Saturday, March 10, 2018

When imagination becomes memory

I think this is terribly important, but I’ve never seen it described. So, in a few minutes, I’ll share what I think.

Almost animals have memory, save perhaps the simplest single celled organisms. We think plants have a form of memory as well. There’s nothing uniquely human about memory.

Imagination is less common. It’s not uniquely human either; crows, wolves, cephalopods, cetaceans, primates — they all have some form of something that looks like imagination. We think humans have much more of it though. We can create memories of things that have not happened or did not happen. Imagination is a form of ‘false memory’ that we know to be false.

Except … when we don’t know it to be false. And there lies a problem — but I’ll come back to that.

When did humans develop the ability to create false memories and know them to be false? We think it is older than what we call “human” now — we think our fellow modern hominids, Neandertal, Denisovan and more had well developed imaginations. We suspect we have more of this talent though, and that we might have picked up additional abilities as recently as 50,000 to 75,000 years ago.

That’s very recent evolution, so it’s not surprising that, like strength and height, imagination might vary among people. It might vary in the ability to create “false” memories, and, perhaps independently, in the ability to know them to be false.

The latter variation is key. We know from research over the past forty years that it is relatively easy to create false memories in many people, but we also know that some study subjects, typically healthy university students, are more resistant to false memories than others. If we consider imagination as the generation of false memories that we know to be false, then similarly some people will be better at retaining the knowledge of what happened versus what they imagine happened.

So we know this ability to divide imagination from memory varies. It is plausible, and it fits my own experience, that people with “connectopathies” and other cognitive disabilities may have not only more limited imaginations, but also more difficulty separating the memory of what is imagined from all other memory.

I have seen this in someone close to me. When he was a child I would be upset that he was not telling me the truth, but over time I have come to believe that for him memory and imagination are inextricably blurred. What he imagines, what he wishes to be or have been, is poorly separated from what has been. There is just enough separation, I think, to create anxiety or agitation around the recall of false memory, but not enough to tell what is true memory and what is imagination.

I don’t think this problem is unique to persons with an IQ below the 5th percentile. I suspect it’s true for very many people, and it may explain why so many today are susceptible to novel kinds of media manipulation.

It’s a problem we need to research and understand both for persons with cognitive disabilities and for our society.