Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mnemosyne is a Fickle Crone

What a fragile thing the human memory! Lately I'm experiencing a great deal of difficulty with my memory on a couple of levels. First, I'm just not accessing things. It could be the hinted beginnings of age or it could be sleep deprivation, but I cannot count the times in the last couple of weeks I wanted to say something, new precisely the right word for it and yet really struggled to drag it up. I blame this partly on the range of vocabulary I get to hear and use in my work. Let us just say that it seems likely that my lexicon has not been getting its proper work out. I expect that things will improve as I return to school this fall.

The other memory issue I'm having is created memories of information. I have these memories of specific passages I've read that I've wanted to use in some things I've been writing lately. Some of this information I've gone back to look for using computer search engines. I've been careful to choose careful wording for my searches because it was something special about the wording that made me remember the information in the first place. Frustratingly, it turns out that in too many instances I can find nothing. I would like to blame the software, but as I've gone to the labor of rereading some of the texts in question I've not found any support for my cause. It's kind of frustrating in that I don't like being forced to question that I know what I know.

I recently read a book that describes how easy it is to create false memories and to even implant them into the memories of other people. It's a process that's been demonstrated to occur in judicial and clinical contexts. Both of these are quite frightening. In the first, people can be falsely condemned and punished for crimes they haven't committed based on the testimony of a witness with a false memory. In therapy people have created delusions of trauma which have led them to engage in behavior that has created real trauma. It's a pretty serious mess. One of the things I find interesting about it is that often people substantiate their belief in their false memories by reciting a lot of detail about whatever their memory is. Some research though, has indicated that such details are lavishly created from thin air by the person with the implanted memory.

I've observed the process happen accidentally with my students recently. I set to them a certain assignment to find some information and then report back on it. When the students actually looked for the information they didn't find any to speak of. But with the passage of time, they've created memories of all sorts of details that they could never have gotten from their sources and some which don't even exist.

It's also a process I've seen them use deliberately from time to time. Some relatively bright students can retell stories about things that they are in trouble for in such a way that it becomes easy to doubt what you've seen with your own eyes. If you're not vigilant you can start questioning or even recreating your own memories and let someone off with the benefit of the doubt. At one point I was trying to come up with a way that I could use this process back on them to accomplish some useful learning or something but, nothing has really come to me yet.

Random stuff to look at