Monday 19 December 2011

Why do false memories get to be so hard-wired?

I don't think I'd be a reliable witness to a crime or an accident taking place right in front of me. I wonder if many others feel the same way.
A couple of nights ago I watched 'The Big Lebowski' (left) for what must be the seventh or eight time. (One of my very favourite films of recent years - surely counting among the Coen brothers' very best to date.) Yet, as in other films which I re-watch, there were so many points where I was mistaken in what I thought had been the actual dialogue, as well as being in error in my recalling the visuals of certain scenes. I find this curious phenomenon in nearly all films which I watch for a second time or more. It usually takes until about the twentieth time of watching for my mind to stop resisting and to give in to mentally recording what was actually the 'truth'. In my case it's films like 'Gone with the Wind', 'Citizen Kane' and '2001 - A Space Odyssey' (which just happen to be my all-time favourite films) where my visual and aural memories have eventually gotten into sync with reality. But why does it take so long? I'd be willing to bet that my own mind is not so unusual in this.
    So if this is the situation in cases where all one's attention is fixed on what one is watching and listening to, (and with minimal distraction, hopefully), how about witnessing real life incidents  which just happen to occur unexpectedly? How can one reasonably expect to recall with accuracy such events - and give true descriptions of those involved? But, furthermore, why on earth does the mind do this? Does it serve some purpose? It's not as though one's recollection has to be 'softened' as a means of self-protection to make the recollection any more comfortable (though it might indeed be that in certain circumstances). But in witnessing a harmless film, even if it's a comedy, why does the mind keep adjusting or distorting things? There must be some reason behind it - but for the moment it beats me.

Further thought added on following day:-
I know that training in observation is (or used to be) given in the Scouts (presumably also in the Guides) - and, importantly, in the armed forces rigorous practice in acute and accurate observation and recollection is done for what might become life-and-death situations. I assume that when one has undergone such training it remains for the rest of one's life. Those of us who have not received this privilege must necessarily stumble on through our days with all the vagaries to which our undisciplined minds are subject. 


  1. Hello Ray:
    Well, we have no answers to this mental gymnastics which goes on in the mind but can say that we can readily identify with what you write here. For our own part, we should only venture that the mind seems to us to be in the main about pattern recognition so every new piece of information is checked against what has gone before and if a near match is found then that is how it stays, locked in for ever. Thus, when the information is recalled it is merely a best fit rather than an accurate copy.

    But, it is all rather wonderful, do you not think, that there are still so many fantastic things about the human mind and body as a whole which remain beyond one's understanding? A single lifetime is surely nowhere near enough to puzzle out all the answers!!

  2. First, I have never seen "The Big Lebowski" and need to.

    Second, I also need to see a film a few times before it all really sinks in, even if I totally enjoy it the first time around. My two nephews can see a film once and quote from it verbatim. It drives me crazy!

  3. gads, there are whole books on this subject of 'why'. Easiest explanation - the brain is so plastic and continually changing, and memories change with it.

  4. J & T, it's reassuring to read that you share my bewilderment - though, yes, I agree that the intricacies of the human mind (and body) seem to be both unfathomable and fascinating. What I do find disturbing is that the mind keeps playing 'tricks' like this even in cases where accurate recollection is not only desirable but even necessary in order to ensure that justice is done e.g. being a witness to a crime. Just what is the point of the memory changing reality? - or should one ask if there needs to be a point at all?

  5. Mitch - you too? Good, join the clan!
    'The Big Lebowski' is not to everyone's taste, though you ought to give it a go some time. The humour is very dry, and the film has acquired a cult status - well, certainly in England. Lots of quotable lines, which no doubt your nephews could repeat after one viewing, the lucky so-and-so's! Wish I had that 'talent'.

  6. Dr Spo, thanks for that 'elucidation', but if the question "Why?" is on;y answered (or not) through a number of books I can't help asking if it's valid even to pose the question? (Circles within circles within circles......)

  7. Memory is a wonderful thing, false, repressed, advanced, slack, lost, hidden, creative and spiro. There are a few TV series I like to relax to, like House MD with Hugh Laurie which I have on DVD because each time I watch it, I notice something different, or I remember something differently. The same applies to classic movies, seeing them again you notice something you didn’t notice before. There are many reasons for this, one example is that we only take in and store around 19% of what we see/do. Another explanation is that for the first time we see something we focus attention on what we are seeing and how it relates to the story unfolding, rather than all the added ingredients and supplementary information and scenery going on.
    We have a wonderful mind that will, rather a lot of the time distinguish what is believed to be good or worthy information from what is not so good or so worthy of remembering, which thus translate into only recalling a little bit of information.
    I love the way we can teach our mind to do things, for example, those in certain occupations that require higher observations than normal folk, undergo special courses, courses in observational memory, or temporary memories. It’s a long course, yet mostly involves sitting around on coffee shops taking stock of everything in a rapid look and then storing it mentally before writing it down/ relating it to others. It’s a great way to boost the observational memory, however can leave little fragments behind like the pregnant lady pushing a the kiddie buggy in Starbucks a month last Wednesday had odd socks on, one green and one red, either a fashion statement or a tired dressing! Completely no use for anything or anyone, unless you happen to chance upon a robbery or other such nastiness.
    Although, I could also just say that perhaps I’ve just misremembered what I was going to write in this comment. Hmmmm, I’ve forgotten what it was all about!

  8. Jase, I am in awe of your writing such an extended and interesting comment on this subject. I appreciate all what you say but I am still at a loss as to an explanation of WHY the mind alters the memory of reality when it is not only unhelpful but, in some cases, may be disadvantageous. I fully comprehend the burying of 'bad' experiences but the mind (at least my own mind) seems to alter so many experiences willy-nilly when storing them up in the memory-bank. Perhaps I'm a particularly poor observer of life and need to do a course in observation and recollection.
    Btw I've never seen 'House'. Sounds like I'm missing out on yet another of life's enrichments. But if I saw an episode would I remember it accurately enough to be able to say that I liked it or not?

  9. BTW - email me if you would like a turn at the Spo-Shirt!

  10. I'll do that, Dr Spo. Thanks very much indeed for including me among the 'possibilities' for a turn at it, though for the moment it might be nicer to allow further chances to your worthier, younger followers. But I WILL let you know if and when.

  11. I was going to write another comment, I thought about it earlier, but I've now forgotten it now.... no seriously, I have!

    House is a great TV show.

  12. Never mind, Jase. There'll be many opportunities to come.
    'House' is just one of a myriad of TV progs I've never seen which have been generally lauded. Got a whole load of catching up to do.