Messing With Your Mind


n the TV screen, a psychic mutant covered with phlegm asks Arnold Schwarzenegger what he wants.

"The same as you," Arnold says.
"To remember."

"But why?"

"To be myself again," Arnold responds.

The movie is Total Recall, an action/adventure flick based on the Philip K. Dick story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." Arnold plays an ordinary guy who is frustrated by dreams of Mars, where he has never been. So he goes to a memory shop to buy a false memory, the memory that he was a secret agent on Mars. While Arnold is unconscious, the folks at the shop discover that they can't implant the false memory because they find that Arnold really had been a secret agent on Mars! Then, of course, all hell breaks loose and there's plenty of running and shooting and diving through windows and flames and explosions and all that other good stuff.

The interesting part (unless you really like explosions) is Arnold's continuing uncertainty: Was his ordinary life false, a dream imposed on him when he stopped being a secret agent? Or is the current shoot-'em-up situation all a dream? He can't trust his memories--and so he can't tell what is real and what is false.

You, of course, don't have any such difficulties. Your brain hasn't been tinkered with by secret agents or memory technicians. You can trust your memories--can't you?

Don't count on it. At the Exploratorium, we're working on an exhibition related to current research into memory and how it works. Some of the things we've learned are a little disturbing. So, in a spirit of generosity, we thought we'd share them with you.

Before you read any further, try an activity by clicking here . Then come back and read more.

No really--don't just keep reading. Try the experiment first. If you keep reading, we're going to spoil it so that you can't do the experiment.

Have you done it? Okay. (Yeah, we know that some of you haven't. Too bad. Your loss.)

By Mildred Howard. From the collection of Daniel Schacter.

If you're like most people, these lists caused you to create a false memory--most people mistakenly remember words that aren't on the lists. Psychologists Henry L. Roediger and Kathleen McDermott, experimenting with people's responses to these lists, found that more than half of their experimental subjects remembered a word that wasn't there on each list. Roediger and McDermott noted that people don't just believe that they heard the word; they remember it quite vividly. Memory researcher Daniel L. Schacter reports that he has tried this experiment in lectures with audiences of nearly a thousand people--and has had 80 to 90 percent of his listeners remember false words.

Remembering a word that wasn't there might make you begin to doubt the orderly workings of your own mind, but that's just the beginning.

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist noted for his studies of childhood development, believed for many years that he remembered something that had happened when he was just two years old. He wrote, "I can still see, most clearly, the following scene, which I believed until I was about fifteen. I was sitting in my pram, which my nurse was pushing in the Champs Elysees, when a man tried to kidnap me. I was held in by the strap fastened around me while my nurse bravely tried to stand between me and the thief. She received various scratches, and I can still see vaguely those on her face. Then a crowd gathered, a policeman with a short cloak and a white baton came up, and the man took to his heels. I can still see the whole scene, and can even place it near the tube station."

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