Sunday, February 8, 2015

Sunday musings on Memory

The human memory sucks.  It's not just a tad inaccurate or sometimes flawed but just plain terrible.  Heck, the human brain in general is highly imperfect. I am no expert in this field but Skeptics tend to know this through works of such experts as Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and Dr. Steven Novella.  On the other hand society at large places much greater stock in the recall ability of the brain than science supports.  Compare this to skeptics who are aware just how imperfect the brain is in general from recalling past events as well in perceiving actual events as they occur.  Our brain's glitches are what magicians, some con-men, and Richard Wiseman bank upon for them to do their jobs. 

This gap in how much normal people and skeptics trust the brain sometimes places the skeptic in a difficult position.  Currently, in the United States NBC News anchor Brian Williams is in a lot of hot water for telling a story over the last decade of an incident in Iraq when the helicopter he was in was shot down.  From the evidence at hand and looking back over various records it seems Williams' helicopter was not shot down, but a helicopter in the group ahead of his was brought down by enemy fire.  His helicopter landed in the same area sometime later.  He's been called a liar for the above discrepancy with many commentators categorically stating that Williams must be lying after all how could one remember being shot down when it did not happen.  

First, I accept that Williams could be knowingly telling a false story, whether to sound 'cool' to dip his toe into the pool of military valor, or he's just a jerk.   Maybe he told what he thought was a little exaggeration at one point but over the years truly believed this exaggerated rendition of the story to be real.  I have no idea and as noted above I am not a memory expert.   However, my knee jerk reaction upon learning of Williams' plight was a mix between he's a liar quickly followed by holy cow our brains can be this screwed up.  The ability that people can actually recall being shot down when it actually did not happen is scary amazing.  

I brought this up at a literal water cooler discussion with a co-worker that Williams is either lying or it is freaky just how faulty memory can be.  The response was Williams could not possibly recall something that did not occur therefore he is a lying.  I pushed a bit that memory is awfully imperfect, and people can recall things that did not occur.  The response was nobody's memory is that bad.  It let it stop there.  It's work.  I just want to get along. I suspect that people either don't want to consider that if Williams' memory is that bad then their memory can be as flawed.  

Having knowledge that human memory stinks has caused me to become very equivocal when I try recalling almost anything.  I must come across as a giant weasel when I preface statements with "It is my best recollection" or "from what I recall."   The editor and I are always disagreeing on what vacation trip or who did what when. To an outsider it would appear we went on two separate trips.  In reality our brains just stink at recalling what happened for example on a Caribbean beach vacation in 2011.  

Another personal example of my personal memory foibles is that I once thought I saw a 'ghost' civil war signal officer on top of the cupola of Pennsylvania Hall at Gettysburg College one night.  Even at the time (as I recall) I deduced it was a trick of the eye of the flag and the shadows screwing with my mind.  Yet, I recall to versions of this event.  One version is this observation occurred on a cold snow covered winter campus evening, and another version that it was brisk October evening with smell of fallen leaves filling the air.  For the life of me I have no idea which one is more accurate.  
Cupola Pennsylvania Hall

So where does this leave things?  If an honest skeptic and an honest normal person are discussing a past event the skeptic is bound to equivocate to some degree and normal person is highly likely to proclaim they know what they saw or did at an event.  The skeptic is liable to get the short end of that argument because to an observer the non-skeptic has a 'better' recollection.  In reality everyone's memory stinks, but that is not likely to be convincing.  Was Williams lying?  I don't know.  He very might be, or it is a highly embarrassing example of the deceivingly poor memory we all carry with us.  

On another note.  Sharon Hill has started a new blog Practical Skepticism.  The blog is dedicated to publishing information on how to apply critical thinking skills and evaluate the evidence for questions that occur in everyday life. It is about a week old, and still getting started.  Hill is known as a skeptic's skeptic.  I believe she is looking for contributors.  I suggest checking it out. 

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