Cognitive Column - April 2016
I must of course begin with mention of Lilli, the redoubtable woman who, in a country and language that were not her own, was able to steer the fledgling OUPS into the astonishingly successful Society it is today. No mean feat! Sadly I never got to know her well, merely having occasional meetings at OUPS events. In the 40th Anniversary edition of News & Views, back in 2014, I mentioned attending one such assembly in London. The meeting seems long ago now; I was doing my doctorate in Oxford and travelled to London together with Donald Broadbent, in his car. I believe he had been invited to speak, and had suggested me as an additional speaker. I met Lilli for the first time on that trip, and was immediately aware of her Danish accent of course. However, strikingly she showed none of the hesitancy or diffidence that one often sees in someone operating in a tongue and culture not her own; in all my encounters she seemed unshakably assured. Lilli wrote to me from time to time, inviting me to speak at meetings; there was no email in those days, so it was a real paper letter. As I recall, these were always hand written, and began Dear Peter Naish. Since we called each other by our first names when we met, I often wondered why the letters required the surname too. I dare say it was intended to convey an appropriate formality to a document requesting a diary commitment. One sensed that Lilli came from an era and background where protocol was always to be observed; it was said that she had moved in very high circles in Denmark. Her bearing did have a certain unmistakable aristocratic touch, and those letters were always supported by a great flourish of a signature, stretching unflinchingly across the page. (It was a long name!) That, I believe, was very much how Lilli spanned her many years; without fear or favour, but in unending support of what she held dear. We have good reason to be grateful that she devoted so many of those years to our service.
When I relate events of long ago I experience a nagging mistrust of my memory. I feel compelled to pepper the account with caveats: ‘I believe’ or ‘as I recall’. There are probably several reasons for this, not least that I have a terrible memory, but I am sure that a significant element is the fact that the problem of erroneous memories has a very high profile for me. Let me remind you that memories are stored in the synapses. As activity ripples through our brains, spreading from neuron to neuron across the tiny synaptic clefts, it modifies the ease with which future activity will manage to jump those little gaps. The activity is caused by stimuli, such as reading this page, and as analysis takes place, enabling you to understand my words, the information crosses countless synapses, leaving behind a trace of its passage, like footprints in the sand. I fear that, after reading this, your brain will be very slightly altered and you will never be quite the same again! The pattern of activity depends on the stimulus that started it all; listening to music, for example, would be very different from reading an article. Brain scanning, although unable to show what a person is thinking, can certainly distinguish the patterns from different kinds of stimulus. Crucially, those patterns are quite closely replicated if someone tries to imagine the relevant stimulus: much the same networks become activated. If they are activated, the synapses get modified just as they would have been for a real stimulus, because a neuron does not know what activated it. Herein lies a potential problem, because the results of vivid imagining can sometimes be treated as if memories for real events: i.e. false memories are created. We all have some, and for all I know something of what I wrote in the first paragraph may be one.
I have an interest in false memory because from time to time I am asked to be an expert witness in court cases where false memory is suspected. This is particularly the case when hypnosis has been used. Scanning shows that the high degree of realism experienced when imagining in hypnosis is reflected in activity patterns pretty much indistinguishable from the real thing. Not surprisingly, this greatly increases the risk that a false memory will be formed. This scenario is sometimes enacted when a hypnotherapist, believing that a client was once sexually abused, is determined to unearth the memory of it. Instead they create a ‘memory’ of it. I have met victims of abuse, and also some who have acquired a pseudo-memory for dreadful events that never happened. I’ve been involved with several cases of late, and it has been impressed upon me just how much these ‘false rememberers’ suffer. The acquisition of the false memories is almost as damaging as real abuse, and many of these unfortunate victims of memory are in a terrible state, showing the same kinds of symptoms as true victims of abuse. You will be thinking, perhaps, that they might truly have been abused. I will expand in a future Column, but for now please be assured that some have most certainly not been.
You will probably know that from time to time I share with you my whimsical thoughts on language. I know I’ve ranted about ‘like’ before, pointing out its overuse (and arguably misuse). ‘Literally’ seems to be going the same way. On a recent trip to a police station to see people involved in a hypnosis case, a nice person met me at the front desk and showed me to the room where I would conduct my interviews. “You are literally in here,” she said. As she left to get me a coffee I found myself wondering how it would be if I wasn’t literally there. Did most people helping the police with their enquiries have a virtual presence? It’s a matter that will probably become important in future trials. No longer will it be sufficient to show that the accused was at the scene of the crime; he will have to have been there literally. I suppose the main thing is not to end up literally in prison.
I can’t let the In-Out Referendum pass without mention. I don’t think this is the place to urge support one way or the other, but I will comment on the Labour and Tory leaders. Jeremy Corbyn has given what is generally acknowledged to be lukewarm support to the In campaign, and this is taken to reflect his long-term euro-sceptic views. If this is true, then gone is the man of integrity I discussed in the last column; he’s a politician like the rest of them, bending his principles to suit the political needs of the moment. I’m not sure whether that’s a relief or not, but it does make it easier to tar them all with the same brush, and you can’t beat a good stereotype can you? “What,” I hear you cry, “Including that nice Mr Cameron?” Actually I probably don’t hear any such thing, and for good reason. Prior to his little flit round Europe, to gain essential concessions, he announced that he was quite prepared to recommend an Out vote if his demands were not met. What he returned with did seem quite paltry, but had he wished he could have argued that these modest changes were exactly what he had been hoping for. However, that’s not what he argued. Instead he began to insist that the reason we should vote Yes was because of a whole host of matters that were never addressed during his grand tour. In other words, he is arguing that we should remain in Europe for reasons that were already in place when he claimed that he was prepared to recommend leaving. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Europe trip was a charade and that we have been dealt with dishonestly.
Well, that’s enough from me. Good luck with the studies, and I shall be back again with the next edition of News & Views – literally!