Friday, March 10, 2017

The Truth About Your Brain

I've blogged in the past about Ben Carson, and all the problems when he tries to demonstrate expertise in an area that isn't neuroscience or medicine more generally. So I'm surprisingly not surprised by this speech where he got a lot of things wrong about the human brain:
It remembers everything you’ve ever seen. Everything you’ve ever heard. I could take the oldest person here, make a hole right here on the side of the head, and put some depth electrodes into their hippocampus and stimulate, and they would be able to recite back to you verbatim a book they read 60 years ago. It’s all there; it doesn’t go away.
Ben, please stop. You're making everyone with a doctorate look bad.

Memory is tricky. Your brain isn't a recorder or a computer that commits everything that ever happens to you to some storage compartment. An electrode or hypnosis or sharp blow to the head won't suddenly make these instances come flooding back, and even if they did, those instances would probably be horribly inaccurate. Your brain is a complex organ inside an unbelievably complex system that allows us to navigate the world and have a semblance of self by actively interpreting what we encounter. It isn't the book we read that gets committed to memory - it's our brain's interpretation of it and how we connect it to previously learned information that (sometimes, not always) gets written to memory.

In fact, all our memories are interpretations, with our brain filling things in with previous experience and expectations. And it isn't just during encoding that mistakes can be introduced; it's during retrieval as well. Have you ever remembered a time in your past and somehow remember a person being there you didn't even know at the time? This happens to me a lot. There's no way I could have even known about that person then, let alone remember seeing them. But my present life gets mixed up with the past. It's a little like writing a paper and saving it to your computer only to find years later that it was accidentally merged with newer files. That's what your brain is like.

And a lot of research has shown how easy it is to implant false memories that feel just as - maybe more - real than actual memories.

Carson's speech was apparently extemporaneous, but still, when talking about something you've dedicated your life to, you should be able to talk off-the-cuff without resorting to misinformation and tropes from bad movies:

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