Agenticity, Apophenia, Brainwashing, Datas: The Memory Man, Derren Brown, Divination, Eidetic Memory, False Memories, Fortune-telling, Freudian slip, Gambler's Fallacy, Hidden meanings, Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory, Mentalists, Overfitting, Pareidolia, Patternicity, Prof Richard Wiseman, Randomania, Severly Deficient Autobiographical Memory
One of the things I point out to people interested in the paranormal is the difficulty in ensuring that the evidence gained is reliable. For instance, if you wake from a particularly memorable dream, write it down straight away, documenting everything, no matter how trivial!
I have personally woken from an ‘interesting’ dream, fully intending to tell my husband or daughters about it, only to forget the details of it. Somehow our brains decide that it’s really not that important in the grand scheme of things, so you either forget about it completely or you remember having a dream, but have a hazy recollection of it.
This equally applies to being asked to describe an event that you witnessed – whether it be as a witness to a crime or a paranormal event. We really cannot trust our memory for complete accuracy, precisely because our brain has a habit of selectively erasing the bits it doesn’t think we need to retain!
Whatever you may have witnessed, should you be asked 10 minutes after the event; an hour after; then a day after; it’s highly likely that your recall of what you experienced will alter. Given time to ponder upon it, you’re likely to embellish your re-telling of it (particularly if you have discussed it with others who also witnessed it!) with what you think you saw, and add to your retelling with the details of what others told you they saw.
I am a firm believer that, since we are so easily fooled by our senses, we do need to document what we think we saw/heard/experienced straight after the event. For an objective report of an experience, it is important to document what you experienced immediately after, and not allow time, either to think about the occurrence, or conversations with others, which provides additional input that flaws your ‘evidence’.
Scientific American’s article about eyewitness evidence vs expert testimony is worthy of a mention here and, rather than tell you about it, I advise you to read it for yourself. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-the-eyes-have-it/
Recognition is a vital skill that we hone from the day we are born. In previous blogs I’ve mentioned about Pareidolia which I termed a ‘baby survival technique’. Having gained the skill of recognising faces, we carry this through the rest of our lives such that you can recognise the picture of Christ on a window or a dragon-shaped cloud in the sky. The fact that our brains can ‘see’ a recognisable shape when our logical brains know that it doesn’t really exist is a strange ability. There is nothing to be achieved from knowing there is a cloud that formed in a particular shape or a house where the windows and door make it look like it has a face. There are many more mundane examples in my blog about Pareidolia.
This is a term I had never come across until I started my researches into memory and how the brain functions.
Klaus Conrad coined the term in 1958 when he published a monograph titled Die beginnende Schizophrenie. Versuch einer Gestaltanalyse des Wahns (“The onset of schizophrenia: an attempt to form an analysis of delusion”), in which he described in ground breaking detail the prodromal mood and earliest stages of schizophrenia. He used the word “Apophänie” to characterise the onset of delusional thinking in psychosis. Conrad’s theories on the genesis of schizophrenia have since been partially, yet inconclusively, confirmed in psychiatric literature when tested against empirical findings.
Along with Pareidolia, which I’ve already mentioned in relation to the perception of images, there are other states of awareness:
In 2008, Michael Shermer coined the word ‘patternicity’, defining it as the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise. From this one could deduce that when paranormal investigators carry out an EVP session, they’re hearing noise but their ability to recognise particular sounds leads them to conclude they’ve heard words.
In The Believing Brain (2011), Shermer wrote that humans have ‘the tendency to infuse patterns with meaning, intention, and agency’, which he called ‘agenticity’. You could argue that the human trait of superstition grew out of action (or non-action) which we believed were the reason something did, or didn’t, happen. You don’t walk under a ladder because at some point, someone did and that person and/or the person on the ladder came to grief so the reasoning was that it was safer to go around the ladder.
In 2011, parapsychologist David Luke proposed that apophenia is one end of a spectrum and that the opposite behaviour (attributing to chance what are apparently patterned or related data) can be called ‘randomania’. He asserted that dream precognition is real and that randomania is the reason why some people dismiss it.
In statistics and machine learning, apophenia is an example of what is known as overfitting. Overfitting occurs when a statistical model fits the noise rather than the signal. The model overfits the particular data or observations rather than fitting a generalised pattern in a general population.
OK that was the jargon explanation which made no sense whatsoever to me. So, having researched what overfitting is, here’s my explanation: Say you’re at a party. You’re standing talking to a friend. Of course you’re listening to that friend but, at the same time, you’re also aware of the people and conversations around you, the clinking of glasses and the music playing. Overfitting is where your attention is drawn to those other things and you’re not really paying attention to what your friend is saying.
Apophenia is well documented as a rationalisation for gambling. Gambler’s fallacy is where the gambler may imagine that they see patterns in the numbers which appear in lotteries, card games, or roulette wheels.
Fortune-telling and divination are often based upon discerning patterns seen in what most people would consider to be meaningless chance events. The concept of a Freudian slip is based upon what had previously been dismissed as meaningless errors of speech or memory. Freud believed that such “slips” held meaning for the unconscious mind. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apophenia.
We treasure our memories
The thing about the human ‘condition’ is that our brains store a lifetime of memories. On the whole, we’re quite good at remembering things although, as we get older, it’s a known fact that our memories may begin to fail. A whole industry of games and apps has been born around the concept of ‘use it or lose it’ with the fear of dementia ever present. Our brain has huge capacity, filing away the less important stuff to ensure that we can gain access to the information we need, when we need it.
What’s fascinating about our memory is the selective way in which it retains or loses information. Recall of things we did in our younger days may be easy yet, if asked to recall something we did in the last week, we may well have difficulty trying to remember. I believe that this is because the art of selectively forgetting things that are unremarkable, e.g., what you had for dinner or what clothes you wore two days ago, are comparatively trivial, compared to memories gathered in childhood that were, at that time, extremely important to your young minds.
It’s been said that children’s minds are like sponges, they soak up information, storing it away for the future, hence why school studies concentrate on memorising times tables, historic dates and the like. If you equate the brain to the workings of a computer, there are similarities. We store away ‘data’ for easy recall. Yet our brains appear to have limitless storage capacity, the tricky part is being able to retrieve that information when we need it and, with a lifetime of memories, just how does the brain do this?
However, incredible our brainpower is, it is still fallible. As I’ve previously mentioned our memories cannot be relied upon because, when it comes to recalling an event, we are liable to augment our memory with extra input. However, there are other instances where the memory is altered. People who have a bad experience have been known to blot out the memory and may, or may not, regain that memory. Those who receive a head injury may lose short/long-term memory, for some their memories slowly come back, for others those memories are lost.
Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory
I came across an interesting internet article about Suzie McKinnon, a woman suffering from a unique condition called Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory. What’s intriguing about her case is that she knows plenty of facts about her life, but lacks the ability to mentally relive any of it. She works as a retirement specialist for the state of Washington and has hobbies, values, beliefs, opinions, and a nucleus of friends.
She wasn’t even aware that her memory function was not the same as everyone else’s. It only came to light when a high school friend asked if she would participate in a memory test as part of a school assignment. How awful not to be able to remember your wedding day, the birth of your child or the wonderful holidays shared with family! Yet she was totally unaware that her inability to recall memories was different to everyone else.
This lady contacted Brian Levine, a senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto who had carried out research on people presenting with episodic and autobiographical memory. Levine subsequently discovered two more healthy individuals who also seemed to lack episodic memories published a study about McKinnon and his two other subjects in Neuropsychologia in April 2015.
Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory
More than a decade ago a woman named Jill Price came to the attention of scientists at UC Irvine. She exhibited a condition that is pretty much the direct opposite of McKinnon’s: the researchers called it hyperthymestic syndrome, or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. Price has an extraordinary ability to recall just about any fact that has encountered in her life. The whole article can be read at https://www.wired.com/2016/04/susie-mckinnon-autobiographical-memory-sdam/
It’s possible to implant false memories into a person’s mind. Julia Shaw is a criminal psychologist who specialises in the science of memory who advises “I am a memory hacker. I use the science of memory to make you think you did things that never happened.” This strikes me as a very dangerous practice in the wrong hands. For more on this see http://motherboard.vice.com/read/memory-hacker-implant-false-memories-in-peoples-minds-julia-shaw-memory-illusion?utm_content=buffer8a68b&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer
The Forensic Psychology Unit based at Goldsmiths University of London are holding an evening to discuss: The Fascinating Phenomenon of False Memories in November 2016. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-fascinating-phenomenon-of-false-memories-tickets-28685266404
Unfortunately they don’t give much information on their event link. A little research has found that there’s a False Memory Syndrome Foundation http://www.fmsfonline.org/ which I’ve not yet had a chance to read through.
EDIT 16th December 2016
I’ve just read a post on a Facebook group of which I’m a member which mentions the Mandela Effect in relation to false memories. This link is to a Youtube video which I highly recommend you to watch as it raises some interesting points in regard to recollection of noteworthy events.
Brainwashing was used to force prisoners of Korean War and Chinese war camps into adopting radically different beliefs by using systematic and often forcible means. In more recent times various cults are known to brainwash their followers. Cults use a number of different methods including “thought reform,” “brainwashing” and “coercive persuasion”. There are a number of well-known cults: Moonies first came to my mind otherwise known as the Unification Church. There are also the KKK, the Scientologists and the Branch Davidians who are the most well known cults. Others include: The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God; Aum Shinrikyo; Children of God; Order of the Solar Temple; The People’s Temple and Heaven’s Gate. The cult’s ability to indoctrinate is shockingly logical and almost rational. You can read more at http://www.therichest.com/rich-list/most-shocking/10-of-the-most-dangerous-religious-cults/
During our student years our brains are used for information storage and retrieval at some point we reach the peak of our abilities which is why being a mature student is often considered to be much harder. However people can, and do, continue to study or learn new skills in later life, with successful results. I number myself among these. In my mid 40s I studied, and successfully gained, a teaching certificate; in the last 4 years my long-abiding interest in the paranormal has finally found a vent by way of my blog. I originally typing up my researches but realised that a word processed document on my laptop served no purpose and that sharing, by way of a blog, was a good way to inform others and generate interesting discussions. Most of us take our memory and our brain’s abilities for granted. It’s only when others display how memory can be put to use that we realise just how incredible our brain functions are.
I came across an interesting article from MIT entitled The rise and fall of cognitive skills which advises that it was once thought that our ability to think quickly and recall information, termed fluid intelligence, peaks around age 20 and then begins a slow decline. However, more recent findings, including a study from neuroscientists at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), suggest that the real picture is much more complex. The study, which appears in the journal Psychological Science, finds that different components of fluid intelligence peak at different ages, some as late as age 40. http://news.mit.edu/2015/brain-peaks-at-different-ages-0306
Over the years there were memory men who used to ‘perform’ on stage, latterly on TV. You could ask them which football team won the World Cup in any given year and they would tell you the team and the players/manager of that team.
William James Maurice Bottle (1875-1956), performed in music halls and theatres from 1901 onwards as ‘Datas: The Memory Man’. He was the inspiration for a character called Mr Memory in the film The 39 Steps. Bottle combined his prodigious ability to recall facts with his quick wit, a necessity for dealing with hecklers in the audience. The performance in the film seems to capture some of this: “How old is Mae West? / I know, sir, but I never tell a lady’s age” and Watson’s appearance bears more than a passing resemblance to Datas. The character also uses Datas’ well-known catchphrase, “Am I right, sir?”
Tony Crisp’s article about Solomon Shereshevskii, whom he terms a ‘mental athlete’ is interesting one describing Solomon’s abilities including the fact that he could “feel” images, “taste” colours, and “smell” sounds. He was introduced to Professor Luria, a doctor who worked with people recovering from brain injuries and who also studied people with ‘special’ abilities like the ones Solomon presented him with. Luria became astounded by this gentleman’s ability which seemed almost boundless, he was tested by hearing lists of numbers and repeating them back and, when he got to 70 numbers, reciting the list effortlessly, was also able to recall the list backwards, as well! It seemed there was no limit to what Solomon could recall but that, in turn, he would never forget any of it. 15 years later, when Luria looked at his records of the lists of numbers he had used in the tests, he asked Solomon if he could repeat them without hearing them again and Solomon remembered without any hesitation. As usual he could repeat them forward or backward.
Eidetic memory, sometimes called photographic memory is an ability to vividly recall images from memory after only a few instances of exposure, with high precision for a brief time after exposure,[without using a mnemonic device. Although the terms eidetic memory and photographic memory may be used interchangeably, they are also distinguished, with eidetic memory referring to the ability to view memories like photographs for a few minutes, and photographic memory referring to the ability to recall page or text numbers, or similar, in great detail. In the case of distinguishing the concepts, eidetic memory has been documented while photographic memory is a popular culture myth that has never been demonstrated to exist.
Eidetic images occur in a small number of children and are generally not found in adults. The word eidetic comes from the Greek eidos meaning seen, since the majority of people with this ability do so by memorising an image representing the item they want to remember.
If this topic interests you, I highly recommend watching the series “The Mentalist” about Patrick Jane, a fictional character and the protagonist of the CBS crime drama The Mentalist, portrayed by Simon Baker. Jane is an independent consultant for a fictionalised version of the California Bureau of Investigation, and helps by giving advice and insight from his many years as a fake psychic medium. He uses his keen powers of observation, deduction, and knowledge of social engineering coupled with his genius to help lead the investigations.
Now let’s take a step away from fiction and I refer you to present day ‘mentalism’ as admirably demonstrated by Derren Brown and the following quote is from my own blog about Pareidolia which is pertinent here.
Derren Brown is, for want of a better term, a mentalist. Mentalism is a performing art in which its’ practitioners, known as mentalists, appear to demonstrate highly-developed mental or intuitive abilities. However, in addition to astounding us with his acts of mentalism, Derren Brown will go on to explain just how easy it is to manipulate a person into providing the desired result. He is able to cold-read as convincingly as any medium who tells you they’re passing messages from your deceased loved ones.
In his web-based series The Science of Scams, which aired on Channel 4, a number of videos were placed on YouTube purporting to show various kinds of paranormal phenomena such as ghosts, telekinesis and a tarot card reading. In a second series of videos Derren Brown and his co-presenter Kat Akingbade, explained what was actually happening, exposing each as a specially-created scam. I very much admire him for his work because, yes, he IS an incredibly accomplished showman and mentalist, but his desire not only to entertain but also to explain, unmask and debunk, has shown how easily our eyes and brains can be manipulated and fooled.
A Wiki about his programmes (and links to them) can be seen at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_works_by_Derren_Brown
At this point I have to mention the psychologist Prof Richard Wiseman, who has been described as “the most interesting and innovative experimental psychologist in the world today”! His website is well worth a look but make sure you have lots of time on your hands! https://richardwiseman.wordpress.com
How much of our brain do we actually use?
It’s long been an assertion that we only use a tiny portion of our brain function. Tied in this was the suspicion that, just maybe, the parts of the brain that isn’t being used is lying dormant and abilities yet undiscovered just need the right trigger for them to begin operating.
However, I came across an article entitled Do people only use 10% of their brains? in the Scientific American, by Robynne Boyd dated February 7, 2008. This advises
that neurologist Barry Gordon, of John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, calls it the ’10 percent myth’! The origin of this myth is, apparently, not attributable to any particular person or educational institute. The notion has been linked to the American psychologist and author William James, who argued in The Energies of Men that “We are making use of only a small part of our possible mental and physical resources.” However, it’s also been associated with Albert Einstein, who supposedly used it to explain his own incredible intellect.
The truth of the matter is that we use all of our brainpower, however exotic and magical the thought of unwoken powers might be!
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What did I miss from this article?
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