Illusory memories

Much ink has been spilled lately over the question of illusory memories. Studies continue to show that memories that have been cleverly implanted by a resourceful researcher seem to be indistinguishable in our minds from the real thing.

When I think of this, my mind goes back to the masterful moment in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” when Deckard pores lovingly over old photos, a drink in his hand, while sad theme music by Vangelis plays on the soundtrack. The audience suspects what Deckard does not – that his entire past might be only a clever fake, and the people in his treasured photos merely hired help from a casting agency.

And such musings lead to an odd question: To the man who truly believes he is the Emperor Napolean wrongly locked up in a sanitarium, does it make any difference at all whether his beliefs are true or false? And if Deckard is indeed merely a replicant with falsely implanted memories, does this fact even matter to the reality of his own experience? To him the resulting emotions are just as real and vivid in both cases – the joys as high, and the sorrows as devastating.

Perhaps we live in a world of illusory memory far more than we are comfortable admitting – and maybe that’s ok. Perhaps that teddy bear from our childhood really was blue, not brown, no matter what everyone else says.

Have you ever wondered, as you have thought back fondly on a particular day in the park, or a favorite conversation with a childhood friend, that you might have conjured it all up out of your own head, because that’s the way it was supposed to happen?

I know I have. But how could we ever know?

4 thoughts on “Illusory memories”

  1. You’re right that all of our memories are variations on what actually happened. I think false memory is being studied so much in psychology these days because of the cases in which false memories don’t just affect the rememberer but other people in dangerous ways. False memories can be easily induced, which means that people are falsely blamed for crimes and parents are blamed for abuse that did not exist. That’s when false memory crosses the line into socially dangerous false memory–hence such a flurry of studies on the subject.

  2. Yes, good point! Yet there are other reasons to study false memory, other than the pathological or criminal. Even in the realm of the normal and benign I think there is something interesting and certainly non-trivial about the relationship beetween even our most sincere memories and the “objective truth”.

    For example, consider the couple who build their history together through memories of a succession of shared experiences. We might learn interesting things about that couple and their relationship (and not necessarily bad things) by the way their collective remembrance drifts away – in all innocence – from what actually happened, toward an alternate world that better suits them.

    Of course this is not new territory – it has long been a ripe source for artistic exploration. One example is found in the Lerner and Loewe musical adaptation of Colette’s novel “Gigi”. In the 1958 film version, the delightful song “I Remember It Well” is performed by Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold. Both sing with great sincerity about their long romantic relationship together, while managing to disagree on every single detail – except the fact that they love each other dearly.

  3. Dean’s response to yesterday’s post regarding the economic woes of the NY Times was provocative because of its implied enthusiasm for laissez faire capitalism versus socialism. Personally, separate from the fate of the Times, I am a big fan of the McNeill Lehrer Report on PBS, and it is state subsidized and not subject to ratings and profits, which is ok with me.

    Today’s post is about the subjective nature of memory and its source of creation.

    Oddly, “The Shock Doctirine”, by Naomi Klein, ties these two seemingly disparate subjects together directly. There is lengthly description of the shock of literal brain washing, aka systematic torture, aimed at erasure of existing memory and reprogramming with new thoughts, and how our government has pioneered and sponsored this in Chile, Iraq, Gitmo and elsewhere as a premeditated precursor to the imposition of free market ideology on a society. Repeating, we forcibly manipulate memory to impose free market capitalism. I think we need to make this knowledge part of our collective memory so we can move forward accordingly.

  4. Ben,

    There is a certain sense of pride in being called out after my first post! A quick note, trying to not hijack this thread…

    If a primary role of a free press is to be the watchdog, for the people, of their government, it represents a conflict of interest to have that watchdog funded by the government itself. The gov’t role is to protect the freedom of the press, not fund the press; it is a delicate balance. I’m reminded of scientific studies into the effects of first and secondhand smoke, studies funded by Phillip Morris.

    To my mind, the concept of conflict of interest is independent of a discussion of laissez faire capitalism.

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