the fallibility of memory -- 12/24/19

Today's selection -- from The Body by Bill Bryson. The fallibility of memory and perception:

"Your brain is also extraordinarily good at finding patterns and determining order in chaos, as these two well-known illusions show:

"In the first illustration, most people see only random smudges until it is pointed out to them that the picture contains a dalmatian dog; then suddenly for nearly everyone the brain fills in the missing edges and makes sense of the whole composition. The illusion dates from the 1960s, but no one seems to have kept a record of who first created it.

"The second illustration does have a known history. It is called a Kanizsa triangle, after the Italian psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa, who created it in 1955. There is of course no actual triangle in the picture, except for the one your brain puts there.

"Your brain does all these things for you because it is designed to help you in every way it can. Yet paradoxically it is also strikingly unreliable. Some years ago, a psychologist at the University of Cali­fornia at Irvine, Elizabeth Loftus, discovered that it is possible through suggestion to implant entirely false memories in people's heads -- to convince them that they were traumatically lost in a department store or shopping mall when they were small or that they were hugged by Bugs Bunny at Disneyland -- even though these things never hap­pened. (Bugs Bunny is not a Disney character and has never been at Disneyland.) She could show many people pictures of themselves as a child in which the image had been manipulated to make them look as if they were in a hot-air balloon, and often the subjects would suddenly remember the experience and excitedly describe it, even though in each case it was known that it had never happened.

"Now, you might think that you could never be that suggestible, and you would probably be right -- only about one-third of people are that gullible -- but other evidence shows that we all sometimes completely misrecall even the most vivid events. In 2001, immediately after the 9/11 disaster at the World Trade Center in New York, psycholo­gists at the University of Illinois took detailed statements from seven hundred people about where they were and what they were doing when they learned of the event. One year later, the psychologists asked the same question of the same people and found that nearly half now contradicted themselves in some significant way -- put themselves in a different place when they learned of the disaster, believed that they had seen it on TV when in fact they had heard it on the radio, and so on -- but without being aware that their recollections had changed.

"(I, for my part vividly recall watching the events live on television in New Hampshire, where we were then living, with two of my children, only to learn later that one of those children was in fact in England at the time.)

"Memory storage is idiosyncratic and strangely disjointed. The mind breaks each memory into its component parts -- names, faces, locations, contexts, how a thing feels to the touch, even whether it is living or dead-and sends the parts to different places, then calls them back and reassembles them when the whole is needed again. A single fleeting thought or recollection can fire up a million or more neurons scattered across the brain. Moreover, these fragments of memory move around over time, migrating from one part of the cortex to another, for reasons entirely unknown. It's no wonder we get details muddled.

"The upshot is that memory is not a fixed and permanent record, like a document in a filing cabinet It is something much more hazy and mutable. As Elizabeth Loftus told an interviewer in 2013, 'It's a little more like a Wikipedia page. You can go in there and change it, and so can other people.' "



Bill Bryson


The Body




Copyright 2019 by Bill Bryson


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