Unidentified Science 3 – Perception and Memory

I started off this series by talking about four virtues I think we are going to have to live by if the study of UFOs is ever going to be accepted as a science: humility, patience, integrity and skepticism. This one is a little bit about skepticism, but mostly about patience.

There is a big problem in Unidentified Aerial Phenomena research that needs to be addressed before we can make any claim of being a scientific enterprise. We are going to need a lot of patience to solve it. The problem is that much, in fact nearly all of our database is eyewitness testimony.

While our research has keep pretty much the same approach as always, science has marched on, and this includes the studies of human perception and memory.

One assumption we make is that human perception is transparent, and that we can accurately assess unfamiliar things primarily with our vision. We think we see a thing directly, but in fact we know that layers of complex brain processes intervene to create and update the phenomenal world model in our minds.

I remember once beachcombing with someone in Florida. We were looking for shark’s teeth. She was finding them all around and I was failing. It’s not that her eyesight was sharper – as soon as she pointed them out I could see them – it was simply that her brain spotted the little dark anomalies in the sand while mine just smoothed right over them. Often what we think we are seeing we aren’t seeing at all, but our brains present it to us as if we were. When viewing unfamiliar objects, possibly in unfamiliar environments, the brain will do its fuzzy best to fit it into our world model, and this won’t work the same for everyone.

We have assumed that human memory is a kind of recording device, and if someone is certain enough of their recall and feels the memory vividly enough, then it must be mostly accurate. This is the naive tape recorder model of memory – there may be some noise on the recording, but underlying that is an accurate impression of actual events.

We now know that the tape recorder model is wrong. The accuracy of a memory is not related to the certainty of the rememberer or the vividness of the memory. In fact, memories are constructed, not played back. Most of this construction process is transparent to us, so we are not consciously aware of it. Often this process fails in ways gross and subtle, resulting in not only inaccuracies, but outright confabulations – the well-documented phenomenon of false memory. People with false memories aren’t liars or lunatics – they simply tripped over a yet another bug in the way our brains function.

The assumption that vivid memories must be true, coupled with unethical practices by therapists, has led to more than one tragic accusation of abuse that has destroyed innocent lives and families. Some of these cases are documented in the recent book by Aronson and Tavris: Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me, and also explains why, when confronted with evidence to the contrary, people will not admit that they were wrong: therapists won’t admit their methods were deeply flawed, and their patients won’t admit that their memories were wrong, or even completely fabricated.

A key book for those with a stake in human memory – all of us, as far I can determine – is Harvard Professor Daniel Schacter’s Seven Sins of Memory. This book provides a framework for understanding how our memories can let us down or fool us. Of particular interest to UFO researchers are sins 4 through 6 – Misattribution, Suggestibility and Bias. For example, Schacter recounts the story of the manhunt for John Doe No. 2 from the Oklahoma City bombing case, who turned out to not be a suspect at all, but someone who had rented a van a day earlier than convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh – a mechanic’s false memory had placed him in McVeigh’s company. That sort of misattribution is common, as are memories shaped  – or even created – by suggestion and bias.

Now, I’m not telling you that your mind is impotent. It’s not that human memory and perception don’t work at all – of course they do, and often amazingly well. In fact, our brains include better feature and pattern detection equipment than anything technology can currently create. It’s just that we ape descendants aren’t, by ourselves, very good scientific instruments. We need help to make observations that work as actual evidence.

Eyewitness testimony relies on both perception and memory. Many scientists now flatly refuse to accept any eyewitness testimony as evidence because of the known problems. I support an approach that accounts for eyewitness testimony, exploiting the strengths of human perception for feature extraction, but requiring rapid documentation and corroborating evidence. Since genuine UFOs are such fleeting, rare, usually distant and non-repeating phenomena, getting scientific instruments that can perform detailed observations deployed in time is unlikely – at least until we understand the phenomena much better than we do.

This is where patience comes in. We receive many UFO cases that involve a single eyewitness from an event that occurred months or even years ago, and with no corroboration. Our searches for corroboration nearly always come up empty. That is why investigators need to focus their attention on cases where witness corroboration is available, or at least possible. This corroboration could take the form of physical evidence, but this is rare. More likely, it will come from witnesses.

If you see a UFO, please bring it to the attention of everyone around you while you are fumbling for your camera. Whether you manage to get a good video or not, please write down your experience and make a sketch of what you saw – at each phase of the sighting  – immediately afterward – before you talk to any other witnesses about the details. Then please, don’t be afraid to report it to a responsible organization – one that may actually investigate while protecting your anonymity – not just file it away.

It is certainly fine to report your sighting to more than one group. We should be sharing information in an ethical way that protects witnesses but allows us to look for patterns across the entire dataset. It’s not any one sighting, but those patterns that will help us in our search for understanding and ultimately, mature science.

In the next Unidentified Science, I will take a break from all this sermonizing about virtue for a little fun and speculation. What if, in fact we are dealing with phenomena that are smarter than we are? Does that mean all bets are off? Let’s think about that together. Please join us on G+ or reddit and let’s move the discussion forward. I’m always happy to answer questions and hear your views.

About Paul Carr

Space systems engineer, podcaster, API investigator, and Dad.
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