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What’s in a Memory?

What’s in a Memory?


“Memories aren’t neatly filed on a shelf of the brain like some kind of memory library. Instead, memories are composed of bits and pieces that come together.”

If you talk very long to psychologists who study memory, big questions arise: Do we make our memories or do our memories make us? Those vivid memories that we all have – did they actually happen? What about false memories?

Denise Beike and James Lampinen have studied memory for decades in the lab and in the field. Each experiment they construct and conduct teases out one more clue to the mystery of memory. Much of Beike’s work has focused on autobiographical memory, the memories of life experiences. She has looked at emotional content and what it means for memories to be open or closed.

Lampinen has studied memory gone wrong – mistaken memories or false memories – and memory focused on future actions, such as remembering the face of a fugitive or missing person.

Do our memories make us?

Beike says there are two sides to this question:

“Are memories influential? Absolutely. But we are not the victims of our memories. We are not the passive recipients of our memories’ influence.”

Rather, Beike makes the case that we are in charge of our memories. People often think about memory as a static video recording that simply gets replayed. In fact, Beike said, memories are “flexible, reconstructed and error-filled.” With mutability comes power.

“Because memories are reconstructed and altered, if you know the healthy or productive or good way to think about things, you have the option to do what you want with your memories.”

In her research in autobiographical memory, Beike has seen people do just that. Autobiographical memory encompasses the simplest early memory of breaking your grandmother’s favorite cup as well as personal memories of a day that most people remember, like September 11, 2001.

“Much of the reason we remember is because it causes us to have some kind of emotional experience. Memory helps us learn a lesson about the past, reminds us why we feel close to someone or makes us laugh when we think about something that happened,” Beike said. “I’ve been interested in how memory helps us adapt and adjust to experiences and how it influences future behavior.”

Memory as Trauma

On September 12 and 13, 2001, Denise Beike recruited 111 University of Arkansas students to answer questions about how they were coping with the terrorist attacks of September 11. She collected responses again in October and December.

Those who had attained closure were less likely to be ill or see the doctor in the three months after the attacks. Most attained closure despite being unable to “make sense” of what had happened. Closure and making sense of an event are not the same thing, according to Beike.

“Sometimes closure just means becoming satisfied with the level of understanding you have,” she said.

People who had refused to let the attacks reshape their view of the world recovered more quickly than those who responded by extensively reevaluating their beliefs and perspectives. In fact, those who most successfully coped seemed to defy the idea that the events had changed their lives.

Memories of the September 11 attacks merged autobiographical memory and social event memory. The event was not treated like a memory in which there could be changes over time, but rather like a traumatic event, which was “rehearsed and refreshed with images that people watched over and over,” Beike said.

The constant replaying of video of the attacks was akin to the way images replay in the mind of someone with post-traumatic stress disorder. Although people may choose to re-expose themselves to images in order to reduce the emotional level of the memory and get closure, in reality such an approach doesn’t work, Beike said.

At some point, she notes, the television networks stopped replaying the video.

“There was nothing positive to be gained from watching those planes hit those towers and watching those towers collapse,” she said.

Closure and coping

Memories can either be open or closed. Open memories contain more emotional detail and arouse more agitated emotions than do closed memories. And, emotional content exists with both pleasant and unpleasant memories. Open and closed memories are not memories of different types of experiences; rather, they are different ways of thinking about or responding to an experience.

“It doesn’t matter how long ago something happened, but if you remember it and it doesn’t pull at you emotionally, you have closure on it,” she said. “It’s under your control. You can choose to remember the emotions or not.”

Brain-imaging studies have made this process clearer. Autobiographical memories aren’t neatly filed on a shelf of the brain like some kind of memory library. Instead, memories are composed of bits and pieces that come together in the hippocampus.

“Your brain goes searching within itself for all the little elements of the memory. What smells do I remember? Who was there? What did I see, and what did I hear? Then it bonds them together, and you say ‘oh, yes, I remember that day’,” Beike explains. “If your brain just decides it’s not going to go looking for the emotional pieces, well then there you have it. They’re still there, but it just didn’t at that moment bring them in.”

Closure is just one way people have to elevate or to reduce the importance of an event.

“I think we probably have a whole basketful of coping mechanisms that we don’t necessarily think about,” Beike said.

One coping mechanism is to shrink or stretch event boundaries, meaning that people can look at an event in a way that makes it more or less closely related to the self. For example, when your friend interrupted you while you were telling a really good story, if that event is remembered as something that happened once on one day, it has little influence on how you view yourself and your friend. If you expand the boundary of the event to see your friend’s rudeness as the latest example of repeated disrespect for you, then the memory has more impact and becomes more focused on you.

Knowing that people have the option to do what they want with their memories is important for psychotherapy, particularly for those who study and treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Beike also sees implications for how people remember “the lumps and bumps of life” as well as the triumphs of life:

“It’s not just that you’re a victim of circumstance and the environment. You can exercise your free will in how you remember those things, and the mere act of remembering in a different way changes you and changes what you do and changes how well adjusted you are.”

Remembering unpleasant experiences with a sense of closure, Beike says, is the healthy and adaptive way to remember them.

What about false memories?

In his basic memory research, James Lampinen has looked in two directions: how do people come to have false memories that feel so real, and how do people avoid false memories.

Researchers in Lampinen’s lab have looked at false memories that are vivid and detailed, sometimes called phantom recollections. In one experiment, the researchers set up a room that looked like a graduate student’s office furnished with the usual office supplies and equipment but no stapler. When researchers tested participants about what had been in the room, people would say they remembered a stapler being in the office. The researchers took this one step farther and asked if they distinctly remembered a detail about the stapler and to describe it.

“A surprising number of people indicated that, yes, they could remember details, such as the size, shape, color and location of the stapler,” Lampinen said.

In another experiment, participants listened to a tape of three different people reading a list of words that followed a theme, such as bed, rest, nap, snooze, slumber, all related to the word sleep, but the word sleep was never presented. When tested, many study participants not only said they’d heard the word sleep, but they identified the speaker who had said it.

In laboratory experiments, people remember details about a stapler that wasn’t there.
Photo by Russell Cothren
Photo Illustration by Amanda Ryan

Lampinen calls this process “content borrowing.” When someone is retrieving a memory, at first the item feels familiar, and that feeling of familiarity leads them to search their memory for details. They recall details from a different but related event that is close enough that it convinces them.

Thus, when the study participants are tested about the sleep-related words, they are borrowing details from other words that convince them that they heard the word sleep and that they can recall the particular person who said the word. In some cases, participants reported remembering the word because it had been said in a strident voice. That was another demonstration of borrowing. A word had been said in a strident voice, but it wasn’t the word sleep.

Mistaken witnesses

It may not matter whether you remember all the details of a cup you broke. Maybe it was blue, maybe flowered. But in other cases, the details are crucial, and vivid memories may lead you astray. At worst, a false memory could lead to the conviction of an innocent person.

When it comes to mistaken identification in legal situations, Lampinen says there are two issues. First are the factors neither witnesses nor criminal investigators can do anything about, such as distance from the perpetrator and lighting. Also, research has shown that people are better at identifying people of their own race or ethnicity than people of other races or ethnicities. All that can be done is to inform the jury about these limitations so they can take them into account.

The Faces of Missing Children: Tips to Improve Recall

 With prospective-person memory, people see a picture of a fugitive or of a missing child and try to remember the face, try to become eyewitnesses in the future. In the favorable conditions of a lab study, 20 to 60 percent of participants spot the missing person. In real-life field studies, the rate plunges to 3 percent. In research conducted at grocery stores, few customers could identify the faces of missing children right after leaving the store.

James Lampinen suggests two simple things people can do to improve their memory for the faces of missing children. First, he suggests, people should take a few minutes to look at the photos of missing children during the next visit to the supermarket, engaging in what is called “implementation intention.”

“Previous research has shown that if you repeat an intention to yourself three times out loud, you can dramatically increase doing whatever it is you intend to do,” Lampinen said.

Lampinen suggested that people look at the faces in the posters holistically.

“One mistake we sometimes make is to try to memorize a face in the same way we memorize a string of words,” Lampinen said. “A string of words you can memorize one word at a time. With a face, you can’t just remember the eyes and then the nose and then the mouth. Rather, faces are best remembered as perceptual wholes. You have to take it all in. And, try to picture the child’s face in different situations.”

Other factors are under the control of the criminal justice system.

In a line-up that includes a suspect, police will include a certain number of foils, individuals who are not suspects and are known to be innocent. Studies of police records have shown that about 20 percent of the time, witnesses chose one of the foils. And, Lampinen points out, “We know that in one out of five actual criminal cases, witnesses choose an innocent person out of the lineup, because they choose one of the foils. Presumably, some percentage of suspects who are identified are also the wrong person.”

If a sufficient number of foils are used, and the line-up is fair, even if witnesses are mistaken in their identification, they are more likely to mistakenly pick a foil than to mistakenly pick the suspect. The instructions given to the witness can make a big difference. It’s been shown that simply telling a witness ‘the perpetrator may or may not be in this line-up’ substantially decreases the chance of a false identification.

For several years, Lampinen’s lab has researched the factors that affect confidence judgments in identification.

“The issue isn’t simply that witnesses make mistakes, but that witnesses make mistakes and they’re really confident that they’re correct,” Lampinen said.

The single largest cause of mistaken convictions is mistaken eyewitnesses, Lampinen says. Moreover, in cases where convictions have been over-turned with DNA evidence, around 75 percent of those cases have had a confident eyewitness.

One area Lampinen has studied and continues to study is the effect of feedback. Witnesses are vulnerable to feedback effect. That is, if a witness makes an identification and gets confirmation – “Yep, that’s him. That’s the guy.” – the witness is more likely to feel extremely confident in the identification and in later interviews to indicate that they were confident all along.

“Confidence is probably created after the fact and is not a direct memory of how confident you were at the time,” Lampinen said.

Lampinen plans to continue doing research on eyewitness confidence. For one, he is interested in investigating what happens to a witness’s confidence when an unreliable individual, such as a snitch, confirms the identification. He is also doing some basic research on the effect of environmental factors, such as distance, on the accuracy of identification.

His false memory work at this time is focused on developmental work in children, looking at memory monitoring and cognitive control. His study will examine those factors both in terms of brain function as children age and as related to experiences in school or seeing other people use their memory.

Memory in the future

How will those children Lampinen is studying use their memories in a world in which cameras record every family event and many public streets? Beike says it is a very different world today, with people obsessively clicking their cell phones to record everything. Yet she questions how often people actually go back to all those photos.

“Even if we have the recorded information, we won’t necessarily access it,” she said. “After all, we have our own memories to tell the story for us.”

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