Friday, November 03, 2006

In his memoir, Never Have Your Dog Stuffed, Alan Alda describes how while working on an episode of the show he hosts for PBS, Scientific American Frontiers, a behavioral psychologist he was interviewing planted false memories in Alda's mind.

It was a demonstration. The psychologist told Alda that he would do it, and he did it. He had Alda "remembering" things that he hadn't seen happen.

Worked like this. Alda and the psychologist, Daniel Schacter, were walking through a park as Alda conducted the interview on camera. They came upon a party of picnickers and lingered there just long enough for Alda to notice them and catch some of what they were up to. The picknickers were plants working for Schacter. A photographer took pictures of the picnic as Alda was standing there watching.

Later, without Alda along, Schacter had the picnic restaged and rephotographed, only this time the picnickers did things they hadn't done the first time. Then he showed Alda photographs from both "picnics" and asked him to pick out the ones of scenes he remembered watching during the interview.

Some of the pictures Alda chose were of scenes he hadn't been there to see. Just as Schacter had predicted, he "remembered" things that he hadn't witnessed, things that as far as he was concerned hadn't actually occured.

I'll have to see if I can dig out that episode at the public library so I can hear Schacter explain how that works. Alda doesn't go into it. He's more interested, and shaken, by what the demonstration implied about memory in general. How much of what we "remember," Alda wonders, actually happened to us? How reliable are our memories? If our memories are as easy to manipulate as in the demonstration---when we're told that the manipulation is going to happen---how much more easily must they be to manipulate when our guard is down and when stress and wish and need go to work as our unconscious goes about re-creating, or creating, our personal histories?

And considering how fast life comes at us, and what a jumble of images and sensations roll over us as it does, how we have only seconds to take in thousands and thousands and thousands of pieces of information, it's a wonder that any of it sticks in our memory at all.

And then you have to ask yourself, if at the time I couldn't possibly have been taking it all in, how is it that I remember "everything" and in the right order?

Some part of our brains gathers up all the pieces after the fact and assembles them into a memory, into a narrative with all the details in place, but where does it get all those details if we didn't actually observe them?

Alda's interested in this question because of what he's doing at the moment, writing the story of his life. It's Alda the writer and memoirist talking to us. And I wonder what Alda the actor made of it.

Because as an actor, Alda is in the business of planting false memories. In fact, his success depends on it.

I'm not talking his work in movies and on TV. I think movies and TV plant false sensations more than full-fledged memories. We can feel as if we've done something, been somewhere, met someone before because we are remembering, unconsciously, movies and TV shows we've seen. But most of us can keep our memories of a movie or a TV show distinct from our memories of our lives, mainly because the act of watching is part of our memory of the experience---where we were when we saw the movie, whose house we were at when we saw that episode, who we were with and what we did afterwards, all those become part of our memory of the movie. Or the movie is part of our memory of all those things.

When we come across someone who remembers a TV show as if it was real life, and that person is not a child, we know we are dealing with someone crazy or whose mental wiring is beginning to fray and short circuit.

I'm talking about theater.

Enjoying a play is often a matter of allowing ourselves to "remember" things that do not actually happen on stage.

Even the most realistic stage sets contain far less "information" than the real-life scene the set is meant to recreate. Most stage sets contain very little information, and some contain almost none at all. Yet, to turn Shakespeare back upon himself, all the world's on stage. It fits. The whole thing.

I've been to productions of Shakespeare played out on stages where the only information on stage was the actors and their props and their costumes, and yet I "saw" the fields at Agincourt, the castle walks of Elsinore, the trees in the forest of Arden, and the canals of Venice.

I've seen invisible horses ride away and whole armies charge and ghosts walk and the sun come up and go down and the Birnham Wood pick itself up and come to Dunsinane.

I "remember" these scenes as vividly and as in much detail as if I'd seen them in a movie.

But I "remember" them side by side with my memories of the actual plays. I can see the actor playing Richard the Third drag himself across the bare floor of the stage and "see" Richard the Third dragging himself through the bloody grass and past the bodies of slain soldiers on Bosworth Field. I remember the suggestion and the the thing suggested at the same time.

There's no point to this.

It just reminded me of something that happened to me once.

Or did it?


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