The Mystery of Memory

Have you ever embellished a story—or just made something up—and re-told the not-entirely-true version enough times that you could no longer distinguish between fact and fiction?

In the first draft of his memoir about his childhood in Egypt, Andre Aciman wrote a scene involving a conversation with his brother. In the published version of the book, the scene was altered so it read as an inner dialogue—Aciman’s brother was removed. Upon returning to Egypt and the neighborhood where that conversation took place, Aciman realized he could no longer recall the conversation as vividly as he once had. His only accurate memory of it is in the memoir’s first draft. “I have forgotten what really happened,” he said.

Aciman’s dilemma addressed the core question posed by moderator Steve Paulson at Wednesday’s New York Academy of Sciences event: “Do we recall memories just as they were or are we creating new memories in remembering the original?”

At “The Mystery of Memory: In Search of the Past,” Paulsen, executive producer of the radio program “To the Best of Our Knowledge,” tackled the complexity of memory with four panelists: Aciman, a novelist and comparative literature professor; historian of science and medicine Alison Winter; and Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives members Daniel Schacter, Ph.D., a Harvard psychologist, and NYU neuroscientist Joe LeDoux, Ph.D.

LeDoux explained how the brain’s plasticity leads to the creation of memories. “It is a representation across millions of synapses that is activated by a stimulus,” he said. “It is amazing that it all works.”

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t. Memory problems can be caused by an error during encoding or during retrieval; conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and amnesia are well-known examples. But people with functioning memories can experience problems, too. On Wednesday, Schacter was able to implant a “false memory” in more than half of the audience. (If you’d like to try the test for yourself before reading the rest of this paragraph, feel free.) He recited a list of 15 words, including candy, sugar, and taste. A minute or two later, he asked the audience whether certain words were on the original list. Taste, most everyone agreed, was. Nail was not. In both instances, the audience was correct. Lastly, Schacter asked if sweet was on the list. Nearly every hand went up. “Are you absolutely certain it was on the list?” Schacter asked. Some hands went down, but a majority was confident it was on the list. It was not. Most of the words were related to sweet; that association helped contribute to the false memory.

“We need to be aware that memory can be inaccurate and know in what circumstances it is more likely to be so,” Schacter said. In dealing with eye witness accounts, he advised “appropriate skepticism.”

The panelists also addressed the future of memory. Winter noted that a good memory was “crucial” hundreds of years ago. With the rise of computers and the instant results of search engines, “A good memory is now a novelty as opposed to being valued or a show of intelligence.” Schacter added that our memories may be adapting to remember different kinds of things, like what folder a particular file is located in on your hard drive as opposed to the information found on the file.

When asked if society would move towards erasing bad memories, as a soldier who witnesses a traumatic event might want to do, LeDoux was skeptical. We may weaken the impact of a memory by weakening the ability of the brain to trigger as severe an emotional response, he said, but not remove the memory itself.

Schacter said that common memory problems are often seen as defects, but he views them as our memories “updating.” “Memory isn’t about the past, it’s about preparing for the future.”

Mark Twain once said, “If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.” It gives me a headache to think about what memory experts might have to say about that.

– Andrew Kahn

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