Dennett’s Theories of Memory Illusions


Like Loftus, Dennett talks a lot of about cognitive errors in memory and perception. The phi phenomenon with two different colored dots, and the cutaneous rabbit are examples.


He proposes two cognitive explanations that he says are each mistaken – in fact the difference between them is (paradoxically) incoherent. He then proposes his own model that he thinks is better. This all relates to Gazzaniga’s Interpreter, Loftus, etc.


The two cognitive theories are called Orwellian and Stalinesque.


Orwellian theory: Brave New World had historians who rewrote history, and then destroyed the original records. Their reports of trails were false.


Stalinesque theory: Stalin set up phoney trials. The trials really happened, and the histories written of them were true reports of the trials. But they were phoney trials, so the “guilty” convicts weren’t really guilty.


·       Orwellian cognitive theory says that the subject of a false time perception perceives the stimulus correctly, but constructs the memory of it incorrectly. The new memory overwrites the old memory so fast that verbal reports are always of the false memory.


·       Stalinesque cognitive theory says that your brain has a time-delay (like a tape delay in live TV shows) in what you are conscious of. Consciousness is delayed long enough for the perception-editor to fill in facts that were not in the stimulus itself. So your memory is correct, but the original consciousness was mistaken (like Stalin’s show trials).


Dennett says these sound different, but they really aren’t different. This is because there is no real “finish line” where consciousness itself really happens. The Orwell and Stalin theories disagree on the “finish line” where an experience is conscious. Dennett says there’s no such thing.


His theory is the Multiple Drafts theory. He got it from the idea that scholars now circulate drafts of papers to other scholars, and modify the paper in light of comments. This means that multiple drafts of a given paper might be in circulation at any one time, up until the final publication of the paper in a journal. (Dennett usually has lots of papers out for comment on his web page.)


As at theory of consciousness, Multiple Drafts claims that lots of versions of “experience” might be circulating around your brain at any one time. (Remember Joe and the Baltimore Oriole.) They are built by different modules, and different processes have access to different drafts at different times. Sometimes when a particular response is called for, the brain chooses one draft and lets the others lapse. This draft forms memory – at least for a while, until new information is incorporated with it, and constructive memory processes change it again.


How does this relate to the Interpreter?


Dennett also scolds the notion of a “Cartesian Theater”. This is supposed to be internal consciousness itself, realistically interpreted. He says there’s no such place, and there’s no such thing as pure subjective consciousness. It’s like the “Ghost in the Machine” (Gilbert Ryle, Dennett’s professor), and the Homunculus Problem.