Monday, October 6, 2008

The Illusion of Memory

Sunday, July 13, 2008
1:07:20 AM CDT
Feeling Thoughtful
Hearing Who invented the darn sports channel?

The Illusion of Memory

The unusual amount of rain that we’ve been having has kept our daycare students indoors more often than most of us enjoy dealing with. Energy levels run high in pre-school students that should be exhausting themselves playing chase and kickball, leaving myself and the staff trying to find activities to preoccupy their time waiting for the playground to dry.

After reading the chapter on memory, I began to associate many incidents that we’ve had on the job where each of us have had to report a problem to a student’s parent, and how each time a story was told, the story became a bit more different. One assistant elaborates on something that she believes was said that I don’t recall hearing in the same room. Another assistant insists that they observed something completely different than the other two observed. I decided it was a good day to play a game of telephone in order to observe some of the issues we had been introduced to in our text.

The kids gathered in a circle, with each of the assistants and me between them. I came up with a phrase to pass along the line; “If the sun comes out to shine we might be able to go out to play this afternoon.” I whispered it quietly into the tiny ear of the child beside me. Carefully I watched the message being passed from student to student, from teacher to student and finally to the last student. The student twitched his nose a bit and looked quizzically at me before finally saying; “Spongebob will get fries at noon?” After that, I understood the point.

The human brain is an incredible control center. Not only does it regulate the body’s systems, it also stores and analyzes a large amount of information. Taking cues from the body’s senses, the brain can determine what a particular sound is, what shirt someone wore yesterday, what pineapple taste like, what a flower smells like or even assist the body in finding the bathroom in complete darkness – all of these things are possible because of the information stored within the memory. Not only are everyday actions stored within the memory, but events, people and places are able to be recognized by this incredible organ.

Family stories, passed from generation to generation during holiday dinners come from the vast data banks of the human memory, but what you might remember of an incident might not jive with what Uncle Harry is sharing with the rest of the family. “Misinformation has the potential for invading our memories when we talk to other people,” suggests Elizabeth Loftus in her article on Creating False Memories. “Memories are easily modified when the passage of time allows the original memory to fade.” It’s not that Uncle Harry is trying to embarrass you in front of your cousins, it’s because over time he may have forgotten pieces of the event and his mind is naturally trying to fill those gaps with assumptions about what could have happened. These are known as “false memories”.

The mind classifies memories based on duration, nature and retrieval of information. Sensory memory is what is initially perceived by the senses. The ability to look at an item and remember what it looked like with just a glance is an example of sensory memory. It deteriorates quickly unless it is further processed by the mind for storage and retrieval at a later time. Short term memory allows a person to recall something within minutes without rehearsal, but its capacity is limited to about 4 or 5 items. Long-term memory encodes information semantically for later retrieval. If that information is not utilized and rehearsed (often through re-telling of the information) it can deteriorate considerably. Later efforts may produce fragments of the information, and in an effort to retain fluidity of thought, the mind may form hypothesis on those missing pieces causing the person to slightly alter or altogether change a given incident.

This phenomenon is most notably recognized in an experiment conducted by Loft and her research associate, Jacqueline E. Pickrell. The scientist asked 24 individuals to recall a childhood event that had been recounted by their parents, older siblings or another close relative. They submitted a booklet containing three events that had actually occurred, and one that had not. The participants were instructed to elaborate what they had recalled at different time intervals, and it was discovered that the more often the individual heard the false story, the more they believed the event had actually happened and that they could actually remember it happening. Experiments such as these, give strong indication that memories are influenced by other witness accounts and continued interrogations of the facts.

Our judicial system still relies heavily on eye witness accounts and signed admissions of guilt from suspects under the stress of interrogation. Although it seems ridiculous that an individual would accept guilt for a crime he didn’t commit, it happens on a regular basis. I had a client that admitted to guilt of a rape crime in order to plea bargain for a shorter sentence. With a baby on the way and his wife without income, he felt he had no other alternative. Most odd about this story was not the fact that the parent had conveyed it to me, but the grandparent. Over time, the father had admitted the guilt so many times in his mind that he had grown to believe it was true. Even though the witness later admitted the incident was consensual and she was just lashing out because he wouldn’t leave the wife, in his mind, he was as guilty as the day he admitted the crime.

Memories may be the only thing we have besides our DNA to pass onto our children, but we must remember to take the time to document them for our future generations, or our great-grandchildren may stand about, scratching their heads wondering why Spongebob got fries at noon.

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