Newsletter  >  Exploring the Mind (Feb. 1, 2007)

Can Research on the Construction of Memory Inspire You to Create a Happier Life?


Ready to make sense of the Necker Cube I had you play with in my email reminder last week? Hold that thought . . .

But first:

The Construction of Memory

My last newsletter drew hundreds of requests for more information about brain science and memory. Many people questioned my assertion that our brains are not like video recorders, in which every waking experience is somehow "stored" in the brain somewhere.

So, in order to make sure I was being accurate, I interviewed Dr. Andrew Yonelinas, who runs the Human Memory Lab at the University of California at Davis. (Alumni note: I received my masters degree in communications studies at UC Davis. Go Aggies.)

Here's his response to my question as to whether the brain stores memories like a video or audio recorder does:

"Memory research has demonstrated beyond a doubt that the 'audio recorder' view of memory is wrong. The first person to clearly point that out about 100 years ago was Sir Fredric Bartlett. He showed how memories do change every time we recall them, and he argued quite convincingly that the act of remembering is a constructive process, full of inferences and distortions. One classic example was a study called the 'war of the ghosts' where a story about ghosts is told to subjects who have to retell it. He found that they changed it to fit their existing knowledge, and it was this revised story which then became incorporated into their memory.

There is also a nice study by Neisser & Harsch (1992) who looked at people's memory accuracy for the Challenger crash, which was a very traumatic event for many people who profess very high confidence about their memory for these 'flashbulb' like memories. Neisser & Harsch looked at their reports 24 hours after the crash, and then again 2 years after the crash, and found that 40% of subjects reported dramatic distortions in their delayed final memory reports even when they were highly confident about these false memories.

If you are interested in a more detailed discussion of this point, there is a book by Dan Schacter called The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers that reviews the most recent literature on this. If you are not already depressed about how error-prone memory can be, then you will be after reading that book."

(By the way, here's the study Dr. Yonelinas mentioned:
Neisser, U., & Harsch, N. (1992). "Phantom flashbulbs: False recollections of hearing the news about Challenger." In E. Winograd & U. Neisser (Eds.), Affect and accuracy in recall—Studies of "flashbulb" memories: Vol. 4. Emory Symposia in Cognition (pp. 9-31). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.)

I went to great lengths to confirm my understanding of memory with Dr. Yonelinas because it is fundamental to everything else we will be discussing in future newsletters.

In short, you construct your experience all the way around – from direct experiences, all the way to everything that you remember.

And (remember?) in the last newsletter, we established that when you think about the future – you are actually drawing upon your past memories. (Need a reminder? Here's the last newsletter:

Now, let's discuss the variability with which you experience reality. Your experiences lead you to "lay down" the data for memory creation, and so much more.

Playing with Perception: The Necker Cube

The Necker Cube is a great way to explore this. I'm assuming that you discovered that if you looked at the drawing long enough and moved at all, your brain kept switching between two different "interpretations" of the cube. In one interpretation, you are looking at the cube from one direction. In the other, you are looking from a completely different angle.

In fact, there is no cube there at all: only a two-dimensional drawing of twelve ambiguous lines.

Your brain created the "cubes" out of incomplete data (much like it makes meaning out of incomplete data every day).

Here's the cube again, if you want to play with it some more: The-Necker-Cube:-An-Experiment-in-Perception

What We Learn From the Necker Cube

Let's go a bit further. In three experiments done with the cube, experimenters were able to steer the subject's interpretations of the cube by adding rewards for seeing it one way or another in pretests.

(See E.D. Turner and W. Bevan, "Patterns of Experience and the Perceived Orientation of the Necker Cube," Journal of General Psychology 70: 345-52, 1964.)

In other words, if you are rewarded for interpreting external reality in a particular way, after a while you are likely to start seeing it exclusively in that way!

And let's get one thing out of the way before we go any further. Life is far more ambiguous than a Necker Cube!

Data is streaming at you constantly, and you have to make sense of it. You deal with all this data by interpreting it in the same ways that you were rewarded for doing so in the past, and the knowledge gleaned from your created memories.

What This Means for All of Us

Before you get frustrated by all the inaccurate perceptions and memories you're living with, let me offer another way of thinking about it.

What this means is that you play an active role in how you see things, and how you think, feel and behave.

This also means you can play an active role in changing these things for the better by training yourself to interpret data in ways that make you happier, more effective, and possibly even nicer!

This perspective certainly allows you give more leeway to people who don't see eye-to-eye with you, because based on this information, it is almost impossible.

How Hypnosis Fits In

I'll keep the shameless hypnosis plug short, but here it goes:

Hypnosis rides on the assumptions discussed above. For some reason, when people are in a hypnotic state and have a good guide, they are more likely to be able to make the changes they want to make than they are in a normal waking state.

If you are curious as to the theories as to why this might be the case, just let me know. At the moment, there is no definitive answer.

Either way, the evidence that it works is overwhelming –- all you have to do is take a look at the research on pain, weight loss, and IBS to see its effects clearly.

The only real way to understand is just to give it a try!

Tell Me What Topics You Would Like to Explore

I enjoyed the feedback I received on my last newsletter, and I want to know if you want me to do more on brain science and/or cognitive psychology. (Both topics are extremely interesting to me.)

Until next time,
signature - Michael Lovitch
Michael Lovitch
Co-Founder, The Hypnosis Network

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