Memory Manipulation and Religious Experiences

Though I have had my disagreements with William Saletan in the past — we have briefly debated whether “race” is a biologically valid classification (it isn’t) — I want to be the first to congratulate him on a series of articles (“The Memory Doctor”) he is running over at Slate.  The subject is memory and the findings are fascinating.  They are also troubling, and should give all of us reason for significant pause.

The first article (“Ministry of Truth”) is here and the second (“Removable Truths”) is here.  Saletan will be posting several more installments over the coming days.  They should be required reading for anyone interested in the human mind and understanding human experience.

As is apparent from Saletan’s articles, human memory is highly imperfect.  It is also highly labile — we are able to conjure experiences of things that never happened and environmental cues, including deliberate memory implants, can create false “memories.”  In his first article, Saletan covers an experiment run by Slate on its presumably educated and literate readers.  Using fabricated images of political events that never occurred, Slate asked its readers if they remembered these events.  Here are the startling results:

[T]he fake images were effective. Through random distribution, each fabricated scene was viewed by a subsample of more than 1,000 people. Fifteen percent of the Bush subsample (those who were shown the composite photo of Bush with Clemens) said they remembered seeing that incident at the time. Fifteen percent of the Lieberman subsample (those who were shown the altered screen shot of his impeachment vote) said they had seen it. For Obama meeting Ahmadinejad, the number who remembered seeing it was 26 percent. For the Hillary Clinton ad, the number was 36 percent. For the Edwards-Cheney confrontation, it was 42 percent.

When we pooled these subjects with those who remembered the false events but didn’t specifically remember seeing them, the numbers nearly doubled. For Bush, the percentage who remembered the false event was 31. For Lieberman, it was 41. For Obama, it was 47. For Cheney, it was 65. For Hillary Clinton, it was 68.

These figures match previous findings. In memory-implanting experiments, the average rate of false memories is about 30 percent. But when visual images are used to substantiate the bogus memory, the number can increase. Several years ago, researchers using doctored photos persuaded 10 of 20 college students that they had gone up in hot-air balloons as children. Seeing is believing, even when what you’re seeing is fabricated.

All well and good but the best (or worst, depending on one’s perspective) is yet to come:

But that isn’t the scary part. The scary part is that your memories have already been altered. Much of what you recall about your life never happened, or it happened in a very different way. Sometimes our false memories have done terrible things. They have sent innocent people to jail.  They have ruined families with accusations of sexual abuse.

These are the tragedies that drive the work of Dr. [Elizabeth] Loftus, whose research inspired our experiment. To understand our minds and how they can be manipulated, she plants memories.

Saletan is hitting on some major issues here — the flaws and falsification of memories, the suggestibility of experience, the human tendency to confabulate, the ways in which history can be altered, and the power of the imagination.  Although he is discussing these issues in the context of politics and law, the relevance and applicability of these findings to “spiritual” and religious experiences is obvious.  I will touch on the most obvious today and some of the less obvious in coming days.

I have several friends who believe in reincarnation.  They are sincerely convinced they have memories of past lives, and are somewhat incredulous that I don’t have such memories also.  The source of their incredulity is my intense interest in Native American history and Native Americans generally.

Walk into my home and that interest is immediately apparent in the form of pictures, artifacts, books, etc.  My reading in Native American history is extensive, and I often talk about that history.  This has led my reincarnation friends to the conclusion that in a past life, I was a Native American.  I do not of course have any such memories, but I do have substantial knowledge of Native American histories and lifeways.  Armed with this knowledge, I am confident that I could — if I believed in reincarnation — create an imaginary world and past life as a Native American that would be exceptionally vivid.

These kinds of constructions are not limited to reincarnation.  I have no doubt that when most people report spiritual or religious experiences, they are sincere and non-delusional.  I doubt, however, that these experiences are being generated by a spiritual world, agents, or forces.  The mind is a powerful conjurer.

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