Memories of memories of memories…

Virginia Hughes has an article at National Geographic talking about the possibility of using electrical shocks to erase memories.  The shocks depend on upon the fact that every time we recall a memory, we essentially rewrite it.  Due to this constant rewriting, I’m not even sure it’s accurate to say we have long term memories, only memories of memories of memories.

This reminds me of a problem we used to have back in the pre-digital recording days.  If someone wanted to make a copy of an audio or video tape, they could do it, but since it was an analog recording, the copy lost some of the fidelity of the original.  If their friend then tried to make a copy of the copy, more fidelity was lost.  Until after a few generations, the copies were virtually useless.  (The music and film companies back then didn’t have to worry about copy protection because pirating wasn’t really worth the effort.)

I strongly suspect our long term memories are like that, except unlike the blighted video tapes we might have tried to watch, we’re not aware of just how much fidelity our memories have lost.  Each time we recall a memory, it loses a little bit of fidelity.

This is on top of the fact that when we do commit something to memory, it’s consolidated with other memories.  We don’t remember most details about a memory; most of those details are simply categorized based on prior knowledge.  As a result, as those categorizations get revised over time due to new experiences, so do the memories.

This issue of recalling memories is a bit of a double edged sword.  If we don’t recall memories from time to time, they’re probably in danger of disappearing.  (Our ability to learn new things is probably intimately related to how well we can discard old unimportant memories)  But if we do recall them, they become compromised.  Short of video taping events (digitally now) or keeping a journal, I don’t see any way out of this conundrum.

The important thing to realize about this, is just how fallible our memories actually are.  It’s why, as Hughes described, the idea of lost childhood memories has now become such a discredited phenomenon.

Eyewitness testimony of just one witness should never be taken as conclusive evidence of anything.  Given the scientific evidence that has accumulated on this, it’s a travesty that anyone in this country ever still gets convicted by such single person testimony.  Even multiple witnesses that aren’t independent from each other should be suspect.  Not because they may have colluded in dishonesty, but because they could inadvertently influence each other’s memories.

For an expert take on this issue, check out Elizabeth Loftus’s TED talk.

8 thoughts on “Memories of memories of memories…

  1. Fascinating topic and a nice bit of writing ‘SAP’! I think that for the most part this flexibility of memory works to our advantage(ie in our best interests), but it’s definitely something that needs to be taken into account in relation to our judicial system.

    “People are generally unaware of the operation of the system of cognitive mechanisms that ameliorate their experience of negative affect (the psychological immune system), and thus they tend to overestimate the duration of their affective reactions to negative events.”

    ‘Immune Neglect: A Source of Durability Bias in Affective Forecasting’, Gilbert et al 1998

    … and may serve to maintain consistency over time in regard to our concepts of self-identity:

    “Most people seek to maintain a consistent self-identity over time … When faced with a past self that does not fit with the present picture, people will rework it so that it will.”

    ‘Rewriting the script: We change our own religious memories’

    … as well as allow for a little optimism bias:

    “According to the psychologist Shelly Taylor, a healthy mind tells itself flattering lies. And if it does not lie to itself, it is not healthy.”

    ‘Life Stories: More Truthy than True’

    Overall, it appears to be another one of the ways the unconscious looks out for us. If ECT can help when an experience exceeds the mind’s ability to cope, it’s another potential tool that could be effective in situations where other treatments have been less than completely successful.

    See also:

    ‘Redirect’, Timothy Wilson(author of ‘Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious’)

    ‘Dan Gilbert: The surprising science of happiness’

    … additionally, regarding happy memories, see Daniel Kahneman on the “Peak-end rule” and “Duration neglect”.


    1. Thanks. The part about us editing our past self to be consistent is interesting.

      On the unconscious looking out for us, as I’m going through Graviano’s book, I’m starting to think that consciousness is just a tool of the unconscious, which it uses as needed.


      1. Yes, something like that I think:

        “Conscious thought is the tip of an enormous iceberg. It is the rule of thumb among cognitive scientists that unconscious thought is 95 percent of all thought – and that may be a serious underestimate. Moreover, the 95 percent below the surface of conscious awareness shapes and structures all conscious thought. If the cognitive unconscious were not there doing this shaping, there could be no conscious thought.”

        ‘Philosophy in the Flesh’, Lakoff/Johnson 1999

        That reminds me of a book I need to add to my list, ‘The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size’ by Tor Nørretranders and of one that’s already on the list, ‘Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain’ by David Eagleman

        Somebody needs to get going on the mind uploading – I’m not going to make 1/2 way through my ‘to be read’ list in this lifetime 🙂

        That’s also why Perlovsky makes sense to me in saying:

        “The unconscious cognitive model at the top of the hierarchy is significantly independent from consciousness and guides consciousness in many ways, in particularly toward feeling its highest purposiveness. This model therefore has the property of an *agent*, independent from one‘s consciousness, but in control of it. In traditional societies as well as among religious peoples everywhere this is called God.” (page 12)

        ‘Scientific Understanding of Emotions of the Religiously Sublime’, Perlovsky 2012 (preprint)


        1. Thanks. It sounds like that’s definitely the way to think of it.

          Interestingly, Graziano’s schema of attention theory has brought me back to thinking of consciousness as a real thing, closer to our intuitions than I’ve thought in a long time.


          1. Please, elaborate, and at length if necessary, when time allows, though if it needs time to marinate between your ears I completely(well, not *completely* 🙂 understand.


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