Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Mind bending: Why our memories are not always our own

In an extract from his new book, the psychologist Charles Fernyhough reveals that some of our most precious recollections are perhaps not ours at all:

When brothers and sisters are young, observed the psychologist Dorothy Rowe, they fight with each other for their parents' attention. When they are older, "siblings battle over who has the most truthful, accurate memory of their shared past".

Adult siblings generally do not face the same pressures as, say, married couples to agree on a story about their pasts. Individuals who have spent a lifetime trying to define themselves in opposition to each other are unlikely to be quite as motivated to settle their memory differences. And the fact is that adult siblings usually do not get as many opportunities as couples do to negotiate their memory disputes.

Why are some memories easier to negotiate than others? An obvious answer is that the people concerned are more committed to some of their memories than to others, and so are less willing to let go…

…A study conducted in New Zealand showed that such memories are not at all uncommon. The researchers focused on adult twins, predicting that disputes over memory ownership would be particularly common in siblings who were more likely to look similar and share personality features, as well as being of the same age and thus presumably having shared more life experiences than ordinary siblings.

In their first experiment, the researchers asked their participants (20 same-sex pairs of twins) independently to produce autobiographical memories in response to cue words. Fourteen of the pairs produced disputed memories – memories that were claimed by each twin as having happened to them alone. For example, in one identical pair, both siblings remembered going out for lunch with their mother and finding a worm in their meal. One pair of identical twins seemed particularly susceptible to such errors, producing 14 disputed memories (out of a total, for the entire sample, of 36).

In a second experiment, a different sample of twins were specifically asked to report disputed and non- disputed memories, and to rate them on variables such as vividness of recollection and involvement of imagery and emotion. Intriguingly, the disputed memories were rated as being more vivid and emotionally rich than the ones on which the participants agreed, possibly because a greater effort had gone into constructing the memories that were not one's own….