Since reading How We Decide, I’ve also started occasionally reading Jonah Lehrer’s blog. In a recent post, he talks about some recent research on the way memories are formed and the way we access them once they are formed.
I seem to recall (okay, bad joke) that previous research indicated the existence of separate short-term and long term memory sites, and subsequent research was focused on understanding how some memories make the transition from short term to long-term memory, and some do not. As usual with scientific inquiry, it turns out that the process is far more complex than a simple storage and retrieval mechanism, and therefore also more confusing and so much more interesting as well.
Lehrer refers to experiments done in 2000 at NYU that demonstrate that the act of remembering changes our memories. He says, “We like to think of our memories as being immutable impressions, somehow separate from the act of remembering them. But they aren’t. A memory is only as real as the last time you remembered it. The more you remember something, the less accurate the memory becomes.”
Certainly we’ve all had experiences with capricious memories. As an adult, I was asked when I had broken my collarbone. I had no memory of having broken a bone, and, oddly, I’d never noticed the clearly visible thickening of my collarbone where the break had occurred. But in response to the question, the memory emerged: I was about seven, I was jumping on the bed with my sister, and I fell off the bed, landing on my shoulder. (Knowing what I know now about the power of suggestion, I have to wonder if a passing adult said something like, “Don’t jump on the bed! You’ll fall off!”)
I have another very strong memory from about the same age. I remember being outside on a cloudy, grey day, very typical of the Pacific Northwest. The memory is not very specific—I have no idea why I was alone outside in the front yard on this grey day—but what is clear are the feelings I had looking up into the branches of the ornamental plum trees along our street, and looking beyond the outline of the branches to the sky beyond. The feelings are what I remember—feeling alone, feeling the closeness of the sky, and feeling some connection with the trees and the clouds in the sky.
It’s not a memory I ever talked much about, but it is one I’ve thought about. I used to wonder why it stayed so strong for me. After all, nothing happened; the only thing I remember is a feeling, an awareness, that was new to me. The latest research suggests to me that my thinking about the memory probably continued to shape the memory. Memory is in fact very creative—and very unreliable.
As a hypnotherapist, I am well aware of the potential danger of influencing memory by asking leading questions. The false memories that have led to persecution of innocent people could never have happened under the care of an ethical, trained hypnotherapist.
Working with memories can be very helpful. For example, in dealing with anxiety issues, I may ask a client under hypnosis, “When was the first time you felt that feeling?” The answers clients give to that question can surprise them, can lead to a greater understanding of their problem, and can also lead to a resolution of the problem.
Hypnosis also works very well for simple things like finding lost keys or other misplaced objects. I’d really like to see some memory research that looks at what happens in the brain under these scenarios, for example, as someone retrieves the memory of putting down a pair of missing gloves. Perhaps we’ll find that the brain has a way of accessing an “original” memory that hasn’t shown up in the experiments so far.