The perils of specialization

Lately I’ve been contemplating some of the risks associated with studying one subject so thoroughly that you become a specialist in that subject. Of course there is value in study, I’m not arguing that, but it seems we need to recognize that studying any one thing too much exposes us to some unexpected risks.

MacLean’s published an article on a memory expert that highlights one of the risks of specialization; an inability to see the big picture.

This is a long one, grab a coffee and settle in.

The article itself, and the lady’s research, is fascinating and well worth the read. It is a sobering reminder of the limitations of the human mind. Quite simply, we are not infallible. The researcher, Julia Shaw, has conducted experiments with university students in which she effectively implants memories of events that never happened. Detailed memories, no less, not just vague recollections. Here’s how she does it,

Her research involves inviting pre-screened university student volunteers to come to her lab. “They know they’re part of a study on memory,” Shaw says. They think, though, that it’s a study on real memories, and they know the psychologist has spoken to their parents, who have provided information about them. “First, we talk about a true memory, something that happened to them between the ages of 11 and 14—and then I switch and say, the other event your parents reported was a criminal event—an assault, assault with a weapon, or theft—that ended with police contact.”

So what happens when Shaw has the students repeatedly picture—in an attempt to “remember” it—committing a crime that never happened? They begin to remember—“with details,” says Shaw. “They’ll start with something like blue sky: ‘I remember a blue sky.’ Since we’re doing a visualization exercise where they’re picturing what it could have been like to have experienced this event, they start to get these details over the different interviews. By the end of three weekly sessions, 70 per cent claim they remember what happened and why it happened in detail: context, situation, what it felt like, smelled like, tasted like, looked like. They have multi-sensory details by the end of it.”

Fascinating stuff, isn’t it? Given the results of the study it is not hard to see why, “Julia Shaw doesn’t believe in facts as a presence in our memories.” She, “is a skeptic about the factual value of memory.” How bad is it?

There’s no stability in the human brain, Shaw points out. Neurons are connected in a flexible manner, and the connections between them change constantly. “Your brain a minute ago is different than your brain now, and represents a different person. This conversation we are having is changing our brains while we’re having it. Memory is associative, and associations can easily be broken and recombined.”

She concludes that our memories are, “hopelessly fragile and impossibly inaccurate.”

Oy. That’s a bit of a problem. But the problem, it turns out, is not merely for us, it is also for memory researchers like Shaw. Like too many specialists, she has failed to see the big picture beyond her narrow field of study.

The problem

Suppose everything that’s described above is true. If that’s the case, then all memory is at least suspect or, as Shaw would see it, the “facts” in our memories is something she doesn’t even believe in.

Ah, but she wrote them down. It’s on paper, that counts for something, right? Unfortunately, no. As the article clarifies, “Writing simply adds another stage in alteration: every act of transmission is an act of creation.” So even written documentation is not to be trust; that, too, falls under the banner of memory skepticism.

And it’s at this point that we have to bring the concept of “self refuting” into the discussion. The classic example of a claim that is self-refuting is the claim, “I cannot speak or write any English.” If one truly could not speak or write any English, then that English sentence would not be the kind of thing they would utter, or write. The claim is self-refuting; it is like coming to a conclusion that cuts off the very conceptual branch upon which it sits.

And this memory research, unfortunately, also cuts off the very branch it is sitting on. Or, more correctly, her sweeping conclusions from her memory research cuts off that branch; the research itself leaves the branch rather intact as far as I’m concerned. So how is it that her conclusions undermine the very basis for her conclusions?

Because, quite frankly, research requires memory. I presume she set up an appointment to meet with the students. If so, did she remember to attend the appointment? During the appointment, did she remember what the research was about? Did she remember what questions to ask? Did she remember what information she acquired from the student’s parents? She met with the students over three separate sessions; did she remember what was said from week to week?

When she reported on her findings, did she physically write the report during the very research, or did she write the report at a later date, relying on her memory? And you’ll remember (or maybe you won’t!) that I previously highlighted her claim that memories that get written down are no less susceptible to misrepresentation than those memories that do not get written down. So even if she took notes during the research that does not necessarily guarantee the reliability of the memory transmission process between her study and the publishing of her results.

Her sweeping conclusions about the unreliability of memory, if true, necessarily undermine her very ability to conduct such memory research in the first place. And if she is not able to actually conduct such research, then she could never reach the conclusion that memories are unreliable.

This is the very nature of a self-refuting claim.

Does she ever stop and ask herself if the “memories” she has of interviewing all those students are just as made up as the memories they made up about committing a crime as a youth? Did she actually publish her results, or does she merely have a fabricated memory of doing so?

[Did the MacLean’s interviewer confirm any of her claims?]

Indeed, if her sweeping conclusions about memory are accurate, any research of any kind is rendered utterly unreliable because it all requires memory of some sort to bridge the time gap between the research itself and the publication of the results (both written and unwritten memories are suspect, remember). Wave goodbye to science!

In fact, you can also wave goodbye to history as a field of study. Even the arts, like music and drama, require people to memorize the material for their performance, so the likelihood that they actually memorized anything with any reliability is pretty near impossible. Of course, if they completely butchered their performance it’s not like the audience will accurately remember their poor performance anyway.

And the justice system as a whole (as the article touches on) goes down the drain. After all, every trial involves evidence, all of which is some “record” of historical events, and all lean heavily on memory.

In fact, if you follow her logic then that should raise a whole lot of other questions about the article. These students invented false memories of events they experienced with their parents, but how can we be certain that they actually have parents? Perhaps all their memories of “mom” and “dad” have somehow been implanted in them during university. The article points out that many people have “memories” of shaking hands with Bugs Bunny at Disneyland, even though Bugs Bunny is not a Disney character. But what about Mickey Mouse? Perhaps they never actually shook his hand.

Did they even go to Disneyland at all?

Can we be certain Disneyland even exists? Sure, a whole lot of people I know have “memories” of being there (myself included) but if our memories are “hopelessly fragile and impossibly inaccurate” then could we have simply collectively invented this magical land in our minds, just as those students invented “memories” of committing some crimes as children.

If her sweeping conclusions are correct then those people who have been diagnosed with dementia are the only ones with an accurate self-assessment; the rest of us suffer from the same memory limitations as they do but we have deluded ourselves into thinking otherwise. Welcome to the brave new world of hyper-skepticism.

I am aware of some other research that draws quite different conclusions  about the reliability of human memory (or, at least, I think I have a memory of reading such research – take that as you will) but I don’t feel the need to bring that up at this time. It seems fairly self evident to me that we ought to be far more suspicious of her sweeping conclusions than we should be of memory.

But, the study proves it

This should leave us wondering, though, how the study was able to accomplish what it did. Here are some concerns I have about the study.

  • Pre-screened. I’m not sure what the screening process was, but perhaps it somehow (I will assume inadvertently) selected for people with overactive imaginations. The fact that they are all university students is interesting.
  • Parental authority. The claim is made that “your parents told us this.” Would the study have the same effect if the claim was made that “some kid down the street who you barely ever saw during your childhood told us this?” Could the authority and reliability of the parents be a factor that leads the person to invent a memory because, after all, mom and dad would know best about these things?
  • It’s a memory study. She told them ahead of time that this study was about memory, so when she started asking them about something that never actually happened (but mom and dad said it happened!) could it be that there was some pressure to “perform” for the memory study? After all, having a good memory is something of a badge of honour, so if you are being told about an event in your own past that you have external reason to believe happened, and you know you are being tested for memory, then you might just subconsciously get a little creative with the information you are being fed.
  • Timing. The implanted memory would have taken place roughly a decade prior to the experiment. That’s a fair bit of time as compared to, say, last year or last week. Furthermore, the fabricated event would have taken place during the latter stages of childhood when the brain is still forming. I have to wonder if the experiment would yield the same results if conducted on a 50-year-old, having a fake memory implanted with respect to when they were 40 years old.
  • Culture. I think something could be said about the culture within which the experiment is taking place. Collectively we in North America seem to have ridiculously short attention spans and truly lousy memories. Furthermore, we live in the shadow of postmodernism where we are given the freedom to create reality “as it is for me” so there is less devotion to the truth about reality “as it actually is.” And it’s at a university, as I mentioned previously. Would the experiment work as well in rural China, or a business district in Africa? I’m not sure.
  • 70% success. She is able to implant the memory in about 70% of participants, which means 30% of the participants didn’t “fall for it,” despite all the above pressures. So any sweeping conclusions she draws from her research perhaps only applies to 70% of the population? It does not necessarily apply to all of us.

For all these reasons, I would say that this experiment has some serious limitations. It is not to be dismissed, of course, but merely circumscribed by reality.

Are there limitations to the reliability of our memories? Of course there are! Yes, sometimes we do invent memories. Sometimes we forget things that actually did happen. Sometimes our recollection of true events gets skewed. But to jump from those rather modest observations to the sweeping conclusion that memory is fundamentally unreliable is the kind of leap of logic that only a specialist who has lost sight of the big picture is capable of making. And that tendency of specialists to fail to see the big picture is one of the risks of specialization. Her grandiose skepticism about human memory might earn her some publicity in MacLean’s for its edginess and disruptive nature – news organizations live off that kind of stuff – but her hyper-skepticism is the kind that quite rightly ought to be forgotten as quickly as possible. Which, if her research is right, shouldn’t be a problem.

That’s just one example of the problems with specialization; an inability to see the big picture as one descends further and further into a very narrow field of study. I have been contemplating a few other hazards of specialization which I hope to write about some day.

If I remember to.

If, of course, I actually had those reflections that I seem to remember having…