Myths of Memory.

Essay by ckoski02 May 2003

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On my TV screen, a psychic mutant covered with phlegm asks Arnold Schwarzenegger what he wants.

"The same as you," Arnold says.

"To remember."

"But why?"

"To be myself again," Arnold responds.

The movie is Total Recall, an action/adventure flick based on the Philip K. Dick story "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale." Arnold plays an ordinary guy who is frustrated by dreams of Mars, where he has never been. So he goes to a memory shop to buy a false memory, the memory that he was a secret agent on Mars. While Arnold is unconscious, the folks at the shop discover that they can't implant the false memory because they find that Arnold really had been a secret agent on Mars! Then, of course, all hell breaks loose and there's plenty of running and shooting and diving through windows and flames and explosions and all that other good stuff.

The interesting part (unless you really like explosions) is Arnold's continuing uncertainty: Was his ordinary life false, a dream imposed on him when he stopped being a secret agent? Or is the current shoot-'em-up situation all a dream? He can't trust his memories--and so he can't tell what is real and what is false.

You, of course, don't have any such difficulties. Your brain hasn't been tinkered with by secret agents or memory technicians. You can trust your memories--can't you?

Don't count on it. You are about to hear a speech about memory and how it works. Some of the things I've learned--and you will, too--are a little disturbing. So, in a spirit of generosity, I thought I'd share them with you.

The Devil in the Details

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist noted for his studies of childhood development, believed for many years that he remembered something that had...