Wednesday, February 4, 2015

False Memories Are Easy

Heard while languishing in gridlocked, soul-crushing, snow-encumbered, "nightmare" traffic trying to drive into Boston yesterday: A great piece with neuroscientist David Linden on Terry Gross' Fresh Air. Talking about false memory, Linden said that not only is it possible to create false memories in children, it's remarkably easy. Linden's explanation went something like this. One day you ask your five-year-old kid, Did you see Jimmy today? When the kid says no, you just say that you think he did see Jimmy. Next week, ask if he saw Jimmy last week. The kid will say yes. Then the next week ask the kid if Jimmy was wearing a green shirt when he saw him that day, and the kid will say yes. I'm convinced that I have false memories, which are just ideas or images that occurred to me some time ago that were then cemented on repeated returning to that idea or image.

Among many topics, Linden said that the reason we like chili peppers is that they make a meal "emotionally salient." How does that work? "They're a bit painful." Linden said. "Why should we want to put something painful in our food? I think it is because it is rewarding to eat something that is a little bit of a threat."

UPDATE 2-10-15
Slate has an article about false memory in the context of the Brian Williams flap. For scientists, false memories are a given, something not even remotely controversial. And because we know that all of us have false memories, we have a responsibility to cross-check our recollection when it is of public import. So Brian Williams might have been fooled by a false memory, but he should've done some verification, especially since he is in the news business.

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