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Can Language Mislead Our Memories?

Svartifoss, Iceland - 2019

Language can refract your reality into focus. However, what becomes clear is not always an accurate representation of the moment. Once in college, while happily seated in a research methods course, our professor showed us a video of a bank robbery. We all watched intently, wondering what was behind the curtain that was draped over our conscious awareness. After watching the heist, he handed us a sheet of paper with questions about the incident. One of the questions asked, “which direction did the getaway car turn?” I think I chose left; I don’t remember for sure. But, I do remember that at the end of the lesson we learned that the car did not turn at all; it went straight. Perhaps, I just forgot which direction the car went and guessed between the options explicitly expressed. No, it is worse. I “saw” the car turn. I “remembered” it turning. I conjured up a visual representation of the car turning left, because the question inferred such an image. More importantly, I had no access to images of the car driving straight through the intersection. Cognitive psychologists have known this scary influence of language for at least half a century, but science often stays trapped in the ivory tower, locked in scholarly journals that few non-academicians will read and the media will poorly represent.

Gullfoss, Iceland - 2019

However, it was not the misinformation effect, as it is called (see the research of Dr. Elizabeth Loftus and others on the matter), that shook my understanding of the interaction between language and memory. In December of 2006, a paper titled Basic Systems Model of Memory was published by Dr. David C. Rubin. In the paper, Dr. Rubin laid out a model about the multifaceted nature of episodic memory that touched my thinking. As you know, an experience is filled with a number of sensory components, emotions, and ideations. Moreover, each of these phenomenological parts are governed by their own schemata, or rules of order, that are built by past experiences and used to interpret the present moment. My oversimplified description of the paper’s content, swirling around in my mind, made me wonder how experience seems to be constructed so well given all of its movable parts.

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe - 2006

What I was most impacted by was a section on language. Dr. Rubin described language as a re-coding device, wherein all the portions of experience could be represented linguistically in mind or writing. For example, in January of 2006, as senior in college, I stood in the mist of one of the seven natural wonders of the world, Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Now, the word “waterfall” is permanently associated with that specific experience. I have seen other waterfalls: the nostalgic Peavine Falls in Alabama, the lovely cascades of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the impressive pours of the Yellowstone river, and even the splendorous spills of Iceland. I didn't even remember those other aquatic monuments until I purposefully tried to think of other waterfalls I had seen, after paying my respects to Victoria of course. A simple term can hold a moment in prominence for decades. Words are their own storage system and they express well beyond Webster’s dream and Merriam’s ambition. Words slip loose of our intentions, left to be interpreted by our interlocutor’s perspective (more on that thought at another time). Consequently, if language can represent what you experience, then a change in words may yield a change in what you remember.

Skogarfoss, Iceland - 2019
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