BOOK REVIEW: The Memory Illusion by Julia Shaw

The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False MemoryThe Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory by Julia Shaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Julia Shaw is a psychologist who conducted research into whether (and how) false memories could be “planted” in a person’s mind – and not just any memories, but memories of having committed a crime that one actually didn’t. That research is fascinating, and I think it’s tremendously valuable given the disparity between how accurate people believe their memories are and how fallible they are in practice. This disparity has played a major role in many a miscarriage of justice with eye-witnesses historically being considered the gold standard of evidence in criminal trials. Of course, I’m also a bit uneasy about people learning the recipe for an optimal process of generating false memories as it has the taint of being MK Ultra-level nefarious. (Though it should be pointed out that subjects must be active – if unwitting – participants in creating these false memories, so “planting” memories is an oversimplification.) This book discusses Shaw’s research, but it’s more of an overview of science’s understanding of the limits of memory and how those limits conflict with our beliefs – at least about one’s own memory [we often recognize how fallible other people’s memories are.]

The book consists of ten chapters. Chapter one dives into to one of the most common occurrences of false memory, and that’s the claim by some people that they remember events from their infancy – if not their own birth. Shaw presents the evidence for why such memories aren’t possible. This sets up the whole subject nicely because one must ask how so many people can claim to remember events that are physiologically impossible for them to have remembered, and to frequently be right about most key details. No one is suggesting that such people are liars (not all – or even most — of them, anyway.)

Imagine a school-age child hearing a story about his or her life as a baby. Hearing said story triggers a visualization in this child’s mind, and that visualization might well be filed away in memory, but when that memory is recalled the person in question may not realize she is recalling her imagined image of a story and not the actual event itself. Herein lies the crux of false memory: 1.) anything one visualizes in detail might potentially be stored away and become undifferentiated from the experiencing of an event; 2.) when we recall a memory we are recalling the last time we remembered it and not the event directly, and this can lead to a disparity between the memory and the actual event as it gets tied up with what’s going on in one’s mind at the time.

Chapter two explores perception, and how flawed perceptions may become flawed or tarnished memories. Just as memory isn’t the direct recording of events that we often feel it is, perception isn’t a direct replication of the world but rather a model generated in the brain. Therefore, the limitations and inaccuracies of the mental model are the first line of deviation of memory from reality. Chapter three describes how the brain’s physiology and evolutionary biology produce limitations to our ability to remember – limitations in spite of which we could thrive in the world in which we evolved.

Chapter four begins a series of chapters that take on specific objections that will arise to the ideas about false memory presented in the early chapters. This chapter counters an anticipated objection about people who seem to have perfect memories. In other words, a reader might admit that most people’s memories are crap (and even that his own memory isn’t infallible,) but what about the people with Las Vegas stage shows or the Asperger savant who knows every phone number in the Manhattan White Pages? Surely, these rare cases disprove the general idea of how memory works. Shaw shows that none of these people have perfect memory. Some have spectacular autobiographical memory (memory for their own life events) and others are exceedingly skilled at using mnemonic devices to remember any facts, but they all have limits. There’s also a discussion of how an unusually perfect autobiographical memory is often more of a curse than a blessing. We forget for good reason.

Chapter five examines another common memory fallacy, which is that one can remember best by getting the middleman of the consciousness mind out of the way and feeding data directly into the subconscious. In other words, it takes on subliminal learning. You may be familiar with the idea from ads suggesting that you can learn French in a couple of weeks without cracking a book just by playing audio tracks in one’s sleep and letting oneself learn effortlessly. Like every program that promises growth without effort, this one is debunked. Studies suggest that if one sleeps during such nights, one won’t learn, and if one learns, one isn’t actually sleeping. In other words, learning requires one’s attention.

I will say, the book fell off the rails for me a bit during this chapter. As I wrote in a recent blog post about psychological concepts that even psychologists repeatedly get wrong, Shaw denies the existence of hypnotic trance state as an altered state of consciousness. However, it becomes clear she isn’t arguing against the scientific perspective of what hypnosis is (a physically relaxed but highly mentally attentive state) and is rather denying the misconceived popular notion that seems to involve a person (possibly wearing a glittery cape) taking control of another person’s mind and making them into a zombified drone. She writes in an odd, round-about fashion on this subject as well as the topic of brainwashing – for which she offers her own value-laden definition. I’m not so sure that she didn’t understand hypnosis as much as she wanted to make sure her work was thoroughly distanced from hypnosis and brainwashing. It seems just seems strange and a bit dubious that a scholar studying false memory wouldn’t be thoroughly familiar with the literature on suggestibility and the states of mind most associated with it, i.e. hypnosis. I can only imagine the hoops she had to go through to get her research design through an IRB. (IRB’s are review boards that make determinations about whether a research project is – among other things – ethically defensible. After a series of famous — and ethically questionable — studies by the likes of Stanley Milgram, Ewen Cameron, and Timothy Leary, to name a few, psychology has come under great scrutiny.)

Chapter six asks whywe believe our memories are so awesome despite all evidence to the contrary. This comes down to why most of us unjustifiably judge ourselves superior in most regards. As is true of drivers, almost every person thinks she is better than average in the realm of memory. This is important because it’s not so much that our memory is fallible that leads to problems but that it’s fallible while we think it’s perfect. Chapter seven challenges the belief that there are certain events that are indelibly etched into our brains such as (depending upon age) the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion, or 9/11. Such memories were once considered “flash bulb” memories, perfect renderings of societally traumatic events carved into our synapses. However, once these memories started to be put to the test, it was found that the details — vis-à-vis where one was and what one was doing at the time — are often wrong.

Chapter eight discusses how media and social media mold memories. One element of this is group-think. One’s memories may be molded through manipulation of the fact that people will readily believe that which is consistent with their beliefs while denying that which is inconsistent – regardless of facts and evidence. This chapter also takes on how social media influences memory as a distraction and because of so-called digital amnesia in which people remember less because they figure they can look it up at any time in the vastness of the internet.

Chapter nine proposes that even one’s most traumatic memories aren’t necessarily accurate, and – in fact – might be more likely to be fallacious. This may be the most important chapter of the book because it shows how a confluence of factors (namely, bad questioning tactics and peer / societal pressure) can result in the inadvertent planting of false memories. The chapter focuses on a series of Satanic ritual sexual abuse cases, a number of which were eventually disproved. So eager to build a case to bring believed wrong-doers to justice, law enforcement officers sometimes inadvertently pressured children into making up stories under the guise of trying to get them to open up, stories that sometimes became false memories.

Chapter ten shifts gears to consider what one can do about the issue of faulty memory – in other words how one can avoid being manipulated through exploitation of the limitations of one’s own memory. This is valuable information and not just for legal purposes but for life in general.

The book has a few graphics as necessary throughout the book and has end-notes to provide sources and elaboration on comments in the text.

I found this book to be immensely valuable as food-for-thought. The author presents many fascinating stories and the results of intriguing research studies, all in a readable package. I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the subject of the limits of human memory, how these limits can be manipulated, and how that manipulation can impact the criminal justice process.

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