Monday, 10 February 2014

So, You Think You Remember Your Past ?

Is your memory bad ?  Well, it's actually worse than you think, it seems.
 A study by researchers at Northwestern University, Chicago shows that our memory is a poor way of recording events.

Maybe  a better way is to film and photograph every detail of every experience that we have over a lifetime so that we can check back that what we think happened, really did. 
Some of us are well on the way to that scenario already. There's hardly a holiday, birthday, day out with friends or visit to the supermarket that is not photographed, Instagramed and voice recorded to be then "shared" on social media sites to every corner of the globe, almost in real time. We have hardly had time to digest and internalise the event or our feelings about it before it's out there, a record in quite a lot of detail, for all time. Or for as long as we have the current equipment to watch and listen to it. I am as guilty as the next person for this of course and often wonder if there are some things that are better just remembered as best we can without the physical evidence to go with it.

But it seems not. The study has found that the mind rewrites the past with current information and updates recollections with new experiences. This editing happens in the hippocampus, working as the memory’s version of a film editor or special effects team. It does this to help us survive by adapting within constantly changing environments and to encourage us to focus on things that are important in the present.
I'm all for anything which helps me focus, so am pleased that this is apparently going on in my very own brain - without me even knowing. And in your's too.
The team also concluded from the results that this raises questions over the reliability of eyewitness court testimony.  I can see the importance here, but am beginning to wonder about the happy childhood I had in which it was either gloriously sunny and warm or thick snow in which it was a joy to roll about and get soaked in, with a perfectly controlled thermostat for comfort.

The researchers needed to look at the exact point in time when incorrectly recorded information was implanted into an existing memory 
Participants were asked to study objects located on a computer screen with different backgrounds, such as an underwater  scene or a view of countryside. They were then asked to place the object in the original location but on a new background screen. In each attempt it was noted they would always place it in an incorrect location. Then they were shown the same object but in three locations on the original screen and asked to choose the correct location from three options: the place they originally saw the object, the location they chose to place it in or a brand new location.
They always put the object in the location they choose during the second part of the task, which suggests that their memory had changed to reflect the location they recalled on the new background screen. 
(Are you still with me, here ?) 
Lead author of the report Donna Jo Bridge at Northwestern University explains it better -
"This shows their original memory of the location has changed to reflect the location they recalled on the new background screen. Their memory has updated the information by inserting the new information into the old memory.  Our memory is not like a video camera. Your memory reframes and edits events to create a story to fit your current world. It's built to be current.”
These findings have implications for the way we recall key events in our lives, she says.
"When you think back to when you met your current partner, you may recall this feeling of love and euphoria. You call it  'love at first sight' but you may be projecting your current feelings back to the original encounter with this person."

Now this would account for a lot of  my 'recollections' that are, as it turns out, probably more extreme than the original memory. It puts a whole new perspective on the 'looking through rose tinted spectacles' idea, too. Presumably it works both ways and the bad things perhaps weren't as bad as I remember, as well as the good not being quite so.  I'm keeping my phone, tablet, camera and anything else that records sound and images fully charged and at the ready at all times though. 
I wouldn't want to have a whole stock of memories that are nothing more than embellishments of my over active imagination. 

Study published in The Journal of Neuroscience

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