The more I learn about new things, whether fascinating nature facts or medical news, the more I realize I only know so little. There are still so many things I want to learn. When I was in high school, my father explained to me, “When you light a candle, a small area around it is lit. When you light two candles, the circumference of the lit area becomes larger, making the dark area beyond it larger at the same time. The lit candle is like our knowledge, and the more candle you light, the border of unknown darkness becomes bigger around them.” I often think about this. He still amazes me with things I don’t know.

One of the ways I love finding about new things is through TED talks. Most of the lecturers are very skilled in delivering the messages they carry, I find them all so interesting, even if I’m not initially interested in the subjects. I’ve watched so many this year (2013), but one in particular stood out. It was profound.

It was about our memory, by Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus who studies “false memories.” She explains “how our memories might not be what they seem — and how implanted memories can have real-life repercussions.” Have you ever experienced remembering something that actually didn’t happen? Has anyone else remembering the same event influenced your memory of it? Her talk grabbed me from the beginning. She opens it with a story of a wrongly accused man’s tragedy.

Loftus discovered that “some bizarre and unlikely memory situations mostly comes from some particular forms of psychotherapy, that involves in an imagination exercise, dream interpretation, hypnosis, or exposure to false information.” Indeed, these are dangerous, since our brain can absorb what we like to hear, see or imagine. The worse, our unconscious brain can even grab things that’s not good for us in a long run without our acknowledgement!

On a busy street corner of Shibuya, my friend and I had our palms read for fun one evening. I don’t remember anything from the session, because it was only for fun. But what if you are someone who tend to believe the horoscopes? Or a tendency of a blood type? Aren’t these suggested fictions?

I don’t mean to take the fun out of the horoscopes, but let me tell you about a segment on a TV documentary I saw years ago.

In a college class, everyone was handed, one by one, a sheet of paper that contained the horoscope. After examining what it says on the paper, students were asked if it fits their star signs. Most students said yes, and some said mostly fits. Then the professor asked them to exchange the sheet with the person next to them. They were all handed the same exact horoscope.

Several years ago, I read about “false memories” in a book by a neuro-psychiatrist, Robert Burton, M.D., titled “On Being Certain – Believing you’re right even when you’re not.” He examines “feeling of knowing.” He pulls the Challenger Study as an example:

“Within one day of the space shuttle Challenger explosion, Ulric Neisser, a psychologist studying “flashbulb” memories (that recall of highly dramatic events), asked his class of 106 students to write down exactly how they’d heard about the explosion, where they were, what they’d been doing, and how they felt. Two and a half years later they were again interviewed. Twinty-five percent of the student’ subsequent accounts were strikingly different than their original journal entries. More than half of the people had lesser degrees of error, and less than ten percent had all the details correct. (Prior to seeing their original journals, most students presumed that their memories were correct.)

Most of us reluctantly admit that memory changes over time.”

Maybe there is no use arguing with people who believe so strongly in what they’re saying. Sometimes, no one is wrong, and everyone is right. Personally speaking, the more I learn, the less sure I get, and which makes me learn more, creating a paradox, that keeps me learning. (It’s not very practical.)

In the age of smartphones and tablets, there are so much going on at any given second. How can our memory system keep up with all the information? More importantly, how can we be sure if we’re absorbing the right kind of information to stay mentally fit and healthy? I’ve even read a medical study that snapping photographs at friendly gatherings may lessen our ability to retain the details of our precious memories. (uh oh ^^;;) We are constantly being influenced by friends, media, or family members, and vice versa. Perhaps, it’s good to step back often and see what’s important to us.

Elizabeth Loftus concludes her talk that “The false memories aren’t always bad or unpleasant. If we planted a warm and fuzzy memory involving a healthy food, like asparagus, we could get people to want to eat asparagus more.” “Hello, Santa Clause?!” As much as we cherish our precious memories, “How much fiction is already in there?” We need to be aware that “Memory, like liberty, is a fragile thing.”

boiled asparagus

Asparagus, anyone??

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