Hopes and Memories
Edited by Maija Utriainen
Why we should mind the mind
What is memory for you? An instant in time or a particular moment experienced in the past? The English vocabulary is quite expressive when it comes to mind and memory. Indeed, the latter’s definition is “the ability to remember information, experiences, and people’’, according to the Cambridge dictionary. However, memory is something very fragile and distorted and can lead to tragedies such as innocent people wrongly accused of crimes.
What is the science behind memory? Historically, the fact that memory is stored in the brain leads back to Plato and Aristotle. Its scientific articulation emerged in the 20th century with Richard Semon introducing the term “enigma” to describe the neural substrate for storing and recalling memories. A group of engrams explain how memories are formed and in future, it should also be possible to define how memory becomes knowledge. (Josselyn, 2020)
When it comes to brain functions, the functions of ‘recognition’ and ‘recall’ are key variables when testing memory. There is consensus in research that older adults are more prone to source memory failure, which means they might remember events differently than they happened. “False recall refers to the spontaneous production or intrusion of non studied information, whereas false recognition refers to the erroneous claim that a non studied word or object was presented previously.” (Kemper, 1989)
When diving into the topic, I came across Elizabeth Loftus, a professor at the University of California, and according to the Review of General Psychology, the most influential female psychologist of the twentieth century.
“In the past forty-five years, she has testified or consulted in more than three hundred cases, on behalf of people wrongly accused of robbery and murder, as well as for high-profile defendants like Bill Cosby, Jerry Sandusky, and the Duke lacrosse players accused of rape, in 2006.”
She also testified in the MeToo- case for Weinstein, which resulted in her students and family turning away from her.
Loftus (2013) explains in her Ted talk the concept behind false memory through the story of a young man, who was wrongly accused of rape, because he looked similar to the defendant, and his life tragically ending during prosecution. In fact, as a result of distorted memory, there are hundreds of innocent people in jail.
In her talk, she points out that „just because someone tells you something and they say it with confidence, just because they say it with a lot of detail, just because they express emotion when they say it, it doesn’t mean that it really happened.” (Loftus, 2013)
Why is this so? Why does the mind trick us in forming false memories? There are different answers to that. One of the false memory methods that have been conducted was the memory implementation method in which participants had to elaborate on events from which several did happen to them, but one did not. The example of Loftus was the following: one gets lost in a shopping mall at the age of six and is being rescued by an elderly person and reunited with family. One can argue that this isn’t that tragic of a case, however, these false memories were successfully planted in the mind of a quarter of the subjects. In other studies the suggestion planted in participants was more severe - being attacked by a vicious animal or being drawn and rescued by a lifeguard. In these cases, half of the participants believed it was true. (Loftus, 2013) These studies showed that these suggestions can lead to false autobiographical memories. Experiments also showed that negative false memory was more easily implemented than neutral events. Following on planting false memories, new research conducted experiments and found evidence that “repeated events can be implanted in memory”.
“Influenced by psychoanalytic and hypnotic scholars such as Sigmund Freud and Jean- Martin Charcot, the core proposition behind repressed memories is that they act as a defense mechanism when people experience a traumatic event.” (Otgaar et. al., 2020)
Another so-called “forget-it-all-along effect” can explain why people tend to forget traumatic experiences. Some of them, however, disclose this memory to someone else, but forget about it.
When it comes to memory we can see how complex memories are and that the images of the brain represent a vulnerable area. In case of traumatic experience, memory can be suppressed. On the other hand, studies show that false memories can even be planted in the brain. Moreover, as we are humans that make mistakes, it can also happen that we wrongly remember events or people. Living in a world of extreme amounts of (mis)information that can fool us, let’s be cautious about our own, and memories of others, and let us mind the mind.
Aviv, R. (2021). Loftus changed the meaning of memory. In: The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/04/05/how-elizabeth-loftus-changed-the- meaning-of-memory
Josselyn, S. A., & Tonegawa, S. (2020). Memory engrams: Recalling the past and imagining the future. Science, 367(6473), eaaw4325.
Kemper, S., et al. (1989): “Life-span changes to adults’ language: Effects of memory and genre.” Applied psycholinguistics 10.1 (1989): 49-66.
Loftus, E.. (2013). How reliable is your memory?. TED.
Otgaar, H., Howe, M. L., & Patihis, L. (2022). What science tells us about false and repressed memories. Memory, 30(1), 16-21.