Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What Does it Mean if Many of our Memories are False?

The vagaries of human memory are notorious. A friend insists you were at your 15th class reunion when you know it was your 10th. You distinctly remember that another friend was at your wedding, until she reminds you that you didn’t invite her. Or, more seriously, an eyewitness misidentifies the perpetrator of a terrible crime. Not only are false, or mistaken, memories common in normal life, researchers have found it relatively easy to generate false memories of words and images in human subjects.
This passage is from a New York Times article about research just published in the journal Science: false memories were successfully implanted in mice. 
What does it mean that it is common for our memories to be false?
When I was fourteen my parents divorced (the event was so traumatic I’ll admit to being a little fuzzy about my age). This was totally unexpected; my four siblings and I had no inkling that anything was amiss in our parent’s marriage. One night the whole family was called into the living room, and my father told us he’d decided to separate from my mother and was moving out that night. We talked for some time and then he left. I have a very strong memory that all my brothers and sisters cried, but I didn’t.
Years later at a family gathering we discussed that night. All my brothers and sisters were there, along with our mother. Everyone shared their memories and how this had affected their lives at the time. One thing was stunning: each one of us had the same false memory. Each one of us thought everyone else cried but he or she didn’t. Our mother told us that we all cried.
The fact that all of us believed we didn’t cry says reams about our family psychology. But the point here is that all of us had operated for years from a false memory that slanted our perception of a pivotal event in our lives.
The premise of We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity is that everyone is deluded about reality; we are all confused about what is true. Optical illusions are wonderful illustrations of how we don’t perceive sensory information accurately (see blog post). False memory research shows we don’t accurately remember what happens to us.
Our mind-generated reality is largely constructed from sensory input and memories; if both of these are faulty how can our reality be anything but false?
“Delusion” means a “fixed, false belief resistant to confrontation with actual facts.” Even after my mother had told me I cried that night, I was resistant to believing her because my false belief was so strong. It had been reinforced by years of remembering.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Exposing Ourselves

Last month the NSA’s surveillance programs got a lot of press attention. A common refrain was that Americans deserved criticism for their lack of concern about privacy. A political cartoonist that I really respect, Mike Lukovich of the Atlanta Constitution, portrayed two Americans as flashers exposing themselves to Uncle Sam. This is a typical attitude.

But it occurred to me that, throughout history, many of the personal problems that people suffered from were directly linked to secrecy; to the need to hide anything that wasn’t socially acceptable at the time.
Homosexuality is an example. Just a couple of generations ago, how many men and women suffered for their entire lives because they had to hide the fact that they were homosexual? Now you can post photos on Facebook of yourself cavorting on a beach with your same-sex lovers, and your friends, of all sexual orientations, will cheer.
The “It Gets Better” campaign, begun in 2010 by columnist Dan Savage in the wake of a number of LGBT youth taking their own lives after being harassed, has inspired tens of thousands of people to share their own personal story through video. These videos reveal private information, and that’s the entire point. The openness is what provides encouragement and hope to others in difficult situations.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Turn Off Your Phone!

I love technology, but I’m not a big fan of the cellphone. Obviously cellphones make life easier in many ways, but there are also lots of drawbacks. One of the biggest for me is the way people act as if a phone call—any phone call—is a matter of life and death. It used to be that we lived our lives away from the phone, even when we were home. It rang over in the corner or in the next room, and if you wanted to ignore it you could. Now when it rings it’s in your pocket or hand and its very disruptive.

In this YouTube video someone is filming (probably with a cellphone) a baby and a cat having a wonderful interaction. The baby’s laughter is full and rich. But then the phone rings, and the baby makes a grunt of displeasure—the ring-tone means the parent’s attention is gone. The phone call breaks the mood: the cat walks away and the game is over.

Another example: not long ago my husband and I were rehearsing with a bass player once a week, with the plan of getting good enough to play gigs. But his girlfriend insisted that he always answer her calls--no matter what he was doing. So we'd be in the middle of the song, the phone would ring, and we'd have to stop and listen to her tell him something trivial, something that could have waited. Needless to say, I found this extremely annoying.
What’s wrong with turning off the phone? What’s wrong with not knowing the minute a call or text arrives? Of course some people need to stay wired, but most of us don’t need to be so wired. What is it about having the sound on—we can even set our computer to beep when we get an email? Is it that receiving calls and texts makes us feel more connected and important?
If you have trouble with the idea of turning off your devices, there are now retreats to experience life without electronics.
I have a cellphone and it’s mostly turned off. I recommend you try it. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Turn Your Attention

Last month I went to Jackson, Wyoming for a family gathering. Every day we hiked up one of the mountains that tower over the town. There’s a point on the trail where you can look out across the valley to the mountain on the other side of Jackson. My eye was drawn to a large gash at the base of the mountain, and I asked my sister, “What’s happening over there?” She replied, “Walgreens.”
Can you see the gash?

My brain snapped and crackled as I tried to reconcile the size of the gash with the smallness of the buildings all around, and then I realized that the developers must have been pushing the mountain back to create more room in the valley floor. I felt righteous anger rising in me about this assault on the mountain. Then I realized how crazy that was (what business is it of mine? I don’t even live here. I don’t know the actual circumstances, etc.).
I lifted my eyes, and slowly turning in a circle said, “Katie, take your attention off that tiny little flaw in the landscape and put your attention on the magnificent beauty all around you.” What was all around me was a hillside bursting with spring wildflowers, a sky of beautiful cloudscapes, some people I loved, and the majestic Tetons anchoring it all.

How easy it is to focus on the little problems and miss the larger picture of the magnificent gift that is life.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

You've Got to be Taught to Hate

The actor Kirk Douglas just published a blog post on prejudice at the Huffington Post called “On Jews and Justice.”

Mr. Douglas mentions the controversy over the Broadway musical South Pacific, which addressed racism head-on—in 1949. The play concerns an American nurse, stationed in the South Pacific during WWII, who falls in love with a French plantation owner. She has trouble accepting the fact that he has mixed-race children.

In addition there is a secondary romance between a U.S. lieutenant and a young Tonkinese woman. The lieutenant worries about what people will think if he marries the woman, and he sings the song “You've Got to Be Carefully Taught":
You've got to be taught to hate and fear,
You've got to be taught from year to year,
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate.
Prejudice has to be taught. This is the key to compassion: a bigot’s thinking became twisted during his or her upbringing. This is the bottom-line of my book, We Are ALL Innocent by Reason of Insanity: The Mechanics of Compassion. All of us are confused in our thinking. All of us have been programmed to believe our particular culture’s reality. We all confuse our mind-generated reality with actual reality--this delusion is what makes us insane.

The South Pacific song made me think of a beautiful passage from Martin Luther King’s account of the 1956 Montgomery bus boycott, in his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story [Harper & Row, 1958]:
I tried to put myself in the place of the police commissioners. I said to myself these are not bad men. They are misguided. They have fine reputations in the community. In their dealings with white people they are respectful and gentlemanly. They probably think they are right in their methods of dealing with Negroes. They say the things they say about us and treat us as they do because they have been taught these things. From the cradle to the grave, it is instilled in them that the Negro is inferior. Their parents probably taught them that; the schools they attended taught them that; the books they read, even their churches and ministers, often taught them that; and above all the very concept of segregation teaches them that. The whole cultural tradition under which they have grown—a tradition blighted with more than 250 years of slavery and more than 90 years of segregation—teaches them that Negroes do not deserve certain things. So these men are merely the children of their culture. When they seek to preserve segregation they are seeking to preserve only what their local folkways have taught them was right.

 What an incredibly beautiful mind to have been able to perceive this truth, right in the midst of the struggle!