Friday, October 7, 2011

Dew it (did it?)

In Wired magazine, Jonah Lehrer wrote an interesting piece about the notion of advertisements implanting in us false memories.  Lehrer begins by bemoaning his own poor episodic memory, and then shares a recollection that he covets but knows is false (sipping from Coke bottles at a high school football game where glass containers had been banned; and no, he wasn't rebelling).  Describing his memory as "flawed nostalgia" originating from a Coke commercial he's often watched as a teenager, Lehrer writes that "It turns out that vivid commercials are incredibly good at tricking the hippocampus (a center of long-term memory in the brain) into believing that the scene we just watched on television actually happened." He cites a recent study in The Journal of Consumer Research:
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?

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I'm just out of the frame
In Mountain Dew ads from the late '70s, cut-off-jean-wearing blonde girls giddily climbed aboard rocks and leaped in the air, and I gladly jumped with them.  I'm certain that I resisted a "false experience effect" from those commercials—I haven't translated them as my own memories, in other words—but when I remember watching those ads, led by my insisting, insistent body, I see how thin are the walls between memory and desire, between having had and wanting to have.  I can easily imagine someone, the brunt of jokes at his physical lacking or social ineptitude, wishfully importing himself into that perfect sunny afternoon at the river with the cool guys and girls, swinging from rope swings and leaping into water, soaking up the good vibes of friends and caffeine, years later lamenting where did it all go, those bright, endless afternoons of play and flirting, all of us so healthy and tanned, our young bodies humming, where did those days go, where did I go?

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
What memories of my boyhood—long days playing with K. in his rec room; endless bike rides along and through the woods; pulling down L's shorts; jumping on the waterbed—have I fabricated, have I allowed an advertisement or after-school special or sitcom to cast and chart against a kind of Adolescent Freytag's Triangle?  And if I have appropriated another's imagery for my own, what does that say about the memories by which I might define myself?  In excising material when I tell an autobiographical story, I reveal via those deletions as much about myself as I do the material that I keep in for public display.  It must work the same for the imagined past: what I call my own though it's not mine reveals what is less dispensable for me.

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.  

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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."

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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

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