Shit… there was something I was supposed to be doing today, but for the life of me I can’t remember what. Oh yeah! I remember- it was:
This week, I’ll be venturing into my home field of scientific inquiry: psychology, to talk a bit about memory and how it’s treated in the media.
You ever walk in to a room and just totally forgot why? Or where you are? Or who you are? Or what all this blood is doing on your hands? Or that you’re a dolphin? Memory is weird. That’s one of the best ways I can put it. It’s not nice and neat recall like a computer, nor is it nice neat capture and storage like a camera.
You don’t remember everything you perceive- and what you do remember may not even be entirely accurate. Memories can be distorted, or even just plain faked- and they’ll feel just as vivid and real as genuine memories. It’s a little horrifying to think about, really. The thing you think happened to you or the thing you think you did may not actually have happened- or may not have happened like you remember. It can be fucking scary when you find out.
What you remember and how you remember it is decided by a number of factors. There are two things called the primacy effect and the recency effect where the first and last thing you see are more salient (that’s a big, fancy word for how much something stands out). There’s the frequency effect, where something you see more often is more memorable.
Now, all of these are effects that determine what gets up into short-term memory. But short term memory is confined (you can remember only about 5-9 things) and quick (around 30 seconds) before it either fades or moves into long-term memory through rehearsal and encoding. Once it’s in your long-term memory, it can get distorted by any number of things, one big factor turns out to be social desirability.
You see, everybody is the protagonist of their own stories. We always like to depict ourselves as the good guy, the hero who’s smart, funny, brave, obviously has had many satisfied lovers, and who wasn’t bullied on the playground or called “Drew me a picture.”
Anyway, remember that awesome joke you told to the blonde bio major at that party two weeks ago? Well, it turns out that your buddy Mark was actually the one who told the joke and made everyone laugh. You just remembered it wrong to make yourself look nice, also, your buddy Mark is just your split personality- TWIST! This need to be socially desirable affects our currently stored memories to make ourselves the center of attention when we usually aren’t. It’s called the spotlight effect, we tend to think that the social spotlight shines on us- that people are always paying attention to us. But people have shit to do, they don’t have time for you most often. And when they do- guess what? They think the spotlight’s shining on them.
Let me elaborate on this by saying: it’s okay. People do these things naturally and unconsciously, they don’t really mean to do these things. Often times they’re not even aware of these things (we call them cognitive biases) or that they do them. You’re not bad for doing these things, you’re not an asshole (well, at least not for falling for these), you’re human. But, now that you are aware of their existence, you can maybe start to temper them and catch yourself before you commit them.
Let’s see what I had to say back then:
First off, there are two major types of amnesia: anterograde and retrograde
Retrograde amnesia is when parts of your past memory are lost or disrupted.
Anterograde amnesia is when the part of your brain that transfers short-term memory and codes it into long-term memory (the hippocampus) gets damaged and you can no longer remember NEW things that happen to you (It’s like blacking out from alcohol, except for a much longer period). Retrograde amnesia is pretty damn rare, usually what people get is anterograde amnesia from some sort of injury.
So Alice has some retrograde amnesia. It erases her whole life and is caused by being knocked unconscious by some gas. So far, so shitty.
Usually with retrograde amnesia, it’s the more recent life events that get disrupted, the really old stuff is usually unaffected. But oddly enough (and I say oddly because I doubt that Paul W.S. Anderson researched this), the movie does get some parts right. Usually with Amnesia (both retrograde and anterograde) it is the episodic memory that is affected. You see, there are multiple types of memory. Your episodic memory is “I had bacon and eggs for breakfast yesterday”; your declarative memory is “Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president of the United States”, it’s the facts you know, but can’t recall when you learned them or experienced them.
Your procedural memory is what you can do- walking, crawling, playing the piano, you get the gist. With amnesia, your procedural and declarative memory usually stay intact. This actually means that even with such severe retrograde amnesia, Alice would still be able to speak normally and remember how to fire a gun.
Thanks, past me!
There are, generally speaking, two types of memory: explicit and implicit. Explicit memory is the aforementioned episodic and declarative memories, it is the conscious and intentional recollection of things. Implicit memory is a little different, it’s not just the opposite, it’s when “previous experiences aid in the performance of a task without conscious awareness of these previous experiences.” Implicit memory is most often seen in procedural memory.
In psychology, there is a specific case study that forever changed what we know about knowing things, most psychology students know him as HM, he is the most studied person in all of psychology:
In 1953, Henry Molaison was put on an operating table and lobotomized. Henry had been suffering from epileptic seizures frequently, pretty much since he was born. Surgeons took out his hippocampus, his parahippocampal gyrus, and his amygdala- all brain structures that play very important roles in memory encoding.
The good news is that Henry’s seizures practically stopped. The bad news is that Henry could no longer form new memories, or remember most of his old ones. Back then, no one knew that those three organelles had anything to do with memory, but we knew that the amygdala was related to extreme emotional response and dysfunction in the amygdala was linked to seizures. It was a common practice of sucking out the amygdala to reduce or remove seizures during those days.
Here’s the kicker, though: nothing else was harmed. Henry’s intellect, problem solving skills, emotional capabilities, procedural, and his working memory (system that actively holds multiple pieces of transitory information in the mind, where they can be manipulated) were all intact.
Most movies and TV shows totally fuck up memory and memory loss, but there is one shining example of scientific accuracy in film: Memento.
Memento, the 2000 film from Christopher Nolan (pre-Batman) is about Leonard Shelby, who develops anterograde amnesia after he is struck in the head by a burglar who then goes on to rape and murder his wife. The whole film is presented in a disjointed, anachronistic order that is meant to mimic Leonard’s condition. The actual facts and presentation of anterograde amnesia in the film is pretty much spot on- they even manage to sneak in a bit about fallable memory when (SPOILER) Teddy reveals (though it is possible he’s lying) that what Leonard thought happened between Sammy Jenkins and his wife happened between Leonard and his wife and that Leonard accidentally killed her with repeat injections of insulin in his amnesiac state (SPOILER). It’s an incredible film that’s also accurate. Anyone who likes thrillers, Noir, or psychology should check it out.
Join me next week as we take a small break from science talk to ROCK OUT!
Also, be sure to check out my other column, where I review dumb-ass action films every monday: Mindless Action Mondays
Have a science-related question?