"What we recall is not what we actually experienced, but rather a reconstruction of what we experienced that is consistent with our current goals and our knowledge of the world." p. 19From this diverse group of essays I came away with only one general conclusion: learn to not trust my own memory and beliefs (without additional evidence), let alone someone else's. The essays come from a conference held at Harvard University in May of 1997. They form a rather eclectic mix as the authors come from a variety of backgrounds including: psychology, business management, neurology, philosophy, and literature. As such, some essays are painfully dull; others, just the opposite.
A topic that I'm immensely interested in is that of "false memory." Many of the authors deal with this subject from various viewpoints. Those include false memories in patients with "disorders" of some kind (schizophrenia, brain injury, aging, and genetic defects) and how these problems can be monitored or studied using psychological techniques, experiments, and neuroimaging.
The third essay, from V. S. Ramachandran, was one of my favorites (if not my favorite). He presents various conversations with his patients or other "famous" patients who suffer from a variety of ailments including anosognosia, phantom limbs, and capgras syndrome. Ramachandran also discusses what is likely happening to cause these false memories or beliefs. Fascinating stuff.
An important part of learning how to improve our thinking skills lies in understanding how we think and why our thinking sometimes gets messed up even when we don't suffer a head injury or other physical ailment. A key step in thinking better is realizing that no matter what we do our brains are still subject to errors which we cannot control or perceive.
We like to think our conceptualizations are always subject to question, doubt, modification, and even disproof. To the extent that they are driven by cortical-hippocampal processing, this should be the case. But to the extent that the involvement of the system has become limited, other systems characterized by emotion and habit can largely replace this flexible processing. (p. 203)From a personal standpoint Section III, entitled "Memory and Belief in Autobiographical Recall and Autobiography," will strike a cord with most readers. If you haven't already come to distrust your own memory by this point in the book, you will shortly into this section. We learn about how we falsely appraise our past selves, change our autobiography (of even a fixed timeframe) over time, and consciously or unconsciously paint pictures of ourselves to others which aren't exactly accurate.
The traditional notion of memory as a single mental faculty varying only in strength and accessibility dies hard...This unfortunate reality is embodied beautifully in a quote taken from Malouf's 12 Edmondstone Street, which is quoted from on the same page.
Memory [is] not only literally essential to the constitution of identity, but also crucial in the sense that it is constantly revising and editing the remembered past to square with the needs and requirements of the self we have become in any present. (p. 293)
Here we come to a limit ... a threshhold we cannot cross, since even if we could find the door to that room, we cannot now find in ourselves the body, the experiencing mind-in-the-body, to go through. That body is out of reach ... What moving back into it would demand is an act of un-remembering, a dismantling of the body's experience that would be a kind of dying, a casting off, one by one, of all the tissues of perception, conscious and not, through which our very notion of body has been remade.Sissela Bok provides a rather telling quote from Leslie Stephen to kick off her essay on "Autobiography as Moral Battleground."
An autobiography, alone of all books, may be more valuable in proportion to the amount of misrepresentation which it contains. We do not wonder when a man gives a false character to his neighbour, but it is always curious to see how a man contrives to give a false testimonial to himself. (p. 307)So as we all continue to put "makeup on the corpse" of our own autobiographies, memories, and past beliefs perhaps the fundamental lesson to be learned is that we need to become honest and educated enough to be cognizant of what is happening even while our unconscious selves weave never-ending subterfuge into our brains.
"The processes involved in retrieval of long-term memories and the processes underlying the formation of beliefs overlap. Delusions result when something goes wrong with these processes." p. 128from the publisher:
Ranging from cognitive, neurological, and pathological perspectives on memory and belief, to relations between conscious and nonconscious mental processes, to memory and belief in autobiographical narratives, this book will be uniquely stimulating to scholars in several academic disciplines.
Daniel L. Schacter is Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, the author of Searching for Memory. Elaine Scarry is Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University and the author of The Body in Pain.
Table of Contents
Daniel L. Schacter and Elaine Scarry
Mining the Past to Construct the Future: Memory and Belief as Forms of Knowledge
Chris Westbury and Daniel C. Dennett
Cognitive, Neurological, and Pathological Perspectives
Cognitive and Brain Mechanisms of False Memories and Beliefs
Marcia K. Johnson and Carol L. Raye
Memory and the Brain: New Lessons from Old Syndromes
The Role of Memory in the Delusions Associated with Schizophrenia
Chris Frith and Raymond J. Dolan
Conscious and Nonconscious Aspects of Memory and Belief: From Social Judgments to Brain Mechanisms
Implicit Stereotypes and Memory: The Bounded Rationality of Social Beliefs
Mahzarin R. Banaji and R. Bhaskar
Belief and Knowledge as Distinct Forms of Memory
Howard Eichenbaum and J. Alexander Bodkin
Where in the Brain is the Awareness of One's Past?
Endel Tulving and Martin Lepage
Memory and Belief in Autobiographical Recall and Autobiography
Constructing and Appraising Past Selves
Michael Ross and Anne E. Wilson
Memory and Belief in Development
Autobiography, Identity, and the Fictions of Memory
Paul John Eakin
Autobiography as Moral Battleground
Thinking about Belief: Concluding Remarks
Antonio R. Damasio