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Wow, my title sounds like a Trumpian rant will follow, but this is really about recent research on how sites like Facebook, Twitter are spreading “fake news” along with you and your friends who like it and pass it along, and how it is affecting your memories.
This is about research on “collective recall.” If I didn’t know it earlier in life, I certainly know at this point in my life that memory is very fallible. I have posted a lot online about studies about memories – how we create them, how we recall them and how we lose them, but there is a new way that we may be warping our memories.
“Memories are shared among groups in novel ways through sites such as Facebook and Instagram, blurring the line between individual and collective memories,” said psychologist Daniel Schacter in Nature magazine. He studies memory at Harvard University and has found that “The development of Internet-based misinformation, such as recently well-publicized fake news sites, has the potential to distort individual and collective memories in disturbing ways.”
Collective memories are our history. We use the way we understand the past as a way to think about the future.
If our memory recalls fictitious terrorist attacks as real, it is easier to justify a travel ban on people who come from those terrorist nations. Social networks are being taken quite seriously as a kind of collective memory, even if it is a faulty memory.
Courtroom lawyers are known for introducing “evidence” or accusations to a jury that they know will be objected to and not recorded – but they get the information out there and into jurors brains.
It turns out that people don’t need very much prompting to conform to a majority recollection. Whether it is true or false isn’t really an issue.
I’m encouraged that research is also being done on ways of dislodging or even preventing them from forming in the first place. Scientists and social networks are now interacting. It might also be encouraging to know that not all collective memories pass into history. Some cognitive psychologists have proposed that more than cognitive and social processes determines whether an event survives the transition across generations. That additional aspect is the nature of the event itself. Depending on how much change occurs in a person’s daily life is crucial to personal and collective memories.
Everyone is interested in memory, though most of us don’t do research into it. We don’t fully understand how memory works, or why it fades, or how we can save it.
Another research question is why we have wrong memories or false memories. False memory is the psychological phenomenon in which a person recalls a memory that did not actually occur. It has been considered in many legal cases regarding childhood sexual abuse. But researchers are more concerned with how this phenomenon occurs. Current research shows that a particular area of the brain called the temporal pole is activated during false recall.
One term used in these discussions is “flashbulb memory.” This is when we have a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid memory of a moment. These memories are almost always centered on emotionally arousing event. But experiments have regularly shown that these memories are very likely to change over time. I still recall the day that President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. I was 10 years old and the news was given to me in school. I remember that my classmate, Alice, came back from the front office crying because she had heard the news. I recall going to my Cub Scout meeting after school and being sent home. But I don’t know how I would have told the story in 1963 or in the years that followed. I know hat now I only recall a few moments of that day and those are the ones I have repeated over the years. It is not a false memory, just a fading one – unless I was to find out that it was not Alice who told us or some other details were wrong.
You may have a similar experience with events like the Challenger explosion, the shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech or New Town or 9/11.
An interesting other kind of memory is when we have an approximate recollection of something, often referred to as a gist memory. We retain an overall concept that you store in memory, but that concept that can lead us to build a false memory.
When false memories become a prevalent part of your life that it affects your day-to-day life, it is known as false memory syndrome. Having false memories doesn’t have to be that serious though.
“Humans have a vast store of concepts, and we’re exceptionally good at using those concepts to make generalisations that allow us to come up with solutions to new situations and problems,” writes Simon J. Makin.
“Creating the gist” can be helpful for retrieving true memories. Fuzzy-trace theory is a way of trying to understand why false memories occur.
And false memories can be manufactured deliberately. It sounds like science-fiction but scientists can implant false memories in the brains of research subjects. It can be done unwittingly when police, lawyers or reporters deal with eyewitnesses to an event.
And sometimes, your brain will call up false memories all on its own.
This past week I saw on the local TV news the story of a 29-year-old New Jersey woman, Tirri, who is getting rid of all her high-tech gadgets for a year. She says it is so that she gets to spend more time with her children. Her Aha! moment came when she missed one of her 18-month-old twins’ first steps while she was checking on her phone.
Oddly, she says that she feels that she is part of “the last generation to have a childhood without technology.” I have two sons about her age and they hardly grew up without technology. It is probably more accurate to say that her parents in the mid-1980s did not have as many tech distractions while parenting her.
So, what do you mean by technology when you take a holiday from it?
Tirri is leaving behind her smartphone and computer and the email, Facebook, Instagram, videos and all that comes with the Net. But she will still use a touchtone landline phone, a record player, maybe the television too. Isn’t that technology? What about her microwave and her car, the home heating and cooling systems, her banking and bill paying and… Well, you get the point.
Plus, her husband will still have his smartphone. Did he miss those first steps too? Possibly, but he might have been in another room or at work or talking outside to a neighbor or… We are distracted by more than just technology.
She grew up with technology. She even grew up in her teen years with the Internet. My grandfather had technology – a different kind, but technology nonetheless.
People have been fascinated with and frightened by technology since probably Socrates feared that the written word would destroy our ability to think and remember. Movies, radio, comic books, television, video games and plenty of other technologies old and new were seen as dangerous distractions. “Go outside and get some fresh air and just play” has been in the parenting script for centuries.
I could go tech-free, if you put me on a deserted island without any devices. I’m all for “tech holidays.” Take a night, a day, a weekend, an actual vacation week away from your devices. See if you feel happier, or feel punished.
More importantly, take notice of how all this digital technology changes us.
There are pro and cons to many of the changes that have been documented concerning media and new technology. Devices encourage us to multi-task. Being able to do more than one thing at a time (the classic walk and chew gum joke) is essential. Tech makes it easy to switch between tasks. But research also shows that when we do two things at once, like listen to a podcast and read a book, both suffer in understanding and retention. On a single task, the new information goes into the hippocampus, home of long-term knowledge. When multitasking, the information can go to the striatum. That is the area that stores new procedures and skills, but not facts and ideas. This means a kind of shallow storage that is less likely to be easily found in the future.
You might have read or heard of Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain. The book’s title foreshadows Carr’s general feelings about the Net.
“It becomes much harder to sustain attention, to think about one thing for a long period of time, and to think deeply when new stimuli are pouring at you all day long. I argue that the price we pay for being constantly inundated with information is a loss of our ability to be contemplative and to engage in the kind of deep thinking that requires you to concentrate on one thing.”
Can you filter the important from the unimportant?
Carr included a study showing that the more distracted you are, the less able you are to experience empathy. Those kinds of deep emotions and thoughts are connected to the attentiveness that also forms deep connections with other people.
We also know that the digital world affects memory in good and bad ways. I am very happy to not memorize phone numbers, addresses, birthdays, shopping lists and other minutiae. But researchers tell me that cognitive offloading, that tendency to rely on digital memory rather than brain cells actually increases each time we use the digital alternative.
Does tech support and extend our memory, or does it decrease it? We are deep into, and probably beyond, the Information Age, and information overload is a given.
It is still not clear that all this tech “hurts” our brains, even if it changes them.
Like older technologies, the general feeling is that the tech is also changing us in bigger and broader ways, like the way we think and our social and emotional cues.
One study I saw looked at reading on digital platforms and concluded that it seems to make us “more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly.” Not a conclusive finding.
The idea that heavy digital media use leads to a loss of cognitive control (our ability to control our mind and what we think about) is much more frightening. Are our brains becoming more attracted to what’s new rather than what’s important?
Do you get a nice rush of reward chemicals in your brain when you empty your inbox? That is the “dumb, novelty-seeking portion of your brain feeling pleased, according to Daniel J. Levitin, author of The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. So, keep clicking the Like button on Facebook and favoriting tweets and Instagram photos to give your online “friends” some happy juice.
I have read that too much time in front of screens (a nice way to encapsulate net, social and media time) increases depression, anxiety and aggression and a distancing from reality. This past summer, I was amused by the delight people found in people actually going outside to use Pokémon Go.
But I could also cite a Pew study that found that Facebook users have more “close friends, more trust in people, feel more supported, and are more politically involved compared to non-social media users” or one that found that social media helps them to deepen their relationships with others.
I wish Tirri luck with her tech-free experiment, and I hope she has lots of good times with her kids. She says she will chronicle her days in a paper journal rather than online, and if she makes it for a year, she’ll write a book. Put me on that deserted island for a few months and I might get a book done too.
More research shows that learning new things – novelty – helps ward off dementia. All those “brain games” that you hear advertised might have some positive impact.
Yes, doing those crossword puzzles and Sudoku is good, but more important is to have new experiences, as opposed to doing old ones over and over. Novel experiences strengthen the connections between parts of your brain. Most brain games improve a limited aspect of short-term memory, but new and more challenging activities – such as learning a new language – seem to strengthen entire networks in the brain.
Novelty also includes going to new places and meeting new people. Reading a book is a good thing, but even if it is about a new topic, the experience of reading is not new. Reading about tennis is nowhere near as important to improving the brain as trying to learn how to actually play it.
One study on the impact of exercise on the brain, found that 45 minutes of exercise three days a week actually increased the volume of the brain. This exercise “improves cognition and helps people perform better on things like planning, scheduling, multitasking and working memory.”
Memory is the part that interests my aging brain. When memories are encoded in the brain, it seems that this process involves neurons and their synapses. When we recall a memory, that reactivates those pathways connecting the memory neurons are reactivated. One analogy used is that encoding is like sculpting. We experience things and that demarks certain neurons and then we chisel specific connections between them.
Firing up old pathways – playing a game or reading a novel again – is a good thing. The pathways of memory reactivates some paths that have been unused. Perhaps, if we don’t use those paths for a very long time, it’s not possible to find them again.
Sculpting, creating new pathways, is even better. Might the new pathways cross with older ones creating complex connections? Might new pathways reconnect us with older ones that have been lost over the years? Despite lots of research, the brain is still holds so many unknowns – but what a wonderful adventure.
I was intrigued by the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind which is a film about a couple who, after a bad breakup, have literally erased each other from their memories. (It was written by Charlie Kaufman, directed by Michel Gondry and stars Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood and Tom Wilkinson.)
The film is a mix of science fiction and romantic comedy and explores memory through romantic love. The premise is that a company called Lacuna has developed a way to find and erase specific memories in the brain. You can have that terrible memory removed. It was science fiction, but last year, MIT researchers have shown, for the first time ever, that memories are stored in specific brain cells. That means that if you removed those cells, you would remove the memory.
They could trigger a small cluster of neurons and force the subject to recall a specific memory, and then by removing these neurons, the subject would lose that memory.
Don’t go looking for a way to contact Lacuna just yet. The researchers had to do some fancy genetic manipulation of cells so that they’re sensitive to light, and trigger them using lasers by drilling a hole through the subject’s skull.
MIT’s subjects were mice.
But it is believed that the human brain functions in the same way. Breeding humans with optogenetic brains is not part of their immediate plans though.
Following up on that research, the findings get weirder. It seems that our “memory neurons” (nerve cells of the hippocampus) play a crucial role in storing and retrieving memories.
I can’t explain the molecular basis for memory formation — an enzyme from the topoisomerase family responds to new stimuli by breaking DNA, which seems to activate genes are inhibited by a system of enzymes and…
And we still don’t have all the answers. Researchers at Stanford have a theory about mobile memories. They believe that the hippocampus does store the specifics of new memories, but those memories move to elsewhere in the brain after a time. The team found that if they disrupted the hippocampus within a month or so of a new memory, the memory disappeared forever. If they disrupted it after a longer period of time, the memory seemed undisturbed — as though it no longer physically resides in those same cells.
I still like the idea that everything you have ever experienced and remembered is stored in that beautiful hard drive of a brain. We get a lot of “file not found” error messages, but the files are all there. Some of those memory files get corrupted over time, but one day there will be a really good defragging programs – even better than sleep and a vacation – that will fix all those bad sectors and restore all the memories and connections.
It’s impossible for me to blog with a pen and paper, but I still make notes for many posts in a small blank book that I keep with ideas. How often do you write things out by hand these days? Even if you are a technophobe, you probably do it less than in your earlier life. I have come across four studies that offer some good reasons to continue writing things without a keyboard. Maybe you should even try shifting some keyboarding activity back to paper.
One study found that writing by hand activates the brain. The study looked at children who couldn’t yet read and found that when they were writing letters by hand a circuit of neurons in the brain associated with reading were activated. When they had the kids trace or type those same letters, these neurons did not fire up. These are brain regions associated with literacy and it makes sense that in those of us who are older would also be firing up those neurons differently when we type and when we write on paper.
Older folks often complain about younger people being terrible at spelling since it is taught with the same intensity as it was in their school years. Another study showed that writing by hand improves spelling – or perhaps using the keyboard makes spelling worse.
I pay a lot of attention to studies on memory as I get older. A 2014 study showed memory improvement with writing by hand. Using university students in a study where some took handwritten notes and other used laptops, the researchers found that writing longhand better helps you learn new information. The pen and paper group processed more of what was being said during a lecture. One reason might be that you need to condense information to keep up using this slower method and that requires thinking about the content rather than simply transcribing what you hear. Later testing showed that the handwriters recalled information from the lectures better than the laptop group.
As a former teacher of middle school students, I was interested in a study that looked at students in elementary and middle grades writing in both ways. I what might seem counter-intuitive, writing by hand seems to make you think faster. Students writing by hand were found to write more, and more quickly, than those who typed on a keyboard when they were writing essays.
Get out that pen and paper, and set aside the keyboard sometimes.