False Memories of Tommy’s Resurrection Explained!

This NPR segment, Biological Basis for False Memories Revealed , offers a scientific explanation behind some of your false memories of Tommy’s resurrection. The scientists worked with brain imaging and monitored brain activity. I put this article on Maddenation so that some people in this family might understand their memories and, in the process, grow.

The scientists concluded that the brain’s visual imagination and perception areas overlap - and cause us (not Dad and me) to be confused. So did you see something? Or did you image it?

The BEST and COOLEST part of this story is that you can actually take the test (modified version). Awesome! - so we can compete with each other - a great Madden tradition. Go to the NPR site and follow the link at bottom. Or just go to the Northwestern site. The test will give you your Hit Rate, False Alarm Rate, and False Memory Rate. Post your results in the comments. May the best (truest) memory win.

DavidExplanations10/28/04 12 comments


David • 10/28/04 5:35 PM:

I scored 12/15 = 80% on Hit Rate, and 0/15 for both False Alarm Rate and False Memory Rate. This score is above the average of the real participants - and probably yours too - thus proving that Dad and I have the story straight! I hope!

Patrick • 10/28/04 10:47 PM:

OK. I got a 14/15 (93%) hit rate, a 2/15 (13%) false alarm rate (I thought I had seen a picture, but it was completely new), and a 15/15 (100%) false memory rate (I mistakenly claimed to see a picture I only imagined). However, of the two false alarms, one was a motor-skill error. I thought I was clicking on “new” (at least my brain thought “new”) but when I clicked, it was on “old,” and there’s no going back (it was “frog” if anyone doesn’t believe me). And that false memory thing was a trick. Because this is on the computer, whenever I’d get a blank box, I assumed that the picture hadn’t loaded correctly. Maybe because I clicked on the “smaller” button too soon. Or maybe because the whole process was speeding along and larger image sizes got caught in a bottleneck while the text continued on to the next step. They didn’t explain that some words would have pictures and some wouldn’t. I guess that’s because they didn’t want you to prepare your memory. And the whole larger or smaller than a shoe box (what ever happened to bread boxes?) was a diversion. Why? I dunno. In any case, had I been given this test on paper, or knowing that there would be words without pictures, I would have done better. How much better? Who knows. But basically, I remembered 29/30 of the words I saw, and knew that 14/15 of the new ones were new. And I remember that I found Tommy in the woods on one of the downed trees we used to call “The Torture Chamber” when I went to walk there and mourn by myself.

Patrick • 10/28/04 11:36 PM:

OK. So I did it again, this time waiting about 30 min. between seeing and answering. And I got every single thing right. Maybe this means I’m a word person. I remembered almost all of the words I saw and was only tricked once (I think it was “banjo”) the first time I took the test. Once I knew that there was no malfunction in the website, I got them all. Of course, they’re trying to misdirect you so you’re not “cramming” for the test. But as an English professor and lover of language, I think they did a shoddy job of explaining the test. They should have let you know, at least before the “test” part, that, yes, those empty boxes you saw were intentional, not some glitch in download speeds or something.

And what’s with the bigger/smaller thing? I was like “pipe”!? Do they mean a drainage pipe, a PVC pipe, or a smoking pipe!? And “plunger”!? Are we talking bigger by volume, length? Am I trying to consider whether the thing could fit in a shoebox? Can I dismantle the plunger and chop up its handle? And with “pumpkin,” I was like, yeah those are bigger, and then when they showed that little tiny pumpkin in the picture, I was like, aw, man! I got it wrong!

Yes, I tend to overanalyze things, but this test really pisses me off. Very poorly organized. This is why I’m a good writer/editor, and Ken A. Paller sucks: I am concerned with possible misreadings; I am fastidious, meticulous, obsessed with the small details.

Hey, NPR! I have this misleading experiment I do where I trick people into thinking they’re trying to determine whether an object is bigger or smaller than a shoebox. Then I flash some pictures of some of the objects, but not all of them, and I don’t explain that this is happening for a reason. I let people make their own conclusions. Is it because of a computer glitch? They don’t know! Is it because they didn’t press their mouse button quickly enough? They don’t know!

Then I tell them to wait ten minutes, and when they come back, I ask them which objects they saw pictures of and which objects are “new.” They may think that I mean “completely new,” as in “not even the words were flashed up before.” I don’t care! That’s the beauty of it! They may, just to be on the safe side, guess that they’ve “seen” a picture even when they didn’t “see” it, because they think they should have seen it, but the image didn’t download correctly. It’s all good!

Then, I take my experimental results and tell the world things that we already know thanks to centuries of essayists who write on the subject personally, and more interestingly than scientists do, but without the ethos and audiences we command. Anyway, yeah, so, um, people can create false memories. That’s what we’ve discovered.

Patrick • 11/02/04 12:59 AM:

Hey, Dad, aren’t you going to take the test for yourself? And what’s this leaving us hanging? You provoke me about my memory and then you just leave the room?

Dad • 11/03/04 6:20 PM:

Didn’t I take that test already? I thought I did.

Dan • 11/16/04 1:33 PM:

I just did the test, got mad, then read Pat’s comments. Amen, brother.

It took me a very long time to “understand” the instructions because they barely make sense and I was worried the entire time about whether I was doing it right. The directions mention the shoebox on the instructions page, but on the smaller/larger page it only gives the first part of the instructions, so I had to go back and reread and get confused more.

What about the fact that your mouse arrow doesn’t change shape to a hand-link when you scroll over smaller/larger? I didn’t know if it was working until I got results.

I second Pat’s rant about there sometimes being images and then sometimes a box after you click. I mean, huh? Are you not supposed to say, “What the crap is going on?!” a hundred times while clicking? And, yeah, I can find you a lot of pumpkins smaller than a shoebox. And a plunger? What is the answer to that one?

My results (I’m serious) came out to be 87% Hit Rate, 667% False Alarm Rate, and 20% False Memory Rate.

That’s 13/15 hits, 100/15 false alarms, and 3/15 False memories.

Something screwed up. I don’t remember hitting the OLD button 100 times.

Dad • 11/16/04 9:36 PM:

I just took the test, or tried to take the test. In the second part, the sound didn’t work, so I couldn’t do it.

Obviously, the “bigger/smaller” question doesn’t matter. They are only trying to get your mind working on something else so you don’t consciously try to remember whether or not a picture was shown. Part way through the test, I “figured” the figures were going to figure into the test results, and I suspected they were going to ask about them. I didn’t over analyze the size issue because I knew it was just a diversion anyway. For what it’s worth, the plunger is bigger than a shoe box, and so is a pumpkin. Generally, I think the object is smaller than a shoe box if it can fit into the box.

As for false memories, yeah we know that. And I’m getting a little tired of this “brain imaging” stuff that shows parts of the brain heating up or changing color or increasing blood flow when the subject thinks about something. The brain is the most complex object in the universe (some say) and I have to believe there’s something more going on than registers on these “brain scans.”

Finally, who says this contrived test is anything like the false memories the brain creates? Being forced to imagine the object so you can compare its size to a shoebox is not the same as remembering a real event and filling in memory gaps with logical possibilities. And what about wishing an event had happened in a certain way and gradually convincing yourself it DID happen that way over time? The brain evolved to fill in all kinds of gaps in the data it receives. It also blocks out bad memories and, for some people, creates whole fantasy worlds and multiple personalities.

By the way, I think the fact that you could have imagined different kinds of “pipe” based solely on the word probably means that the picture they showed later becomes easier to remember. Did anyone get that one wrong?

Dad • 11/17/04 7:01 PM:

I finally took the test on the Mac and the sound worked. I got a 93% hit rate and 7% (1/15) false memory rate (I thought I had seen a figure but had not). However, I do remember one point where I clicked my answer and then wanted to take it back. I can’t remember the object now, (and refuse to create a false memory of it) but I do remember having misgivings. I’m assuming that was my “false memory.”

Also, while they report 3 types of answers I think there are really 4. I remember hearing words that were never part of the test; that is, never appeared as a word or a figure. You could have counted these as “old” and created a “really false” memory, because you never even tried to visualize it.

Come to think of it, there are really six categories. The spoken object might have previously come up as a word, a word and a picture, or not at all. For each of these options, you could answer old or new, thus creating six possibilities. You can be right in 3 different ways, but all of these are “hits.” I content that the 3 ways of being wrong ought to be: wrong (you saw the figure, but forgot), false (you visualized it, but thought you saw it), and really false (it never came up and you still thought you saw it!).

Or am I over analyzing?

David • 02/28/05 11:06 PM:

Here’s a test for you. It’s from Scientific American Frontiers. The episode I watched tonight, Don’t Forget, was on memory. Check out “The Name Game” - the featured test on the bottom of the page - go ahead and give it a shot. I scored 3/8 for first names, 1/8 for full names. Make sure you cruise through the list at a decent pace and only listen once to each name. Man is it tough, and man am I bad at this.

The site also has other cool infos, like the Mental Aerobics part.

Dan • 03/01/05 2:24 AM:

3/8. I suck as well. I can’t believe I got 3. That was lucky.

Patrick • 03/03/05 2:14 PM:

I got 4/8, plus one first name and one last name. I only listened to each name once, and I looked at the faces for less than 10 seconds, probably more like 5 (as per the site instructions).

David • 03/10/05 11:13 PM:

Dad, Kath, Karina, Mom - you haven’t done the test yet. Do it now, Do it quickly.

Here’s an NPR segment (I’ve been wanting to post it for, like, forever) on the same topic. It sites the same research.

The tagline for Science Plumbs Memory’s Faults reads - “This week defrocked priest Paul Shanley was convicted of child rape, after the victim testified about memories of the abuse that he recalled only after seeing news reports about Shanley. The trial focused on those memories’ reliability, but evidence is growing that nearly all [of Pat’s] memories distort the truth [especially the ones on Tommy’s resurrection]”.

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