Thursday, 7 April 2016

Oh yes, I remember it well.

As well as London Skeptics in the Pub (which resides in Camden) I also attend 'meetings' at the Greenwich branch. It's a fortuitous location for many reasons. I can, and normally do, stop at Goddards for veggie pie'n'mash - which is uniformly delicious. The Thameside walk is glorious with views across to the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf, down to the dome and the cable cars, and back to the Shard. Lastly the pub that hosts the Skeptics, The Star & Garter, is a pleasure. A proper old boozer where the landlady gives you a warm welcome and you can get a pint of Young's Bitter (3.7%) for £3.20.

Lots of things I like. But how do I know I like them? Because I remember enjoying them before. Memory plays a huge part in shaping our opinions, decisions, and future actions. But what if some of our memories had, somehow, been falsely implanted in our minds? Could that happen? Would that affect our behaviour or would we still make the same decisions either way?

Dr Kim Wade is an Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Warwick. She is a cognitive psychologist specialising in autobiographical memory and memory distortions and she is especially interested in the mechanisms that drive the development of false memories and in refining the theories that explain false memory phenomena. 

She'd kindly come along to the Greenwich Skeptics to talk a little bit about that work and I, for one, am glad she did. It was a fascinating talk and, like any successful event of this nature, I found that each answer left me with even more questions. Not that there were many answers as such. As a field it's relatively new. It's only since the mid-nineties that people have accepted it as a fact. 

Kim began by telling the story of NBC anchor Brian Williams who claimed his helicopter was downed by a rocket propelled grenade over Iraq in 2003. When it became apparent this had not happened Williams claimed he'd falsely remembered it. It seems ludicrous that you'd not remember an event of that magnitude but Kim was generous in accepting that there was a chance he was misremembering, rather than straight out lying. 

This potentially opens up a moralistic minefield for courts in future years but Kim was here more to focus on the science. She and her colleagues had carried out controlled experiments on volunteers where they'd shown them some photographs from their youths. Most were genuine photos of happy childhood outings, family shots etc; But into each they'd placed a photoshopped image of said volunteer as a small child enjoying a hot air balloon excursion.

At the first meeting most volunteers said they couldn't remember going up in the hot air balloon. They went away, slept on it, came in the next day and this time about 20% of them said they'd remembered it now. Another night, another meeting, and now half of them could remember their trip c/o the Montgolfier brothers. One volunteer even going so far as to describe the altimeter and how he'd upset his sister by spitting over the side of the basket. Three brief (about 20 minute meetings), one doctored photo, and, hey presto, a new memory! The power of suggestion indeed.

So why some people and not others? They're not sure yet, as I said the field is in its nascent stages, but it doesn't appear to be because some of us are more mendacious than others. In fact agreeableness and empathy seemed to be a greater factor. Even more important was the tester's personality. If the person suggesting false memories to you is likable, outgoing, and you warm to them you're more susceptible to the suggestions.

There are ethical and financial difficulties with conducting these studies but so far Kim and her colleagues have found the ratios and results have been fairly consistent. Face to face interaction works much better for planting false memories though online interaction has had results too.

It's not just associate professors in psychology and stage hypnotists who use these techniques. We all may do, unknowingly. Couples, people who've worked together for a long time, and particularly twins, it's claimed, often remember things that didn't happen to them - but actually happened to their partner, colleague, or sibling.

A contributor in the audience told the story of his grandfather who claimed to remember Winston Churchill's speech being broadcast on the radio during the war even though this wasn't aired and was, actually, repeated by a radio announcer that evening. Another example, put forward by the host Chris French, was Bob Geldof's request to 'give us your fucking money' during Live Aid in 1985. The Boomtown Rat never said it. He swore at one point and he asked for money at another but somewhere in the midst of time we've conflated these two things and remembered them incorrectly. I put my hand up to this one. They're small examples, although they refer to big events, but with concerted effort to implant a memory imagine what could be done.

One group of people who aren't particularly susceptible to it are those with HSAM or hyperthymesia. These are people whose autobiographical memories are so strong that you could choose a random day of their life and they'd be able to tell you what they had for breakfast, what the weather was like, and similar mundane information.

It seems the way most of our brains work is to dispose of most of the memories we won't be needing or wanting and hang on to the ones that serve some purpose. Even memories of awful events are useful to us. If we've burnt ourselves as children, crashed our cars on certain corners, or had our hearts broken then memories of these events will protect us in the future. Or so it's hoped. The brains of those with hyperthymesia don't function like that. It's neither a blessing nor a curse for them but it makes them an interesting case study - and an interesting evening out in Greenwich it was too. At least that's how I think I remember it.

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