Wednesday 25 September 2013

MEMORIES:  Can  we  really  depend  on them for accuracy?

Every human being and everything in the animal world have memories.  They are picked up by our senses and that is the first stage of our memory processing. Everything we do, feel, see, hear, smell and taste is recorded in our memory banks beginning several months prior to our births. The second memory processing entails maintaining the information over long periods of time. Finally the third process is the retrieval of information that we have stored. We must locate it and return it to our consciousness. Some retrieval attempts may be effortless due to the type of information stored.

For example you will no doubt remember your last birthday but you won’t remember your first birthday for obvious reasons even though memories of your first birthday are still stored in your memory bank.

The problem that faces all of us is retrieving these memories and retrieving them accurately.

Memory retrieval is important in virtually every aspect of daily life, from remembering where you parked your car to learning new skills. When you are taking an exam, you need to be able to retrieve learned information from your memory in order to answer the test questions.

There are many factors that can influence how memories are retrieved from long-term memory. In order to fully understand this process, it is important to learn more about exactly what retrieval is as well as the many factors that can impact how memories are retrieved. 

Recall: This type of memory retrieval involves being able to access the information without having to have cues given to you. Answering a question on a fill-in-the-blank test is a good example of recall.

Recollection: This type of memory retrieval involves reconstructing memory, often utilizing logical structures, partial memories, narratives or clues. For example, writing an answer on an essay exam often involves remembering bits on information, and then restructuring the remaining information based on these partial memories.

Recognition: This type of memory retrieval involves identifying information after experiencing it again. For example, taking a multiple-choice quiz requires that you recognize the correct answer out of a group of available answers.

Relearning: This type of memory retrieval involves relearning information that has been previously learned. This often makes it easier to remember and retrieve information in the future and can improve the strength of memories.

Problems with Retrieval

Of course, the retrieval process doesn't always work perfectly. Have you ever felt like you knew the answer to a question, but couldn't quite remember the information? This phenomenon is known as a 'tip of the tongue' experience. You might feel certain that this information is stored somewhere in your memory, but you are unable to access and retrieve it.

While it may be irritating or even troubling, research has shown that these experiences are extremely common, typically occurring at least once each week for most younger individuals and two to four times per week for elderly adults. In many cases, people can even remember details such as the first letter that the word starts with but they need more information for the memory to fully return.  

Here is an example of this phenomenon. Recently I was on a cruise ship and an African/American approached me and said, “I know you from somewhere but I can’t remember where we met.” I didn’t recognize him. He told me he lived in Chicago and I told him I have lived in Toronto for many years. He had never been in Toronto and the last time I was in Chicago was many years before he was born so we didn’t meet in those two cities.

Then he gave me a hint. He said, “What brings your face to mind is something you said about the disadvantage of being disabled.”  Now he was really zeroing in on when we met because I am disabled and if I said anything about it, I was joking with him. I then said, “I think I said to you, “The disadvantage of being disabled is that when I am lying on my back on a beach, sunning myself…”

He suddenly interrupted me and then he said, “And those pretty girls are running towards me to get at my body, I can’t get up and run away from them anymore.”

We both laughed and then he said, “What made me connect your face with what you told me years earlier was the cane you are using.” The cane is brightly coloured. Had I not been using that cane, he wouldn’t have recognized my face. Despite that, I still couldn’t recognize his face and neither of us could remember where we previously met or when we previously met. 

Now obviously the details of our previous meeting were stored in our memory banks. He retrieved several of them but I retrieved none of them.  I suspect that the important aspect of our original meeting was me purposely making him laugh at my disability. Whatever surrounded us at that meeting (such as the location and the day and time of our meeting) simply wasn’t pertinent enough to be retrieved from our memory banks.

Imagine if you will how cluttered our minds would be if we met someone we knew and while we were approaching each other, everything we stored in our memory banks about how we first met, the conversations we had together and thousands of other tidbits of related information that was part of our association suddenly appeared before us as we were walking towards each other. They were there in our subconscious minds but not in our consciousness which is a blessing to all human beings.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say that there are some human beings who have the uncanny ability to retrieve every piece of information they felt, saw, heard, smelled and tasted at an instant but fortunately, this information doesn’t clutter up the pathways to their everyday living. Imagine if it did. As they are meeting you and are within a couple of feet from you, they stop and stare at you because their minds are still experiencing events that took place years earlier when you first met.  There are also some people whose memories of events last only a few seconds. Imagine only remembering the past few seconds in your life. I have never met anyone suffering from that infliction but I do however remember telling my children not to fight with one another and within a minute, they were at it again. But that wasn’t because of the infliction I spoke of. They were just acting naturally in a manner that is not uncommon with young children—disobedience.                                                                                         

False Memories

This is a real problem for everyone. We think we experienced events that we believe really happened in our lives when in fact, they didn’t happen at all. No one is immune from this problem since we all have memories that are inaccurate.

It is easy to believe that we make this common error only when we try to remember something that happened years ago but that is not true. There was an experiment conducted in which a large crowd of people on a street corner watched a fight between two men. The police were called and an ambulance took one man away and a police cruiser took the other man away. The witnesses were asked to tell the police what they saw. Twenty-five percent of them claimed they saw a knife being used by the man who was later taken away by the police. But no knife was used at all because the entire event was staged as an experiment to study the false memory syndrome.

Why did they say that they saw a knife being used when neither man had a knife on their person at all? The believed that a knife was used because there was a lot of blood in the area of his chest and since they didn’t hear gunfire and they didn’t think the other man’s fist could puncture a hole in the so-called victim’s chest, they not only presumed that there was a knife in the assailant’s hand, in their minds they actually saw a knife in his hand. 

This is the real danger that ensues when witnesses see things in an event that aren’t true. This is why witness testimony is so questionable.

In 1986, Nadean Cool, a nurse's aide in Wisconsin, sought therapy from a psychiatrist to help her cope with her reaction to a traumatic event experienced by her daughter. During therapy, the psychiatrist used hypnosis and other suggestive techniques to dig out buried memories of abuse that Cool herself had allegedly experienced. In the process, Cool became convinced that she had repressed memories of having been in a satanic cult, of eating babies, of being raped, of having sex with animals and of being forced to watch the murder of her eight-year-old friend. She came to believe that she had more than 120 personalities-children, adults, angels and even a duck-all because, Cool was told, she had experienced severe childhood sexual and physical abuse. The psychiatrist also performed exorcisms on her, one of which lasted for five hours and included the sprinkling of holy water and screams for Satan to leave Cool's body.
When Cool finally realized that false memories had been planted, she sued the psychiatrist for malpractice. In March 1997, after five weeks of trial, her case was settled out of court for $2.4 million.

Nadean Cool is not the only patient to develop false memories as a result of questionable therapy. In Missouri in 1992 a church counselor helped Beth Rutherford to remember during therapy that her father, a clergyman, had regularly raped her between the ages of seven and fourteen and that her mother sometimes helped him by holding her down. Under her therapist's guidance, Rutherford developed memories of her father twice impregnating her and forcing her to abort the fetus herself with a coat hanger. The father had to resign from his post as a clergyman when the allegations were made public. Later medical examination of the daughter revealed, however, that she was still a virgin at age 22 and had never been pregnant. The daughter sued the therapist and received a $1-million settlement in 1996.

About a year earlier two juries returned verdicts against a Minnesota psychiatrist accused of planting false memories by former patients Vynnette Hamanne and Elizabeth Carlson, who under hypnosis and sodium amytal, and after being fed misinformation about the workings of memory, had come to remember horrific abuse by family members. The juries awarded Hammane $2.67 million and Carlson $2.5 million for their ordeals.

In all four cases, the women developed memories about childhood abuse in therapy and then later denied their authenticity.

Courts, lawyers and police officers are now aware of the ability of third parties to introduce false memories to witnesses. For this reason, lawyers closely question witnesses regarding the accuracy of their memories and about any possible ‘assistance’ from others in the formation of their present memories. Witnesses can unintentionally distort their own memories without the help of examiners, police officers or lawyers.

When a witness identifies a person in a line-up, he is likely to identify that same person in later line-ups, even when the person identified is not the perpetrator. Although juries and decision-makers place great reliance on eyewitness identification, they are often unaware of the danger of false memories. It is for this reason that innocent people who were singled out as the perpetrators spent years in prison before the real perpetrators were found.

How can we determine if memories of childhood abuse are true or false? Without corroboration, it is very difficult to differentiate between false memories and true ones. Also, in these cases, some memories were contrary to physical evidence, such as explicit and detailed recollections of rape and abortion when medical examination confirmed virginity. How is it possible for people to acquire elaborate and confident false memories? A growing number of investigations demonstrate that under the right circumstances false memories can be instilled rather easily in some people.

I remember telling my mother that when I was four years old, I saw my father driving a motorcycle out of our garage. My mother told me that he never owned a motorcycle and that there never was a motorcycle in our garage. What then did I see? I have no idea how that image showed up in my mind. Is it possible that I saw it in a movie they took me to and years later, the image of my father driving the motorcycle came back to me as a real event in my home life?

Memories are more easily modified when the passage of time allows the original memory to fade. Here is another example.

When I was five years old, it was discovered that I had tuberculosis in my left lung. I was sent to a sanitarium for children suffering from TB. For years, I recalled an event during my stay in the sanitarium in which I was playing outside in the morning on a sunny day and then suddenly it got very dark and the street lights went on. I later believed that this came about because of a solar eclipse. It turned out that there wasn’t a solar eclipse that year in that part of Canada. I suspect that what really happened was that the hours between lunch and supper simply didn’t come to the fore and I therefore only remembered what I was doing in the morning and the evening and nothing in between.  By combining those two events as one event when I was an adult, I presumed that the only explanation was that in the morning, a solar eclipse occurred when in fact it did not.

Mitt Romney had a memory of being at the Golden Jubilee—an important festival in Michigan—and it turned out that the event occurred nine months before he was born.

Psychologists have long recognized that gap filling and reliance on assumptions is what we often slip into our memories of past events in our lives.

I experienced a strange phenomenon when I was in my thirties. I was explaining my experiences about one of my high school years to a friend and I mentioned to him that there were no black kids in our large school. I realized later that I was wrong. There were many black kids in our school. Why then did I say there weren’t any black kids in our school? That question is easy to answer. Back in the 1950s, white students rarely associated with black kids and the latter didn’t associate with white kids either so we put them out of our minds. To this day, I still can’t remember seeing black kids in our school even though they attended that school.  

Our memories are constantly playing tricks on us and like playing poker with card sharps, we have to be vigilant. Nowadays, it is easier to check out facts in history to determine the authenticity of your own backgrounds. That is what I did when I determined that the solar eclipse I suspected occurred when I was five didn’t occur in Toronto that year. We all have memories that are malleable and susceptible to being contaminated or supplemented in some way. When we remember something, we're taking bits and pieces of experience—sometimes from different times and places—and bringing them all together to construct what we might feel is a recollection of one event but is actually a construction of several events in our lives.

There is a really strange phenomenon that we all experience as we get older. It seems that we remember many events in our lives when we were younger but tend to forget events that are current. For example, one day when I was in my early seventies, I forgot where I had placed my reading glasses. I spent an hour looking for them and then discovered where they were. They had been on the tip of my nose all along.

Well, it is time to close this article. Where is the SAVE button? I know it is somewhere nearby.

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