In a recent SNL sketch, Tina Fey's Sarah Palin concluded a Republican presidential candidates' "debate" with this appeal to her mock-Fox audience: "I hope that tonight the 'lamestream media' won't twist my words by repeatin' 'em verbatim." We laughed at the cognitive dissonance: No politician in the real world -- even one as sensationally disingenuous as Palin -- would expect an audience to buy such an absurd-on-its-face manipulation.
Within days, though, reality trumped satire, courtesy of Newt Gingrich. After dissing Paul Ryan's Medicare plan on Meet the Press, the former House Speaker pronounced that "Any ad that quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood."
How can politicians and their consultants expect voters to "re-remember" reality when a quick Google search can verify what actually happened? Perhaps because they know that's how the brain works -- or, rather, doesn't.
Recent research confirms what we knew all along: that memory is malleable. In a study with the Orwellian title The False Experience Effect, researchers found that subjects who merely watched a popcorn commercial were as likely to have "remembered" tasting the popcorn as those who actually did sample the product -- and their "memories" of the salty treat were just as vivid. The kicker, according to the authors, is that "such false experiential beliefs function akin to genuine product experience beliefs with regard to their outcomes."
In other words, a clever ad can convince your brain that you enjoyed an ice cold Dr. Pepper after that high school championship game regardless of your actual soda pop history; what's more, you will more likely "Be a Pepper" going forward once this faux experience has been implanted.
The scientific verification of the Big Lie may embolden political consultants like Republican adman Alex Castellanos, who's been trotting out the falsehood -- in The Daily Caller and again last week on Meet The Press -- that "Barack Obama barely won the presidency in '08 though he held the best hand of cards of any candidate in our lifetime had."
Castellanos seems to think our memories are deletable, if not replaceable. In the real world, of course, the President beat John McCain by a hefty seven percentage points in the popular vote and an even more impressive 192 electoral votes -- a more substantial presidential victory than any Republican has achieved since George H. W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis's pathetic effort in 1988. (Nor, it should be noted, was Obama's victory a landslide, contrary to some news coverage from the other side of the reality-distorting fence.)
If recollections can so easily be manipulated, what does that say about the nature of free will itself? Can it be, as neuroscientist David Eagleman suggests in his new book Incognito, that our actions are nothing more than the results of competing electrical storms emanating from various regions of our brain circuitry?
Well, maybe not. Awareness that our idea of the past is fluid -- Wired contributing editor Jonah Lehrer calls memories a "Save As" rather than a "Save" function -- can help us test what we're asked to believe against what the authors of The False Experience Effect term the "plausibility of past experience." When you see Gingrich and company and their mad admen making a mockery of history -- as Palin did in Boston last week when she recast Paul Revere's ride as an NRA commercial -- it doesn't take a whole lot of free will to resist the nonsense.
Last week, a friend observed that his conservative buddy laughed when Rush Limbaugh suggested that, even post-bin Laden, Obama has been a disaster in the war on terror and that George Bush had been the very model of anti-terror genius. This conclusion was so at odds with reality that the conservative felt he had to pause and wonder if his entire politics was based on misinformation. Then he said, "Let's start with what I know... but wait: how do I know what I know?" A week later, he's still wondering.