Distorted memories make rational people act crazy

March 7, 2012 | By | Reply More

The way we remember the past determines how we understand the present and how we will act in the future. Consider this example: How do you remember 9/11?

Many people remember 9/11 something like this: A group of people who are representative of ALL Muslims, who were part of a worldwide conspiratorial network of Muslims, hated that Americans have freedoms, so they began an endless violent onslaught against America in order to completely destroy America.

For people who remember 9/11 like this, all of the following are “logical”: A) immensely wasteful Manichean American war-mongering worldwide, B) giving law enforcement the green light to deprive citizens of fundamental liberties, C) intense groupishness, leading to unabashed bigotry aimed at Muslims and other non-Christians and D) Doing everything possible (even at the expense of ignoring America’s decaying infrastructure) to attempt to protect Americans from violent Muslims, who could be lurking around every corner.

I remember 9/11 much differently. I remember a small group of men who happened to be Muslim, who fervently resented America’s interventions and warmongering in the Middle East, successfully carrying out a cleverly-conceived plot to destroy the World Trade Center and other targets by taking advantage of American security lapses. For me and people like me, America has gone insane since 9/11, causing self-inflicted damage that is 1,000 times the damage caused by the initial 9/11 attacks.

Image by Erich Vieth

The way we remember the past strongly affects our political views, our religious views, our moods, our hopes and expectations and the way we treat others. Each of us lives in a unique world that we ourselves construct as a result of the types of things we remember.  In many cases we consciously choose to remember events, by paying close attention to them and/or rehearsing them.  Everything we experience in the future is heavily filtered by the way we experience and remember the past. Your memory defines who you are. I should also mention that what goes into your memory in the first place is highly filtered by numerous cognitive biases, including the confirmation bias.

How good is your memory, though? If you are the type of person who insists that your memory is excellent, you are asking for trouble, because carefully controlled experiments show that human memory is highly vulnerable to distortions; this even applies to flashbulb memories.

Confidence in one’s memory, like confidence in anything, is merely a feeling–and confidence is a notoriously bad measure of whether we are able to remember accurately. In a book titled On Being Certain, Robert Burton persuasively argues that the feeling of certainty is an involuntary sensation akin to an emotion (p. xi). He lumps together the entire family of feelings of certainty, rightness, conviction and correctness under his all-inclusive term, “the feeling of knowing.” He suggests that an insistence on being right without evidence is the mental equivalent of a physical addiction.

Many of the stark differences in how people perceive the world are completely understandable and uncontroversial. A girl raised in a country ravaged by war will have memories will see the world much different than a girl born into wealth and safety. Despite the fact that many of us like to think of ourselves as unbiased and excelling at seeing things in a “neutral” and “objective” way, we adopt specialized world views, presumptions and prejudices based on our lifetime accumulation of memories.

To the extent that our memories are distorted, our ability to reason is also faulty, because Reason happily and confidently makes faulty conclusions and bad decisions out of distorted facts. A big challenge  is that our memories aren’t anything like digital recordings that we can play back intact.

Each of us suffers from numerous memory frailties, leading to memory distortions. We each suffer from memory distortions that are above and beyond our numerous cognitive biases.

What if I remembered that most Muslims, motivated by their extremist religious beliefs, were out to destroy America because they hated our freedoms?   I suspect that if I remembered the world in this way, I would rationally become a hawkish Republican, and then I would proceed to act entirely “rationally” on the basis of my distorted memory by endlessly obsessing the need for ever-stricter national security issues.

We shouldn’t be so willing to jump to the conclusion that differently-thinking others are “crazy”  It might be more accurate and productive to consider that those around us who appear to be acting “irrationally” are actually acting quite rationally based upon the their dramatically different way of remembering.

We each have a biologically-based system of one hundred billion neurons, and each of these neurons is inter-connected with up to 10,000 others, swimming in a broth of neurotransmitters and hormones–this is a simplistic description. Our mind/brain is a system so amazingly complex that it is astounding that it works at all. Nonetheless, our mind/brain often does an amazing job of remembering. Most people can remember their first phone number, even though they last used it decades ago. We can clearly re-member the plots of hundreds of movies and books. I can still remember, 45 years ago, that my aunt cried when my uncle told her he was being sent to Vietnam. I can remember the names of many of my classmates in kindergarten, people I haven’t seen or thought of for decades.

On the other hand, many of us are capable of watching the first half of a movie before finally realizing that we had already seen that movie we had already seen. We are capable of forgetting the name of a person who introduced himself three times that evening. Many of us are quite capable of forgetting most of the information we learned in a college course five years after acing the exam.

Memory is thus both excellent AND hit-and-miss, successfully recalling many things, forgetting many others and distorting much of what we think we “remember.” As will be discussed in the remainder of this article, scientists have given us much reason to be cautious about our memories, even when our memories seem clear. Many of our memory frailties are documented in a excellent book titled, Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, edited by Harvard psychologist Daniel Schachter (1995). This book elaborates on many of the ways in which memory is both dependable and frail.

The opening sentence of Gerald Fischbach and Joseph Coyle’s Preface sums up the degree to which we depend upon memory: “Memory is the scaffolding upon which all mental life is constructed.” What have prominent thinkers and scientists over the years concluded about human memory? Each of the following quotes are from the Schacter’s Introduction.

– Freud’s controversial notion of repression, “holds that painful memories are defensively excluded from consciousness.” (1896).

– French psychiatrist Pierre Janet determined that “narrative memories for everyday experiences are always reconstructed and frequently distorted.” Because new experiences are incorporated into pre-existing memories, “individual experiences may be very difficult to retrieve later as separate, distinct entities.”

– Sir Frederick Bartlett (1932) “concluded that memories are imaginative re-constructions of past events that are heavily influenced by the rememberer’s pre-existing knowledge structures or schemas. Bartlett also held that forgetting is not explainable simply by passive decay of information “but rather to the interfering effects of events that occur after initial learning–the well-known phenomenon of retroactive interference…” [Page 9]

– Ulrich Neisser (1967) held that memory is not simply reawakening “dormant engrams,” but that past events “are constructed by using pre-existing knowledge and schemas to piece together whatever fragmentary remains of the initial episode [that] are available in memory.

– Ernst Kris introduced the idea of the “personal myth,” which is “a highly accessible but fundamentally distorted narrative of self or life story. As Schachter relates, “even the most confident and detailed telling of a per-son’s life story may be fundamentally distorted because the ‘firm outline and richness and detail are meant to cover significant omissions and distortions.’ Kris held that fantasy and reality are difficult to parse because they become “inextricably merged in memory.”

– Korsakoff observed “confabulation was quote in his patients. Others “distinguished between two major forms of memory distortion in Korsakoff amnesic’s: confabulation, where patients misremembered the time and other contextual aspects of actual events; and fabrication, where patients concoct improbable and bizarre scenarios that could not have in fact occurred. Schachter limits the use of the word confabulation to “the distorted narrative productions of neurological or psychiatric patients.” He uses the term “false memories” were discussing normal populations.

– Although Wilder Penfield and others reported vivid recollections of specific episodes in response to electrical stimulation of specific portions of the brain, this is problematic as a basis for memories. As Schachter reports, modern connectionist views of distributed memory storage are not compatible with this approach. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connectionism

– Maurice Halbwachs “provided an extensive analysis of how social groups remember and perpetuate their collective pasts, with a strong emphasis on the distortions that are an inevitable part of collective memory.” He believed that “social groups exert a profound influence on the content of individual memories and help to create various solutions, condensation’s, and distortions.

– Schachter reports on compelling experimental demonstrations where the experimenter elicited “false recognition of novel materials.” Elizabeth Loftus “published a series of pioneering studies that demonstrated both that leading questions can systematically alter memory reports, and that post event misinformation can alter memory for an original event.” These experiments are red flags regarding the accuracy of eyewitness testimony.

– In the 1990s, there was much research on the issue of “source memory,” which refers “to the processes that allow people to remember when, where and how I memory was acquired. “Source amnesia” refers to the fact that many patients can recall knowledge, but are unable to recall the source for that information, even when an experimenter told them the information minutes earlier. Source memory deficits have been documented in older adults, and brain-damaged patients who exhibit confabulations. It is important to note that “when people forget the source of their knowledge, they become susceptible to various other kinds of memory distortions and illusions.” [page 15] similarly, it has been shown that “people often make inferences and attributions concerning the source of retrieve knowledge, and that these source attributions are quite prone to error.

– Photographic memory is a myth, although some people have outstanding recollection. Neisser showed that the details of individual episodes are typically not retained fully or accurately. Rather, “people tend to remember the recurring themes and summary features of repeated episodes.” With the passage of time, “individual episodes tended to merge together; consequently, people became more likely to make false alarms when asked about made up events that could have occurred and were similar to events that had occurred.

– Endel Tulving and others showed that memories are not simply “awakened,” rather, “information in the retrieval environment contributes to, and is often part of, the subjective experience of remembering. Therefore, many errors in memory can be attributed to “the constructive role of retrieval in-formation.”

– Similarly, “salient information in the present retrieval environment (subjects current attitudes) helps to distort their recollections of what they once believed.” This is referred to as “retrospective bias,” and it is most pronounced when people attempt to remember specific episodes, rather than general features from their past.

– The act of retrieving memories can itself create false memories. Henry Roedinger and others showed that subjects were prone to attributing false guesses as accurately remembered events.

– “Flashbulb memories” tend to be rather accurate but they too are subject to “decay and distortion. Nonetheless, people “express a great deal of confidence in them even when they are inaccurate.” [Page 18]

– Mood can exert biasing effects on memory. “Information that is incongruent with a current mood tends to be more poorly remembered.”

– Connectionism and parallel distributed processing is highly consistent with many types of memory distortions. “Memory is not a unitary or monolithic entity, but is composed of separate yet interacting systems and subsystems.

– Schachter notes that questions about memory can be raised not only with regard to implicit memories and episodic memories, but also other memory systems, “including working memory, semantic memory, procedural memory, and perceptual representation systems. [Page 20]. He repeatedly points out that memory is simultaneously fragile and powerful: memories are often ephemeral and distorted on the one hand, and subjectively compelling and influential on the other. Even when memories are vivid and compelling, “there is still no guarantee that they are accurate.”

Schacter further notes that “patients believe that their fabricated memories are real, even in the face of contrary evidence, even when they acknowledge intellectually that the memories are indeed rather peculiar.” Schacter blames this strong subjective conviction accompanying false memories on “a variety of factors,” including source amnesia. “The content of a past event or imagining becomes unglued from its original source and mistakenly connected to another one. Thus, there is both source amnesia and source confusion. When a false memory contains remnants of actual past experiences-contents and sources of past experiences mistakenly put together–it is easy to see how it could give rise to a strong subjective conviction that the memory is real.” [Page 20-22]

Therefore, it is well-established that memories are complex constructions rather than snapshots that can be re-triggered at will. Schachter warns that memories are necessarily superimposed on one another and therefore a memory of a particular event “always contain some influence from other memories; that is, to a greater or lesser degree, output of a connectionist model reflects a compounded construction of individual underlying representations.” He warns that there are many places where memory becomes fragile, including neural plasticity and cellular mechanisms.

Schachter addresses a new difficult area of study, the top-down influence of culture on the individual brain/mind. To what extent are individual memories shaped and distorted by social and cultural influences? He points out that there is already research providing “compelling examples of how psychological, social and political forces can conspire to create distorted collective memories of significant events in a society’s past. [Page 30]

I found Schachter’s review to be a valuable and humbling reminder of the fallibility of our memories, which expands into our fallible conceptions of who we are.  I have taken Schacter’s work one step further, suggesting that he has provided reasons for not villifying those who appear to be acting crazy.  To better understand and deal with those people, the first step might be to take an interest in what they remember.   On many occasions, you might be able to find common ground by patching up a faulty memory.  Once in a while, you might figure out that you are the one who has been mis-remembering and, hence, you have been the one who has been acting crazy.

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Category: Patriotism/Nationalism, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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