Thanks for the memory

Earlier this week, I attended the latest monthly meeting of the Skeptics in the Pub organisation. These events are always very interesting, but the physical enviroment of the gatherings – an upstairs pub room that is suitable for a group a quarter of the size – is utterly inadequate.
This month’s speaker was Dr Krissy Wilson who has just completed her PhD at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her main areas of interest are the psychology of belief, the unreliable nature of eyewitness testimony, false memories and the impact of belief. For three years, she has been investigating a variety of different phenomena of memory for both normal and ostensibly paranormal events.
Her research focuses on the unreliable nature of eyewitness testimony and explores how far individual differences might render someone more susceptible to distortions of memory and in particular how belief in, and experience of, the paranormal impact on both perception and memory.

The title of her talk was “There’s a ‘me’ in memory!” which emphasized her view that memory is a very personal experience and construct. Although we do not understand how memory works, we do know from 30 years of research that memory is not the reliable store that was once thought. Memory is in fact a constructive, active and fluid process, vulnerable to all kinds of misinformation, suggestion and individual biases. We fill in gaps based on our expectations and our beliefs, so that in effect we do not have or store memories so much as fashion and create them.
Dr Wilson developed two particular themes in her fascinating and fluent address.
First, it is easy to have false memories and to create such false memories in others. She made reference to the so-called “Memory Wars” [more information here] that occurred in the 1970s & 1980s with the passionate arguments over whether children’s memories of sexual abuse by their parents could always be assumed to be valid or whether they could inadvertedly be created by the interviewing therapist. To illustrate how easy it is to create false memories, she did a little experiment with her audience in which she convinced a few that they had seen a word in her screen presentation that was never displayed.
Second, there appears to be a relationship between belief in anomalous experiences or the paranormal on the one hand and the tendency to create false memories on the other hand. So that, for instance, Americans who believe in the paranormal are more likely to believe that they have been abducted by aliens and subjected to sexual experiments. This would explain a lot of the passion around belief when so many people are convinced that they have actually seen events which we either know have not happened (such as film footage of the actual Diana car crash) or most people believe have no genuine evidence to support their occurrence (such as the mind-bending of spoons).