The experiment went like this: 100 undergraduates were introduced to a new popcorn product called “Orville Redenbacher’s Gourmet Fresh Microwave Popcorn.” (No such product exists, but that’s the point.) Then, the students were randomly assigned to various advertisement conditions. Some subjects viewed low-imagery text ads, which described the delicious taste of this new snack food. Others watched a high-imagery commercial, in which they watched all sorts of happy people enjoying this popcorn in their living room. After viewing the ads, the students were then assigned to one of two rooms. In one room, they were given an unrelated survey. In the other room, however, they were given a sample of this fictional new popcorn to taste. (A different Orville Redenbacher popcorn was actually used.)
One week later, all the subjects were quizzed about their memory of the product. Here’s where things get disturbing: While students who saw the low-imagery ad were extremely unlikely to report having tried the popcorn, those who watched the slick commercial were just as likely to have said they tried the popcorn as those who actually did. Furthermore, their ratings of the product were as favorable as those who sampled the salty, buttery treat. Most troubling, perhaps, is that these subjects were extremely confident in these made-up memories. The delusion felt true. They didn’t like the popcorn because they’d seen a good ad. They liked the popcorn because it was delicious.This is endlessly interesting to me. Apart from what this says about the power of ads to entice us, to virtually insist that we respond personally, and thus warmly, to a product with which we have no context, no past, I'm fascinated with the implications of implanted memory: what does it mean to live a life with a fictional past?
|I'm just out of the frame|
We'd like to think—armed with maturity and perspective tempered with melancholy though clear-eyed grief over lost youth—that we can steel ourselves against such false nostalgia, but the brutal machinations of the experiment Lehrer cites above suggest otherwise: we belonged, though, of course, we didn't.
|I don't remember this well|
Memoirists, Patricia Hampl argues, must be on their guard against this kind of poaching. In her terrific "Memory and the Imagination," from I Could Tell You Stories, she offers a small memory of a piano lesson, a set piece featuring her friend Mary Katherine and an indelibly drawn teaching nun, Sister Olive. Soon enough, Hampl owns up to some serious revising of her past in the memoir, indeed, to outright fictionalizing. Many details in the memoir, she reveals, were imagined, were lies. Inside the memoiristic dilemma of truth revealed in/as deception, Hampl discovers some things:
I really did feel, for instance, that Mary Katherine Reilly was far superior to me. She was smarter, funnier, more wonderful in every way -- that's how I saw it. Our friendship (or she herself) did not require that I become her vassal, yet perhaps in my heart that was something I wanted; I wanted a way to express my feelings of admiration. I suppose I waited until this memoir to begin to find the way.
Just as, in the memoir, I finally possess that red Thompson book with the barking dogs and bleating lambs and winsome children. I couldn't (and still can't) remember what my own music book was, so I grabbed the name and image of the one book I could remember. It was only in reviewing the piece after writing it that I saw my inaccuracy. In pondering this "lie," I came to see what I was up to: I was getting what I wanted. At last.Like Hampl desiring that piano lesson book, I wanted to leap into the air with my/not my blonde Mountain Dew girl; somehow I erected a wall between her fiction and my truth. I can't be sure that that wall hasn't been permeated or circumvented, pushed over or town down elsewhere in my memory storehouse, where I've cast and re-cast my stories with plots and actors, borrowed, refitted, dramatizing a finer, or a sadder, life.
In "The Forest of Memory" Kathryn Harrison quotes Freud: "It may indeed be questioned whether we have any memories at all from our childhood. Memories relating to childhood may be all that we possess."
In the September 14th New York Times Magazine, science author Pagan Kelly wrote about advances in cyborg technology, profiling, among others, Gerwin Schalk, a 40-year-old computer engineer. Kelly describes an encounter with Schalk:
On the day I stopped by his office, Schalk hit a button on his computer, and Pink Floyd blasted from his speakers. He was running an experiment to see what happens to people’s brains when they listen to “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1” (a question that has occurred to any stoner who ever contemplated human consciousness in the glow of stereo lights). Weeks before, Schalk played the Pink Floyd song for some of his epileptic volunteers and recorded the activity in the parts of the brain that process sound. Schalk showed me a volume meter on his computer screen — this was a brain, tracking the roar of a guitar solo. It worked just like any other volume meter, but in one experiment, Schalk found that the brain did something unexpected. When he interrupted the Pink Floyd song with moments of silence, the brain’s volume meter continued to tremble up and down, as if the song were still playing. This, Schalk said, showed that the brain creates a model of what it expects to hear — a shadow song that plunks out its tune in the player piano of our auditory system.This got me thinking: do we fulfill a memory's plot development, nudge a recollection toward a conclusion that it might not posses? If we experience something incomplete, a life equivalent of an interrupted song—a failed romance, say, or a brave effort that fell short, done in by cowardice—does the mind in recollecting fill in what didn't happen? Something to guard against, and to revel in. For the autobiographical writer, there's always a pas de deux between the past and its telling, between what did and what didn't. But desire has a strong compass pull, and each dancer will move toward desire's lead.
1970s Coke commercial still via In A Perfect World