Last week’s post on the nature of memory ended with a scene from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – the (loose) inspiration for Blade Runner.
‘Does she know?’ Sometimes they didn’t; false memories had been tried various times, generally in the mistaken idea that through them reactions to testing would be altered.
Eldon Rosen said, ‘No. We programmed her completely. But I think towards the end she suspected.’
But that’s science fiction, of course.
— Pat Kane (@thoughtland) May 14, 2016
Back in the real world, BBC Radio 4’s Past Imperfect recently discussed how startling new research shows how false memories can be artificially generated and used to change our behaviour – with implications for advertising, military intelligence, and the treatment of addictions.
In the show, an American psychologist, Professor Elizabeth Loftus, discusses how research into altering food preferences by creating a false memory of an adverse reaction to eating turkey sandwiches could be used to treat obesity and addictions. She also discusses her work with the U.S. military, researching ways of implanting false memories of their interrogator in enemy prisoners.
Even if you’re not a terrorist, it’s useful to be aware of these techniques so that when you’re building your memories – which as the show discusses, is more of a creative than a mechanical process – you can build something that’s useful to you, rather than being subject to advertising that creates false memories of experiencing and liking a product.
It’s a very similar process to the one described in Past Imperfect by which Professor Kimberley Wade has implanted false memories of childhood experiences such as taking a hot air balloon ride.
It’s weird. I mean, who wouldn’t know whether or not they’d experienced a hot air balloon ride – the lurching of the basket and the feeling of the stomach sinking; the noise of the gas as it inflates the balloon?
But the feeling of being lost while on an excursion with a parent, that’s more common-or-garden, isn’t it? More universal.
You may recall that last week, I asked you to think about a time this happened to you. For Long – Suffering Reader of the blog Paul, it was Madrid train station, 1977.
I remember it mostly for my mother remembering it for the rest of her life, and recounting it on occasion.
But his most vivid memory of Spain 1977, was walking out on the beach and falling through a hole in the sand floor under the ocean!
Mrs Stroke Bloke, as she tells it, was lost in a K-Mart once.
[Dad] was talking politics so I went to go look at the books.
Note to self – Don’t discuss #EUref with Beth in a store.
Prof Paul couldn’t remember exactly where he was as a child with his family in Spain, but when he revisited the country as a father himself, the docks of San Sebastian looked familiar.
Except, looking through scans of the old family pictures, it definitely wasn’t San Sebastian, even though the beach was rocky. And the pictures were labeled 1975.
It turns out that memory doesn’t really work the way we kind of intuitively feel it to. Certainly not when we considered long-term memory – the kind of memory that this stroke survivor appears to have greater facility with.
In Past Imperfect, the host recounts how memory works less like a video camera than a Wikipedia page, which can be edited over time. And we are susceptible to retainining genuinely held, but totally false, memories.
Professor Loftus and her colleagues in the field have, over the years, uncovered a number of miscarriages of justice where convictions have relied on detailed eyewitness testimonies. In these cases, “false memories have been unwittingly implanted during the questioning process.” If you’ve seen Making of a Murderer on Netflix, you’ll be familiar with how the same result can be purposefully achieved.
But what does it all mean? Don’t forget to remember to tune into apoplectic.me next week for the exciting conclusion to the My Name is Joe trilogy…