Vulture: Inside Out Nails the Science of How our Memories Function

by Alicia Robb

Ever since Pixar began showing previews of Inside Out, critics have been raving about its stunning animation, beautiful soundtrack, and creative portrayal of protagonist Riley’s inner world. Daphna Shohamy, a researcher at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, appreciates Pixar’s latest movie for a different reason: She believes it has potential as an educational tool.

“I’m excited that people will learn from this movie about how malleable memories are,” she said. Shohamy was part of a group of scientists the filmmakers consulted during the making of the movie, and she explained a few things Inside Out can teach us about memory and the brain.

Memories are susceptible to change.
In the movie, if Sadness touches one of Riley’s happy recollections, it can become tainted by sadness. That’s a scary proposition, and one that isn’t far from the truth. “They took a concept that is absolutely true in terms of how memories work,” Dr. Shohamy said. “When we retrieve a memory, we bring it back to life, and that will change the way it’s re-stored. It’s a complicated thing to grasp — it’s not like you take a file out and put it back exactly the way it was. They took that idea and used it in a way I thought was beautiful and accurate and incredibly helpful, from an educational standpoint. They made it seem so intuitive — when you bring a memory back from storage and something from the present touches it, that can change the memory.”

Researchers have demonstrated the malleability of memory in different contexts. Elizabeth Phelps, a psychologist at New York University, has conducted experiments on how memories can be manipulated. (Her research could have implications for the treatment of PTSD.) In one 2009 experiment, Phelps showed people colored squares just before administering an electric shock to their wrists; afterwards, seeing the colored square made them sweat and feel fearful. But if the researchers brought them back to the lab and showed them the color without giving them a painful shock, the fear response could be eliminated in both the short term (the next day) and the long term (a year later).

False memories can also be implanted: In one study from 2001, psychologist Elizabeth Loftus had people who’d visited Disneyland read ads for the theme park that featured Bugs Bunny; one-third then claimed to remember meeting Bugs Bunny (a Warner Bros. character) on their trip to Disneyland. In another recent experiment, Lawrence Patihis, a researcher at the University of California, Irvine, asked people with “highly superior autobiographical memory” — people who could remember details like the date on which an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at George W. Bush — to recall video footage of United Airlines Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania on 9/11. Twenty percent of his subjects began reminiscing about watching this footage, which does not exist.

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