Just the other day I remembered something that I had done recently, which was to make a vegetable stew for a friend… A friend who is not very well presently. And, as far as I can remember, it was a hearty vegetarian dish… A speciality of mine that I learnt how to make after I came out of university, when I found myself with a bit more money than I had usually been used to… What better way to spend it, I thought, than on fresh vegetables and good wine. In fact, it was this good old vegetarian combination of a leek and potato soup, sprinkled liberally with organic pearl barley and fresh herbs, that frequently put me straight on the path again after many a long, winding, fun-filled a weekend down in Glastonbury town. But then… That’s just what I recall.
Because, when I spoke to my partner about the food I had made after she went to deliver it over to our ill friend a few days back, she had told me how our ill chum had mentioned that the soup was ‘really good.’ In fact, she mentioned that she couldn’t believe that a vegetarian soup could have tasted so good! However, just after hearing that, my partner mentioned that she told our unwell friend that it wasn’t a vegetarian dish at all… In fact, she had said that it contained some lamb in it too. So I suddenly began to think that perhaps I had put some lamb in the soup, just especially for our ill friend, who certainly wasn’t a vegetarian… !?
However, when I began to piece together the parts in my mind of what I remembered about making the soup i.e. we had had lots of organic leeks and potatoes which needed to be used at the time, along with the fact that I knew a vegetarian brew would be better for our unwell friend than a meaty dish, as well as we were out of mutton for the moment… I found myself remembering something totally different to what I had been told.
Certainly this wasn’t the first time that a minor discrepancy such this had presented itself to me in a social context… In fact, with almost everyone I know (including several people I do not know), I have – at sometime or another – come across some type of incongruity in how we all remember certain things. Whether ‘why’ we remember something differently to someone else is because of the inherent difference in the way we each understand things i.e. because we have had different experiences to each other, and therefore different views about things; OR whether it is because someone might we have loaded a question that begs us to remember something that didn’t necessarily occur (something about which we will hear more about in a minute)… The fact remains that these inconsistencies pop-up more frequently than many of us usually care to notice.
In fact, I sometimes wonder whether there is ever any particular ‘point’ that two people – each standing in a slightly different position to the other and, thus, viewing the ‘point’ from another slightly different perspective – could ever completely agree upon? No doubt I’d like to once again to draw your attention to the opening chapter in Bertrand Russell’s book, entitled “The Problems Of Philosophy…”
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IS there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it? This question, which at first sight might not seem difficult, is really one of the most difficult that can be asked. When we have realized the obstacles in the way of a straightforward and confident answer, we shall be well launched on the study of philosophy — for philosophy is merely the attempt to answer such ultimate questions, not carelessly and dogmatically, as we do in ordinary life and even in the sciences, but critically after exploring all that makes such questions puzzling, and after realizing all the vagueness and confusion that underlie our ordinary ideas.
In daily life, we assume as certain many things which, on a closer scrutiny, are found to be so full of apparent contradictions that only a great amount of thought enables us to know what it is that we really may believe. In the search for certainty, it is natural to begin with our present experiences, and in some sense, no doubt, knowledge is to be derived from them. But any statement as to what it is that our immediate experiences make us know is very likely to be wrong. It seems to me that I am now sitting in a chair, at a table of a certain shape, on which I see sheets of paper with writing or print. By turning my head I see out of the window buildings and clouds and the sun. I believe that the sun is about ninety-three million miles from the earth; that it is a hot globe many times bigger than the earth; that, owing to the earth’s rotation, it rises every morning, and will continue to do so for an indefinite time in the future. I believe that, if any other normal person comes into my room, he will see the same chairs and tables and books and papers as I see, and that the table which I see is the same as the table which I feel pressing against my arm. All this seems to be so evident as to be hardly worth stating, except in answer to a man who doubts whether I know anything. Yet all this may be reasonably doubted, and all of it requires much careful discussion before we can be sure that we have stated it in a form that is wholly true.
To make our difficulties plain, let us concentrate attention on the table. To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives out a wooden sound. Any one else who sees and feels and hears the table will agree with this description, so that it might seem as if no difficulty would arise; but as soon as we try to be more precise our troubles begin. Although I believe that the table is ‘really’ of the same colour all over, the parts that reflect the light look much brighter than the other parts, and some parts look white because of reflected light. I know that, if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different, so that the apparent distribution of colours on the table will change. It follows that if several people are looking at the table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same distribution of colours, because no two can see it from exactly the same point of view, and any change in the point of view makes some change in the way the light is reflected.
For most practical purposes these differences are unimportant, but to the painter they are all-important: the painter has to unlearn the habit of thinking that things seem to have the colour which common sense says they ‘really’ have, and to learn the habit of seeing things as they appear. Here we have already the beginning of one of the distinctions that cause most trouble in philosophy — the distinction between ‘appearance’ and ‘reality’, between what things seem to be and what they are. The painter wants to know what things seem to be, the practical man and the philosopher want to know what they are; but the philosopher’s wish to know this is stronger than the practical man’s, and is more troubled by knowledge as to the difficulties of answering the question.
To return to the table. It is evident from what we have found, that there is no colour which preeminently appears to be the colour of the table, or even of any one particular part of the table — it appears to be of different colours from different points of view, and there is no reason for regarding some of these as more really its colour than others. And we know that even from a given point of view the colour will seem different by artificial light, or to a colour-blind man, or to a man wearing blue spectacles, while in the dark there will be no colour at all, though to touch and hearing the table will be unchanged. This colour is not something which is inherent in the table, but something depending upon the table and the spectator and the way the light falls on the table. When, in ordinary life, we speak of the colour of the table, we only mean the sort of colour which it will seem to have to a normal spectator from an ordinary point of view under usual conditions of light. But the other colours which appear under other conditions have just as good a right to be considered real; and therefore, to avoid favouritism, we are compelled to deny that, in itself, the table has any one particular colour.
The same thing applies to the texture. With the naked eye one can see the gram, but otherwise the table looks smooth and even. If we looked at it through a microscope, we should see roughnesses and hills and valleys, and all sorts of differences that are imperceptible to the naked eye. Which of these is the ‘real’ table? We are naturally tempted to say that what we see through the microscope is more real, but that in turn would be changed by a still more powerful microscope. If, then, we cannot trust what we see with the naked eye, why should we trust what we see through a microscope? Thus, again, the confidence in our senses with which we began deserts us.
The shape of the table is no better. We are all in the habit of judging as to the ‘real’ shapes of things, and we do this so unreflectingly that we come to think we actually see the real shapes. But, in fact, as we all have to learn if we try to draw, a given thing looks different in shape from every different point of view. If our table is ‘really’ rectangular, it will look, from almost all points of view, as if it had two acute angles and two obtuse angles. If opposite sides are parallel, they will look as if they converged to a point away from the spectator; if they are of equal length, they will look as if the nearer side were longer. All these things are not commonly noticed in looking at a table, because experience has taught us to construct the ‘real’ shape from the apparent shape, and the ‘real’ shape is what interests us as practical men. But the ‘real’ shape is not what we see; it is something inferred from what we see. And what we see is constantly changing in shape as we, move about the room; so that here again the senses seem not to give us the truth about the table itself, but only about the appearance of the table.
Similar difficulties arise when we consider the sense of touch. It is true that the table always gives us a sensation of hardness, and we feel that it resists pressure. But the sensation we obtain depends upon how hard we press the table and also upon what part of the body we press with; thus the various sensations due to various pressures or various parts of the body cannot be supposed to reveal directly any definite property of the table, but at most to be signs of some property which perhaps causes all the sensations, but is not actually apparent in any of them. And the same applies still more obviously to the sounds which can be elicited by rapping the table.
Thus it becomes evident that the real table, if there is one, is not the same as what we immediately experience by sight or touch or hearing. The real table, if there is one, is not immediately known to us at all, but must be an inference from what is immediately known. Hence, two very difficult questions at once arise; namely, (1) Is there a real table at all? (2) If so, what sort of object can it be?
It will help us in considering these questions to have a few simple terms of which the meaning is definite and clear. Let us give the name of ‘sense-data’ to the things that are immediately known in sensation: such things as colours, sounds, smells, hardnesses, roughnesses, and so on. We shall give the name ‘sensation’ to the experience of being immediately aware of these things. Thus, whenever we see a colour, we have a sensation of the colour, but the colour itself is a sense-datum, not a sensation. The colour is that of which we are immediately aware, and the awareness itself is the sensation. It is plain that if we are to know anything about the table, it must be by means of the sense-data — brown colour, oblong shape, smoothness, etc. — which we associate with the table; but, for the reasons which have been given, we cannot say that the table is the sense-data, or even that the sense-data are directly properties of the table. Thus a problem arises as to the relation of the sense-data to the real table, supposing there is such a thing.
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But beside all the differences in perception (which are part of the game of ‘delusion’ that we all so regularly take part in), along with the minor distortions in memory that we all – myself included – incorporate into our minds’ cycles… I still get a bit concerned when I notice someone remembering something in such a way that really disfigures what actually happened… AND I especially abhor it when I notice this type of disfiguration occurring in relation to questioning someone else’s integrity, such as in court of law, or with a police investigation, etc… Or worse still, when it scared face surfaces in the relation to international conflicts where thousands of people are dying and/or being made to suffer over some dispute about who was there first, or who owns what, or who wants what… !?!?
In fact, so as to avoid making any such blunders myself, I have gotten into a habit of continually checking my own memories with what I hear going on around me, cross referencing them with other memories I have had and/or even with memories that other people voice, so as to assimilate them together into a census that allows the facts to flow in a honest continuity – of sorts – with the facts, situations and temperaments of all those involved. And, if I ever find myself unable to deduce whether some type of accusation is within natural accord with a particular setting and with the people involved, I will usually refrain from commenting either way, as I believe it is better to be quite than unduly partake in another’s impeachment. I – for one – know that I am far from perfect.
And that especially goes for all types of propaganda perpetrated by any type of media dissemination i.e. radio, television, newspaper, internet, etc… Modern psychology has shown those, who care to listen to it, that our minds are so open to suggestion… And in order to guard against being misled into actions that give rise to disputes or civil unrest, even wars, we need to know everything we can about how our own mind/brain/body/environmental continuum works, so as to avoid slipping into dangerous habits of being/living… Because if we slip into these habits, habit’s that can never be justified with any certitude or credulity other than their own belief systems and egocentric views about why something might be right OR even wrong… Then we’re prone to persecuting the people who are innocent… And not addressing those who are, in fact, guilty… Even if it is all of us.
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Mind Changers – Elizabeth Loftus & Eye Witness Testimony
Elizabeth Loftus is the highest-ranking female in the list of top 100 psychologists. She’s gained world-wide renown for her experiments showing that memory, far from being an accurate record, is influenced by subsequent exposure to information and events and is re-constituted according to the biases these create.
Claudia Hammond meets the creator of several classic experiments, who broke new ground with the filmed simulations of road accidents she showed to subjects in the 1970s. These studies revealed that witness reports of the same incident varied according to the wording used by the questioner, giving rise to the development of the ‘cognitive interview’ – witness-led it avoids questioner-bias. Loftus’ work has changed the way witnesses are dealt with throughout the legal system.
Having shown that existing memories can be altered, Loftus was inspired to try to implant a whole false memory by the rise in cases of ‘recovered’ memories of violence and abuse in childhood. Her ‘Lost in the Mall’ and ‘Bugs Bunny’ studies proved that she could – in 30% of subjects – make them believe something that had never happened was part of their childhood history.
Loftus has inspired much work in the field of memory, including that of Barbara Tversky, on how memory reflects the spin put on a story.
Lorraine Hope, of Portsmouth University, has used the Cognitive Interview to develop the Self-Administered Interview (SAI), trialled by Greater Manchester Police. Steve Retford of their Major Incident Team is convinced of its benefits.
Loftus’ former friends and teachers at Stanford – Gordon Bower, Lee Ross and Brian Wandell – remember a fun-loving and forceful young woman, while Gillian Cohen reviews her influence in the UK.
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To find out where I sourced this BBC documentary from, please click here.
Or to find out more about Bertrand Russell, please click here.