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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 2

Letters to the Editors, May/June 2012

Letters to the Editor about the January/February 2012 issue of Scientific American Mind


BAD MEMORIES
I noticed an ambiguity between two articles in your January/February issue: “A Feeling for the Past,” by Ingfei Chen, and “Trying to Forget,” by Ingrid Wickelgren. The first article states that “older adults favored the happy images: half of the images the elders correctly recalled were positive and slightly more than a quarter were negative .... older adults appear to actively manage their emotions by paying less attention to negative things.” The second article states that “elderly adults had more trouble than those aged 18 to 25 keeping an experience out of consciousness when reminded of it .... [and] may have particular problems recovering from unpleasantness in life.”

These statements seem to contradict. Can you help me out here?
Heather Dial
Houston, Tex.

THE EDITORS REPLY: The answer is in the timing. The process of deciding what to commit to memory in the first place is different than blocking a memory from reaching consciousness after it has been stored. Older adults are better at preventing negative experiences from being committed to memory. But if an elderly person has stored a negative memory, he or she is more likely to have trouble—compared with the average young adult—preventing it from popping up to bother him or her later. The latter requires an inhibitory brain mechanism that declines with age. The former is more of an ability to shift attention in the current moment, and it is very likely to require a different part of the brain.

SUPERNATURAL LIMITS
The implication of “Wired for Weird,” by Richard Wiseman, was that those who believe in paranormal activity, God or spiritual influence are weird. The article also explained that similar phenomena could be demonstrated in a laboratory.

What that basically amounts to, for me, is that because scientists can replicate similar phenomena, the phenomena therefore only exist in reflection of the current scientific ability, tools and knowledge we have developed to date. Any supposition that “extra-phenomena” of a similar nature may exist beyond the scope of these abilities, tools and knowledge is to be ridiculed. This, to me, is an attitude that flies in the face of scientific discovery.

I am grateful for all the efforts of the great scientific minds throughout history that have persevered beyond the techniques of their day to discover an ever widening reality and help provide for our way of life. I hope that rather than ridiculing that which we currently cannot prove, we continue to—let me use the word—“believe” there may be more to what we know than we ever dreamed of.
Roy Henry
Oak Park, Ill.

INSECT EMOTIONS
RegardingThe Secret Inner Life of Bees,” by Jason Castro, it seems to me the typical argument against animal emotions is that we cannot prove their actions are not evolved response systems.

Using that logic, we have never actually proved that humans have emotions. I know I have them—but how do I know that everyone else does not simply have evolved response systems?

That said, perhaps this skepticism is a correct response—we should not make assumptions that two distantly related organisms behave the same way.

I do hope we all will try to be good to all animals, in any case. Give them the benefit of the doubt—that they could, and probably do, have emotions. Even bugs.
“David N’Gog”
commenting at www.ScientificAmerican.com/Mind

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