Why words can bend the truth: the disturbing fact about memory

[ Fri. Feb. 3. 2017 ]

One of the most quietly unsettling findings in psychology, for my money, is “verbal overshadowing” – a weird fact about memory that’s liable to make you wonder if anything you believe about your life is really true. The finding is this: putting your experiences into words – talking about them with others or writing them down – makes you less likely to recall them accurately.

On closer inspection, this psychological oddity starts to look less strange. Language, as the linguist Nick Enfield points out, pretty much exists in order to categorise things – to sift the chaos of reality into the pigeonholes provided by our pre-agreed words. (He chose verbal overshadowing as his answer to the Edge website’s annual question this year: “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?”) And putting something in a pigeonhole means not putting it into others, by definition. To describe someone as having three dogs is to focus on what the animals share – they’re dogs – and to disregard the fact that they’re a great dane, a sheepdog, and a yorkshire terrier; or old or young, excitable or placid. The research on verbal overshadowing, Enfield writes, suggests this pigeonholing overwrites the previous memory: “When words render experience, specific information is not just left out, it is deleted.” Even the best writer must unavoidably misrepresent the world – we couldn’t communicate otherwise . . .

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