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09/18/2002 - BEWARE OF MEMORY


Dear Friends,

I read about a study in which groups of people were separated into groups and given a test on memory. They weren't told it was a test on memory, of course - they were merely told that the researchers were interested in finding out guest impressions of Disneyland. One group waited in a room with a Bugs Bunny cutout in the room. A control group waited in a room without Bugs Bunny. I think some other groups had even more exposure to Bugs, e.g., there was also a Bugs cutout in the research room.

When people in the control group were asked if they had seen Bugs on their last visit to Disneyland, less than 5% said "yes." However, when those in the experimental group (i.e., the group that had Bugs in the room) were asked the same question, around 30% answered in the affirmative.

Funny thing is, there's no way any of those people ever saw Bugs at Disneyland - Bugs is a Warner Bros. character, and wouldn't be caught dead in the Magic Kingdom. The scientists concluded something that I've been arguing for a long time - that memory is more flawed than we think, and that it can be manipulated in lots of ways.

The reason I find that's important for writers is that we count on our own impressions and memories to shape our perspective of the world - and unless one is keenly aware of the ways in which memory is flawed, it's easy to start writing from a hole - a few steps further removed from the reality of the situation.

Every time someone tells me about a time they had a psychic dream, or talked to God, or some other such memory, I, always being the skeptic, probe deeper into that memory. I try to find out why people come to these conclusions. Many times, I've been able to talk someone through the reality of the situation and get at a more interesting truth.

I know, I know, it doesn't exactly make me sound like a picnic in terms of dinner conversation, but from what I remember, I've never been kicked out of one yet.




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