I was sat in a room above a pub in Whitechapel listening to Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven' backwards (which turned out to be preferable to listening to it forwards) and at the same time, if some Christian fundamentalists are to believed (and they're not, no Christians are), I was being indoctrinated into a Satanic cult. I always imagined there'd be goats, virgins, and blood involved but it turned out a pint of Red Stripe and a grab bag of pickled onion Monster Munch was adequate nourishment to accompany me on my journey to the dark side, to Satan's little tool shed.
So, what was going on? Why were people in America buying records they didn't even like and then playing them backwards? It seemed like insanity. Why were bands putting hidden messages on their records inciting their fans to commit suicide? It seemed like a disastrously bad business model. But, most pertinently for this blog, what was I doing in a room listening to Robert Plant in reverse?
It'll come as no surprise to my dwindling coterie of regular readers that I was, again, spending the evening with the London Fortean Society who were presenting Forgetting ourselves:Reflections on memory and identity, a talk by Professor Chris French (head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, "the psychology of weird shit" as he calls it) about how our memories can fail us, trick us, and sometimes let us down with fatal consequences.
As head honcho at Greenwich Skeptics in the Pub I already knew that Chris was a well informed, confident, knowledgeable, and funny public speaker so I was looking forward to the evening even if I did have a few concerns that it may be a little similar to a talk I'd attended by Dr Kim Wade in Greenwich in 2016 or, even more so, a talk Chris himself had delivered at London Skeptics just six months later. The Skeptics/Fortean crossover is rarely this incestuous but, luckily, my memory, like most of our memories, is not so good that I couldn't enjoy the same talk twice.
Luckily, though, it wasn't the same talk. Or at least it'd been modified sufficiently in the ensuing eighteen months to keep it fresh and interesting. Sure, the story of Bob Geldof saying, or not saying, "give us your fucking money" got another airing. As did the now infamous 'Gorillas in the Midst' video, the story of Kenneth Arnold's flying 'saucer' sighting, and the little game where you list lots of words relating to sleep (but not sleep itself) and then ask people if sleep appeared in the words list. Those who've never seen the trick tend to fall for it. Those who haven't less so. Rather embarrassingly I was shown a follow up video to 'Gorillas in the Midst' that I had seen before and still fell for that particular one.
Our memories are records of our interpretations of events, not records of the events themselves, that we've weaved into some kind of narrative and used our imagination, unknowingly, to fill in the gaps, the bits we don't remember. If we were to see a video recording of an event, one we've thought over countless times, it wouldn't look very much like our memory of it. Our memories are not video recordings. Not even Betamax ones you can't watch anymore.
The Professor's talk took in fake Victorian séances, Richard Wiseman, Indian rope tricks, magicians sawing women in half, and, that old favourite, Uri Geller's spoon bending. If he is using psychic powers he's doing it the hard way say conjurors who've perfected the same trick. Geller, one of the only men in the world who picks up a spoon with two hands, also used to ask people to look at the spoon after he'd put it down and say "if you look closely it's still bending".
Leaving aside the fact that a bent spoon is a fucking useless spoon that'll leave you with soup all down your shirt, this was a clear example of top-down processing. Uri suggests to you it's bending so, possibly, you believe it is. If you're easily susceptible or just naturally conciliatory you'll trick your eyes into seeing the spoon bend. Tests have shown this to work on approximately 40% of the population and if you chuck in a stooge, another ostensible witness who'll say they can definitely see that spoon-a-bending, this rises to 60%.
The top-down processing is also employed in making people believe they can hear backwards messages in music, usually heavy metal. When Chris first played us 'Stairway to Heaven' in reverse it sounded exactly like what it was, a load of 'backwards gobbledegook', but when he suggested all the stuff about sad Satan and his tool shed and played it again it did indeed sound a bit like that. As Chris himself said, and everyone agreed, it's "a load of old bollocks" but if you're a Christian fundamentalist determined to hear Satanic messages in music then you'll find them there if you look hard enough.
Most often our memories fail us in more subtle, innocent, ways. We were asked if the number 4 on clocks was represented by IIII or IV and most of us with even a working knowledge of Roman numerals thought it was obviously IV. But, with honourable exceptions like Big Ben, most clocks and watches, for some reason, show IIII instead of IV.
There's an element of suggestion involved too. If you asked someone "did you see A broken headlight?" about a car they tend to say no. But if, of the same car, you ask "did you see THE broken headlight?" they're more likely to say yes. You've suggested there is a broken headlight and it's as if you feel guilty, like you've failed, if you didn't see it. So you say you did. You might not be knowingly lying but you're tricking yourself in to creating false memories to ease social cohesion and to please.
Since 2016 Chris has extended the section on Freud and his views on repression which Sigmund held to be an automatic, involuntary, defence mechanism, a kind of traumatic associative amnesia. While it sounds plausible that people may develop a technique so that they're not haunted by horrific or terrifying events in their past the science doesn't really add up.
Mostly people would love to forget trauma but they can't. Nobody forgets being in a concentration camp and repression wouldn't even make evolutionary sense. If something has hurt us, caused us danger or damage, it makes sense that we remember what that thing is so we can do our best to avoid it in future. Repression (as opposed to suppression, a subtly different thing that implies some level of agency) is now generally considered a myth but a myth, like Christianity or Islam, that many people still choose to believe in.
Both the reliability of our memory when dealing with major, important, events and the unreliability of our memory when dealing with lesser ones is fundamental to its, and our, nature. We don't need to remember everything so we tend to only remember the very good, the very bad, and lots of odd random stuff somewhere in the middle. Memory is a tool to help us live, not a thorough documentary of our lives, and that's all we really need it to be. There are extreme examples where some people remember almost everything and others where people forget their name and where they live but most of us reside in the huge area between them where memory is a friend we can rely on most of the time but should take some of their more outlandish claims with a pinch of salt.
It was a fun evening. I laughed a lot. I learned a lot. I needn't have worried about viewing a repeat. As long as the talks are this good, and my memory is this bad, both the Fortean Society and the London and Greenwich Skeptics can repeat these talks on memory as often as they like and I'll always find something new to enjoy about them. Right, where did I put that bag of Monster Munch?