Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Made-up memories

A FEW years ago, the actor Alan Alda visited a group of memory researchers at the University of California, Irvine, for a TV show he was making. During a picnic lunch, one of the scientists offered Alda a hard-boiled egg. He turned it down, explaining that as a child he had made himself sick eating too many eggs.

In fact, this had never happened, yet Alda believed it was real. How so? The egg incident was a false memory planted by one of UC Irvine's researchers, Elizabeth Loftus.

Before the visit, Loftus had sent Alda a questionnaire about his food preferences and personality. She later told him that a computer analysis of his answers had revealed some facts about his childhood, including that he once made himself sick eating too many eggs. There was no such analysis but it was enough to convince Alda.

Your memory may feel like a reliable record of the past, but it is not. Loftus has spent the past 30 years studying the ease with which we can form "memories" of nonexistent events. She has convinced countless people that they have seen or done things when they haven't - even quite extreme events such as being attacked by animals or almost drowning. Her work has revealed much about how our brains form and retain memories.

While we wouldn't want to plant a memory of a nonexistent childhood trauma in your own brain, there is a less dramatic demonstration of how easy it is to form a false memory called the Deese-Roediger-McDermott paradigm. Read the first two lists of words and pause for a few minutes. Then read list 3 and put a tick against the words that were in the first two. Now go back and check your answers...

List 1
apple
vegetable
orange
kiwi
citrus
ripe
pear
banana
berry
cherry
basket
juice
salad
bowl
cocktail

List 2

web
insect
bug
fright
fly
arachnid
crawl
tarantula
poison
bite
creepy
animal
ugly
feelers
small

(Now wait a few minutes and click Read More)

















See how many of the following words were in the first two lists
List 3

happy
woman
winter
circus
spider
feather
citrus
ugly
robber
piano
goat
ground
cherry
bitter
insect
fruit
suburb
kiwi
quick
mouse
pile
fish

Further reading:

Mind Hacks: Tips and tools for using your brain, by Tom Stafford and Matt Web (O'Reilly, 2005)
From issue 2622 of New Scientist magazine, 19 September 2007, page 34-41

2 comments:

Alex Silkin said...

this does not really work...i only got spider and fruit wrong and i already kind of felt that they were out of place...

Divya Hira said...

The words we read related to fruit and spiders but they were not on the lsit. However, we still ticked spider and fruit. This was because we linked the words we read to what we thought it seemed.