Pop culture tells us that some people have photographic memories. What’s the real story?
Remember when you were a kid and there was always someone in your class who claimed to have a photographic memory? If you believed it, as many children tend to do, you were probably both impressed and jealous. Then by the time you got older, you’d heard of people with savantism, and champions in memory contests, and people who could remember every day of their lives; and you probably wished that you too could have a photographic or eidetic memory. Well how would you feel if I told you that there might not be any such thing as those abilities?
That’s not to say that nobody has extraordinary or unusual memory prowess. Some do, and we’ll talk about those; but what we want to focus on today is the idea that some people have the pop-culture version of a “photographic memory” that we’ve all heard about, which sounds a bit like a superpower. They can, at will, call to mind the page of a book they’ve read, a license plate they saw, a long string of numbers, what have you; and simply read it off that image in their mind’s eye as if they’re seeing it live. What makes this such a great thing is that it doesn’t seem to come with any cost. They are not otherwise developmentally disabled, and haven’t had to trade other cognitive or behavioral functioning. This is the version of “photographic memory” that so many of us grew up believing in: the superpower version.
Not conspiratorial, but still fascinating stuff from VSauce (Michael Stevens) 🙂
We are a story our brain tells itself. And our brains are habitual liars.
Take a moment to think of a cherished childhood memory. Try to recall it in detail. Think of where you were, who you were with, the sights, the smells, the tastes. Recall the sounds, like the wind in the trees, and how you felt. Were you happy? Anxious? Laughing? Crying?
We would all like to think that our memory is like a camera that records a scene, tucks it away in a corner of our brain, and retrieves it for playback when we want to relive that birthday ice cream or feel a long lost summer breeze on our cheeks. In a large sense we are what we remember, so memories are an integral part of who we are.
Unfortunately memory isn’t even remotely like a record/playback device. As neurologist and renowned skeptic Dr. Steven Novella puts it,
When someone looks at me and earnestly says, “I know what I saw,” I am fond of replying, “No you don’t.” You have a distorted and constructed memory of a distorted and constructed perception, both of which are subservient to whatever narrative your brain is operating under.
As I like to say, we are a story our brain tells itself, and our brains are motivated, skilled, pathological liars.
Lets take a look at memory, get a rough idea of how it works, and learn when and why we need to be cautious about trusting it. Functionally, the three parts of memory are encoding, storage, and retrieval.
As Dr. Novella points out, the problems begin with encoding, even before a memory has been stored. Our brain is constantly filtering information, and constructing its own reality. We are surrounded by detail. Take a moment right now to be aware of every distant sound around you, of all the leaves on the trees, fibers in the carpet, your breathing, and the sensations on your skin — all of it. Imagine dealing with all of that all of the time! Our brains evolved to construct a narrative of what’s going on, lending attention to what matters most. That thing over there that might be a predator is a more pressing matter than the sensation of every individual blade of grass you’re standing on. But just as things get lost, distorted, or added when your favorite book becomes a movie, the running story your brain puts together isn’t a faithful rendition. In fact, sometimes the circuitry in your brain that distinguishes what’s currently happening from a memory gets confused. This is the most likely explanation for déja vu. It’s a glitch in your own brain’s matrix.
And the first thing your brain does with most information is forget it.
We’ve all seen the ads, banners, commercials and books hyping the benefits of “brain training,” offering games and puzzles that promise to keep your brain in tip-top shape as you age. Diseases such as dementia are terrifying, and millions of people do their best to stave it off though online games, crossword puzzles and so on.
As a recent Scientific American column noted, “cognitive training — better known as ‘brain training’ — is one of the hottest new trends in self improvement. Lumosity, which offers web-based tasks designed to improve cognitive abilities such as memory and attention, boasts 50 million subscribers and advertises on National Public Radio. Cogmed claims to be ‘a computer-based solution for attention problems caused by poor working memory,’ and BrainHQ will help you ‘make the most of your unique brain.’” It all sounds very impressive and scientific.
While it’s important to stay both mentally and physically active in our later years, there’s little evidence that most of the commercially-sold brain enhancement methods or pills do any good. In fact the scientific community pours cold water on these fanciful myths.
In late October the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development gathered many of the world’s leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists to examine these brain games and programs. It then issued a statement that read in part:
By Bahar Gholipour via LiveScience
Bad memories are not only part of our conscious mind, they also leave a trace in our unconscious. But now, new research shows that actively trying to forget an unwanted memory can help erase this unconscious trace.
In a new study, researchers showed people pairs of images, and sometimes asked the participants to try to forget the first image of an object. The researchers wanted to see whether such willful forgetting could change how easily the participants could later identify an image of that object, this time hidden almost imperceptibly behind “visual noise,” or a scrambled image of the object.
Generally, after people have seen an image, say of a coffee cup, they can more easily identify another image of that coffee cup even if it is masked by such visual noise. That’s because the brain does a bit of work to set up a mental representation of the coffee cup the first time around.
However, in the study, it turned out that participants had a harder time identifying an object within the background noise if they had tried to forget the first.
Moreover, actively trying to forget an object also changed the unconscious brain representation of that image the second time around, according to the study published yesterday (March 17) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
One of the major disconnects between those who practice effective skepticism and those who believe in paranormal possibilities (or are emotionally invested in unexplained mysteries) is over the topic of anecdotes and witnesses’ testimony.
If there is one fact that I wish we could all accept early in life, I would vote for drumming in the idea that memory is not like a tape recorder. If we learn this truth about the human mind, we could avoid so much trouble.
Memory is constructed. Pause a moment and let that sink in.
Memory is not objective, it is constructed by our own brains. It is not burned, or ingrained, or seared into it, as much as we would like to think that is the case. The truth is less precise, uncertain, and disturbing.
Most of us rely on our short- and long-term memories nearly every moment of the day. For the most part, our recollections are simple and good enough to get us through situations and day-to-day activities without much trouble, but false memories are ubiquitous.
I don’t trust my memory at all. I’ve seen it fail epically. That’s why I try to keep logs and records of what happened and when. I’ll take pictures of things I want to remember and write copious notes.
I’ve had a journal since I was 7. There have been times when I looked back on events and was dumbfounded at the dispute between what I thought had happened and what I wrote happened in my journal. For a moment, I doubt my journal! But that’s incorrect. My current memory had evolved into what I wanted it to be for my state right now. It had been reconstructed each time I accessed it in the intervening years.
I’d bet many of you think you have a great memory — that you can relate your observations clearly and accurately. But you’re wrong, too. Don’t feel bad about this! We are all imperfect when it comes to observing and remembering. Our brains are incredible things but they function mostly for self-preservation and propagation of the species, and only moderately well as an accurate memory collector.
Several paranormal subjects such as hauntings, UFO sightings, and Bigfoot reports rely solely on witnesses’ recollections. Sometimes years or decades pass, but the memory is still taken as credible and true because the people seem sincere. I’ve lost count of how many times the argument has been put to me that the eyewitness reports for Bigfoot are so compelling and voluminous that there must be something to them. Frequently, they present the really poor argument that if this was a court of law, Bigfoot would be ruled genuine. It’s more complicated than that.
Not only are our memories generally far from perfect, perception is poor too.
- Bigfoot Files: Science, Skepticism and the True Believers (illuminutti.com)
- Daily 2 Cents: Eerie Ground Zero Wailing – Who Believes in Bigfoot? – Probing Extraterrestrial Abduction (alternativenewsalert.com)
- Doodle Time #2: Forteana and Related Weirdness (turbolard.wordpress.com)
- Who Believes in Bigfoot? (psmag.com)
- Time for an exorcism? Demons are on the rise for Halloween (nbcnews.com)
- Reliability of Eyewitness Testimony (kmmichas.wordpress.com)
If you ask me, this looks and sounds like a classic case of false memory or planted memories.
Mason I. Bilderberg (MIB)
By GRAEME CULLIFORD and SASKIA MURPHY The Sun | News
SHOCKED Janet Holt has told how hypnosis revealed she KILLED a farmer who she believes raped her — more than 30 years ago.
Janet, 64, had buried the horrific memories until she went for therapy.
In 1976 Fred Handford, 56 — her business partner on the farm — vanished. Despite a huge police search he was never found.
For more than 30 years Janet, who worked with him on the farm, had no clue what happened to him.
But she had repeated unexplained nightmares about Fred. So she underwent therapy to see if there was something locked deep in her mind.
She was unprepared for the memories that flooded back.
Janet said the recollection was terrifyingly clear — she shot Fred after he twice raped her, then put his body in a wheelbarrow and buried him on their farm.
She said: “There are no words to describe how I felt when I realised. I gave myself in to police.”
Janet was arrested and showed cops where she believed she buried the body. But after extensive searches of the 50-acre site, he was never found and she was released.
Back in 1976, Janet — aged 26 — had been a worker on Ball Beard Farm, Buxton, Derbyshire — where Fred lived — for more than ten years. She felt her relationship with him was like a father and daughter.
But one March day she had a blackout. She woke at her parents’ house and could not remember the previous four days.
Janet said: “I had this urge to go to the farm because I had a feeling something had happened.
“I took my mother with me but Fred was nowhere to be seen. After a while we called police.”
Fred was declared missing. Janet was quizzed but freed. She thought he might have killed himself.
Then Janet heard of a form of psychotherapy called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) — used to recall memories and eliminate trauma.
She said: “The therapy involved me trying to relive the lost four days and moving my eyes from side to side to stimulate the memories.”
After four hours, Janet believes she recalled everything. She said: “Four days before Fred vanished, he raped me twice. I had clear visions of it.
- Hypnosis showed I was a killer (thesun.co.uk)
- Woman, 64, is questioned by police after claiming hypnosis revealed she shot dead a farmer who raped her 37 years ago (thisismoney.co.uk)
- Life between Lives (spiritualdiagnosis.wordpress.com)
- Truth About Hypnosis (tedietmu.wordpress.com)
- False Memories (shawncollinspsychblog.wordpress.com)
- The fiction of memory: Elizabeth Loftus at TEDGlobal 2013 (ted.com)
- false memories (sevenpeople.wordpress.com)
- Trust your memory? Maybe you shouldn’t (cnn.com)
- Satanism, murder, false memories? CEO of local treatment center steps down (kmov.com)
- Implanting False Memories (drvitelli.typepad.com)
I love this kind of nonsense, it’s always entertaining. If she were really psychic she would know about James Randi’s $1,000,000 paranormal challenge.
All she would need to do is “show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event” and she would take home the $1,000,000 prize!!!!!!! Can you imagine winning $1,000,000? Wowee kazowee!!!!!
But alas, MY psychic abilities are telling me she would never take the challenge. I wonder, why?
Mason I. Bilderberg (MIB)
via Who Forted? Magazine
Being autistic, Nandana Unnikrishnan is not like other girls her age. Despite the troubles that come with such a developmental disorder, autism sometimes lends itself to unusual and amazing talents, but never one like this: Nandana is allegedly telepathic.
According to initial testing, it appears that the young Indian girl has the ability to read her mother’s thoughts and emotions with no physical contact, able to pass ESP tests with flying colors, even going so far as to type out entire poems that have been telepathically communicated to her. The results have stunned skeptical researchers like Dr. Phillip John of the Indian Psychiatric Society, who told the Khaleej Times that he believes Nandana’s case is genuine.
“We see several autistic children with savant skills like unusual Mathematical skills, extraordinary memory about calendar days and dates. In such cases, they have access to their memory. In some people with schizophrenia, there is a symptom called “thought broadcast” wherein they believe their thoughts are known to others. It is not transmission of memory. In Nandana’s case, she has access to her mother’s memory and there is a transmission of memory, that too without a medium. This is the first time I am seeing a case like this. Here, we are talking about memory as a function which is why it is very surprising. This is a very rare phenomenon of transmission of memory without a medium.”
Nandana’s parents first became aware of her bizarre talents when they began to notice “unusual coincidences” when it came to her almost premeditated responses to her mother’s thoughts and feelings.
“I used to feel strange when she would come to me and say the name of the food I was thinking of preparing for her”, Nandana’s mother Sandhya, told reporters. “The same way, if my husband and I had decided to take her somewhere, she would know about it without being told about it and would start reacting to it.”
- Telekinesis: Facts About Mind Over Matter (illuminutti.com)
- Learn How to Connect With Your Dog Telepathically With This Simple Infographic (io9.com)
- Secrets of Telepathy (spiritualconnectedness.wordpress.com)
- Miracle Girl: Nandana has access to mother’s memory (sott.net)
- We engage telepathic communication frequently (howtobookpublish.wordpress.com)
- Telepathic Love (diamondmikewatson.wordpress.com)
- There Is A Reward Of $1,000,000 For Anyone Who Can Prove The Existence Of Ghosts. (dahliafashion.wordpress.com)
- Want to get $1.000.000? – “One million dollar paranormal challenge” (myscienceacademy.org)
- The Amazing Randi: Self-proclaimed “Charlatan” and “Honest Liar” (tvaraj.com)
- Tuning In Telepathically (omtimes.com)
via NeuroLogica Blog
Skeptics should add another term to their lexicon of self-deception and cognitive biases – temporal binding.
Over the last half-century or so psychologists have been quietly documenting many various ways in which people deceive themselves and distort their thinking. This knowledge, however, has insufficiently penetrated the public consciousness. When it does it is mostly framed as, “isn’t that an interesting quirk of the human mind,” but the deeper lesson, that we cannot trust our own perception and memory, is rarely brought home.
Skeptics have taken modern neuroscience to heart. Our philosophy incorporates what I call “neuropsychological humility” – the basic recognition that our brains are subject to a host of flaws and biases, and therefore we cannot simply rely upon what we remember about what we thought we experienced. Rather, we need to rely upon a rational process and objective evidence as much as possible (part of this is relying on rigorous science to form our empirical conclusions). These flaws and biases are not confined to parlor tricks, contrived psychological experiments, and sitting in the audience of a magic show, but apply in everyday life.
Temporal binding is one tiny slice of the cognitive biases that form our everyday thinking. The overarching concept is that our memories are not passive recorders, nor are they primarily focused on the accurate recall of details. We do have a memory for details, but we also have a thematic memory, which seems to predominate. The thematic memory remembers the meaning of events, and then details are altered to fit this meaning. We construct a narrative and then over time our memory increasingly fits that narrative. This is not a conscious or deliberate process – our memories just morph over time. We are not aware of this process, nor can we distinguish an accurate memory from one that has morphed completely out of alignment with reality. They are both just memories.
Temporal binding is one manifestation of this general phenomenon, and is related to the logical fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc – after this therefore because of this. We tend to assume that if A precedes B then it is likely that A caused B. The logical fallacy is in assuming that A did in fact cause B without adequate independent evidence, merely because of the temporal association.
It seems that we evolved to make this assumption. Often A precedes B because it did cause it, and apparently there is a survival advantage to assuming that A probably did cause B, rather than being skeptical of this fact.
MORE . . .
By Kyle Hill via Scientific American Blog Network
True memories fade and false ones appear.
Each time we recall something, the memory is imperfectly re-stitched by our brains. Our memories retain familiarity but, like our childhood blankets, can be recognizable yet filled with holes and worn down with time.
To date, research has shown that it is fairly easy to take advantage of our fallible memory. Elizabeth Loftus, cognitive psychologist and expert on human memory, has found that simply changing one word in a question can contort what we recall. In one experiment, Loftus had participants watch a film of a car crash, and then asked about what they saw. They were either asked “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other,” or “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other.” One week later the participants returned for some memory questions. Loftus asked whether or not there was broken glass at the scene of the accident. Those participants that heard the word “smashed” were more than twice as likely to recall seeing broken glass than those who heard the word “hit.” Keep in mind, there was in fact no broken glass at the scene.
This kind of insight—that our memories are terrible camcorders of reality—had serious pop culture ramifications. “Repression” and “repressed memories” have entered our culture’s lexicon, without evidential support. Even with numerous accusations of sexual abuse and other childhood horrors filed in court with the explosion of “recovered memory therapy,” the same research pioneered by experts like Loftus has suggested that most if not all of these “repressed” memories are merely false ones. At CSICon, a skeptic’s conference earlier this year in Nashville, Tennessee, Loftus herself noted that the same techniques used to implant false memories in psychological experiments are precisely the techniques used by repression therapists to recover supposedly buried traumas.
Nearly four decades later, Loftus and colleagues aim to further memory science once again. Introducing a false memory in experiment can be done quickly and with some degree of reliability, but how long does the lie last? Surely bolstered by a digital age reverberating with misinformation, the results point to a disturbingly long half-life of lies.
MORE . . .
- How Long Will A Lie Last? New Study Finds That False Memories Linger for Years (blogs.scientificamerican.com)
- Implanting False Memories (drvitelli.typepad.com)
Have you ever told a story that you embellished by putting yourself at the center when you knew that you weren’t even there? Or have you ever been absolutely sure you remembered something correctly, only to be shown incontrovertible evidence that your memory was wrong? No, of course not. But you probably know or have heard of somebody else who juiced up a story with made-up details or whose confidence in his memory was shown to be undeserved by evidence that his memory was false.
Confabulation is an unconscious process of creating a narrative that is believed to be true by the narrator but is demonstrably false. The term is popular in psychiatric circles to describe narratives of patients with brain damage or a psychiatric disorder who make statements about what they perceive or remember. The narratives are known to be either completely fictional or in great part fantasy, but they are believed to be true by the patients.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks writes of a patient with a brain disorder that prevented him from forming new memories. Even though “Mr. Thompson” could not remember who Sacks was, each time Sacks visited him he created a fictional narrative about their previous encounters. Sometimes Sacks was a butcher Thompson knew when he worked as a grocer. A few minutes later, he’d recognize Sacks as a customer and create a new fictional narrative. Sacks described Thompson’s confabulations as an attempt to make meaning out of perceptions that he could only relate to events in long-term memory.
You might think: poor fellow; he has to construct his memories and fill in the blank parts with stuff he makes up. Yes, he does. But so do you, and so do I. There is an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence on memory that shows memories are constructed by all of us and that the construction is a mixture of fact and fiction. Something similar is true for perception. Our perceptions are constructions that are a mixture of sense data processed by the brain and other data that the brain supplies to fill in the blanks.
Now there is a body of growing scientific research that shows confabulation is not something restricted to psychiatric patients or gifted fantasizers who believe they were abducted by aliens for reproductive surgery. The evidence shows that many of the narratives each of us produce on a daily basis to explain how we feel, why we did something, or why we made a judgment that we made are confabulations, mixtures of fact and fiction that we believe to be completely true.
This research should give us pause. Many of us accuse others of making stuff up when they present arguments that are demonstrably full of false or questionable claims, but it’s possible that people who make stuff up aren’t even aware of it. They might really believe the falsehoods they utter.
- How I disarmed my contentious demented mother (dealingwithdementia.wordpress.com)
- Q#1 (Favorite): How does LSD cause Hallucinations? (neuropha.com)
Can you remember what you ate for lunch on March 8, 1999? What about what you were wearing on Oct. 29, 1985? A handful of people — only 33 confirmed to date — can remember such minutiae, recalling almost every moment of their lives after about age 10 in near-perfect detail. They have what scientists call a highly superior autobiographical memory, and now researchers have identified what makes their brains special.
Researchers at University of California, Irvine (UCI) studied 11 people with the condition and flagged distinct quirks in nine structures of their brains. Most of those differences, unsurprisingly, were in areas associated with autobiographical memory. The participants also had more robust white matter linking the middle and front parts of the brain compared with a group of control subjects.
Documenting these brain anomalies gives scientists a “descriptive, coherent story of what’s going on” in the minds of people with this unusual condition, UCI researcher Aurora LePort explained in a statement.
Keep Reading: Why Some People Can Recall Life’s Every Moment | LiveScience.
- Brains Are Different in People With Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (sott.net)
- Why some people can recall life’s every moment (cbsnews.com)
- Brains Are Different in People with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (neurosciencenews.com)
- Have Excellent Autobiographical Memory? Your Brain is Differently Wired. (techie-buzz.com)