Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Impossible Mysteries

Arnold Glass


Despite his lack of interest in heliocentric astronomy and a wrong idea about the size of human memory, Sherlock Holmes was an important, albeit fictional, figure in the history of science. From the very beginning, Holmes did not rely on armchair deduction alone but personally collected detailed evidence, using the best scientific methods available. His early use of trace evidence made the image of him with a magnifying glass iconic. He truly was the first well-known scientific detective and not only was the progenitor of all the detective stories to follow, but was the inspiration for generations of both real detectives and real scientists who read his stories as children. The scientific detective survives to this day, most recently in the late CSI TV series. However, the original Sherlock Holmes model grounded all detectives at least within the framework of a real world, even if they did not always investigate crimes scientifically.

However, two episodes of popular TV detectives recently abandoned reality based stories. Around 2011, in Midsummer Murders, the 18-year-old principal character assisted by Chief Inspector Barnaby, remembered in verbatim detail an event that occurred when she was a few months old. She not only remembered exactly what occurred, but even exactly what her mother had said to her, so she apparently had a magically precocious ability to understand language as well as a magical memory. Furthermore, this memory manifested itself as a delusion so vivid that she thought that she was experiencing the event for the first time when she suddenly recalled it at the age of 18. Obviously, there is no connection between such a tale and real human psychology. It does not take an advanced degree in psychology to know that memories of the first months of life are not available to adults. Only the extremely gullible can be convinced that they are. Therefore, it is notable that a long-running and until then ordinarily realistic TV series should run such a tale. It also noteworthy that the absurd nature of the episode attracted almost no comment (though it was panned by the reviewer, Geoff Bradley http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=7465).

A year ago, Father Brown investigated a case in which a psychiatrist hypnotized a man to murder whoever was closest to him when he heard a tune and among those the man murdered was his own son. Fifty years ago during a brain washing scare the movie The Manchurian Candidate could get away with a similar plot. However, the idea was always nonsensical and in the past fifty years psychology courses have been among the most popular in colleges. Presumably, this has grounded the beliefs of many people about human psychology in reality. Nevertheless, the absurdity of the plot elicited almost no comment.

Civilization will not collapse because of these two TV shows. Nevertheless, there is reason for concern. First, people do believe the background information of fictional stories. If a story is popular, the effect of the misinformation can be insidious and eventually pervasive. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of amnesia stories, going back to the Odyssey. Amnesia stories are popular in novels, movies, and TV shows. Amnesia is something that many people are familiar with because a common cause of temporary amnesia is alcohol intoxication. Nevertheless, the presentation of amnesia in all of those hundreds of books, movies, and TV shows, with the exception of two movies, is complete rubbish. The two exceptions are Finding Nemo and Memento. Before I begin to teach about amnesia I ask my class who has ever seen a movie or TV show in which someone lost their memory by being banged on the head (which is possible) and then recovers their memory from being banged on the head a second time (which is not possible). Everyone always has. The popular origin of the absurd idea that a second bang on the head brings back a memory lost by the first bang is the popular book and movie of the 1930s Random Harvest. I don’t believe that all of the hundreds of authors who use this plot device know that they are writing rubbish. It has just been a part of (false) cultural knowledge for so long that it is not questioned.

Injecting misinformation into popular culture is the kind of activity that cannot make anything better but that may make some things worse. When the line is blurred between fact and fiction, all knowledge is put in peril because no one knows what to believe when it is important to know the facts and no has the multiple lifetimes to investigate every fact claim on their own.


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About The Author

Arnold Glass

Arnold Glass is author of Cognition: A Neuroscience Approach (2016). He is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Rutgers University....

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