The way we remember

I’m not going to tell you the story the way it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it. – Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

No truly honest memoir should begin without the above quote from Charles Dickens. The Shakespeare of English letters knew quite well how fragile and distorted memory can be, especially over time. The distance strains our view and our minds creatively enhance the fading contours and colors at the margins of our memory. We may well feel we vividly remember certain events in our life, but what we usually remember is more the gist, the emotional impact than the particular facts of the event. This is why journalists and writers take notes and quickly write down their thoughts and observations, so they can immediately memorialize, in writing, an event, conversation, or observation for accuracy. Barring that immediate record, we should approach recollections, especially one from many years past, with a good degree of humility and caution.

But even very recent memories, as most of us have experienced, can either be forgotten or distorted when we’re asked to recall them. We’re all expert eyewitnesses to the events of our own life, right? You would think we’d be absolutely sure about what we’ve seen, especially when our mind is focused on the event. But let’s take a very interesting case for examination.

Jennifer Thompson, a student at Elon College, was assaulted and raped in her college apartment one evening. During the rape she intentionally focused on the identity of her attacker so she could identify him latter. She was eventually able to escape. She provided a description to the police and eventually twenty-two year old Ronald Cotton was arrested. Cotton worked at a local restaurant and had a police record. Thompson picked Cotton out of a police line up. Thompson testified at court and fingered Cotton as the man who raped her. Cotton denied this over and over. He was found guilty after only forty minutes of jury deliberation and sentenced to life plus fifty years in prison.

While in prison Cotton overheard inmates saying that another inmate named Bobby Poole had actually raped Jennifer Thompson. Poole resembled Cotton and Poole was also in prison for rape. When Thompson confronted Poole he denied it. But Poole’s conversation with other inmates about raping Thompson was used to get Cotton a new trial.

At the new trial Jennifer Thompson stood roughly fifteen feet away from Poole and Cotton. She, again, identified Ronald Cotton as her rapist. The court upped Cotton’s punishment to two life sentences. Not too long after Cotton’s 2nd trial, the new scientific procedure of DNA testing proved that indeed it was Bobby Poole, not Ronald Cotton, who had raped Jennifer Thompson that night. Cotton had served 10.5 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton would eventually come together to write a book about this awful miscarriage of justice.

It’s important for us to remember that Jennifer Thompson was a “focused” witness. She was purposely studying the face and build of her attacker and yet she fingered an innocent man over and over. Could we get a better witness than Jennifer Thompson? She had no prior bias or knowledge of Cotton and she was purposely focusing on her attacker for later identification. She was morally certain that Cotton was the man who raped her. And yet she was terribly wrong.

Consider this. About seventy-five thousand police lineups take place every year. Statistics show that between 20% and 25% of the time the eyewitness identifies a suspect in the lineup that the police know isn’t correct. So upwards of 25 out of 100 people are falsely identified by the victim as the suspect in a crime we know they didn’t commit. In experimental studies where people are exposed to mock crimes the eyewitnesses tend to do exactly what Jennifer Thompson did: even though the real suspect isn’t in the lineup they finger someone who best resembles who they remember. Of the hundreds of people who have been exonerated by DNA evidence 75% were imprisoned by inaccurate eyewitness identification.

The point of the Jennifer Thompson story is just one among many that shed light on memory “construction.” Basically studies suggest that our memory tends to capture the “gist”–the general features–of what happens and our unconscious mind fills in the details. Hugo Munsterberg sums up memory construction basically like this: You remember the gist, your unconscious mind fills in the details and you believe the results. The salient idea here is how remembering an event, recalling it, can reinforce a false memory, as in the case of Jennifer Thompson. As you think back about a memory and you construct it and believe you’re remembering it correctly you then keep remembering the “constructed” memory, not necessarily what actually happen. You’re not remembering the event, per se, you’re remembering the memory.

In other words, as you recall an event you tend to remember the gist and then you unconsciously “fill in the details” and then you believe the entire memory even though some of the important details are inaccurate or false. Many times, especially in events long past, we remember the gist (and some of the details), but more significantly we remember the emotions involved in the event. And of course the emotions can be the most powerful part of a recalled event, which in-turn can drive us to “construct” more memory which may turn out to be entirely false.

Now why is memory construction or reconstruction this way? Well, studies suggest that memory retention is analogous to how computers store imagines. Computers compress images for storage. This means that only the key attributes of the image are actually kept. When you pull the image up from storage (your memory) the computer (your brain), based on the limited information it has from the compressed file, will predict and fill in small details of the stored image that were not kept. If you were to look at your stored image in a thumbnail size it would “appear” very accurate and clear. However, if you blow up the image you would notice detail errors and bands of solid colors where the computer software (your unconscious mind) predicted wrong.

There is also the issue of memory “addition.” We’ve all had that feeling of recounting a memory and being told, or shown, a part of it didn’t happen, or at least not in the particular way or in the particular event we’re recounting. We’re conflating two events or even adding in color, contour, and actions to our memories from various other related or unrelated events stored in memory. Research has also shown that memories can be implanted through a process of what I’ll describe as priming and suggestion. Our memory, like people in general, is open to manipulation.

Now this post isn’t trying to suggest that you should always doubt your memory. For the most part our memories are fine in getting through life and recalling events. We may not get all the details right and depending on the amount of time that’s past, remembering the gist of what happen is good enough for reminiscing. I think the main point to take from the research on memory is that we should approach our memories with a degree of humility and caution depending on what remembering means. If you’re writing a memoir, or blogging about life, or telling stories over wine then getting the gist and filling in the details is, well, being human-all-to-human. It’s just part of the good sport of life. (You can, of course, enhance the accuracy of your memories by finding supporting evidence and corroborating events with other people.) But if recalling from memory has serious implications you need to be extra cautious and be mindful of the possible errors and distortions that may be present.

Reference links:

On the Witness Stand: Essays on Psychology and Crime

Eyewitness Testimony can be Problematic at Trial

Police Lineups Start to Face Facts: Eyes can Lie

Searching For Memory: The Brain, The Mind, And The Past

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Chapter 3, Remembering and Forgetting, of Dr. Mlodinow’s best selling book is the impetus and guide for this post. He has upwards of around 40 sources supporting his discussion of memory. It’s an excellent book! )

The unconscious mind

To some this post might be old news but to others hopefully it’s informative. Over the past decade or so there’s been a revolution in psychology. Research and experimental findings in human psychology suggest that our understanding of the mind and brain are at the cusp of a major turning point or shift. This new dawn in science has been the result of breakthroughs primarily in neuroscience and social science research.

The core finding of this revolution involves our greater understanding of the unconscious mind and how it operates. Research wise we’ve been able to design experiments that manifest the operation of the unconscious mind. These experiments reveal structural biases in our thinking and the weighty influence of the unconscious mind in our everyday actions. It turns out that our unconscious mind is very active in shaping who we are, how we act, and what we become. Far more so than we ever thought. After the waning of psychoanalysis in the later part of 20th century it became taboo to talk about the unconscious mind. But the advances in science have corrected this limited perspective.

It turns out Freud was right. We do have a very active unconscious mind and it does have a big influence on our behavior. But Freud was wrong about what the unconscious was and how it functions. Freud’s view was that the unconscious was hot, wet, primitive, irrational, and seething with anger and lust. The “new” unconscious, the one that scientist are now studying, is “kindler and gentler than that and more reality bound.” Freud of course didn’t have the use of modern experimental methods and technology. His psychology was based primarily on observation and introspection. Within these limitations Freud’s project was fascinating and highly influential in the late 19th and early 20th century. Freud’s psychology is certainly not science in the modern sense, but his ideas are deeply penetrating as literature and philosophy. Stop and consider for a moment the vocabulary Freud gave us for psychoanalyzing other people. Think of words like defense mechanism, repression, libido, displacement, sublimation, condensation, over-determination and many others. Freud’s psychoanalysis isn’t science but it is a useful way for describing human behavior.

With modern technology we can now see into the brain as it operates through the use of the fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging ). We can now watch as blood moves through the brain during cognition, indicating which areas of the brain are in use during an event. Neuroscientists can now say what area of our brain–the reasoning part, the emotional parts involving fear, love etc, etc,–are functioning, or being activated during experiments. The science on this is fascinating. There have been a number of really good books over the past few years that have highlighted what we’ve learned. I’m currently reading Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. If you have an interest in psychology or if you’re just interested in human nature and how and why people do what they do then you might want to check out some of these recommendations:

The Social Animal

Think Fast, Slow

The Folly of Fools

The Righteous Mind

The Happiness Hypothesis

Stranger to Ourselves


Social Intelligence 

The above are just a sampling of books I’ve read, but you can go to and find a treasure trove of books covering neuroscience, behavioral economics and social neuroscience.

I should also note that there are still many questions in psychology that neuroscience has not been able to address. Consciousness, perception, learning and memory are some examples. Neuroscience is a very good tool and has greatly advanced our understanding, but we should be mindful that we have a long way to go and still much to learn. As is the case with science, as we continue to advance our understanding we must continually revise our views to square with new facts.

Excellent speech by David Brooks at the Chicago Humanities Festival

I’m a dedicated reader of David Brooks’s work. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s a columnist for The New York Times. He mostly covers politics, but he also writes about culture and the social sciences. I was originally drawn to Brooks’s writing because his political analysis was, for the most part, reasonable and fair. I may not always agree with his arguments, but I find many of his observations fascinating and funny. Along with being a real wit (as you will see in the video), he’s a superb writer.

His social science writing is some of the best stuff out there. In 2011 Brooks published the The Social Animal. It was a New York Times #1 bestseller. The book is about the latest discoveries in social science research. Basically it’s a book that explains how individuals actually flourish as human beings. It’s a book that basically explains to us (through a story) how much our intuitions, emotions and the unconscious parts of our mind, are actually the deciding factors in how our lives actually turn out. It’s one of those non-fiction books I can read over and over. I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Social Animal.

In the talk above Brooks discusses politics through the lens of his social science research and his many years as a political journalist. I think It’s a really good, insightful speech. I hope you’ll watch.

Is science the only “real” knowledge?

Philosophy & Science

Philosophy & Science

Does science always have the last word about reality? Is scientific knowledge the only “real” knowledge we have about life and the vast phenomenon? This is the question that Professor Austin L. Hughes takes up in a New Atlantis piece called The Folly of Scientism.

Scientism is the belief that the only real and reliable knowledge about the world is derived from science. Any knowledge derived from outside the realm of science, specifically philosophical knowledge or any other non-science, is mere opinion, belief, delusion, neurosis or whatever else but it’s not real knowledge. I’m being a bit facetious but you get my meaning. Now, being both a scientific guy, in the sense that I respect and admire the power of scientific inquiry and the facts gained from it, and also being a humanistic guy, believing that knowledge is more than mere physics, I can see both sides of this argument.

Science is impressive. Modernity is in large part about the rise of modern natural science. There is so much we understand now and can accurately predict about nature and the phenomenon because of the advances of modern natural science. Our lives have been improved beyond the imagination of those living within just that past 60 years. Science is an enormously powerful tool for reading the book of nature. We need to be careful and circumspect when challenging the results of scientific research. Believe me when I say that most of the time it’s a mistake (dangerous and irresponsible at times) to discount the validity of scientific explanations. If we’re not careful we fall into delusionism.

And yet to believe that science is the only domain of real knowledge is simply mistaken. Let’s start with the statement that all real knowledge is, indeed, physics (science). Well, there is no scientific, falsifiable way to prove the validity of this statement. It is, ironically, a philosophical precept. You can’t run an experiment that proves the statement “that all knowledge is physics.” You have to, well, take it as true…philosophically.

Second, there is the big problem with ultimate or original causes. To explain: We can discover, detect, and explain physical laws and how they operate in the universe, but as we keep pulling back the layers and layers of the causal onion, we realize we can’t explain the meta-laws (the ultimate laws) of the universe. In simpler terms, our current science can’t tell us why there is a universe (galaxies, etc) in the first place. “Why,” as the philosophical challenge goes, “is there something instead of nothing?”

And then there is the problem of judgement and values. Science can provide us with facts and important data, but science can’t resolve questions of value. For example, science does not help us decide whether we will or will not allow stem-cell research. This argument is sometimes confused as a science versus religion debate. But it’s really not. This is a philosophical debate not a scientific one. Science provides context, but it can’t give us the knowledge we seek — about what’s the right thing to do. This is a decision of ethics, of philosophy.

And then, I believe, there’s the knowledge of human intentionality. Basically we all have the same range of emotions in greater or lesser degree. We feel love, hate, lust, rage and fear and so on. But how do we truly learn about these emotions? Certainly emotional intelligence is real knowledge. Science can tell us about the chemical makeup of these emotions and suggest how to handle, understand or cope with them. But how do we really gain emotional insight? Science just can’t give us this knowledge. We learn about these things through art, literature, religion, philosophy, history, experience and so on. You learn them, in the broadest sense, through the humanities. As Will Durant muses: “To observe processes and construct means is science. To criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy.”

Lastly, there are the other Big Questions about life itself and the miracle of human consciousness, both of which are still mysteries beyond the reach of science. Science can give us a lot, but it can’t provide us with meaning or purpose or even “why” science itself is so important and worth our time and effort. These are all philosophical questions.

Let me conclude by letting Will Durant provide my favorite summary of the relationship between philosophy and science:

But is philosophy stagnant? Science seems always to advance, while philosophy seems always to lose ground. Yet this is only because philosophy accepts the hard and hazardous task of dealing with problems not yet open to the methods of science –problems like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, order and freedom, life and death. As soon as a field of inquiry yields knowledge susceptible of exact formulation, it is called science.

Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art: It arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown (as in metaphysics), or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or political philosophy). It is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory, and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world. Philosophy seems to stand still, perplexed, but only because she leaves the fruits of victory to her daughters the sciences, and herself passes on, divinely discontent, to the uncertain and unexplored.

Shall we be more technical? Science is analytical description; philosophy is synthetic interpretation. Science wishes to resolve the whole into parts, the organism into organs, the obscure into the known. It does not inquire into the values and ideal possibilities of things or into their total and final significance. It is content to show their present actuality and operation. It narrows its gaze resolutely to the nature and process of things as they are.

The scientist is as impartial as Nature in Turgenev’s poem: He is as interested in the leg of a flea as in the creative throes of a genius. But the philosopher is not content to describe the fact. He wishes to ascertain its relation to experience in general and thereby to get at its meaning and its worth. He combines things in interpretive synthesis. He tries to put together, better than before, that great universe-watch which the inquisitive scientist has analytically taken apart.

Science tell us how to heal and how to kill. It reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war. But only wisdom — desire coordinated in the light of all experience — can tell us when to heal and when to kill. To observe processes and to construct means is science. To criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy. And because in these days our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpretation and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” For a fact is nothing except in relation to desire. It is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from despair.

The Signal and the Noise

I started following Nate Silver’s blog after I saw him in an interview about six months ago. He’s a young statistician and writer at The New York Times. His expertise is in the science (and art) of prediction. I was impressed with his confidence and just how successful he’d been at predicting political elections. In the 2008 U.S. Presidential election Silver correctly predicted who (Obama or McCain) would win 49 of 50 states. He was wrong only on Indiana, which went to Obama by 1 percentage point. In last Tuesday’s Presidential election Silver correctly predicted who would win all 50 states. So I’m fascinated by his mind. I’d like to get into it and understand how he thinks, how he sees, so I can hopefully improve my own thinking.

Luckily, Silver has just published his first book, The Signal and the Noise. The title refers to the two aspects you typically encounter when reading or interpreting information. There is the signal you’re looking for and then there’s all the noise that surrounds it. The opening paragraphs are gems that temp anyone with a hunger for knowledge:

This is a book about information, technology, and scientific progress. This is a book about competition, free markets, and the evolution of ideas. This is a book about the things that make us smarter than any computer, and a book about human error. This is a book about how we learn, one step at a time, to come to knowledge of the objective world, and why we sometimes take a step back.

This is a book about prediction, which sits at the intersection of all these things. It is a study of why some predictions succeed and why some fail. My hope is that we might gain a little more insight into planning our futures and become a little less likely to repeat our mistakes.

And so I begin the book tonight with the idea of providing you a review eventually.

Kahneman and the biases of intuition

Over the past few years I’ve read a number of books and research studies related to social psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics. One of the most interesting books during this time was Daniel Kahneman’s book: Thinking, Fast and Slow. The “book is about biases of intuition.” Kahneman, along with a growing number of scientific studies, demonstrates just how error prone our intuitive judgments can be.

As we navigate our lives, we normally allow ourselves to be guided by impressions and feelings, and the confidence we have in our intuitive beliefs and preferences is usually justified. But not always. We are often confident even when we are wrong, and an objective observer is more likely to detect our errors than we are.     

As our guide and objective observer, Kahneman takes us on a tour of the predictable biases (or systematic errors) in human cognition that all of us have. The book is a fascinating read. I highly recommend it. Of course, most of us are aware that people have biases, but Kahneman shows us just how pervasive they are. You’ll be surprised how many times in the book Kahneman sets you up and demonstrates your own biases. Probably the most obvious bias on display during this political season is confirmation bias. For the most part, Democrats and Republicans immediately read information as confirming what they already believe.

Personally, the biggest benefit I took from Kahnman’s book is simple awareness. I can’t say because I’m aware of how pervasive these cognitive biases are that I’m able to avoid them. I’m human, all too human. But being consciously aware and, I believe, honestly trying to avoid them is the best anyone can do.