Your Brain Can Give You a Headache

A fascinating 27 June 27, 2008 New York Times editorial by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt gives us the discouraging news that “Your Brain Lies to You.”  Wang and Aamodt are the authors the authors of “Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life

Among their findings: 

“The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus … But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.”

“This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.”

“With time, this misremembering only gets worse. A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength.”

So over time we remember hearing something but may not remember whether what we heard was true or false, and we might come to remember it either way.  Unfortunately we tend to “remember” things in a way that matches our beliefs and give them credibility and to discredit things that go against our beliefs.  So the “truth” gets lost as our brains reform memories to conform to our deeply held convictions.    An implication of this for election campaigns is that we will tend to “remember” things we agree with even if the information was false.  So negative campaign ads do make us remember more favorably “our” candidate.  And campaigns which try to counter the false claims of opponents may inadvertently be cementing this false information in our memories.

For all of us this election year we will do well to keep in mind (excuse the pun): voter beware!    Your favored candidate or the opposition may have filled your mind with nonsense and your brain may have given it credibility.  Check the facts before you embrace their opinions.   Don’t believe everything you hear – or remember!

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”  (Joseph Goebbels,  Nazi Germany’s Minister for Propaganda )   

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