One of our favorite 1990s movies was the fantasy Shazaam which starred the comedian Sinbad who played the role of a genie. We have vivid memories of a huge genie with hands folded and smoke all around him. It was an amazing special effects movie of that era, right up there with The Mask.
Guess what? That movie doesn’t exist. That’s right. There were hundreds of people who thought this movie existed. But no such movie was ever made. To know more about this fictional movie, and the phenomenon of false collective memories, read this fascinating article.
Memories fading away
Our memories tend to fade like old black-and-white photos and, worse, we tend to pollute them with subsequent events in our lives. Elizabeth Loftus, an American cognitive psychologist, and expert on human memory demonstrated the malleability and susceptibility of our memories using a simple experiment.
Loftus showed volunteers a series of films of car crashes and then tested their memories of these crashes. However, the questions she posed influenced the answers she received. For example, and we quote her from the book The Brain: The Story of You by neuroscientist David Eagleman: “When I asked how fast were the cars going when they hit each other, versus how fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other, witnesses give different estimates of speed. They thought the cars were going faster when I used the word smashed.”
The Simplicity Paradigm rests on the three concepts of deep focus, deliberate practice and differentiated thinking. Our learning process in general and memories, in particular, play a key role in each of these areas. And so, our column today delves into the importance of memory and provides readers with a few tips towards achieving a stronger, more robust memory.
As children, many of us would have idled away time looking up at the clouds and trying to figure out what shapes we could see in the sky. As adults, we might see a fellow passenger on a plane or a bus and tell ourselves that “she looks like so and so from college”. This form of “seeing-perceiving-relating to what’s in our memories” is a routine that all of us go through many times in a day.
Behavioral scientist Nick Chater writes in his book “The Mind is Flat”:
Renewal of the interpretation
We never see the world ‘with fresh eyes’. Each new interpretation is an amalgam and transformation of past interpretations. Consider what happens when you read a word, or ‘read’ a face or a chessboard—those perceptual interpretations depend on years of past experience of our language and writing system, of our long history of interactions with other people, and the nature of past experience (if any) with the game of chess.
This is fascinating at many levels, not least because he’s saying that how you see the world tomorrow is a function of the experiences you have lived through and the memory bank you have built. Your perceptions, therefore, are dependent on your experiences and memories. Those perceptions, in turn, will become memories and influence your life thereafter.
So what happens when we can’t remember the past? We struggle to project the future.
In The Brain: The Story of You, Eagleman tells us the story of Henry Molaison, a man who suffered his first major epileptic seizure on his 15th birthday. Unfortunately, the seizures became more frequent and, faced with a future of violent convulsions, Henry underwent surgery which removed the middle part of the temporal lobe on both sides of his brain.
The seizures stopped but there was one side effect—Henry could no longer form any new memories. His peculiar state allowed scientists to understand why memory exists in the form it does. More specifically, because Henry could not form any new memories, he was also unable to imagine the future. If you asked Henry “What would it be like to go to the beach tomorrow?” all he would be able to say is “I can see the color blue”.