Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Vagaries of Memory

"Aggressive interrogation" not only can intimidate suspects into confessing to crimes they didn't commit. A University of Toronto Institute of Technology study found that this type of questioning can also induce witnesses to report events that never happened, with confident belief in the truth of their statements:

Aggressive Police Questioning

In this experiment, subjects "remembered" witnessing the theft of a cell phone that never existed in the first place.

The experiment reinforces the known unreliability of eyewitness testimony, which used to be valued above mere "circumstantial evidence." For instance, when a witness views a police lineup, the implicit assumption that one of the people in the lineup MUST be the criminal can nudge the witness into picking the person who most resembles his or her mental image of the perp. This study's insight into the workings of the brain also brings to mind the horrors that sprang from the once-prevalent belief in "recovered memories." The "satanic panic" of the 1980s surrounding accusations of "ritual abuse" based on false memories implicitly trusted as real harks back to the Salem witchcraft trials. In colonial Salem of the 1690s, "spectral evidence" offered by a group of teenage girls held the place taken by "recovered memories" in the 1980s.

Similarly, people who nowadays recall supposed alien abduction events describe the same kinds of subjective experiences that would have been attributed to incubus attacks in the Middle Ages. Sufferers in both cases have testified to feelings of dread, the sense of being watched by a malevolent presence, and inability to move—characteristics of the hypnagogic state associated with sleep paralysis, a phenomenon that sometimes occurs immediately after waking from the REM phase.

The opposite of recovered memories would be lost memories, the topic of a movie I coincidentally just watched, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. The protagonist, Joel, discovers that his ex-girlfriend has had all her knowledge of him erased by Lacuna, a company that provides memory-wiping services. He decides to hire the company to perform the same procedure on him. I found it a depressing, confusing film. Joel's default mood resembles that of Eeyore, the gloomy donkey. The scenes are presented in nonlinear order, and much of the action occurs in surreal sequences within his mind during the memory-wipe procedure. (Hint in case you decide to watch it: After the first scene when Joel and his girlfriend, Clementine, meet on the train, the entire rest of the movie consists of flashbacks. Realizing that fact would have helped me a LOT in understanding the story—instead of having to read the summary on Wikipedia to find out what I was supposed to have seen.) However, it raises provocative questions. On the plot level, why doesn't Lacuna inform the subject of the erasure that he's been erased from the client's memory? They seem to have a policy against doing so, although they remove all physical memorabilia from the client's life and caution his or her friends not to mention the erased person. So we have the probability of the forgotten person desperately trying to pursue the relationship with the high-tech-amnesiac client and coming across as a delusional stalker. The story also addresses the ethics and dangers of memory deletion. The two Lacuna technicians who work on Joel have dubious, if any, ethics. They smoke marijuana during the procedure. Previously, one of them also performed Clementine's procedure, became infatuated with her, stole a pair of her panties, and used his knowledge of her forgotten past to lure her into a relationship with him. The other technician fools around with his girlfriend (another Lacuna employee) while supposedly monitoring Joel's brain, and they raid Joel's food and liquor. Even their manager proves to be ethically bankrupt. While he at least takes his job seriously, it's revealed that he had an adulterous affair with the tech's girlfriend and used the procedure to make her forget it happened (allegedly at her request, but he could be lying). The movie foregrounds the risks of giving anyone else that much power over the contents of one's mind.

In this scenario, the lost memories can't be recovered, because they're literally deleted, not merely repressed. The film doesn't quite make clear whether traces can remain, though there are hints that this can happen. Midway through the deletion process, Joel realizes he doesn't want to forget Clementine after all. Despite their traumatic breakup, the happy memories outweigh the pain. Knowing that once the memories have been erased, there's no getting them back, he frantically tries to surface from his induced coma make the techs stop the process. If targeted memory deletion were possible, should it be made available to anyone willing to pay for it? Or would it be too risky for public dissemination? Would the average person want negative memories erased, or is all of our past, whether pleasant or painful, a vital part of our personalities? Would losing important memories, even bad ones, mean losing a portion of ourselves?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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