An American Mystagogue

Tricks of the Psyche: False Memories, Salience and Projection

Oct
21

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-Rorschach Blot

“What we see depends mainly on what we look for.”

John Lubbock 

In the endeavor to understand the world around us, there are many pitfalls that even the most undisciplined of person is aware of. It is hard to find a person whom, when pressed, cannot think of a time in which their expectations or predictions of an event or phenomena did not coincide. Whether it was taking a sip of a drink that they mistook for another kind or calling out to someone they are familiar with only to find it is a complete stranger, these sort of conscious hiccups are quite commonplace. When a person decides to become a mystic, or a philosopher, or an occultist, they often take a hard look inside of themselves (under the hood, so to speak) to figure out what their thought processes are; how they themselves function.

However, you will note that the examples above have ways of making themselves clear to people. Taking a sip of vodka that you thought was water will inflame the nostrils and taste bitter, banishing the previously held mental concept of water. The illusion of calling out to someone who looks like a friend from behind is shattered once they turn around and you can see their face clearly. But what of the kinds of tricks the mind falls into that are not brought to the attention of the observer? The illusions that go without being clarified are the trickiest of all. How many presumed ‘objective’ experiences have you had that remain unquestioned and invalidated, for whatever reason?

For example, in the case of false memories. The problem of having a false memory is that we rely exactly upon our memories to corroborate the ‘reality’ of past situations. We base our future actions on past ones. But to show how easy it is for humans to trick themselves into having false memories we can look at the “Lost In the Mall Technique” developed by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus. In which, people were asked to tell the experimenter if they could remember any of four narratives of their childhood presumably given to the experimenter by the participants family. However, one of the narratives of being lost as a child in a mall was false. 25% of the participants were convinced they were able to recall the memory. Another example is the wrongful conviction of Steve Titus  who was convicted of rape and later found innocent, the actual rapist being caught and himself put in prison at a later date. However, the victim had claimed to police to have seen his face clearly and to recognize him. This is not uncommon for victims of high stress situations, for example soldiers being put through the “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape” program have been shown to have a high frequency of incorrectly remembering the face of their interrogators.  Another source of false memories, which ties into the Lost in the Mall Technique and a bit more common, are what are known as source-monitoring errors. A fairly common example of a source-monitoring error is being told something that you later believe to have come up with on your own, as is the case of ‘accidental plagiarism’. Another source-monitoring error is being told a story about a friend that you later believe happened to you or that you had been there originally. This is also why lying to oneself for large periods of time can cause the person who was originally aware of the lie to believe it themselves, attributing the vivid fiction to actual reality.

Salience is the quality of one thing to stand out relative to its neighbors, a function of the mind that isn’t exactly an illusion, but rather a pragmatic process of noticing particular things about an experience (things that ‘stand out’ beyond the rest) that can give the observer the impression that they are being objective while relegating their conscious observance to a particular aspect of the situation, leaving the other aspects to not be noticed and thus unremembered. If something isn’t salient to you, you are likely to go without noticing it if another thing is much more salient. Understanding this is key to noticing things outside of your standard preference.

Projection is also quite insidious, in that often times when presented with ambiguous or incomplete information a human will ‘project’ onto that information an interpretation that exists only because they are viewing it. As Stephen LaBerge noted in his book, Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming:  

“Personal interests, occupations, and personality can strongly influence people’s experience.
This fact is used in tests like the Rorschach inkblot test that use interpretations of ambiguous
figures for personality assessment. In a classic study of imagination, Bartlett noted that
subjects asked to interpret inkblots frequently reveal much information about their personal
interests and occupation. For example, the same inkblot reminded a woman of a “bonnet with
feathers, “ a minister of “Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, “ and a physiologist of “an
exposure of the basal lumbar region of the digestive system.” (1 LaBerge and Rheingold )

Essentially, the people who were looking at the inkblots were more likely to see things in the ambiguous shapes that related to them personally, the same exact inkblot showing three people from three walks of life very particular and very different answers. A more real-world example would perhaps be walking down the side of the street and having a car drive by quite fast and having the driver yelling something out of the window to you, but the words of his speech not being discernible. Its not illogical to think that an elderly woman, a young male wearing a band t-shirt and a young woman would experience three different interpretations of the ambiguous event. The elderly woman might be predisposed to thinking they were being rude and rowdy for no particular reason, or just stirring up shit. The young man with a band t-shirt might think they were also fans (or in fact, people who did not like the band) and were shouting out in some sort of fan-support. The young woman might imagine she heard sexually tinted jeering. Not that these things don’t happen, but rather we have a tendency to project what we think  happened onto what we think we experienced.

These examples are on a long list of the tricks the psyche can play on our endeavor to remain accurate observer-experimenters in the world we live in, and checks should always be taken to remember that we are beings made up of highly fallible measuring equipment. Humility becomes not so much about deferring to others for virtues sake but a realization of one’s own ability to misinterpret and confabulate. Humility tempered by vigilance and fairness ends up a potent combination for the attempting philosopher, mystic or occultist. Humility that we are fallible, vigilance to ensure we reduce the chances of this fallibility the best we can, and fairness towards our own deserved and practiced abilities so that we do not end up sunk in a pit of second-guessing.

~ Seth Moris

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1. LaBerge, Stephen , and Howard Rheingold. Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming. Ballantine Books, print.

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