No, that’s just not how it works

Now I know that I really shouldn’t be surprised by the stupid and factually wrong things said by American politicians these days, but the following quote taken from a recent speach given by US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson managed to do just that. You see, in case you are unaware, before getting into politics Ben Carson used to be a neurosurgeon, in fact he was the director of paediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland. That’s pretty impressive, and suggests that He should know that every part of this quote is just plain wrong:

[The Brain] 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. You just have to learn how to recall it.

I’m sorry to tell you this Ben, but that is just not how the brain works, and it certainly isn’t how memory works. Indeed there is not a single part of that quote, a quote made by a former neurosurgeon, that accurately reflects what we know about how memory is processed, stored and retrieved in the brain.

Our brains process into long term memory a tiny fraction of the information our senses are exposed to. That information is then re-encoded and updated every single time we recall it, editing it to bring it in line with new information and beliefs you may have acquired in the meantime. Memories are easily edited, both by ourselves and others, are highly fallible and incredibly subject to bias. Memories are not like files on a computer, you don’t load them up to find them exactly how they were the last time you checked. That just doesn’t happen.

As for the idea that you could make a hole in the side of someone’s head and help them remember every word of a book they read 60 years ago, the research strongly indicates that memories are widely distributed throughout the brain, there is simply no reason to believe that the memory of reading a book would be stored in a single location, even if there was the slightest reason to believe that level of detail existed anywhere in our memories in the first place.

But like I said, I really shouldn’t be surprised. After all this is the same guy who believes that the pyramids were built to store grain.

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