Your very fallible memory

Your memories can be manipulated and changed. In fact, this happens often. And you're the one doing it to yourself.

A 93-year-old neuroscientist explains how memory works

At an age when some people are struggling with their own memories (and many others are just plain dead) neuroscientist Brenda Milner does an amazing job of explaining her contributions to our understanding of how memory works. Milner is one of the researchers who worked with H.M., the famous patient who lost his ability to form new memories after undergoing brain surgery.

This is a long talk — almost an hour — but it's a fascinating look at the career of a scientist who changed the way we think about the mind, told in her own words.

You can watch the full video at Vimeo

Create false memories at home for fun and profit!

Science journalist Stephen Ross Pomeroy uses real research to explain how you can trick your friends and loved ones into "remembering" events that never actually happened. Key tips: Don't get too intricate with the details (your mark will fill those in for themselves) and do focus on false memories that would have a strong emotional component.

The neurobiology and psychology that connect summer vacation with your morning run

Time is relative. Remember how each day in grade school (especially summer days) seemed to last for an eternity? Ever notice how it seems to take forever to travel a new route on your bike, while the return trip along the same path is done in the blink of an eye?

Turns out, both of those things are connected and they have important implications for the nature of memory. There's a great summary of the science on this up at The Irish Times. It's written by William Reville, emeritus professor of biochemistry at University College Cork.

The key issue, according to Reville, is that the amount of information your brain can store during a given time period isn't really dependent on the length of that time period. You could store up a lot of new information during 10 minutes of a really interesting lecture. You might store only a little new information during 10 minutes of walking your dog along a path you know very well.

The higher the intensity, the longer the duration seems to be. In a classic experiment, participants were asked to memorise either a simple [a circle] or complex figure . Although the clock-time allocated to each task was identical, participants later estimated the duration of memorising the complex shape to be significantly longer than for the simple shape.

... [H]ere is a “guaranteed” way to lengthen your life. Childhood holidays seem to last forever, but as you grow older time seems to accelerate. “Time” is related to how much information you are taking in – information stretches time. A child’s day from 9am to 3.30pm is like a 20-hour day for an adult. Children experience many new things every day and time passes slowly, but as people get older they have fewer new experiences and time is less stretched by information. So, you can “lengthen” your life by minimising routine and making sure your life is full of new active experiences – travel to new places, take on new interests, and spend more time living in the present.

I think this also has some implications for my exercise routine. I am well aware that my ability to run any distance at all is heavily dependent on psychological factors. I am not one of those people who likes to go running in new places, along unfamiliar trails, because it has always made me feel like the distance was much, much longer — and, consequently, leads me to stop running and start walking sooner than I actually have to. I've had a lot more luck running on tracks and elliptical machines—situations where it seems to be easier for me to get into a zone and lose track of time. When I run that way, it's my physical limitations that matter, not my psychological ones.

Of course, I know a lot of people who feel exactly the opposite. Maybe, for those people, running in a routine situation, like a track, makes them start to think more about their day or what's going on around them, and processing all that information makes the workout seem longer. I'm not sure. But this is awfully interesting.

Read the rest of William Reville's piece at The Irish Times

Via Graham Farmelo

Image: RUN Hills Pullover in action!, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from lululemonathletica's photostream

Of memory champions and memory palaces

Marilyn sez, "Nelson Dellis began training his memory after his grandmother died of Alzheimer's, and last week the 28-year-old won the U.S. Memory Championship for the second year in a row."

The technique? Translating data into visual images and placing them into a “memory palace” – a place in your mind that you can walk through again later and gather the storage.

Dellis came to the competition with a new technique: he would turn a group of seven numbers into a single image. To him, the number 0093495, for example, represented an image of Olivia Newton slam-dunking a helmet while wearing spandex.

Using the same colorful imagery, Dellis and the other mental athletes memorized a 50-line poem, 99 names and faces, random words and numbers, and biographical information including zip codes and phone numbers – all under the pressure of a few minutes each.

Mental Athletes Increase Brain Size in 15th US Memory Championship (Thanks, Marilyn!)

How the human brain lies to us

Even in important moments, our brains are not as good at creating accurate memories as we think they are.

This clip from the World Science Festival features two stories that show how easily the brain can be manipulated. In the first, writer Jonah Lehrer describes how he remembers his cousin ruining his 8th birthday party (except, that, he later found out, this incident never happened). The second is significantly more rattling, as Harvard psycholigst Daniel L. Schacter describes a case of mistaken identity that could have led to an innocent man being tried for rape.

This tendency of the brain to naturally distort memories has been studied in relation to what people believe they remember about September 11th. It turns out, even memories that we think of as being seared into our brains aren't as accurate as they're often treated as being, writes Greg Bousted in a piece for Scientific American. Human memory simply isn't that reliable.

Memories of tragic public events have been of interest to researchers for years. Dubbed as “flashbulb memories” for their extraordinary vividness of detail and photographic recall, these emotionally charged memories are described as being “burned” into one’s mind. Knowing exactly where one was or what one was doing during the assignation of John F. Kennedy, the Challenger disaster, or now, the September 11 attacks has become a quintessential phenomenon of the past few generations. In 1977, a pair of Harvard psychologists studied the reported memories of the JFK assassination. Participants had “an almost perceptual clarity” for recalling when they learned about the assassination and during the immediate aftermath, noting even trivial details with impressive accuracy. The researchers concluded that flashbulb memory is more detailed and accurate than memories of ordinary daily events. The defining characteristic of these types of emotionally charged, shared memories is that one’s confidence in their accuracy tends to be unshakable. But does that really make them more accurate?

In an attempt to answer that, Duke University’s Jennifer Talarico and David Rubin conducted a study on the day after the 9/11 attacks. They gave volunteers a questionnaire about their memories of the morning of September 11 as well as some other unremarkable event a day earlier. They later followed up with the questionnaires at several intervals up until almost a year later. What the researchers found is that the memories of the individuals’ goings-on during the events of September 11—the vivid and picture-like ones—were in fact no better than their recall of, say, lunch the day before. Like most memories, they predictably declined in accuracy over time.

I certainly have very detailed childhood memories that, upon reflection, can't possibly be true—in particular, I remember cooking soup for my mom while she was sick in an apartment that we moved out of somewhere around the time I was 4 years old. Obviously, she didn't actually let a toddler stand over the stove with chicken soup. But my brain "remembers" it. Maybe, at the time, that was simply something I wanted to do and my brain mixed that desire up with later memories of cooking in other, similar, kitchens.

What false memories has your brain concocted up?