Jonah Lehrer writes about a new study of human memory and storytelling, particularly about how unreliable our memories often are, especially after years of recounting the story. Over time, we tend to embellish and borrow details from other stories, resulting in part fact and part fiction — and often even using the memories of others as our own, all while entirely believing it ourselves.
Particularly interesting is how our memory evolves in response to other people in social contexts, how the interaction of our memories with those of our friends and family can result in much better stories but far less accuracy.
The reason we’re such consummate bullshitters is simple: we bullshit for each other. We tweak our stories so that they become better stories. We bend the facts so that the facts appeal to the group. Because we are social animals, our memory of the past is constantly being revised to fit social pressures.
The power of this phenomenon was demonstrated in a new Science paper by Micah Edelson, Tali Sharot, Raymond Dolan and Yadin Dudai. The neuroscientists were interested in how the opinion of other people can alter our personal memories, even over a relatively short period of time. The experiment itself was straightforward. A few dozen people watched an eyewitness style documentary about a police arrest in groups of five. Three days later, the subjects returned to the lab and completed a memory test about the documentary. Four days after that, they were brought back once again and asked a variety of questions about the short movie while inside a brain scanner.
This time, though, the subjects were given a “lifeline”: they were shown the answers given by other people in their film-viewing group. Unbeknownst to the subjects, the lifeline was actually composed of false answers to the very questions that the subjects had previously answered correctly and confidently. Remarkably, this false feedback altered the responses of the participants, leading nearly 70 percent to conform to the group and give an incorrect answer. They had revised their stories in light of the social pressure.
The question, of course, is whether their memory of the film had actually undergone a change. (Previous studies have demonstrated that people will knowingly give a false answer just to conform to the group. We’re such wimps.) To find out, the researchers invited the subjects back to the lab one last time to take the memory test, telling them that the answers they had previously been given were not those of their fellow film watchers, but randomly generated by a computer. Some of the responses reverted back to the original, but more than 40 percent remained erroneous, implying that the subjects were relying on false memories implanted by the earlier session. They had come to believe their own bullshit.
Here’s where the fMRI data proved useful. By comparing the differences in brain activity between the persistent false memories and the temporary errors of “social compliance” the scientists were able to detect the neural causes of the misremembering. The main trigger seemed to be a strong co-activation between two brain areas: the hippocampus and the amygdala. The hippocampus is known to play a role in long-term memory formation, while the amygdala is an emotional center in the brain. According to the scientists, the co-activation of these areas can sometimes result in the replacement of an accurate memory with a false one, provided the false memory has a social component. This suggests that feedback of others has the ability to strongly shape our remembered experience. We are all performers, twisting our stories for strangers.
And over time, of course, those initially embellished stories become our memories. We remember it the way we told it rather than the way it actually happened. And Lehrer cites 9/11 as a perfect example:
We are so eager to conform to the collective, to fit our little lives into the arc of history, that we end up misleading ourselves. Consider an investigation of flashbulb memories from September 11, 2001. A few days after the tragic attacks, a team of psychologists led by William Hirst and Elizabeth Phelps began interviewing people about their personal experiences. In the years since, the researchers have tracked the steady decay of these personal stories. They’ve shown, for instance, that subjects have dramatically changed their recollection of how they first learned about the attacks. After one year, 37 percent of the details in their original story had changed. By 2004, that number was approaching 50 percent. The scientists have just begun analyzing their ten year follow-up data, but it will almost certainly show that the majority of details from that day are now inventions. Our 9/11 tales are almost certainly better – more entertaining, more dramatic, more reflective of that awful day – but those improvements have come at the expense of the truth. Stories make sense. Life usually doesn’t.
I actually don’t have vivid memories of 9/11. I’ve never really told a tale about it. I remember where I was — at work — and I remember everyone gathering around the TV that morning with others, watching the second plane hit. And I remember just being in shock. But I don’t have vivid memories of what I was thinking. I wish I’d had some immediate profound thought on the situation, but I didn’t. Or at least I don’t remember it if I did.