Before she died, I had a phone conversation with my stepmother who was 98 years-old at the time. I asked her how her day was going and she cheerfully replied she’d had a wonderful morning visiting her mother and father. She wasn’t lying. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and her ability to distinguish fact from phantasy had been destroyed. A number of illnesses can affect our memory this way — acute alcoholism, aneurysms and brain trauma are prime examples. But the normal brain can also be unreliable.
Studies show that when people are asked to explain events for which they have no recall, they are inclined to make up answers which they are convinced are true. In her article, “Honest Liars,” Maria-Dorthea Heidler gives us an example. (Scientific American Mind, March/April 2014 pg. 44) In a study, a group of volunteers was shown pictures of women’s faces and asked to identify the ones they thought were attractive. Later the subjects were presented a different woman’s picture but were told they had identified her as attractive earlier. Next the volunteers were asked to explain their choices. In every case, the participants complied, creating a memory based upon a false report.
Researchers speculate that false memories are the work of two areas of the brain that normally operate smoothly together. The left hemisphere, where language resides, produces explanations for our experiences and memories. The limbic portion tests for plausibility. When a startling event occurs, the supervisory circuit can disconnect, leaving the creative portion to go unchecked. New realities may emerge as in the case of a beautiful face “remembered” for the first time. (Ibid, pg. 44)
If John Keats knew what science knows now, I wonder, would he still have written, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all ye need to know on earth”? (“Ode to a Grecian Urn”)
(Courtesy of medpics011.blogspot.com)