On a recent “Voices of VR” podcast, I heard host Kent Bye talking about using Google Earth VR to reminisce and share stories with friends. Now, I had a very happy childhood, but my first reaction was, “I would never reminisce or share stories about my past in Google Earth VR. That’s just going to corrupt those memories.”
Memory is one the pillars of human cognition, in addition to attention, problem-solving, evaluation, and decision-making. It is also extremely fragile and easy to influence. If our experiences and memories are what make each of us unique, then it is sobering to realize how unreliable human memory can be.
Your brain is not a computer.
Human memory does not behave like a computer. Memories are not files on a hard drive just waiting to be loaded. They are not fossils to be re-visited in a perfectly maintained museum. Just by reminiscing about an event in your life, your memory of that event is impacted.
Recalling memories changes them.
The act of revisiting our memories alters them. Here’s a good recap from Jeremy Dean at PsyBlog:
"How can recalling a memory change it? Well, just by recalling a memory, it becomes stronger in comparison to other memories. Let’s run this through an example. Say you think back to one particular birthday from childhood and you recall getting a Lego spaceship. Each time you recall that fact, the other things you got for your birthday that day become weaker in comparison.
The process of recall, then, is actually actively constructing the past, or at least the parts of your past that you can remember.
This is only the beginning though. False memories can potentially be created by this process of falsely recalling the past. Indeed, psychologists have experimentally implanted false memories. This raises the fascinating idea that effectively we create ourselves by choosing which memories to recall."
And Dean writes of another illustration of how easy it is to manipulate human memory:
"A neat experiment by Goff and Roediger (1998) demonstrates how easily our memory can transform fantasy into reality. Participants were asked either to imagine performing an action or actually asked to perform it, e.g. breaking a toothpick. Sometime later they went through the same process again. Then, later still they were asked whether they had performed that action or just imagined it. Those who imagined the actions more frequently the second time were more likely to think they’d actually performed the actions the first time."
You might think - I can remember details about my childhood much better than if a researcher in a white coat asked me to break a toothpick. Possibly, though we tend to have the best memory for the most recent events. Think about the implications of this false memory study for VR. People could easily believe that what they experienced virtually happened in real life. It makes me wonder if creating realistic presence in VR should actually be a goal, given how it could affect people’s perceptions of reality.
If you are interested in memory, it has been studied extensively by researchers in criminal justice. Cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has done tremendous work in false memory and the inaccuracies of eyewitness testimony. In short, eyewitnesses are not reliable due to poor viewing conditions, brief exposure, being under stress, having pre-conceived expectations, biases, stereotypes, and more.
Takeaways for VR Designers:
- The human brain is not a computer.
- The act of recalling memories changes them.
- Maintain skepticism of the memories that people recount to you (and the memories that you personally retrieve). We are actively constructing our own experiences everyday.