Tag Archives: Memory

Don’t Believe your Eyes

eyesToday I wanted to talk about perceptions. Not our feelings, but what we actually see, feel, smell, hear, and taste. That is, the “objective” inputs that drive our feelings. Should we really “only believe our eyes?

I think not.

In my book (see here) I talk about how we should be skeptical of our own memories and perceptions. Our memories are not recordings. They are docudrama recreations drawing upon various stock footage to put together a satisfying re-imagining. We remember going to the beach as a child. But in “recalling” details of that experience, we draw upon fragments from various sources to fill it in. The “slant” of that recreation is strongly dependent upon our current attitudes and biases. Our re-imagined, and often very distorted memory then reinforces what we believe to be a “vivid” recollection next time we recall it. Over time our “clear” memory can drift farther and farther from reality like a memory version of the “phone game.”

I contend that our brains work similarly with regard to our senses. We don’t see what we think we see. Our perceptions are filtered through our complex neural networks. It is a matched, filtered, processed, censored, and often highly biased version that we actually see, hear, or feel.

We know that our subconscious both filters out much of the information it receives, and adds in additional information as needed to create a sensible perception. I always favor a neural network model of brain function. As it relates to perception, our neural network receives a set of sensory data. It matches that data against known patterns and picks the closest match. It then presents our consciousness with a picture – not of the original data – but of that best-fit match. It leaves out “extraneous” information and may add in missing information to complete that expected picture. That is, we do not actually see, hear, smell, or taste a thing directly. We see, hear, smell, or taste a satisfying recreation that our network presents to us.

This should not be controversial, because we experience it all the time. Based on sparse information, we “see” fine detail in a low resolution computer icon that objectively is not there. We fail to see the gorilla inserted into the background because it is out of place. We are certain we see a witch or a vase in a silhouette, depending on our bias or our expectations at that moment.

But though this should be evident, we still do not take this imprecision seriously enough in evaluating the objectivity of our own memories or perceptions. We still mostly put near-absolute faith in our memories, and are generally even more certain of our perceptions. We believe that what we perceive is absolutely objective. Clearly, it is not.

In essence, what we believe we objectively recall, see, hear, or touch is not the thing itself, but a massaged recreation of our neural network match. The version we perceive can often be wrong in very important ways. Our perceptions are only as reliable as our neural networks. And some neural networks can be more compromised than others. We can recall or even perceive radically crazy things if our neural network has been trained to do so. I campaign against belief-based thinking of all sort because it seriously compromises these critical neural networks in crazy ways.

Even more unrecognized are the ways that this phenomenon is largely ignored as it impacts scientific research. Scientists often give far too much credence to reports of perceptions, often in extremely subtle ways.

As a simple illustration, consider how we often mock wine connoisseurs who claim to taste differences in wines but cannot pick these out in blinded studies. However, consider the confounding impact of their (and our) neural networks in even this simple case. When experiencing a wine, all the associated data is fed into the drinker’s neural network. It makes a match and then presents that match to the consciousness. Therefore, if the network does not “see” one critical factor, say color, it matches to white, not red, and presents and entirely different taste pattern the the drinker, ignoring some “extraneous” flavors and adding some other “missing” ones.

These same kinds of neural network matching errors can, and I have to assume often do, confound even more rigorous scientific studies. And they are further confounded by the fact that these mismatches are typically temporary. With every new set of data, our neural networks adjust themselves, the weightings change, to yield different results. The effect of a drug or placebo, for example, may change over time. If scientists see this, they typically look exclusively for other physiological causes. But it may be a neural network correction.

That is why I always admonish my readers to stick with inputs that will strengthen your neural networks toward sound objectivity rather than allow them to be weighted toward the rationalization of, and perception of, beliefs and nonsense. But since none of us can ever have perfect networks, or even know how accurate ours performs in any given match, we all need a healthy amount of skepticism, even with regard to our own memories and perceptions.

I further urge scientists to at least consider the impact of neural network pre-processing on your studies, and to develop methodologies to explicitly detect and correct for such biases.

 

The Day I Met Lucy Liu

LucyLiuSo speaking of celebrity encounters in NYC, one time I was waiting for a date in front of a restaurant near my apartment in lower Manhattan, when Lucy Liu walked up and stood next to me. She was waiting for someone as well and we exchanged pleasantries.

Oh wait… that never happened. In fact, once I impulsively related this story to a group of friends. As I did, I had a growing feeling of uneasiness as if something was wrong. Then one of my friends said, “hey that’s the story I told you!” It then hit me that I was remembering her experience. I was so mortified that I tried clumsily to cover up for my humiliation.

I had had the actual experience of waiting outside that same restaurant several times to meet dates. I had had actual experiences of encountering other celebrities in NYC. I was obviously familiar with Lucy Liu from television and movies. The presence of my friend who told me that story probably triggered a temporary conflation of all of these to produce a false memory.

How can this happen? Well it happens all the time but we are not usually made aware of it in such an embarrassing fashion. You see, we do not recall events like a tape recorder. Rather our memories are like notes scribbled along the margins of our brains, associated by proximity or by little arrows. When we try to retrieve a memory, we do not hit “replay,” rather we check our scribbled, fragmented notes and try to piece the events back together as best we can. Our memories are not recordings, but are rather more like docudramas that we recreate from scraps of information each time we invoke them.

These little docudrama memories are never recreated exactly. They are full of errors and omissions. Not only are they constructed incompletely, but they are colored by our biases, fears, hopes, and needs at the time we recreate them. Even worse, each time we recall them, our scribbled notes are updated with these changes and this modified version forms the basis of our next recollection. It’s like basing your documentary of JFK on a previous documentary. Our memories are like the message in a game of telephone, changing and morphing each time we invoke them. If my friend had not been present to point this out about Lucy Liu, I may well have further integrated her story more solidly into my own memories.

As marvelous as our memories are, these things happen. Anyone, like our President, who thinks they have “one of the great memories of all time” is simply not paying close enough attention. And it’s hard to question our very memories. After all, they form the basis of who we are and all we think we know. To question our memories is to question our own competence, our own sanity, and even the very foundation of our self identity.

Yet we must be skeptical of memories, particularly our own. Most of our memories are not as falsifiable as a misremembered encounter with Lucy Liu. There is no one to call us out of most of the memories that form our experiences and define us as who we are. Most of our memory glitches aren’t exposed on a witness stand. We recall certain things about how our parents treated us but not other things. We recall a friend insulting us when it was actually a comment made on a television show. We clearly recall a pivotal experience in our life that was in fact only a recurring dream.

I noticed that when I gave lectures, I told an abbreviated story that was a composite of a number of other stories, just to illustrate a point. Before too long I could no longer recall the individual stories but only the abbreviated composite. Each time we retell a story, that replaces our old memories and our memories change and morph over time.

You can experiment on yourself to test my claims. Just start telling some story about yourself – make it somewhat plausible. I guarantee that before too long you’ll have trouble recalling that you made this up. Before much longer, and you’ll become absolutely certain it is completely true. You remember it clearly after all, so it must be. That’s how your neural network works. You cut you bleed. You repeat experiences through stories or dreams or whatever, and they become memories. They become your self.

Even more important than recalling events is the problem of remembering feelings. Our recollection of feelings is extremely malleable. We can quickly grow to hate a dear friend or spouse largely because we retell stories over and over again that gradually deteriorate into a “powerful, unforgettable recollection” of how terribly we have been treated in the past. If we are disposed to think badly of someone, all our memories will be colored by that lens. Perhaps, a good indicator of the person we are now is the tone we impart upon the docudramas we recreate to recall events and how those events made us feel.

In fact, studies have suggested that having a “great memory” makes you less happy. People with so-called great memories tend to never let go of any slight or insult. They only get angrier and more unhappy as time goes on. I submit that their memories are not actually that great and that they likely have a tendency to create a more unforgivably offensive version of their memory each time they recall it.

Lucy Liu reminds me that a little humility when it comes to the fallibility of our own memories is a good thing. Maybe it would make Donald Trump a less angry and spiteful person if he were not quite so confident that he has “one of the great memories of all time.” Or, maybe angry and spiteful people just cannot help but create memories that reinforce their anger and spitefulness.

 

If Only I Had a Photographic Memory!

Few of us probably remember the 1968 B-film cult classic Barbarella. In that fantasy story the naively buxom Barbarella battled the sadistic Durand-Durand and the evilly beautiful Dark Tyrant. One notable character in this sex romp was the blind angel Pygar. The white-winged angel befriends Barbarella but is then kidnapped and cruelly tortured by the Dark Tyrant.

pygarIn the climax of the film, with the city exploding around them, Pygar swoops down and rescues both Barbarella and the Dark Tyrant, flying off with one woman in each arm. Barbarella looks up at his angelic face, confused, and says “Pygar, why did you save her, after all the terrible things she did to you?” Pygar answers serenely, “Angels have no memory.”

It’s an interesting thought. Angels have no memory. Perhaps only without memory can one really be an angel. Perhaps memory makes us just too bitter, too angry, to resentful, too hurt to be truly forgiving. Perhaps it just isn’t possible to remember every hurt one caused you and still fully forgive them. Perhaps those memories must be sacrificed to gain your wings.

There is data to support this premise.  Researches have looked at individuals on both extremes of memory. They have studied those rare individuals who have no long-term memory – who cannot recall anything beyond very recent events. They have compared those individuals to those equally rare individuals with nearly perfect recall, people who can exactly remember almost every incident, no matter how unremarkable, that they ever experienced.

When you compare these two groups, you see clear differences. Those with impaired long-term memory tend to be quite happy and contented while those with exceptional long-term memory tend to be quite unhappy, depressed, angry, and even suicidal. Apparently, having perfect memory takes its toll. One cannot forget every slight, every insult, every disappointment, and every disillusionment. Such unselective memories make one quite unhappy. Not having memories can be a blessing.

On the other hand, those with perfect memories tend to be excellent networkers. They recall every birthday, every anniversary, and every name. So they tend to have lots of social support that can offset their hurtful memories. Those with poor memories on the other hand tend to have few social contact and fewer friends. The cost of happiness may be loneliness and the loss of social connectivity. Are they then still happy? Kind of a sad internal contradiction.

Don’t hire an angel to become your salesperson and don’t expect them to win celebrity Jeopardy.

Thankfully most of us aren’t angels with no memory and we aren’t elephants who never forget a slight and stomp their trainer into a bloody pulp years later. We lie in the broad middle of the spectrum. I am certainly no angel but I think I lie off toward the bad memory end of the continuum. I have a terrible memory but am pretty free from regrets and grudges. But I’m also quite bad at social networking as I am hopeless at remembering things, let alone birthdays and anniversaries. I’ve wisely perhaps stayed away from professions that rely upon memory and entered instead into a career where things change quickly, where continually looking up current information is an advantage.

Many of us imagine that perfect memory would be kind of a cool superpower but that such recall is just not really possible. But it is clearly possible and evolution is wise enough not to give us what we think we want. Sometimes less is better. We could have much better smell or hearing or taste, for example, and some people do and it makes them painfully miserable. Longer lifespans are apparently possible as well, but evolution knows that longer lifespans are not actually a good thing for the individual or for the species.

Evolution has given us the balance of memory we need to make us both functional and happy. If technology eventually lets us override evolution on this, we may regret being burdened with all those painful best-forgotten memories.