Memory as a Wikipedia Page


I don’t know anyone’s phone number, address or email address anymore. I don’t remember appointments, my agenda is on my phone and I get an alert. I don’t remember any of my passwords, they’re stored either in the app or in my browser. If I loose my phone I’m screwed, but only temporarily because all that information is backed up in the cloud somewhere.

On the plus side there is an unlimited memory that I can access in the sense that there is nothing Google doesn’t know, the days of playing Google Whack are over.

We tend to think of memory as being a storage, our own biological repository of true things that really happened, our own database that we can Google to recall.

It turns out that human memory functions less like a database and more like Wikipedia. That is we can create overwrite and change what we recall, and – here’s the wiki bit – other people can distort our memories. In this TED talk Elizabeth Loftus talks about the ways our memories can be subtly altered by what people ask us and even what words they use.

As shown in the video this has implications in crime solving, eye witness accounts can be manipulated as people are primed by something as simple as replacing the word “hit” with “smashed” in a description of an accident.

But it also has implications for all of us, having a wikipedia page for a memory is how we become vulnerable to gaslighting,  an insidious form of manipulation that includes persistent denial of the truth, deliberate lying, and manipulating the environment to make the victim doubt their own memory.

The usual setting for gaslighting is within a relationship, and it has been connected with narcissistic or sociopathic personalities and with abuse.

But what if we can all, collectively fall victim to gaslighting?  This accusation has been hurled at various politicians, most recently at the new President of the US. Various news outlets have called his behaviour gaslighting, including Business Insider, The GuardianCNN, Teen Vogue, the Washington Post, NBC, and the earliest example I could find in the Telegraph. The antidote to this has been the rise and rise of fact checkers.

The good news is that we have a global database now, it’s called the internet and we can search for sources, explanations, and the person’s own words.

The other piece of good news is that because our memories are wiki pages we can consciously choose to re-write the memory. For many years I was vaguely claustrophobic, I would avoid small spaces and if I had to be in one I would get highly anxious, never to the level of a full panic attack but unpleasant. I thought it was due to one event where for a joke two guys picked me up and shut me into the boot/trunk of someone’s car. When they finally let me out I was crying, shaking, and furious.  I changed the “script” of that event and cast myself as a circus performer escaping, Houdini-style, from the car’s boot with feather headdress and a flourish.  Am I cured? Well I won’t be joining the Speleology Club any time soon but I’m not anxious in a lift/elevator any more.

Our memories record the good and the bad stuff, just like wikipedia; and just like wikipedia the can be edited. Pay attention, be aware of the editing.

If you think you’re being “nudged” to change your view check the facts. If you think you need a record of something photograph it. Use the tools to help you keep a database, your brain won’t.

When I travel around the Netherlands by train I leave my bike at central station, amongst the 4,000 other bikes and I don’t always remember where I parked it. I’ve taken to photographing the view from where the bike is parked. My memory on bike location is definitely a wiki page, and I seem to randomly recall previous page versions.

Image: Memories  |  Stefanos Papachristou  |  CC BY-NC2.0

Quantified Self

There are apps and devices out there to measure everything; including you.

Want to know how far you walk each day? What you’ve eaten? How you slept? What your genes are? Or monitor your mood?

There are tools/apps for all that and more.

The first step is some form of data collection; this could be via a wearable sensor, a phone app, a test or self reporting. Here are some examples;

Wearable Sensor most often are used for collecting data on your activity, the most famous is perhaps the Nike+ Fuelband, which tracks your activity allowing you to see your improvement, compete with friends and post annoying progress reports on your facebook page.

Phone Apps can also be used to track activity, including activity of a different kind, Sleepcycle is an app designed to wake you at the ideal time in your sleep cycle, and to work you need to put the phone in contact with your mattress so that it can translate your sleep movement into sleep patterns. It then sets the alarm off when you are in a light part of your sleep cycle, making the waking up experience much easier.

Another app looks at your heart rate, via an ear sensor, to monitor to your reaction to stress and stimuli.

Bar codes can be scanned for a number of uses, often for price comparison, but more interesting to check for ingredients which is important for allergy sufferers, an nutritional information which is helpful for dieters such as the WeightWatchers app. Some apps combine the food intake with the activity measurements.

Genetic testing 23 and me, this test will check for the genetic markers of diseases, analyse your ancestry and give you information on genetic traits. The test costs 99 USD, and they will ship internationally for another 79 USD.

I’m curious enough to do the test; I may find out if I will inherit otosclerosis which has left my mother deaf. I’m also curious about the bitterness taste marker, I can’t stand Brussels sprouts and this might give me the excuse I need.

It’s interesting that people are starting to use these tools to motivate them to change behaviour, friends who use Nike’s fuelband or similar tools find it motivating to see their progress. Given that we under-report food intake when we self report analysing our food in real time may help people adjust their food choices. And the genetic testing has given some people better understanding of genetic issues; the film on the 23andme website shows a case study when a woman found a marker for Celiac disease and on further testing was found to be a correct diagnosis.

There are concerns regarding data privacy and use of the data – Insurance companies could adjust all their risk calculations on the basis of the genetic testing for example. But in a world of an “obesity epidemic” these are powerful tools for individuals to monitor and change their health patterns.

Image numbers via pixabay