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Be careful what you think you know.


Two interesting bits of brain research in the news this morning.

Guiliana Mazzoni’s work is well-established in the psychological literature on false memory. Her most recent paper is a study of memory among 1600 students. This finds that up to a sixth of our memories are objectively and verifiably false. Most of these false memories appear to have been implanted between the ages of 4-8 years old.

Yet, who are we, if not a composite product of our experiences, especially in early life? Indeed, how secure can we be of our individual identities, if we cannot be certain of our lived knowledge?

Perhaps we need to exercise caution before claiming certainty…even about this very intimate and personal ‘knowledge’.

The researcher’s conditional claim that ‘the evidence appears to indicate’ a result, or that ‘more research is needed’ appears grey and unexciting, but it is, at least, truthful.

Of course, the danger of fervent certainty has always been that it will blind the fanatic to alternative realities.

Which leads us to the second piece of research – Peter Rosenfeld’s work on P300 brain activity in terrorists.

This is a report on a lab study conducted at Northwestern University in the USA. Research subjects were given 30 minutes to assimilate details of fictitious terrorist attacks they were to launch on major US cities. Then their brain activity was explored while they were shown stimulus images of the attack targets.

When researchers knew in advance the specifics of the planned attacks by the make-believe “terrorists,” they were able to correlate P300 brain waves to guilty knowledge with 100 percent accuracy but, even when they had no prior knowledge of the mock terrorism scenarios, they were still able to identify 10 out of 12 terrorists and, among them, 20 out of 30 crime- related details.

This indicates a possible 83% predictive accuracy which, Rosenfeld suggests, could be used to identify future terrorist activity.

With degree of (in)accuracy, I think we have to be extremely cautious about getting the right 83% of suspects. A success rate of 20 out of 30 correct crime details, still means that 33% were falsely identified. And I seriously would not want to be one of the 2 out of 12 suspects who were incorrectly labelled as terrorists.

Rosenfeld’s findings are provocative and raise a number of questions. Should we be able to screen what other people are thinking? How could we self-censor to avoid such surveillance? How will terrorists use this information to adapt their behaviour?

A final thought. That margin of error or failure rate of 2 in 12 or one sixth is high.

Perhaps a little caution would be advisable before we jump to any conclusions.

Maybe more research is required…

From → Health, Policy, Research

  1. Anna permalink

    Absolutely a composite of our experiences, but equally one has to accept that there are as many truths and realities as there are people for aren’t both truth and reality subjective? Isn’t that concept central to qualitative research? And so how do we know which (or whose) truth or reality to believe? We look at the hard facts, the cold evidence, we triangulate with the truths of others and so we come up with yet another truth.

    The question for me is not about different truths, but of why … why do some people swear that black is white. Is it that they have fastidious belief in their perception of truth or is it something else? Is it merely protection or is it a wish or desire to hurt or delude others? Is it something that is deliberate and can be controlled or is it something that just is? No doubt examples of all can be found. But whilst my own version of the truth can also be held up to question, it still astounds me that some people can blind themselves to evidence and verifiable truths so utterly. Actually it is terrifying because of the damage such people can do.

    • Hi Anna,
      Of course, at an existential level, each individual’s experience of truth and reality is subjective. But, as we are all humans with shared experiences, we look for commonalities, ecological validity and generalisability.
      A universe of separate individual realities may be politically correct but, in terms of practical research, not very useful, save with an illustrative function. Indeed, one might say that this, for the researcher, is the way that madness lies. (In more ways than one, as it leads to practice of using individual psychoanalysis case studies in psychiatry.)
      We need working theories that are useful in terms of giving rise to applicable theory and practice.
      Surely, one of the joys of research is scrying the patterns and breaks in pattern in data as in life…?
      The problem is when people are too wedded to their own individual realities or ideologies – black, blue, red or white – and don’t see that they are all looking at different shades of grey!?

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