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The Past & Future: Where Are Brains Supposed to Exist?

Funny stuff happens when people think about the past. Sometimes, they replace reality with fiction. This is because we have poor episodic memories – a well-established fact in psychology. Consider the famous study done by Ulric Neisser. The day after the Challenger disaster he asked Emory University undergrads to write a description of how they heard of the disaster – the time of day, what they were doing, how they felt about it, etc. Neisser then asked the same students the same set of questions two and a half years later and compared the two descriptions. He found three things. First, the memories of the students had dramatically changed: “twenty-five percent of the students’ subsequent accounts were strikingly different from their original journal entries. More than half the people had lesser degrees of error, and less than ten percent had all the details correct.” Second, people were usually confident that the accounts they provided two and a half years later were accurate. And third, “when confronted with their original reports, rather than suddenly realizing that they had misremembered, they often persisted in believing their current memory.”

The study, which is now known as the Challenger study, has been replicated with several notable events such as 9/11 and the Reagan assassination attempt (Neisser also ran a similar experiment in the 1970s that compared John Dean’s testimony before the Watergate Investigation Committee with the actual tape recordings. Although the press labeled Dean as the “human tape recorder” Neisser found that his memory was not nearly that accurate).

In another report, psychologist Daniel Offer interviewed 73 people a series of social questions and compared the answers they gave in 1962 with ones in the 1990s. He found that “nearly half believed they had said it was acceptable to start having sex during high school, though only 15 percent had given that answer. Only one in three now recalled receiving physical punishment, though as ninth-graders 82 percent said they had.”

So why are our memories so bad? For one thing, memories do not work like computers. As much as it feels like we retrieve memories in the same way that we retrieve word documents, the reality is much different. When we remember, we are actually thinking about the last the time we thought about a memory. In other words, our memories are really just memories of memories of memories etc. Here is the key: whenever we remember an event, we usually add or remove something. For example, if I think about my first memory – a squirrel getting stuck in my room when I was three – I picture my grandfather and brother there, and it being nighttime. But I know from my family members that none of these things are true.

All of this suggests that brains are not built for the past. Unfortunately, psychology also tells us that they are not built for the future either. Don’t think so? Meet Philip Tetlock, a psychologist from the University of Pennsylvania who spent 18 years gathering data to measure how good the “experts” are at predicting future events. This included academics, journalists, intelligence analysis, and think-tank members who appeared on television, got quoted in the paper, and advised governments and businesses. He asked them to rate the probability of something – an economic, political, or military event – increasing, decreasing, or remaining the same, and measured their results (For example, one question was the “central-government debt will either hold between 35% and 40% of GDP or fall below or rise about that range”). Turns out, they were no better than chance. As one New Yorker article puts it, “human beings who spend their lives studying the state of the world… are poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys, who would have distributed their picks evenly over the three choices.” Why? Put simply, we are horrible at predicting specific future events.

ESPN baseball writer Jayson Stark is one of the few experts to admit this. He begins his 2011 MLB preview column by saying that “after 11 years of writing this same, ill-fated column, I’ve finally figured out two things: (A) It’s hopeless. And (B) it’s for entertainment purposes only.” He is right. Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and other sports outlets consistently get their predictions very wrong. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Seasons are filled with unpredictable injuries, random events, and bad officiating that can make or break championship runs. The same can be said of political campaigns, business ventures, and the economy – systems that are far more complex than a Major League Baseball season. In a globalized world where there are infinite inputs, long-term detailed predictions are simply impossible.

You don’t need all of this psychological data to know that humans are bad when it comes to dealing with the past and future. Budda knew this long before Wilhelm Wundt and Sigmund Freud when he said “do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” The difficult part is, of course, actually doing this. Living in the moment might be the ultimate “easier said than done,” especially if you just experienced a break-up, divorced, or got fired.

To be sure, psychology isn’t saying that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Generally speaking, our knowledge of the past and future is pretty good; we know where we grew up, who are parents are, how to do basic math, what the 50 states are, and we also know that winter will come in six months and exercise and eating healthy will be good for us in the long run. But in terms of specifics? Forget it.

  • The quotes from the first paragraph were taken from Robert Burton’s On Being Certain
  • The quote from the third paragraph was taken from David Myers’ Intuition
OFFER, D., KAIZ, M., HOWARD, K., & BENNETT, E. (2000). The Altering of Reported Experiences Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 39 (6), 735-742 DOI: 10.1097/00004583-200006000-00012

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