Memory Tricks, or Who’s Simulation Is This, Anyway?

When I was in the publishing business, editing collectible price guides, one of our specialties was radio premiums — those nick-knacks people sent away for to promote their favorite programs during the Golden Age of Radio. Every collector I met remembered the Captain Midnight Decoder Ring.

Except it didn’t exist. There was a Captain Midnight Decoder, and a Captain Midnight Ring, but they were never combined into one item.

I was reminded of this when I recently ran across a 2016 piece entitled “The movie that doesn’t exist and the Redditors who think it does” by Amelia Tait (https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/internet/2016/12/movie-doesn-t-exist-and-redditors-who-think-it-does?). It seems hundreds of people online remember a 1990s movie called Shazaam that starred the comedian Sinbad as an incompetent genie. Yet there is no evidence it was ever made. And it gets worse — the article gives other examples of faulty memories.

How could so many people be so wrong? It’s not as hard as you might think. According to Dr. Henry Roediger, a professor at the Washington University Memory Lab, “Lots of people remember detailed, but utterly false, memories. In fact, we all have them,” he says. “I have published on what we named ‘the social contagion of memory’ and what others call ‘memory conformity’ – that may be at work here.” In other words, one person’s report of a memory influences another’s, and false memories can spread in this way. “One person’s memory infects another,” he says. Add in the Internet and social media, and it becomes easy to see how a false memory can be accepted as real.

Dr. Roediger continues, “We often forget whether we actually saw something or whether someone told us about a detail later and we filled in our memories. People infer events and then remember the inferences as if they actually happened. If someone hears ‘The karate champion hit the cinder block’ they will often later remember that he ‘broke the cinder block.’ But maybe not: maybe he broke his hand. So the inference is remembered as ‘the way it happened.’”

In the case of the misremembered Shazaam, there was a similar film called Kazaam that starred basketball star Shaquille O’Neal. Over time, it would be easy to transfer the memory from one title to another, even when the second title didn’t exist.

There is another, science-fiction explanation — parallel universes. Or maybe someone has messed with our time line. Or perhaps we’re really living inside the computer simulation of a very advanced alien civilization. Even a scientific luminary like Neil deGrasse Tyson put the odds we are living in such a simulation at 50-50 earlier this year.

Whatever the explanation, I’ve decided it’s best not to trust one’s memory (especially at my age).

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