The Illusion of the Mind
The illusion of the mind can be found just about anywhere. As many as 18 percent of Americans believe the sun revolves around our planet, according to a poll. That 10% of Americans believe that Christian Senator Barack Obama is a Muslim, according to another poll, seems less outrageous. The Obama campaign launched a website to dispel falsehoods. However, this may be more difficult than it appears because of the peculiar way our brains store and mislead our memories.
Unlike a computer hard drive, the brain does not simply store data. The hippocampus, a deep part of the brain the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger, is where facts are first stored. However, there is more to the story. During the re-storage process, the information is also reprocessed and rewritten. Facts learned in one context are gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and then forgotten. Sacramento is the state’s capital, but you’re unlikely to recall exactly where or when you first learned of this.
This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also cause people to forget if a statement is accurate. As long as there’s a disclaimer attached, people tend to believe a lie that they’ve been told. Thus, the illusion of the mind.
Misremembering only worsens over time. An untrue statement from an untrustworthy source can gain credibility during the months it takes for memories to be reprocessed from short-term hippocampal to long-term cortical storage.
Most of us still think of memory as if it were a collection of movies on a computer’s hard drive, which is the traditional view. In the same way that the simple video camera model of vision is incorrect, this is a faulty conception of memory as well.
The message and its implications grow stronger as the source is forgotten. During the 2004 presidential campaign, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth anti-Senator John Kerry campaign took some time to make an impact on Kerry’s polling numbers.
Even if campaign strategists don’t understand the neuroscience behind source amnesia, they can still use it to spread misinformation. A memorable first impression can last even after the debunking of a claim. They know this to be true. It is common for someone to begin a falsehood with “I believe I read this somewhere,” or even cite a specific source.
A group of Stanford students was repeatedly exposed to an unsubstantiated claim that Coca-Cola is an effective paint thinner from a website. To attribute the statement to an Op-Ed Contributor, students who read it five times were nearly one-third more likely than those who read it only twice to do so.
To give it credibility, Consumer Reports was chosen over The National Enquirer.
In most cases, we don’t know how accurate our memories are because we don’t have any evidence to back them up. For the past forty years, memory distortion researchers have had access to a record of a person’s memory and what happened, records that could not have been surpassed had the scientists themselves orchestrated the incident.
Additionally, the way our brains fit facts into preexisting mental models adds to this inherent tendency of molding information we recall. We tend to remember information that supports our worldview and dismiss information that challenges it.
Two studies conducted by the University of California at Berkeley found that 48 students were presented with evidence supporting and contradicting the claim that capital punishment deters crime; half of the students favored capital punishment while half of them opposed it. That which supported their initial position convinced both groups more than anything else.
According to psychologists, legends spread by evoking strong emotions. Emotional selection rather than factual merits can encourage the persistence of falsehoods about Coke—or about a presidential candidate—as well.
Even though they may think they are countering falsehoods, journalists and campaign workers may inadvertently perpetuate them. By spreading a false rumor, they may end up reinforcing it in their own minds. A consideration for Obama’s campaign as it works to “stop the lies” would be this. There is no harm in stressing President Obama’s Christian upbringing, but it may be better to emphasize that he is not Muslim, for example.
As for the general public, it’s easy for them to only take in and remember information that confirms pre-existing beliefs. If students were instructed to be objective, they were still more likely to reject evidence if it contradicted their beliefs, even if it was explicitly stated that this was not the case.
Subjects who were asked to imagine what they would have done if the evidence had pointed in the opposite direction were more open-minded to new information. Apparently, it pays to take a moment to consider that the opposite interpretation may be true when it comes to news stories that are causing a stir.
According to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “the greatest test of truth is the ability of a thought to gain traction in a competitive marketplace.” Holmes erroneously assumed those honest ideas would spread more quickly. Although our brains do not naturally follow this admirable dictum, we may be able to achieve Holmes’s ideal by better understanding memory mechanisms.
Pointing towards the conventional view, your brain keeps a record of everything that happened, and the only reason for forgetting is that you either cannot locate the right movie file (or don’t want to) or that the hard drive has been corrupted. It is possible that memories could be lost or faded to the point where they are no longer clear and vivid.
The problem, however, is that it’s hard to explain how people can have memories that are both accurate and incorrect at the same time. There have been times when that has happened. Our purpose is to dispel the illusion of the mind. Once we do, we can get down to the business of constructual purposes.