Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

The Power of Rest

Your Lying, Cheating Brain

Memories ain't what they used to be.

Posted Mar 06, 2014

How To Create Successful Lies

“I just know it’s true. I saw it myself.”

But your brain is not a DVD player, correctly recording what happened.

And that’s a good thing.

The unreliability of memory has been a literary theme for thousands of years. The creation of our many “true fictions” are ascribed to factors varying from personality to politics to secondary gain.

All of which happens—all of the time.

But research over the last several decades has shown more and more convincingly how memories, true or false, are created. And we’re getting better understanding the fakes.

The Body Scanner Made Me Do It

One of the most interesting examples was reported recently in the Journal of Neuroscience, with a team from Northwestern led by Joel Voss.

What they did: 17 people are placed in an MRI scanner. They’re shown objects on a computer screen. The objects are placed against rather pleasant backgrounds—a farm, the ocean.

Then the background changes.

Looking at the new background, they’re asked where the object should be placed. They always choose a different spot—not where it was sited before.

Next they’re asked to look for the object again on three separate screens with three varying backgrounds—the original one, the second, changed format, and a brand new third.

Now they always put the object in the second format—the same false place of their most recent memory.

Why? They’ve done what the brain normally does—put new information together with old memory. Creating a new functioning memory. 

Our brains do what works, not what’s true. There is no DVD or magnetic tape or magical true recording of what happened—isolated from what then happens next. Our brains did not evolve for the the requirements of the 21st century American judicial system—or any system that requires absolute truth and falsity.

The brain does what works—even if it’s not right.

True Lies

Ask 16-year-olds about their lives. Next, ask them the same questions 30 years later.

The answers change. For example, 90 percent of the teenagers said their parents hit them. Only 30 percent say that 30 years later.

But it may not take 30 years for memories to change so much.

Recently I asked a retired police detective about memory and crime. His story was simple. During training, he and other future officers were “attacked” without warning.

Then they were asked what happened. Their stories varied wildly. The result:

“We always tried to keep witnesses apart. Otherwise they came up with the same story.”

Which was often different from the original tale any of them told.

Similarly Oliver Sachs, the wonderful neurologist-writer, recounted his memories of the blitz of London. The fires, destruction, the annihilation of his home when a small child. It was one of the more powerful memories of his life.

Except he was not there. He was in a safer place, transported out to the country like many British children. He suspected he learned the story from relatives and friends, and then made it his own.

And it was utterly believable.

So why this need to make things up?

Changing with the Changing World

Cognitive neuroscience generally looks at knowledge that can be formulated into problems or language and description.

But most cells don’t do a lot of talking. Or writing.

Take the immune system. When you walk outside your apartment/home/cubicle/car and go out into “nature,” what happens?

Your immune system has much work to do.

There are viruses galore; bacteria you have not yet experienced; rickettsia, mycoplasma, prions. Add on the hundred thousand possible chemicals artificially added to the world over the last 70 years.

This panopoly of bugs, chemicals, and pollutants provides a silent, unending assault. For those viruses are always mutating. The bacteria are literally “changing their spots,” the sugar-proteins on their surfaces that tell us what they are and might do; while the chemicals around us constantly shift their interactions and forms.

And the immune system responds. One weapon of survival—somatic hypermutation—is a form of forced evolution.

New antibodies are rapidly created through “random” mutation.” The ones that stick and work are reproduced.

And the body’s immune understating of the world is updated. As it is every second of your life.

For that’s what our bodies are—moving, living, regenerating information platforms.

The environment outside us never stays still. Nor do we.

Nor do our memories.

And it’s not just our memories that get updated—it’s almost everything else.

To respond to our always changing world, we change. We remake ourselves from the ground up.

Most of your heart gets remade inside three days. Your gut lining—facing off against 100 trillion bacteria—completely replaces itself inside a day or two.

To survive, you are made new.

And so are your memories. Just as the immune system continually “updates,” so does your muscles; your skin; your liver.

As executive organ, your brain perhaps updates faster than most organs—in a very complicated way. And that “new,” regenerated information is what we call memory.

That memory forms our identity.

We’re all newer and more interesting than most of us think. Or remember.