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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.

 

The massive Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is rapidly retreating. In this photo a developing forest can be seen above the glacier illustrating how the Mendenhall landscape is being dramatically altered by climate change. Photo courtesy of The National Science Foundation. Durelle Scott.

The Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is rapidly retreating and the landscape is being dramatically altered by climate change. Photo: National Science Foundation -Durelle Scott via Flickr

The election is over. Lots of talk about immigration and personal digs about the candidates. Not much talk about climate change other than saying superficially that we need to stop it or that it’s a Chinese hoax.

Part of the problem is that it is at least partially a social science issue. Of course, there is a lot of scientific research, but research on why people believe that research or reject it is a whole other area of research. That is because climate change is not only a scientific issue but one that is political, social and cultural.

Why did “global warming” fall out of favor and get replaced by “climate change” if the main problem is that the Earth’s atmosphere land and water is warming due to manmade changes?  That’s all political, social and cultural.

How many times have you heard someone say (jokingly or seriously) on a very cold or snowy day “So much for global warming!” That is because we are hardwired to focus on the short-term. That is the position of George Marshall, Director of Projects at Climate Outreach and author of Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.  “We tend to discount […] things happening in the future the further away they are,” says Marshall.

George Marshall founded the Climate Outreach and Information Network and has worked for twenty-five years in the environmental movement. I heard him on an episode of NPR’s podcast Hidden BrainOn that episode, “Losing Alaska”, they visited the shrinking Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska to consider why it is so hard for people to come to terms with explore why it’s so difficult for us to wrap our heads around climate change.

I agree with Marshall’s take on why some people ignore our changing environment and the explanation for it. It’s not the science. It’s more about confirmation bias, present-time focus, social conformity, group think, procrastination and valuing the messenger over the message. It’s rational versus emotional brains.

 

car

Would you bully this nice little driverless car?

The news has been filled with bullying and cyberbullying stories for several decades. This election season has certainly brought up many examples too. But would anyone bully a car?

We have all heard of –  and probably experienced – “road rage.” That rage is directed at other drivers. What is the other car is driverless? No road rage, right?

Every car company is testing self-driving cars. They are working to make those driverless vehicles obey the rules of the road and avoid accidents. Sounds good.

But Swedish automaker Volvo has expressed concern that human drivers will try to bully driverless cars on the road. Your rage is with the car’s “brain” (AI) that actually goes 25 mph in a 25 mph zone. They are programmed to err on the side of caution. They follow rules. They don’t give or get road rage.

Volvo plans to use unmarked cars in upcoming London tests so that they don’t stand out from the crowd. Their concern is that more aggressive human drivers might find it tempting to bully driverless cars that behave mildly.

There has already been surveys to see how human drivers might behave toward self-driving cars in a survey of 12,000 respondents in 11 European countries. Knowing that an autonomous vehicle is going to stop if you cut it off may lead to aggressive drivers taking advantage and deliberately doing it.

Something lost in a driverless car (although it probably will still have a human passenger) is that wordless communication between drivers and pedestrians – that hand wave to go ahead and cross the street or pull out before me. Semcon, a technology company, came up with the idea of  giving self-driving cars a front-end display that allows them to “smile” at pedestrians as a way of saying “Go ahead. I’ll wait.”

Trusting that driverless cars will do the right thing is key to their acceptance, but it could also lead to problems on a hybrid roadway of driverless and human-driven vehicles.

I’ll trust the driverless car when all the other cars are also driverless. Let the robots take over the roads.

“A safe traffic environment is dependent on interactions between people. Today, eight out of ten people seek eye contact with the driver before they cross a busy road (Semcon/Inizio). But what happens when there is no longer a driver behind the wheel? We decided to find out how people react to self-driving cars.”

mirroring-pixa

Mirror scratching is not about making scratches on a mirror (and not DIY on how to remove them). It is about one of those odd mind-body phenomenon.

You have an itch, so you scratch it. Except sometimes scratching is not a good thing to do (poison ivy, scabs,  eczema) because it makes things worse.

There was a study done to test “whether central mechanisms of scratching-induced itch attenuation can be activated by scratching the limb contralateral to the itching limb when the participant is made to visually perceive the non-itching limb as the itching limb by means of mirror images.”  In simpler English, try scratching your left elbow if the right elbow itches.

Crazy, right? But it worked!  By scratching the non-itching place it seems to have activated a “mirror condition” so that the non-itching place was visually perceived as the itching place.

We have in our brains what are referred to as mirror neurons but this isn’t about that. This particular experiment used a real  mirror placed between the participant’s forearms “to create the visual illusion that the participant’s itching (right) forearm was being scratched while in fact the non-itching forearm was scratched”

The mind not only plays trick on us, but we can trick the mind.

 

brain pixabay

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.

discusSome other research verifies something people have believed for many years: another way to ward off memory loss is through exercise.

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.

 

eternal-sunshine2

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.

eternal-sunshine1

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.

braindriveFor now, you will have to just try your best to block those bad memories and hope that aging will prune them away (and let you keep the good memories).

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.

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