While our memories form the basis of who we think we are, whether they exist or not is a matter of discussion.
We are rather attached to our memories, and so we should be. They form the basis of who we think we are and what we believe in. Our memories provide a sense of continuity that is essential to our conscious experience in the world and they anchor us in time and place, giving us a history and a perceived future. Movies like Memento and real-life accounts of people who have amnesia remind us just how valuable memories are to us.
Although we tend to think of our memories as captured by some sort of cerebral video-recorder, providing accurate accounts of our past experiences, memories are no such thing. In fact, rather than exact renditions of the past, memories are in fact fresh reconstructions cobbled together from fragments of experience, shaped by our beliefs and the context in which we are remembering. It is why the term “false memory” is misleading. It implies our memories are accurate to start with.
That personal memories of the past are malleable and open to suggestion is scientific fact. Numerous studies into memory have demonstrated that new information is easily implanted into “memory” and that people can come to believe things about their own experiences that never happened. Some real-life cases seem unutterably bizarre – rare occasions that none-the-less give insight into how memory works. Take for example the case of a woman who had false memories of sexual abuse by supposedly Satan-worshipping parents, or the woman who was convinced that she had murdered someone and spent decades in jail before evidence exonerated her, despite her own memories telling her something different.
Although most of us won’t experience such massive disconnects between reality and what we remember, our memories are nonetheless molded by a vast array of things outside of our conscious awareness. That, in effect, means our sense of identity and our beliefs are also molded by a vast array of things outside our control.
One of the most frightening influences, I think, is how easily language choices shape our memories. As originally demonstrated by Elizabeth Loftus, whose work should challenge the veracity of eyewitness testimony in every way, memories can be influenced by the mere wording of the question. Simply changing the words of the question, changes the memory.
For instance, using the phrase smashed versus contacted will change your recollection of the speed the cars were going, whether they were stationary or moving to start with, and what you “saw.” What you hear other people say after the fact also changes the memory you hold. The observed account in your memory will incorporate later information into the memory and, with each retelling, render the authentic past hazy and the reconstruction more concrete.
Perhaps most unsettling about this is that it shows how easily our memories are manipulated by the intentions, perceptions, and agendas, however subconscious, of others. And of course, they are often not subconscious intentions, but actively chosen language to shape perceptions of events. Trump’s campaign is, sadly, somewhat expert at using language to shape memory and beliefs – as the words used in his press release about an upcoming debate demonstrates.
Your brain works pretty hard to pay attention to information that supports your beliefs and suppresses information that challenges those beliefs.
Of course, memory is a pervasive concept, a big subject that covers a lot of cognitive ground. When we talk about our memories, we are talking in large part about our personal experiences in the world. But these necessarily rest upon and are shaped by a pre-existing knowledge base that informs our understanding of the world. This memory (semantic memory) relates to conceptual knowledge no longer coupled to any one particular personal experience. We know Paris is the capital of France, without having been there or remembering where we learned it. We know the meaning of the word “murder” without remembering where we first heard it. But it also forms the foundation of concepts and beliefs we hold in our minds – from restaurants to vaccinations, from politics to boyfriends, from 5G to government agendas and so on.
And it both influences and is influenced by our personal experiences. Our personal experiences shape our knowledge base which in turn shape our memories of our personal experiences which in turn shapes our beliefs … and round and round.
Semantic memories, the “factual” memories that underpin our beliefs are also (almost by definition) malleable. The brain doesn’t house an internal truth-checker. It learns through experience, rewiring itself with every encounter to create memories, beliefs, and perceptions that it (i.e., you) assumes are true of the world. And the measure of this “truth” is not objective reality, but a range of subconscious activations that you have little awareness of. Does the information come from a perceived trusted source, does it occur frequently, is it linked to other important self-concepts (like home, political or religious affiliation, or past experiences)?
Information that fits with pre-existing knowledge is likely to create stronger memory traces, than information that doesn’t. So, fake information effectively drives the entrenchment of faulty pre-existing beliefs. And if that wasn’t bad enough, your brain works pretty hard to pay attention to information that supports your beliefs and suppresses information that challenges those beliefs. It is a somewhat depressing self-perpetuating circle from whence, in a world swimming in algorithm directed misinformation, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and people who subscribe to the health advice from Goop arise.
Short of pulling the plug on social media, in a world of information overload, unmoderated for accuracy, is there a solution to this chaos?
Researchers have indicated that for some people (in a lab setting), reminding them of past encounters with misinformation by providing the correct information can potentially downplay the negative impacts of fake news on beliefs and memory in the short term. But in the real world, you’d have to jump the attention barrier to get people to recognize the misinformation in the first place, which is part of the cognitive pickle we find ourselves in.
Given the suggestibility of memory, perhaps rigorously tagging misinformation as fake news and linking to correct information may also work to plant the notion of falsehood in someone’s memory. But entrenched followers of a particular cause get their facts from “leaders” they trust (Trump, Fox News), actively dismissing tags towards the truth in favor of their pre-existing beliefs.
In truth, there is probably no single solution, but I suspect actively tracking down, moderating, and removing independently verified false content is a necessary part of the plan. Why? Because the frequency of exposure to (mis)information reinforces beliefs. Holding information sharing platforms – social and traditional media both – accountable for moderating on accuracy is surely a start towards a post-fake world? While it may seem an onerous task, maybe this is one place we can direct artificial intelligence for some greater good?