversations that proved my brother wrong, until he got sick of my clever recitals and beat me to a pulp.  And because my science teacher gave tests based on a book different than the one we studied, (I knew this because I could recall and reread the pages during a test) I took up reading the encyclopedia on the topic as well. And she would still mark my answers wrong! Even after I brought the encyclopedia in for her to see that I was right.  

Upon discovering that my excellent memory got me beat up and remembering what I read didn't help my grades, I ignored both my gifts and focused on acting. 

Or so I remember it now. But what if I just made it up from wishful thinking. I certainly don't have a great memory now. In fact, if I weren't my only employee, I'd probably fire me for all the things I forget to do. 

How about you? Do you have changing memory events?


  1. Fascinating post! You are absolutely correct about police -- my father knows of a situation where the police talked a 15-year-old kid into admitting a crime, KNOWING he didn't do it at first, but then REMEMBERING having done it after they got through with him. The police didn't care; they just wanted to close their case. Now the real criminal was caught and confessed the first crime, and they still have not let the first kid out of jail for it. Unreal.

    I daresay you probably remembered the past just fine (as your ex-friend did not). I have vast swaths of missing history because I was a typical 'dumb blonde'. When I realized just how much I was missing, I started paying attention (having horrible eyesight, borderline legally blind, did not help). And all that pales when you come across a friend or relative who is, say, heavily into drugs and/or alcoholic, who remembers things that simply did not happen, built out of a fog of chemical fantasies. Pity.

    1. Oh yeah, I have those relatives too. One has created a life of horrible abuse, which never happened. I, on the other hand, have blanked out one episode of my life. The only reason I know that it occurred is because I can remember the events leading up to it and events afterwards, but the horrific event that unquestionably occurred between is a total blank. For that, I am very grateful, for no child should recall such horrors. And for most of my life, I believed I had escaped the abuse, outwitted the pedophile, but as an author, reviewing the parts I do know, I realize that was not the case. But thankfully, I only know this logically. The actual event is not recorded at all.

  2. Thought provoking post! When I started trying to do my family duty and write my memoirs, I talked to my brother who is five years younger. His memory and my memory of many events were NOWHERE close to the same nor were my sister's who was three years older. SCARY! LOL

    1. We each truly live in our own multiverse. Once a friend and I were in the water. She saw a shark swim within a few feet of us. I saw a manatee. Neither of us will budge on what we saw. The details of what we saw are entirely different.

  3. Memory is also about the connections our brain makes between the memories. If I have a prior experience, my memory will be stronger than someone who has no knowledge of that concept. Our brains are truly complex. I'm still waiting for the ability to do magic like Samantha on Bewitched. I'm sure it's possible. I just have to find out how!

  4. The brain is the author of our life. What it records is not necessarily true, its what the brain thinks we want or need to recall. If it wants you to dabble in magic, it can do that, just give it time.

  5. Perception and Memories can be different for each person ;) Great post.

    1. Not just 'can be' but most likely are, except when tricked to record the same false information.

  6. Good post, Liza! Thanks for dredging up all those things I remember dfferently than everyone else. 'Course, being an OAP (and remembering that I am!), I have that to fall back on.
    thanks for sharing.


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