Our memories aren’t very reliable. The sobering truth is that we forget most of what we experience, our memories are usually distorted after they are formed and we have the tendency to accept misinformation about the past and faithfully adopt it as our own. In other words, we don’t store memories like computers. Now, a new study out of Psychology Science by Deborah Hannula, Carol L. Baym and Neal J. Cohen suggests that there is a more accurate way of reading our memories.
For the study Hannula and her team gathered a few dozen students and had them examine several dozen males faces (study-trails). Then, the students were shown displays of three faces (test-trails); half of the displays contained a face from the study-trails, the other half contained three faces visually similar to the faces (but not the faces themselves) from the study-trails. Participants were told to press a button when they recognized a face. They were also told to verbally indicate if they had seen a face from the study-trails since some displays did not contain faces from the study-trails. Using eye-tracking technology, Hannula looked for two things, where their eye focused first and what proportion of time the students spent looking there.
As expected, the participants did a good job of recognizing faces they had studied; they usually focused their eyes first on the studied faces and for the longest time. Hannula explains that, “before they chose a face and pressed a button, there was disproportionate viewing of the [studied faces] as compared to either type of selected face.” Particularly interesting was the observation that “early disproportionate viewing of the [studied faces] may precede and help give rise to awareness that a particular face has been studied… these cognitive processes permit us to make a decision, but may also lead us down the wrong path. In this case, leading us to endorse a face as studied despite having never seen it before.”
Their findings suggest that our unconscious mind does an excellent job of recognizing previously seen faces yet it is our conscious mind that sometimes gets in the way – we sometimes see without knowing, in other words, and it is only when we review our memories that they get distorted. Therefore, the researchers conclude that the effects of prior exposure can be seen in eye movements differently than explicit judgments.
In a different but related paper, Micah Edelson, Tali Sharot, Raymond Dolan and Yadin Dudai also demonstrated how much our conscious mind distorts memory. Jonah Lehrer explains:
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…. [So] 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.
Our conscious mind also does an excellent job of maintaining false memories as real. For example, the day after the Challenger disaster Ulric Neisser asked Emory University undergrads to write a description of how they heard of the disaster – the time of day, what they were doing and how they felt about it. Then he asked the same students the same set of questions two and a half years later and compared the two descriptions. He found that, “twenty-five percent of the students’ subsequent accounts were strikingly different from their original journal entries. More than half the people had lesser degrees of error, and less than ten percent had all the details correct.” To make matters worse, “when confronted with their original reports, rather than suddenly realizing that they had misremembered, they often persisted in believing their current memory.”
You think that you remembered your fourth birthday correctly? Think again.