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Memory, Crime, and Punishment

May 12, 2011

On TV shows and in films the human memory is (naturally) presented as something like a video tape. To remember is then to jump to the correct position and start playback from there. In this analogy the tab of the tape is broken off; memories are assumed to be immutable, and forgetting something is a matter of misplacing it. A common trope for retrieving such misplaced memories is of course hypnosis, and then the tape metaphor is enforced by dramaturgic convention; the subject is watching the event as a film, leading up to the act-ending reveal.

First of all, the video-tape metaphor suggests memories are stored somewhat chronologically, which is hardly the case. It’s quite common for people to argue over when something happened, and resolve the conflict with reasoning that since that-and-that had not happened yet, it must have been this-or-that year.

My theory is that memories are stored thematically instead. It makes more sense in an evolutionary perspective. To know when something happened is much less important than what actually happened. Why? Because the purpose of memories is not primarily to remember the past but to predict the future. Hell, sometimes the brain doesn’t even care about whether or not the memory was acquired first- or second-hand. The main part is not whence or when the memory came, only that it is an important piece of information.

And thematic memory is better for searching, for associating. Making connections is what the brain is for, so it makes sense for its storage to be built to reflect this. Not that the storage is separated from the processor in this case; there is no clear-cut distinction between code and data in the brain.

But an even more interesting thing than cryptomnesia is that the immutability is pure bullshit. My favourite experiment on this is Lost in the Mall which suggests that confabulation can be invoked rather easily.

I kind of understood this quite early on, but never thought about the implications. When I was maybe five years old I remembered a Christmas Eve when I was supposedly two years old. Even then, I doubted if this memory was real, since I didn’t seem to have it until one of my siblings talked about the day in question. It could of course have been a matter of just being reminded, but I can’t shake the feeling that it was pure confabulation.

So when people talk about their earliest memory, I have nothing.

But what is an “earliest memory” anyway? A child learns words and concepts long before the earliest memory manifests itself. But these things are not stored in the episodic memory, so perhaps they don’t count (I mean, after all, facts and such are not really what we mean when we talk about memories; we mostly mean events)?

Does this mean that episodic memories cannot be formed too early on or that they can’t be retrieved until sufficient connections are made to it? I mean, if a memory is encoded and stored, but few or no links lead to it from other memories, is it then even a memory?

This feels like one aspect of the same core issue: what is a memory? Apparently, it doesn’t have to be true to be a memory. However, that is somewhat misleading. After all, the brain only knows truth as something that it has experienced. And how does it check if it has experienced it? Yeah, it checks its memory. Which may be false.

On an intellectual level, we know that our memories can be false. Things like perceived facts being wrong is the least troubling instance of this. If we for example learn that tectonic plates don’t move how we thought they did, it’s hardly traumatic. But if we learn that things we thought had happened to us never in fact did, then it’s harder to accept. Or that things did happen, but not the way we thought they did.

This is not surprising. When we think about what a person is, it’s close at hand to think of them as the sum of all their experiences, and those experiences can no longer be trusted, then their very identity is at risk.

Which makes me wonder about amnesia. When we think of amnesia we often think about the type most commonly featured on TV; retrograde amnesia. And then only the kind affecting episodic memories.

But if we forget who we are, are we then who we were before? If someone commits a murder but then suffers amnesia so he doesn’t remember anything about his life including the crime, should he then be sentenced for it? Is he the same person as he was then? Well, strictly speaking, if we are our memories, then no one is ever the same even from second to second, but full-blown amnesia is somewhat different. It’s a blank slate, if you will.

I suspect the answer might be influenced by whether or not you view the legal system as rehabilitative or punitive (right word?), even if it shouldn’t. I mean, whether you believe criminals should be cured or punished, it comes down to whether or not you even think it’s the same person as before.

Still, the rehabilitation camp would probably be more inclined to view the mind as a malleable system, whereas as those advocating punishments would probably argue that it can only be changed superficially, that a person’s behaviour might change with deterrence, but that their intents and urges remain unmodified, no matter the nature of the sentence.

Even more interesting is that memories might be changed just by being recalled. When you remember something, the memory apparently enters an unstable state and must afterwards be made stable again.

So… if we’re the sum of our experiences (memories) and those memories are changed by our mind-state at the moment of recollection, that means our memories are changing each other.

And of course that eyewitnesses can’t be trusted.

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From → General

One Comment
  1. hails permalink

    I think that by “earliest childhood memory” people actually mean the earliest point in your childhood that you can actually remember.

    I agree with your theory that memories are stored thematically and not chronologically. It’s the same reason why, for instance, we know what a goat is, but can’t remember where we learned that particular piece of information.

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