Julia Shaw, The Memory Illusion: Remembering, forgetting, and the science of false memory, London: Random House 2016,
288 pages paperback.
In the WA Public Library system.
New $30, Used $15 online. E-book $14.99.
Reviewed by Ted Witham
The science of false memory is the field of forensic psychologist Dr Julia Shaw’s research. As she discovers more about our unreliable memories, she also uncovers more about how our amazing memories work. Her work could be summarised by the statement that the very unreliability of our memories shows how adaptive the memory system is.
The Memory Illusion is written in an accessible style with many illustrative anecdotes and stories behind scientific discoveries.
Memories are made from networks of neurons. Strong pathways between neurons lay down the memory. Dr Shaw gives two reasons we should not, however, expect accuracy from our memories. The first is that our perception of the world in the first place is a kind of fiction, where we interpret some of the sense data received by our brain as a picture of the world. Secondly, every time we review our memory, we take the memory ‘out of storage’ and rework it, strengthening it with more detail or a slightly different story-line. The memories with which we do this strengthening become over time less and less accurate.
Dr Shaw reminds us of how childhood memories of the same event are remembered differently by family members. While we are sure we have remembered accurately, our siblings will often disagree. Research shows this dissonance to be the norm. At least one person’s memory has degraded over time!
From an opposite standpoint, some married couples reminisce over time and ‘construct’ a memory together, and so agree on its accuracy.
Chapters on false memory in child sexual abuse, in remembering where we were when 9/11 or other ‘flashbulb’ events are fascinating. I remember learning that JFK had been shot in 1964 in the Year 11 dormitory at my school. Someone had heard it on an illegal transistor radio. I am sure that’s right; but after reading The Memory Illusion, I would now need to check whether others present remembered the same event to have confidence in the accuracy of my own memory.
The advantages of our memory system, which seems set up to fail, is that it gives our brains great flexibility without brain overload.
Researchers have shown that brain games do not improve memory. The improvement that participants note is improvement in playing the game. These gains are not transferable. However, mnemonic training like memory palaces and techniques involving WEIRD do help memory by maximising the associative nature of memory. Shaw uses the example of ‘Do not think about pink elephants’ as a good example of WEIRD techniques. We automatically do the opposite of what we are told, that is, we hold pink elephants in our mind. Moreover, ‘pink elephants’ itself becomes a good way of remembering the principle of WEIRD in memory.
What can my baby boomer students of Latin and French learn from The Memory Illusion? They can take comfort that it is harder to remember things as you get older. They can associate new things to learn with things they already know. They can use repetition to strengthen these networks of association. And they can console themselves that synaptic pruning is an important process in memory, always creating possibilities for new learning however aged the learner!
2 thoughts on “Forgetting to remember: Dr Julia Shaw s The Memory Illusion”
This also adds weight, therefore, to the issue of four gospels, and also, an oral tradition. Fascinating, as I’ve argued both sides of this in my life.
It seems to me that there are two issues that this neuroscience throws up for the gospel accounts. The first is perception: we don’t see the world as it is; we make a picture from the huge flows of sense data. That picture provides a perception that is built on our prior knowledge. Therefore trying to describe the events of the life of Jesus presents a huge problem because Jesus was doing new things. I think of all the Old Testament references that the gospel-writers use to help them perceive what they saw.
Then there is the issue of the unreliable memories of the evangelists – unreliable because they are human. This certainly explains the so-called discrepancies in the gospels, but also highlights the fact that each Gospel has a theological agenda with which the evangelists are forming, shaping their memories.
I don’t doubt that God the Holy Spirit is working through all this process of fallible perception and unreliable memory – in fact, I’m sure of it, but I think we need to approach with caution the Gospel accounts. They are not video-recordings of events, they are events as perceived by human brains. They are not verbatim accounts, they are memories shaped by the writers’ passionate desire to bring us into contact with the Christ-event.