Memory – Storage – False Memories

Friday, December 19th, 2008 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

We’ve talked about how your brain changes, the way in which it learns. Forming new memories by selectively strengthening the connections between neurons in your brain using a process called Long Term Potentiation (LTP). Last week we noted that spaced repetition of a memory helps to fix it permanently into place.

This works because memory is constructive, when you remember what your mother looks like you don’t do so in the same way that a video camera or a computer does so: pixel by pixel. Instead connections between more abstract concepts are forged via LTP and then re-traced, excited together in a pattern because they have done so often before. Arrangement of features, expressions, lines and form are literally re-experienced, putting together and re-building the ‘picture’ from past experience. Even the emotions previously attached to that face will be recalled along with a more visual ‘picture’. As each of those neural pathways gets excited once more, the process of potentiation is stepped up once more. The connections are strengthened and so the memory is too.

Which means you know how to keep a memory in storage: Keep accessing that memory, recalling it and re-experiencing the event, at stepped intervals to strengthen the connections and encourage LTP. Recall it vividly and powerfully to activate the pathways strongly. Remember each detail, every minute scrap of information. This month’s meditation guides you through this.

False memory

This system works well, but is far from infallible. Connections which were initially weak may fail to be reactivated at recall and so fade. Connections which weren’t initially present can be activated accidentally by recall and so become melded up with the memory proper. This latter phenomenon produces “False Memories” and now that you understand the process of memory better you should be able to make some guesses at how false memories are likely to occur: Patterns that are normally triggered by similar events are more easily welded into a memory. For instance, last time you were at the park, was there a dog catching a ball? Are you sure? Was it a Labrador? Perhaps you just missed it?

Reading those words will have likely made you think of the last time you were in the park, and also to think about dogs catching balls. Whether or not there actually was one there, connections between these concepts will have been cascading down your neural pathways. You’re probably more likely to think there was a dog there just from the act of being questioned about it.

Repeating associations at spaced intervals makes it more likely to be recalled falsely. If a police-officer asked you repeatedly every few days about “that dog you saw at the park that time, the Labrador, was it catching something?” he’d be slowly increasing the chances that a false memory will be recalled.

Indeed, experiments show that implanting false memories into people is quite easy. The Lost in the mall technique works well for events which are likely, easy to imagine. Techniques for implanting false memories aren’t even participially hard: In conversation, imply the false memory is true to strengthen the connection between the events, all the things in it, and the suggestion. Don’t give conversational space for it to be questioned, just move right on to discussing something else, tangentially related. Repeat a few times, at the right spacing, then ask if it happened. People can quite often be convinced they experienced things which never happened like seeing Bugs Bunny at Disneyland.

Trusting Your Memory

Knowing this, how much can you trust your own memory?

It’s tempting to think that now you can’t trust your memory as much as you could when you first realized these facts. However, in fact your memory is no less trustworthy now than it was last week, if you can remember that far back. Your appreciation of your memory’s fallibility has increased, but how has the actual effectiveness of your memory storage been affected? The actual effectiveness should have been increased

You know what signs to look for when trying to decide how trustworthy your memory is. You may be able to spot and head off accidentally implanted false memories. You know that for a memory to be accurate it needs to have been rehearsed a few times without guidance or external influence, that repeated questioning from others can use unintentionally loaded language which changes the reliability of your memories. You know to admit your memory is flawed.

Things which make planting of false memories less easy include learning to pay better attention in the first place, expanding you concentration and observational powers. In general, getting feedback from all the other skills in our spiral.