Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Source Memory

A New York Times article (2/15/15, p. SR12) about our relative inability to remember the sources of our memories led me to a few questions. The two studies referenced in the article asked college students to read historical essays and then view movie clips in which the same historical events were inaccurately presented. When tested, the subjects believed a third of the inaccurate "facts" from the movie clips, rather than the essays they'd read. Even though they'd been warned that the films were inaccurate.

The article went on to a discussion of source memory, which is known to be fragile and unreliable. The author, and perhaps the researchers, did not take into account the difference between our emotional engagement in a film vs. an essay that I presume was written for college level students. Such essays are dedicated to presenting data, and they very often deliberately avoid any emotional involvement of the reader, lest the author be accused of being too "popular."

But data by itself seldom has any meaning for us beyond the next exam. Unless it has an emotional component. I'm a footnote junkie. Several decades ago, my college drama textbook said that the French dramatist, Corneille, had left Paris for political reasons and had written nothing after 1650. Those "facts" have since been corrected, but at the time none of the reference books listed in the syllabus contradicted our textbook. There was, however, a footnote that led me to research that period of French history and to discover what Corneille had been writing during the decade that followed his exile. And to a Eureka! sense of discovery. And meaning.

Do we remember only what has meaning for us? Or do we only store retrievable memories that have an emotional component? And what does that tell us about our belief systems?


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