by Gerald Epling
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” John Muir
Piecing together Reality
Every memory that we have is a combination of many different items assembled around some template for reality. To get at the heart of this process, scientists study face recognition.
If you hold a 6×8 portrait photo of a face at a comfortable viewing distance, you might think that you are seeing the entire face at one time. Actually, you are viewing a memory of the face that has been composed for you, by you. This memory is composed from distinctive elements of the face, which are woven together in the mind. For an instant the eyes focus is on the hairline, next the nose, then the mouth, followed by the chin, the eyes, and the eyebrows. The clear picture of a face, which you see, is really in your memory.
Face recognition is just one way of getting at the way that we piece together our view of reality. From face recognition studies, we can see basic patterns that occur with all types of memory formation. Viewing a face begins with taking in the individual items, the hairline, nose, mouth, chin, eyes and so forth. These individual items are stored in memory and woven together over time using a mental template for faces. Three primitive process of memory formation support this method of making memories. First, there is item-specific processing, which takes in the elements of a face such as nose, chin, and eyes. Secondly, there is relational processing, which weaves together the individual elements into a whole face, for our memory. Thirdly, there is essential processing. Essential processing includes the storage of elements in memory for use by relational processing. Essential processing refers to the storing of anything in memory.
Templates for understanding reality help us to quickly recognize dangerous or attractive elements around us. If there is a long rope-looking thing wiggling along the ground at a distance in front of us, we might assume that this may be a snake. Quick recognition helps us avoid danger. If we see a tree in the distance then our past experiences might lead to an expectation of shade under the branches.
Our experience and expectations regarding reality are constantly updated by what we do, where we go, who we meet, and what we learn. This constant updating can alter earlier memories, as well as future expectations. Memory is a malleable thing subject to context, reflection, review, and maturity level.
Maturity. Whenever considering the immature brain there are aspects of normal brain development to consider. Have you ever wondered why people tend to make better decisions in their 30’s than in their teens? Two aspects of brain development come to mind, myelination and development of the executive centers of the brain. Myelination is a process that enhances brain signal transportation. By the age of 13, the myelination process is about 80% complete. Our frontal lobes provide support for executive decisions. The executive area of the frontal lobes reaches maturity around 26 years of age.
Memory is dependent on mood, emotional state, context before, during and after the memory is formed, attentiveness, heartbeat, and other things. It is possible for someone to have a memory that is believed to be true, when it is not true. The effects of time and environment can reshape what we have experienced in a context and composition that bears little connection with reality.
For an interesting talk on how false memories are made, see the “How Reliable is Your Memory?” by Elizabeth Loftus.
Relevant Reading and Viewing
Max Wertheimer and Gestalt Theory by D. Brett King and Michael Wertheimer.
How Reliable is Your Memory? by Elizabeth Loftus.