Monday night in The Monarch was busy. London Skeptics in the Pub had over Professor Chris French who runs their rival Greenwich branch for an evening about Unreliable Memories. Back in April I'd attended a talk in Greenwich given by Dr Kim Wade about a very similar subject. It was fascinating and Chris obviously thought so too as he developed and expanded on some of the themes from Dr Wade's talk.
It was different enough to keep my interest and considering Chris is
Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit in the Psychology
Department at Goldsmiths and a Fellow of the
British Psychological Society and of the Committee for Skeptical
Inquiry as well as a Patron of the British Humanist Association you'd expect so.
I had to cut and paste those titles as I'd struggle to remember them. That probably won't surprise you but you may be more surprised to learn that many of the memories you claim to actually have are of events that didn't really happen. At least not as you recall them.
There are many reasons for this and Chris touched on several of them. Even at the point of processing information and forming memories we're tricking ourselves. It seems obvious that most of us see in colour but it's a firmly held belief that that colour is only seen in the centre of our retina. Towards the edges of our field of vision things are much more hazy and, often, we'll fill that information in using memory. What we think we've seen is simply what we've rememberd from looking there before. Things could change quite dramatically but if we're not focused on those things we may not see them - and thus we may remember them incorrectly.
A popular test for this is 'Gorillas in our Midst'. A group of volunteers are asked to watch people playing basketball. You're supposed to watch, and count, how many times the white team make a successful pass. Most people manage this ok. They're then asked if they noticed anything strange about the film. Roughly 50% claim nothing strange happened whatsoever. They're then shown the film again and it's clear that a man in a gorilla suit walks into the middle of the game, beats his chest a few times, and saunters off. I tried this test and I didn't see the gorilla. You're only looking at what you think is important. You only remember what you think is important.
A secondary test for those who've already seen Gorillas in our Midst is The Monkey Business Illusion. This time we all know someone in an ape suit is going to do his party piece and we all see him. Afterwards Chris asked if we noticed the curtains dramatically change colour. We didn't. Even when we know we're being tricked we can still be tricked because these processes take place at a level of subconsciousness we're not really in control of.
As a personal example Chris told of the time him and his wife visited an estate agent's showroom. His wife had enjoyed inspecting the various bedrooms, kitchen etc; but he'd been distracted by a life size stuffed bison. So focused on the job in hand was his wife she'd not noticed it at all.
A screen flashed up a list of words:bed, snore, pillow, and about six or seven others. Later on in the evening Chris gave us a selection of random words and asked us if they'd appeared earlier. I was totally hopeless at this but even most of those who were good at it mistakenly assumed they'd seen the word 'sleep' in the list. It hadn't been there but it'd been suggested by the words bed, snore, and pillow. That's the kind of trick stage hypnotists pull and it's a pretty neat one too.
Less funny is when people, under hypnosis, have more sinister memories suggested to them. Childhood sexual abuse being the most disturbing of all. Whilst nobody is claiming that such horrific crimes don't happen Chris, and those he works with, are claiming that memories of these events cannot be brought back by hypnosis and, in fact, that the whole concept of repressed memory is highly dubious. Those who've been abused, in the most case, would like to be able to repress such memories as they're haunted by the terrible crimes they've been the victims of.
Most of the 'memories' created by this process show a remarkable similarity and as both the methods used to procure them and any results achieved are analagous to reports of alien abduction they should probably be taken equally seriously.
On the jollier subject of alien abduction and UFOs Chris related the story of Kenneth Arnold who, in 1947, reported an unidentified flying object near Mount Rainier in Washingston State. He claimed it was crescent shaped and travelled across the lake as if skimming in a saucer like motion. He never said it was saucer shaped. Sci-fi illustrators, however, took to the idea of flying saucers and that's how they were drawn from then on. Of course, after this, most reports of alien abduction then took place on flying saucers.
It's a simple case of people with over active imaginations confusing fiction with reality. A good test if you think you can remember flying like Superman is to weigh up the evidence. Have you ever seen people flying? Do the laws of nature change? The answer to both is, of course, no. So if you think you did fly once it's far more likely you're remembering things incorrectly because, unlike the laws of nature changing, that can and does happen.
Chris spoke a bit about top down processing and confirmation bias. He cited Elizabeth Loftus' much respected work on the misinformation effect and he also spoke a little about Richard McNally's work on the cognitive functioning of adults reporting histories of childhood sexual abuse. Densely packed though the talk was it was easy for a layman like myself to keep track. I came away feeling there were many areas I'd like to study further. I'd been worried two talks on false memories may be too many when, in fact, I'd happily attend several more.