Sunday, October 14, 2007

Every Dog Has Its Day

The 30 Second Skinny The way in which auditing is carried out mirrors closely processes that lead to false memory syndrome. The Church of Scientology gently discourages validation of memories recovered via auditing, believing that the auditing process itself is enough validation. The e-meter becomes so tied up with the idea of determining truth, that it forms the foundation for Scientology's belief in past lives.

I would like to remind you of something that happened in your childhood. You must have been only about five or six. A dog ran up to you and you went to pet it, but your mother shrieked at you and pulled you away. Do you remember that? It might not be exactly like that; it could be a similar incident, but what I want you to do, throughout the course of this post, is to come back to that memory from time to time and ponder upon it.

Studies into perception have revealed to us that we actually have very little idea of what is actually going on out there. That is slightly misleading. We do have a pretty good idea, at least in terms of what our senses can perceive, but the constancy of perception that we enjoy is largely bogus. Our mind can only take in and process so much information at once, so it takes shortcuts. This might seem a little haphazard, but for the most part such shortcuts are vital, and when one considers the amount of evolution that we have invested in our brains, and the amount of energy, oxygen and nutrients they take up, then such shortcuts are at the very root of our survival. What seems to happen when we perceive things is to take a sort of snapshot of the scene, and then use that snapshot to fill in details around whatever it is that we happen to be focusing on. It's a little like the way in which video files are compressed by taking a "key frame" and then remembering only the elements within the frame that change over time. Again, what we gain in compression with the video file, we gain in brain space for other activities.

There's an easy and fun way of demonstrating this "filling in". If you have a television that can cope with showing "snow" (rather than those soulless modern ones that brings up a blue screen instead) then take a bit of masking tape, only about an inch should do, and lightly (I don't need the court case) affix it to the top left corner of the screen. If you sit back and watch the centre of the screen, you should still be able to see the masking tape. That means it's not falling into your "blindspot", the area on your retina where the optic nerve is located that is insensitive to light. If you relax and watch the centre of the screen you will notice that the snow will end up obscuring the masking tape. This is because the visual field is filled with snow apart from the scrap of tape. Because the snow is so prevalent in the field of vision, the brain ultimately assumes that the scrap of tape, which it is not looking directly at, can't be there. It must be snow, too.

When your mother pulled you away from the dog you were upset, and a little confused. Do you remember the dog? What it looked like? The pressure of your mother's grip as she pulled you back?

Not only are our present perceptions to some extent "faked" but those within memories are too. It is clearly not necessary for us to store away all the information we receive if our perceptual model is based so much on fabrication anyway. It may be enough for us to remember the face of the person we are talking to, and what is being said, but not necessarily what they were wearing, and almost certainly not the colour of the carpet. This is even more true when the surroundings are familiar to us. Why remember the details of one's den when one's den hasn't changed in years? It is enough for us to remember the fact that the event took place in the den and allow our minds to fill in the rest. You might like to interrogate your own childhood memories for evidence of such shortcuts. Perhaps you picture your parents always in the same clothes, or that most of your memories seem to take place in one particular season. This is why we should treat with caution any claims to grant someone a "photographic" memory. It is true that great feats of memory are possible. It is true that some of these are possible with a surprisingly small amount of practice. However, claims that one can suddenly attain perfect recall are, on the whole, absurd simply because we do not have perfet perception.

Your encounter with the dog took place outside. Do you remember where? Perhaps it was a place you used to go to regularly with your mother. Perhaps it was a place you'd never been to before? Was that why your mother was so anxious and protective of you?

The importance of the notion of filling in is that, if we do fill in much of our perception and much of our memory, what do variations in vividness of memory mean? The answer is very likely "little or nothing". It would seem that vividness is more likely an indicator of the efficacy of one's filling in than of veracity, as counter-intuitive as that might be. For what it's worth, such vividness may indicate a particularly heightened engagement with the environment, and is no doubt partly repsonsible for the way in which many of our memories are of traumatic events. The trouble is, vividness can also mean something quite different, and has to do with an important tool we use in making sense of our memories.

Current theories suggest that when we experience something for the first time, that experience is stored within the hippocampus and, after a time, transferred into the folds of our cortex. Indeed one theory of deja vu is that memories somehow are stored in the hippocampus and cortex simultaneously, giving us all the sense of recalling an old memory without the attendant foreknowledge one would expect had we indeed experienced the same thing before. Because we, as a species, live on our wits, it is important for us to squeeze as much information as possible from our experiences. Sadly we don't experience things always in the right order for us to make the most sense of what happens to us.

Baffling childhood memories can be filed away and, were it not for something called reconsolidation, would remain baffling for the rest of our lives. Instead, what can happen is that if we receive new information that may have a bearing on a particular memory, that memory can be transferred back to the hippocampus where it can be re-analysed and then transferred again to the folds of the cortex. This makes further sense when once considers the way memories sometimes rush out at us from the darkness of our minds when we encounter mnemonic triggers - we're not just recollecting these past events, we're trying to see whether any further use can be gained from them before they are refiled.

The trouble is, when that memory is in our hippocampus, it is in a very plastic state. There is the potential for us to recollect some small miniscule event and, by focusing on it, change it dramatically. The false memory that we end up with may bear no resemblance to what has actually happened to us, but it will seem as real to us as any other memory simply by virtue of the fact that it was constructed in exactly the same way; the seeming authenticity of the memory increases the further back into our past we go because there is less possibility of verifying what actually happened and the memories we do have that far back will, on the whole, be shakey enough themselves.

Do you recall how the dog smelt? The colour of it? Perhaps you managed to touch the dog? How did the fur feel? Was it clean and dry? Damp? Matted with something? As your mother pulled you to her, do you recall the colour of the clothes she wore? The smell of her?

In listening to Scientologists both current and former, this writer has learnt that the religion's "knowledge" that people live many lives comes from memories of past lives that have been recovered through the auditing process. The path to this is as follows:

When you undergo auditing, you will spend maybe an hour or two hooked up to an e-meter, a device that sends a low electrical current through you to measure your galvanic skin response. Theoretically one's skin response changes due to stress, which is why GSR is one of the factors measured in polygraphic lie detectors. The auditing process tends to focus on a particular area in the subjects life and works on the understanding that if the subject revisits certain past events it will stop those events from having an effect on the subject's current thinking and feelings. This is basically regression therapy. Auditing brings about in the subject a heady state which, it has been suggested, may be caused by the regression therapy, or by the effect of sustained low-level current through the body, or by the social situation of the question and answer structure of the session. Whatever the actual cause, the subject is encouraged to think of this euphoria as a proof that the process works, and to that end a proof that the memories being recovered in auditing are genuine.

This is where the e-meter really comes into its own. One of the tricks auditors will use when explaining the e-meter is to pinch the subject while the subject is holding the cans. this will cause the needle to wobble. Then the auditor will ask the subject to remember being pinched, and lo! the needle wobbles almost to the same degree. Right in that moment the auditor has set up in the mind of the subject the notion that trauma causes the needle to wobble, and that "remembered" trauma causes the needle to wobble. The exercise sets up the e-meter as a tool that can determine truth.

As the auditing progresses, the subject will naturally find things that do not bring about the desired effect. They will revisit memories again and again only to find that whatever hang-ups the subject has attached to them remain. This is when the auditor will require the subject to recall a similar earlier incident. Sometimes this will, indeed, get things moving again. However, an interesting line is crossed when the subject claims there is no similar earlier incident. The auditor will then explain that it doesn't necessarily matter if the memories are genuine; that if the subject can't recall an earlier incident, they can invent one, "revisit" it, and see if that helps. And this is where the trouble really starts, because predictably, the invented memory will also have the attendant needle wobble. This tends to happen quite far into a subject's auditing; a great deal of time and money will have been spent before they are faced with this interesting dilemma; either the whole process has been to some extent a sham (why have I been dredging up memories when making this stuff up works just as well?), or the process is not a sham, and the memory that the subject thought they had invented was in fact real. The trick with the pinch begins to bear fruit.

Then the person is asked, at some point, to try and recall events that have happened prior to their being born. If they question this they are again encouraged to just go with it and see what happens; more of that "suck it and see" philosophy at the heart of Scientology indoctrination. Thus they take themselves off to the court of Henry VIII or pre-revolutionary France and exactly the same validation process occurs as did the previous "recovered" memories. Hubbard himself would "interrogate" his own past life memories and find that the more he interrogated them, the more detail they would bring up. This, he said, was proof of their veracity - that false memories would fade under such scrutiny and only the truth would stand up to it. Whether he believed this or not is anyone's guess, but what is certain is that the process by which such past life memories are recovered is identical to that reconsolidatory process by which memories can be twisted, perverted or invented from scratch. And of course it is this process from which the reilgion's space opera emerges, as Scientologists reimagine themselves as gunrunners in some galactic resistance group supplying weaponry to those daring to rebel against a galactic overlord.

Some subjects will turn tail at this point, others will embrace the "if it's true for you, it's true for you" mindset and stay with the religion, continuing to believe in the past lives they have recovered. They will ponder and reponder them, and with each visit to these memories the memories themselves will seem to grow stronger. Yet at the same time they will be discouraged from finding documentary evidence to verify these past life memories. This will be gentle coersion - a suggestion that the proof provided by the e-meter is enough (it certainly was claimed by LRH to be enough) but it will be no less effective. What is more, a lack of evidence does not a disproof make, and many of the past life memories created by the auditing process simply won't be verifiable. A Scientologist who fails to discover proof of his prior existence will merely shrug his shoulders and accept what little "proof" he already has - that his skin was briefly better or worse at conducting electricity at the exact moment he imagined himself designing the pyramids.

And maybe your mother really did pull you back from the dog. And maybe none of that happened at all. But if you fancy "interrogating the memory" of it happening, do feel free to let The Beacon know what remarkable truths you discovered.

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