Other Minds

6 Aug

A pretty neat survey was recently published: “What People Believe about How Memory Works: A Representative Survey of the U.S. Population.”  It’s freely available here, which is very awesome and very unusual.

One of my favorite simple psychological concepts (well, “simple”) is the idea of a theory of mind–very basically, the belief or understanding that other people are conscious just as you are conscious. That’s also why I find surveys really interesting: I get that other people are conscious, but I want to know precisely how their minds work.

This one is particularly great, as it compares the answers of the general public to the answers of experts on a number of propositions regarding memory.  I think my favorite is under “Permanent memory: Once you have experienced an event and formed a memory of it, that memory does not change.”

Spoiler alert: This is so, so, so very wrong based on everything we know about memory, which is admittedly not enough, but certainly enough to be fairly certain about this.  (And while we’re at it, you don’t use only 10% of your brain. You just don’t. Pretty sure you need more than 10% of your brain just to maintain the biological processes of life. Someone please make this myth go away.)

All data taken from Table 2 of the report. Numbers represent the percent of a group strongly or mostly agreeing with the proposition.

Note the 0.0% of experts who believe that memories, once formed, are not changed. This is difficult to phrase accurately, especially since (as I’ve said and this paper’s authors wisely warn of in their discussion section) the brain is not fully understood. Things we believe about consciousness today could easily be upended in the future; however, there are some things we can be fairly confident about, and this is one of them: memories are changed by the process of accessing and remembering them.

Most people are probably aware of the fact that, when you first form a memory, you are not forming a perfect objective representation of the facts of the moment. You are forming a memory based on your own subjective viewpoint, your emotions at the time, and your own interpretation of events based on previous experience. Later, when you remember an event, your memory might be colored by new emotions or experiences; perhaps you subtly emphasize a certain detail, until, years later, it is that originally insignificant detail that you remember as the most important factor in the original event.

This segues perfectly into the question labeled “Testimony,” which reflects the percent of the public and experts agreeing with the statement that “The testimony of one confident eyewitness should be enough evidence to convict a defendant of a crime.” This one is slightly more reasonable: 37.9% of the public, versus 0.0% of experts.

The explanation provided in the paper is worth a read, and meshes well with what I know on the subject. Confident testimony is more likely to be right than unconfident testimony; however, eyewitness testimony is, overall, unreliable–especially when you add in all the human factors involved in witnessing a crime.

One more interesting fact on the above graph:  that 18.8% of experts who agree that “people generally notice when something unexpected enters their field of view, even when they’re paying attention to something else” only “mostly agree,” whereas 27.2% of the public “strongly agrees,” and 50.3% “mostly agrees.” Scientists often hedge their bets when discussing what they do or don’t know–at least, I do.  But if you doubt this one, and you by chance have never watched this clip in a psychology 101 class before, do yourself a favor and follow its instructions:

I didn’t see it the first time, that’s for sure.

Anyway, take a look at the rest of the paper–all I’m doing is reporting selected results, and it’s very easy to get through. You can even skip straight to the Results and Discussion. It’s nice when science–any science–is this accessible. I said earlier that it was awesome and unusual for a scientific paper to be freely available. Access to scientific publications is usually absurdly expensive. I and others can complain about poor science journalism skewing public opinion all we like, but it isn’t the fault of the journalists or their readers that neither one (usually) has access to the original literature. That’s why it’s so special to see science reaching nonscientists.

In 2013, we’ll be treated to a new iteration of Cosmos, courtesy of Ann Druyan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Seth MacFarlane, and probably a lot of other really talented but less famous people. As both a devoted Whedonite and a person with other rather obvious view on the subject, I certainly had my doubts about the show being associated with Fox.

It’s easy (too easy) to assume that a primetime audience won’t be into science programming. It was my first instinct, but on second thought, it’s snobbery of the worst sort, and the exact sort of self-fulfilling prophecy the human race does not need. Yesterday, Neil deGrasse Tyson himself tweeted:  “Simple Logic: Worried that FOX viewers don’t know, think, or care about science? That’s why COSMOS belongs on FOX.” At the very least, it’s a first step toward bringing those 2 bars closer to equal on the graph.


One Response to “Other Minds”


  1. Apoptosis and You « Astroglia - August 11, 2011

    […] unlike the last paper I talked about here, this one is difficult to get through without at least a little background in the field, so I […]

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