Our universal amnesia

As many as 10 per cent of Americans believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim.
Most amnesia is not as significant as that of the Manchurian Candidate, right, but forgetting how facts were learnt is quite common.
Most amnesia is not as significant as that of the Manchurian Candidate, right, but forgetting how facts were learnt is quite common.
As many as 10 per cent of Americans believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim. This and other strongly held yet quirky convictions - such as the existence of aliens, faith in fairies and a persistent belief in government conspiracies - may lie in a structural quirk of the brain. It's called source amnesia. And we all suffer from it. "We don't fully understand how memory works," says Dr Maxwell Kayed, a neurologist who works in several Dubai hospitals. "In order to understand why we forget something, we have to know why we remember it, and nobody is entirely sure of how or why that process happens."

The process by which facts, smells, images and words are encoded into the grey matter of the brain is still a mystery to much of science. We do know, however, that memory itself is a finite resource. When a new experience enters our brain through our senses, it is filtered by the hippocampi, two structures the size of dates that sit in the middle of our heads behind the temples. During the process of transferring an experience into long-term memory in the cerebral cortex, the information is recalled and restored. Each time it passes between the brain structures, the information becomes the biological equivalent of a photo-copy of a photo-copy of a photo-copy - and some of the pertinent details are smudged out.

"You cannot recall every single thing. You have to be selective about what part of memory to keep," Dr Kayed says. "People are trying to keep what they think is important, for example, Barack Obama's religion, not where they heard it." For example, you will recall that Abu Dhabi is the capital of the country. What you probably do not remember is the date you learnt that fact, who told it to you, the feel of the room you were in or the smell of the book from which you read it. Those details were probably deemed unimportant by your hippocampus and discarded into the abyss of the unlearnt.

For millennia, our brains accommodated this efficient and imperfect filing system. Then politics was born. Source amnesia has become an increasing problem in the modern age as the advent of the internet has inundated us with infinite salacious titbits, gossip and outright lies. Our brains are wired to accept striking new information, but discard the grain of salt they are served with. For example, if our spouse tells us a rumour from a friend's cousin about a co-worker who is about to be fired, we will probably remember the imminent firing while forgetting the story's dodgy origins. When recalling the information, sometimes our brains will attribute the fact to a more credible source. A rumour from a spouse's friend's cousin can easily be recalled as an overheard conversation or a leaked memo (particularly if we want our co-worker's job).

"Different people have different memory abilities," explains Dr Kayed said. "Some people are able to recall things better than others and we don't understand why. It's all about the wiring of the brain." Memories are not stored sequentially, or in full form, but are linked to code words, emotion and context locked deeper in the brain. "Nobody really understands how these connections are made," he says.

Furthermore, what we remember and the way we remember it is often clouded by emotion. An often-cited Stanford study looked at two groups of students ? one that supported the death penalty and another that opposed it. When presented with facts that ran for and counter to their beliefs, the students were most likely to remember the information that supported their views. Critical information was quickly discarded.

Other researchers showed sport footage to two groups of students, each with competing loyalties. In an American College football game between Princeton and Dartmouth, fans of both teams watched a rough-and-tumble contest between the two squads. The Princeton quarterback's nose was broken early in the game. Later, a Princeton player broke the Dartmouth quarterback's leg. But the two groups of supporters remembered the game very differently. Penalties and rough play by the team that the study participants supported were remembered far less frequently. Bias seems to be built into memory.

The study's authors, Drs Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril, wrote in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, "there is no such 'thing' as a 'game' existing 'out there' in its own right which people merely 'observe'. The game 'exists' for a person and is experienced by him only insofar as certain happenings have significances in terms of his purpose." Human memory is a fragile mechanism at the best of times and is always prone to the leanings of the human heart. Whether in politics or on the gridiron, memory can be a rough-and-tumble science.


Published: July 7, 2008 04:00 AM


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