Memories are malleable – capable of being stretched or bent into different shapes
First, a note about the photos that accompany this post:
The text for a notice at Cloverdale Mall in Etobicoke, where I sometimes set up my home office, begins:
This Mall is a Shopping Cart Free Zone! Why? We are very glad you asked! Shopping carts do not have brakes. Using them as walkers, strollers or mobility devices can be dangerous to people and cause damage to the property, inside and out.
[End of excerpt]
It’s a well crafted piece of writing.
Preserved Stories, Jane’s Walk, local history, a high school reunion
I enjoy sharing stories that people share with me.
As a person involved with Jane’s Walk, it has often occurred to me, and people have often said to me: “A Jane’s Walk is about storytelling.”
Or: “I want to get involved in leading a Jane’s Walk because I want to learn more about storytelling.”
In doing interviews about local history, I have recorded many stories about past events recalled by residents now in their eighties or nineties. Whenever possible, I ask several respondents, at separate interviews, to talk about the same events. That enables me to get a measure of corroboration in the stories that I report, about what was happening in Long Branch in the 1930s and 1940s, for example. I enjoy stories and I enjoy preserving them.
Now, what can a person say about the nature of stories, aside from the fact that we are all storytellers and enjoy hearing each other’s stories?
That’s the topic of this post.
Memories are malleable – capable of being stretched or bent into different shapes
An online definition of “malleable” speaks of the word thusly: capable of being stretched or bent into different shapes; capable of being easily changed or influenced.
A Feb. 11, 2015 segment on CBC The Current is entitled: ‘Memories are malleable’: Looking for truth behind false memory.”
The segment features an interview with Christopher Chabris, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Union College and author of the book “The Invisible Gorilla, and Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us .” A second interview features Julia Shaw, an Associate Professor of Forensic Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire.
Notes I made while listening to the CBC broadcast on my car radio at Cloverdale Mall
I stopped my car and made notes which I can summarize as follows. But please note that my recollection, even with my notes, is less than perfect. Your best bet is to listen to the podcast. My notes are a slightly distorted version based on what I heard on the car radio.
According to my notes, which I’ve reworked in the course of writing this post, here is what the segment talked about.
The first interviewee is Christopher Chabris, associate professor of psychology
All memory is subject to error. Mistakes occur when we recall an event. Memory changes over time. A process of memory distortion can occur. Sometimes a record of a story is available – as in a video recording or notes that were made at the time of the event. That is helpful in enabling a person to keep track, to get a useful semblance, of what actually occurred.
Each time you recall a story, or retell it, the information you are working with is assembled from different sources in your brain. It can sometimes happen, in this process, that some bits of memory do not come along for the ride. As a result, distortions creep in.
Retrieving a memory is like telling a story to yourself. We need to be less dependent on memory, given its capacity for self-distortion. But that does not mean that memory is meaningless.
When you tell your own story, you’re interviewing yourself. You need, for that reason, to seek out corroborative evidence. But keep in mind that some of the people involved with the original event may also be remembering things in error. For that reason, they may not be a great resource when it comes to corroboration. It’s better to go back to video recordings, or the notes that you wrote at the time the event occurred.
Things do happen in our minds when we try to recall things. We tell stories based on what we recall having happened. As we tell the stories, we are prone to embellish them, to make them function more effectively as stories. We can say that how far we go, by way of embellishment – and of conscious distortion – can be a matter of personality, and of character.
The second interviewee is Julia Shaw, associate professor of forensic psychology
Memory is incredibly constructive and re-constructive. The reaction in the case of the news story about an announcer who spoke about an incident involving a helicopter has been sort of a witchhunt, according to Julia Shaw, if I recall correctly from my notes.
We need to get the research that is out there – the research about how the memory is so malleable. Shaw’s work involves the implanting of “memories of crime” in a psychology lab. It’s a form of forensic exploration. Shaw reports that seventy percent of healthy adult participants came to believe they had committed a crime they had not committed. The process she describes really just involves interviews with the subjects.
False information is inserted in the course of the interview. The researchers help the interviewees along by use of guided imagery. It’s a matter of increasing the plausibility.
You can’t tell the difference between a lie and an implanted memory. This is the case even in people like police officers who are trained to detect lies A Massachusetts Supreme Court (or similar high state court in Massachusetts) has come out with a ruling underlining that eye witnesses can generate false memories. This is described as an absolutely fantastic ruling.
Some say all memories are false
The notes continue:
Julia Shaw says that all memories are essentially false. They deal with (I am making up these quotes):
“What did you pay attention to?”
“How good are you at remembering?”
“How is the memory of the event recounted?”
“What’s the context in which it’s recounted?”
Multi-sensory memories – where you see things, hear things, and so on in your memory – can still be false memories.
Shaw has a positive spin on these matters. Maybe we shouldn’t put so much emphasis on memories.
She speaks of false memories related to sexual abuse in childhood. She refers to news reports of an epidemic of “Satanic abuse” in a community described in the CBC The Current interview. It was claimed that people were not coming forward to report the abuse “because they were brainwashed.” So now, the story in this case goes, the cases of abuse were being “recalled” in a therapeutic context and the “evidence” could potentially be taken to court.
How can we counteract the inherent problems with how memory works?
Make sure, Shaw says in the interview, that when we recall things we are not influenced by other stories. Don’t feed stories to the person who is tasked with the recounting of stories. Don’t be too friendly and don’t be vicious, either, as an interviewer. Be careful when people share stories with us; their stories may become our own; we may start to believe that the stories are recollections of what happened to us, instead of to other people.
“Our memories are more malleable than we think.”
I wrote that down as a direct quote. I would need to check the recording to ensure it is an accurate quotation.
A Feb. 15, 2015 Toronto Star article is entitled: “Aggressive police questioning may boost false accusations, study finds: Research inspired by a wrongfully accused Peel man finds coercive tactics with witnesses may result in them telling interrogators ‘what they think you want to hear.'”
A feb. 9, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “Was Brian Williams a Victim of False Memory?”
I owe thanks to Charles Tsiang (MCHS ’62) for alerting me to a March 11, 2015 Time Magazine article entitled: “Why 40% of Americans Misremember Their 9/11 Experience.”
A March 16, 2015 New York Times article is entitled: “Memories Weaken Without Reinforcement, Study Finds.”
Christopher Chabris, whose interview on CBC The Current is highlighted earlier in this post, is co-author of The invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us (2010).
An April 14, 2015 CBC article is entitled: “Brain aging: 5 ways to stay sharp urged by U.S institute: No clear line between normal aging and cognitive decline.”
The article notes:
Staying cognitively sharp is one of the biggest concerns of seniors, with good reason. Tuesday’s report warns that even subtle slowdowns can affect daily life, making seniors more vulnerable to financial scams, driving problems or other difficulties in a technology-driven world.
Indeed, while some people will experience little if any cognitive change, many older adults process information more slowly, and have more difficulty multitasking than when they were younger, the report found. What’s called working memory — the brain’s short-term storage — often declines with age but typically long-term memory remains intact even if it takes longer to recall someone’s name.
That kind of change may not be obvious until, say, someone is faced with a complex financial decision or forced to make a transaction quickly and has trouble, Blazer said. Older adults are losing nearly $3 billion US a year, directly and indirectly, to financial fraud, the report noted.”
[End of excerpt]
An April 25, 2015 Toronto Star article is entitled: NBC finds Brian Williams embellished at least 11 times: An internal investigation turned up 11 occasions where the embattled anchor is believed to have exaggerated accounts of his reporting experiences.”
An Aug. 15, 2019 CBC article is entitled: “We change our memories each time we recall them, but that doesn’t mean we’re lying.”
An excerpt reads:
Scientists have demonstrated that, as the years go by, much of what we think we remember is false. It seems our brains can’t store every detail we experience, so we recall the gist of events — enough to create a story that makes sense to us. Every time we recall a story or tell it to others, we change small bits depending on whether our audience looks fascinated, or bored. Then the next time we retell it, we only remember the last version we told – and the errors compound as in a children’s game of broken telephone.
Memory and dementia
An additional update involves a May 3, 2015 CBC article entitled: “Canada’s version of Hogewey dementia village recreates ‘normal’ life: Canadian facility creates similar false-reality experience based on Holland’s Hogewey.”
A conceptually related May 3, 2015 Guardian article is entitled: Why are older Danish women so happy? Danish women explain why ageing in a country that looks after its citizens is ‘like one long really fun holiday.’ ”
Evidence, scams, and blurbs
A related topic concerns the value of evidence, a topic explored in previous posts including one entitled: Stage magic and fair trade coffee.
The topic is addressed, as well, in a recent post:
Also of relevance are previous posts addressing the psychology of scams and scamming including one entitled: Beware of energy scammers going door to door. As well, the role of blurbs in shaping our perceptions is of relevance:
Working memory and long term memory
By way of a further update, a March 1, 2015 CBC article is entitled: “Social media: Are we as informed as we think we are?
Conversation group aims to help people escape the silos imposed by all our connections.”
The article notes:
Bombarded with information from multiple sources on multiple devices, can we be forgiven for having soundbite-sized opinions?
“A lot of it comes down to the fact that thinking deeply about a subject, particularly at the conceptual level, means stepping back from the flow of information that comes to us,” says Nicholas Carr, author of the new book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us and the Pulitzer finalist The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
Carr says information comes into the brain through a narrow aperture called working memory, which can fit only two to four pieces of new information at a time.
“One of the keys to thinking deeply is moving from working memory to long-term memory,’ he says. ‘It’s that process – consolidation of memory – when associations happen. It’s the connections that really matter when it comes to formulating your own understanding.”
The problem is that we’re so busy gathering information from different media and stuffing it into our working memory, we’re short-circuiting that process.”
Another problem is that learning is kind of addictive: research shows that seeking out and finding new information releases dopamine, which encourages you to repeat the activity.
Carr says that we’re giving precedence to the gathering over the processing of information: “fear that as a society we’re saying that’s not important anymore.”
Trauma and the processing of memory
By way of an additional update, a March 15, 2015 Guardian article is entitled: “The woman who faces the wrath of North Korea: After her epic escape, Park Yeon-mi devoted herself to revealing the brutal truth about North Korea – but the regime is determined to discredit her and other defectors.”
The article notes:
Countless scientific studies have shown that trauma changes how the brain processes memory. It turns out that scrambling details and confusing time frames is actually a sign that the trauma survivor is being truthful – they honestly can’t remember things in sequence. Dr Judith Herman, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard and author of Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, tells me: ‘Traumatised people don’t give you a perfect, complete narrative on the first go-round. You see this all the time with refugees seeking asylum. That doesn’t mean their story isn’t credible, because the gist of their story is consistent.’
An oct. 12, 2015 CBC article is entitled: “Memory Care Centre recreates past for dementia patients: Ontario retirement home intentionally blurs lines between today and yesterday.”
A Feb. 2, 2016 New York Times article is entitled: “Fighting ‘Erasure'”.
A Feb. 7, 2016 CBC article is entitled: “Trauma prompts the brain to focus on survival, not ‘peripheral details’: Traumatic or deeply emotional experiences are encoded by a special neural pathway, psychologists explain.”
A Feb. 9, 2017 Aeon article is entitled: “Telling memories: Jewish émigrés from the former Soviet Union tell inconsistent stories. What does this say about the nature of memory?”
A Feb. 17, 2017 Quartz article is entitled: “You’re a completely different person at 14 and 77, the longest-running personality study ever has found.’
(That is: Our memories change over time, and our personalities, however we may conceptualize what personality is, appears to change over time as well.)