Italians can remember fewer numbers.

Italians can remember fewer numbers.

Italians can remember fewer numbers.

When you try to remember something like a phone number you have to keep repeating it to yourself or it disappears. This is because the part of your working memory which remembers sounds can only hold those sounds for a few seconds.

Psychologists call that part of your brain the phonological store. Each time you recite the phone number to yourself you are putting those digits back into the store one by one (this is called the phonological loop). However, the phonological store only lasts a few seconds. If the number takes longer to recite than the store lasts, the final digits will have dropped out of memory before you can get to them to put them back in.

For example, if you hear or read the first 10 digits of pi after the decimal place and try to remember them, you will begin repeating them to yourself… one four one five nine two six five three five. It might take you five seconds to recite them. But, if your phonological store only lasts four seconds, the last couple of digits will drop out of your phonological store before you can articulate them to yourself. The first eight digits have been put back in the store (where they will each remain for another 4 seconds unless you once again renew them by articulating them again before they disappear), but the last two are gone.

Italians have longer words for numbers than we do in English. Most digits have two syllables. Those ten digits of pi would be: uno quattro uno cinque nove due seis cinque tre cinque. In this example that would mean about 18 syllables instead of the 10 syllables required in English.

It is important to remember that the phonological store’s limitation is time rather than number of articles. 18 syllables are of course going to take longer to articulate than 10, so it is likely that an Italian would only remember approximately the first five digits rather than the first eight of them.

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

 

Photo Credit: Allie_Caulfield Flickr via Compfight cc

The sensory store holds a huge amount of information for a very short time.

The sensory store holds a huge amount of information for a very short time.

The sensory store holds a huge amount of information for a very short time.

In 1960 George Sperling conducted an experiment in which he would flash a grid of 12 letters (three rows of four) to his participants, for less than a second. They would then have to try to recall which letters had been flashed up. They would, typically, manage just 3 or 4.

With another group of participants he would flash a grid of letters in the same way, but with a difference. Just after the letters had disappeared they would be asked to recall the letters from either the top, middle or bottom row. Generally, these participants would also recall 3 or 4 letters.

This result suggests that, at the time the participants were told which line to remember, all of the lines were still present in their memory (or they would not have been able to recall so many from any named line).

It appears, then, that all of those letters were present in memory for a short time. By the time the participants had been asked to recall them and then managed to name a few, however, the rest had dropped out of memory.

The place that held the memory of the letters for a few seconds is known by psychologists as the Sensory Store. It holds a huge amount of information from at least our sight and hearing senses for a very short time. In that time we are able to choose what to focus on, and that is what we become aware of and what goes into working memory.

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

 

Sperling, G. (1960). The information available in brief visual presentations. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 74(11), 1-29.

Photo Credit: Daniel Kulinski Flickr via Compfight cc

A single neuron can encode an association between two concepts.

A single neuron can encode an association between two concepts.

A single neuron can encode an association between two concepts.

In these days of modern scanning equipment, individual neurons can be seen firing in the brains of those being monitored. This has had a remarkable effect on the study of the brain.

Matias Ison, Rodrigo Quian Quiroga and Itzhak Fried, in 2015, studied 600 individual neurons in epileptic patients. They called a neuron in one patient the “Jennifer Aniston neuron” because it would fire every time that person saw a picture of the actress Jennifer Aniston.

Following up on the discovery of this Jennifer Aniston neuron the experimenters would show participants pictures of famous people or family members to discover which neurons would fire in response to those individuals. They then showed a picture of that person at a famous landmark. For example, once they had established a neuron firing in response to any picture of Clint Eastwood, they would show a picture of Clint Eastwood at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. That neuron would then fire even if the person was shown a picture of just the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

This experiment showed that the single neuron had encoded an association between two concepts (Clint Eastwood and The Leaning Tower of Pisa) instantaneously, after just one exposure to the picture.

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

 

Ison, Matias J. et al. (2015). Rapid Encoding of New Memories by Individual Neurons in the Human Brain. Neuron , Volume 87 , Issue 1 , 220 – 230

Your memory of an event is unique.

Your memory of an event is unique.

Your memory of an event is unique.

If you experience something, whether it be as benign as watching a movie in the cinema, or as traumatic as being in a bank when it is raided by masked gunmen, your memory of that event will be unique.

Your memory of watching a movie will be vastly different even from that of the person sitting next to you. Although you are watching the same film from more or less the same place, you each bring your pasts to bear on your interpretation of the movie. It is your subjective interpretation of what you see and hear which has a chance of being encoded into memory, not the facts about what actually happened in front of you.

Not only do we experience everything slightly differently because of our different interpretations, but we are more likely to remember parts of the film which are particularly salient to us. And we all have different pasts and interests, making different aspects more important to different people. If I am into dogs, then I am more likely to remember details about any dogs which may have been shown. If you are into football you may remember the team colours that someone was wearing.

Different pasts mean we not only experience an event differently, but we also place differing levels of importance on any given aspect. These both result in our memories of the same event being potentially vastly different.

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

 

 

Photo: UA Stonestown Twin via photopin (license)

Memory is not simply the ability to recall something.

Memory is not simply the ability to recall something.

Memory is not simply the ability to recall something.

If somebody asked you to describe what memory is, you would probably give some sort of explanation along the lines that it is the ability to recall events. However, memory is so much more than that.

Recall of events is certainly one part of memory, known as autobiographical memory, but the following are also instances of memory:

General knowledge: if you know that an old fashioned British phone box and postbox are red, you must have that stored somewhere as a memory.

Language: If you can speak any sort of language you must have memorised what the words mean, along with the grammar needed to speak effectively to other people.

Driving: If you can drive, you must be remembering how to do so. This is a type of memory called procedural memory.

Telling a well known fairy story: You must remember the salient points of a story to be able to retell it.

 

Whenever a past experience influences our present thoughts or behaviour, that must be an effect of memory.

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

Every memory is a shabby reconstruction.

Every memory is a shabby reconstruction.

Every memory is a shabby reconstruction.

Think back to an event in your past. A birthday, a night out, a chance meeting. Bring back that memory. It may seem to you that the memory comes to you whole, but it doesn’t. It is merely a flawed reconstruction.

Every time we dredge up a memory we are actually putting it together again like a jigsaw. Some of the pieces are objectively accurate parts from the scene, but much of it is filler. We remember the gist, but most of the details are just made up to fill in the blanks.

And what we use to fill in the blanks is a schema for the situation – a mental representation of what we would typically expect in such a context.

Brewer and Treyens, in 1981, asked students to wait in a particular room for a few minutes before calling them through to take part in an experiment. The room appeared to be a fairly typical office, and the participants were asked afterwards to recall as much as they could about it. They did not know they were going to have to recall what was in the room, so they hadn’t made any effort to memorise it. However, it was clearly an office and so their “office schema” helped them out by telling them what was probably in there. They therefore “remembered” (actually believing they had seen them) items one would find in an average office, even though they had not been present in this case.

When you reconstruct a memory (which is every time you bring something from the past to mind), you are unaware of fact that you are filling in the blanks. The danger is that something which is added may well become a permanent fixture in your memory, and you have no way of knowing that it was never really there.

 

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

Are Christiano Ronaldo and Brett Cavanaugh both Sex Criminals?

Are Christiano Ronaldo and Brett Cavanaugh both Sex Criminals?

Are Brett Cavanaugh and Christiano Ronaldo both guilty of sexual assault?

As I write this there are two high profile charges of sexual assault in the news. But can we believe them?

In questioning their guilt, some may say I am disrespecting their accusers, who have apparently been through a horrific ordeal. And some may say I am helping mud to stick just by writing about it. I mean no disrespect and I hope that I do not help any mud to stick to an innocent person.

Clearly, I have no idea if the two men in question are guilty or not. The reason I am writing this is that my research has shown me just how unreliable our memories are. Just because a person believes someone assaulted them ten, or twenty, or thirty years ago, does not mean it happened the way they remember it.

Study after study has shown that details are extremely easy to implant into someone’s memory of an event. And once that detail has been put in, the person can remember it no other way. A simple example is asking people if a car stopped before or after the tree in a video they watched. There was no tree, but many people, upon being asked that question, would unwittingly implant one into their memories. They cannot then remove the tree if someone just tells them it wasn’t there. They now see it in their memory as clearly as any genuine detail.

We are unable to remember how we used to recall something, as opposed to how we recall it now. So implanted details become as real as genuine ones.

I can imagine a situation where someone (like Ronaldo’s accuser) is raped. They go to the police, but cannot give firm enough details for the police to proceed with any real investigation. Years later someone suggests to this poor lady that the rapist may have been Ronaldo. She is shown pictures of Ronaldo and encouraged to “remember” that it was indeed him. The more she is encouraged and coached, the more clearly she remembers each detail. Indeed, her memory may change dramatically, with time (and perhaps the input of others), without her being aware that it has changed at all.

Many people end up believing they were sexually assaulted as children when they were not, because of terribly misinformed and damaging “therapy”. It is known that if someone is asked to imagine what it would have been like if they had experienced something (let’s say a balloon ride), they are far more likely to misremember actually experiencing that thing even though it never happened. And each time they “recall” it they recall more detail more clearly. Eventually, if they are encouraged to remember the incident, the false memory becomes as clear, if not clearer, than any other memory.

It is overwhelmingly evident that the mind can create false memories, and that real memories can and do become distorted. As further proof of this, the majority of wrong convictions in court are a result of mistaken eyewitness testimony.

One would think that the longer ago an incident happened, the more chance there is for distortion of that memory. So should we believe the accusers of Brett Cavanaugh and Christiano Ronaldo?

I can believe that the accusers are sincere, and are not lying. But I would suggest that that is very different from actually believing their memories are accurate.

Find out more about how the mind plays tricks on you and how your memory works by reading my books, Bias Beware and Memory Matters.

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