Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Even Photographic Memories Lie

One of the more intriguing discoveries coming out of neuroscience research is that much of what we remember is essentially fabricated. The way that brain seems to deal with the enormous amount of information it is expected to store is to only truly recall key bits and pieces and fill in the rest based on everything from general assumptions about the world to material from completely unrelated recollections. This discovery has enormous implications for everything from psychotherapy to eyewitness testimony in criminal cases.

Certain people have better memories than others. The best memories are found in people with what researchers call "Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory," or in colloquial parlance photographic memories. So far 50 individuals with this trait have been identified. They seem to have a nearly superhuman ability to recall times, dates, and other trivial details from throughout their lives, such as identifying what they ate for breakfast on a particular day decades ago. And yet, a recent study has found that even these individuals are vulnerable to false memories.

UC Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning, where professor James McGaugh discovered the first person proved to have Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, is just a short walk from the building where I teach as part of the Literary Journalism Program, where students read some of the most notable nonfiction works of our time, including Hiroshima, In Cold Blood, and Seabiscuit, all of which rely on exhaustive documentation and probing of memories.

In another office nearby on campus, you can find Professor Elizabeth Loftus, who has spent decades researching how memories can become contaminated with people remembering—sometimes quite vividly and confidently—events that never happened. Loftus has found that memories can be planted in someone’s mind if they are exposed to misinformation after an event, or if they are asked suggestive questions about the past. One famous case was that of Gary Ramona, who sued his daughter’s therapist for allegedly planting false memories in her mind that Gary had raped her.

Loftus’s research has already rattled our justice system, which relies so heavily on eyewitness testimonies. Now, the findings showing that even seemingly impeccable memories are also susceptible to manipulation could have “important implications in the legal and clinical psychology fields where contamination of memory has had particularly important consequences,” the PNAS study authors wrote.

It's not that these memories are completely false, but rather that because they are reconstructions rather than recollections they are subject to distortion. The brain is actually quite good at getting the overall gist of what it is remembering, it's the details that change. Details that carry a strong emotional charge tend to be the least subject to change, and it may simply be that people with photographic memories somehow attach more importance to things like dates and numbers that allow them to do things like recall events by date.

Hopefully this latest discovery will finally put the last nail in the coffin of "repressed memories." This hallmark of psychoanalysis has been employed to cause a great deal of harm in recent decades, especially during the "Satanic Ritual Abuse" scare of the late 1980's and early 1990's. When a memory can't be recalled, it's mostly gone, and when you work at remembering it all you are doing is creating a new plausible story based on the few pieces that remain. Memory is not destiny; much of the time it's nothing more than a convenient narrative that is far more subject to psychological and/or magical manipulation than is generally assumed.

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Nerd said...

I do think there is something to the idea of "unconscious consciousness," as Ayn Rand people derisively refer to it.

First of all, you can take the concept of "selective attention." Aron Guritsch ("Marginal Consciousness") is a good exemplar of this, and to some degree also Lester Embree. They're a bit phenomenological for my taste, though, in the Husserlian sense.

You can also look at it from the standpoint of "repressed memory," which is a more psychoanalytic standpoint. I do think there is something to this. You can kind of think of it in terms of selective attention. People don't want to look at the truths the don't want to see.

There are also energetic "layers." Hypnotists will often talk about this. This is also true in QiGong healing.

You get layers of qi and phlegm in these various layers, which function to block out or distort one's perception of reality. This is to protect the individual from what one does not want to face. This phlegm in turn can have all sorts of negative side effects in health.

From a TCM standpoint, even aside from the "phlegm in the orifice" issue, you can look at it from the standpoint of the Corporeal Soul (located in the heart) and the Aetherial Soul (housed in the liver.) The former of which would manifest as the "conscious mind" whereas the latter of which would manifest in terms of the "unconscious mind."

The Aetherial Soul would be more like Reich's "rational unconscious," whereas the phlegm obstructing the orifice would be more like Freud's "irrational unconscious." lol I should do a blog post on this.

You can also look at it from the standpoint of drives. Some drives need to be suppressed, where as some need to be expressed, or even sublimated. Are drives the same thing as consciousness? Heheheh, that's too deep for investigation here.

If you want to improve memory, nourish blood and yin essence. ;)

Scott Stenwick said...

Nothing in this article should be taken as a refutation of selective attention, which any decent magician works with all the time and which has been well-documented by recent brain research. Still, "consciousness" is a tricky term. If we start by assuming it means "any processing that the brain does" we're going to arrive at a different conclusion than if we approach it as referring to experiential fields of awareness rather than localized neural processing.

Psychoanalytic repression, though, is especially silly because it's based on a complete misinterpretation of how memory works. Freud's model has little to do with a simple lack of self-knowledge, such as refusing to, say, accept that you were being a jerk in some situation because you would rather think of yourself as a good person. The repression model proposes a complex pathology structure leading to treatment recommendations that according to the new neuroscience of memory are particularly pointless. In fact, traumatic memories behave in the exact opposite way - people suffering from PTSD are certainly aware of their condition, and one of its hallmarks is the inability to stop ruminating over said memories.

In fact, the whole repression concept comes from a set of incorrect observations of subjects under hypnosis. Freud concluded that because he could get people to remember just about any event under hypnosis, all of that information must be stored in the mind somewhere. This led to the question, then, of why we all don't have perfect memories. Freud's answer was to propose a Rube-Goldbergesque system in which unwanted memories remain present but blocked, and his ideas about how this blockage might work still informs much of psychodynamic therapy. But the answer neuroscience gives us is much simpler. The information that's hard to recall is just hard to recall because most of it isn't there.

One of the places where you do see something like repression is in social situations. When people are in situations where they wish to conceal aspects of their personality or unconventional interests, you see them engage in all sorts of gyrations to keep certain topics from coming up. This can take a lot of effort - akin to Freud's idea of repressed memories consuming psychic resources. However, the key difference there is that this expenditure of effort and heightened anxiety happens precisely because the person in question is aware of whatever he or she is hiding, not because awareness of it is somehow blocked or constrained.