David Rawlings reflects on what happens when you try to make sense of something that you can’t understand.
We’ve heard quite a bit of witness testimony lately. If there’s no available footage of a terrorist attack or other incident, then we see eyewitnesses reporting what they saw for the benefit of the television audience. Even in the age of fake news, we tend to believe people when they say they saw something happen and their account becomes part of the accepted truth. And why shouldn’t it be?
It’s interesting to look back on a piece of research from 2008 that was reported in the press at the time, but then seems to have disappeared: “Study shows how false memories rerun 7/7 film that never existed” (The Guardian, September 10, 2008).
The report said: “Four out of 10 people have false memories of the 7/7 London bombings, according to researchers who questioned students about what they remembered seeing on news reports of the events.
“Some people claimed to have seen non-existent CCTV footage of the bus exploding in Tavistock Square in July 2005, while others gave detailed descriptions of footage which did not exist.
“The study shows how prone people are to ‘false memories’, which the researchers say police and social workers must take into account when evaluating witness testimony or ‘recovered’ memories of childhood abuse.”
From the news reports, it seems that there was an element of “leading” in the questions that respondents were asked, along the lines of: “What do you remember about CCTV images of the bus exploding and a computer reconstruction of the event”.
Even so, it’s quite surprising that large numbers of people were able to describe these non-existent images in detail.
It leads me to wonder if there’s a relationship here with “déjà vu” – the sense that you’ve experienced something before, just as it’s happening now. One possible explanation for this phenomenon is that sensory data sometimes gets stored in memory before the conscious mind has had time to process it. When you then experience it, for the first time, you get a strong sense of recollection coming from the memory that was stored milliseconds earlier.
Perhaps the students in the research, when asked “What do you remember …”, imagined the scenes and immediately stored them. Then, as they went on consciously to search for answers to the question, they couldn’t distinguish the brand new memory from those laid down at the time of the events.
Whatever the mechanism involved, it seems clear that people were certain that they’d witnessed something that they couldn’t have.
This brings us back to a previous article about “maps”.
There I looked at the way we all embellish our internal representations of the world, particularly by adding “meaning”. Faced with some significant event or information, your conscious mind struggles to make sense of it – to make it fit your existing map of the world. Perhaps, while this is happening, your unconscious mind is busily inventing a rapid succession of hypotheses that explain the received data. As soon as it finds one that “works” it files it as a memory. Your conscious mind subsequently experiences this explanation as if it were part of the original data. So, the added meaning is accepted as fact.
Of course, this is only a hypothesis, but I wonder if you’ll remember it one day as something you know to be true!
This need to make things fit is founded on a much more general phenomenon (or hypothesis) called “trans-derivational search” (TDS). This is what happens when you’re momentarily confused, trying to make sense of something that you can’t understand. Then, you unconsciously search your memories, trying to find anything that’s related to the question or data that caused the confusion.
A TDS is not a logical sequence and it often generates connections that logic could not. You can deliberately initiate a TDS in someone else by asking a question that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t fit the context. For example, if they’ve run out of ideas for solving a pressing problem, you could ask something like: “How did you know when you’d solved this problem before?”
Only if they’re listening very carefully will they ask for clarification. More likely though, especially if they’re in a state of deep reflection, their unconscious mind will try to answer by searching for anything that’s relevant. And they’ll most likely find something that opens a whole new avenue of thinking. Something that logic would not have allowed.
Once you’ve imagined something new (that you haven’t experienced in the “real” world) it becomes a new memory. When you recall it later, it’s indistinguishable from those memories based on sensory experience – you believe you actually saw it or heard it sometime in the past.
Reflect on that!