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Subliminal 3: Remembering and Forgetting


Mlodinow looks at the relationship between the subconscious and memory. He critiques the widely held (apparently even by psychologists) view of  memory as camera-like capturing of events, pointing out that remembering is more reconstructive that reproductive. When we remember events, it’s not like retrieving a file from a computer’s folder. It’s more like remembering the gist of the event, and filling in the details with what seems likely to have happened. There are lots of stories in this chapter of really, really bad memory errors that are paired with strong confidence in their accuracy.

The implications of this information are pretty huge. In relationships, misremembered conversations or events seem pretty likely, with the “gists” each person stores being different, leading to totally contradictory details filled in. I think I’ve noticed this in some philosophical discussions I’ve had too, where I remembered some totally incorrect point some person made, with the person I’m talking to having no such memory of making the argument at all.

Miracle stories are reasonably brought into doubt. Staring at the sun, and having everyone else around create a “gist” of religious miracles could lead eyewitnesses to filling in details of what they saw based on the religious fervor, not on their views. Eddy and Boyd try to dismiss recent memory research, but it still seems to apply. Whatever “eyewitnesses” there were to Jesus miraculous appearances were susceptible to the same drastic changes in memory that occurs within weeks, months and years in any normal person. The likelihood of misremembering is much higher (we’ve got plenty of empirical evidence of it occurring) than miracles (of which there is no evidence).

Kindle Notes:

An organization called the Innocence Project, for example, found that of the hundreds of people exonerated on the basis of post conviction DNA testing, 75 percent had been imprisoned because of inaccurate eyewitness identification (915).

The traditional view of memory, and the one that persists among most of us, is that it is something like a storehouse of movies on a computer’s hard drive. This is a concept of memory analogous to the simple video camera model of vision I described in the last chapter, and it is just as misguided (976).

many researchers now believe correspond to the way memory really does work: first, people have a good memory for the general gist of events but a bad one for the details; second, when pressed for the unremembered details, even well-intentioned people making a sincere effort to be accurate will inadvertently fill in the gaps by making things up; and third, people will believe the memories they make up (1039).

Unless all these examples and studies are just strange statistical flukes, they ought to give us pause regarding our own memories, especially when they conflict with someone else’s. Are we “often wrong but never in doubt”? We might all benefit from being less certain, even when a memory seems clear and vivid (1198).

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