You and I haven’t met, but I feel as if I already know you. You’re pretty smart. Above average, in fact. And when you have a goal in front of you—whether it’s completing a work project by the deadline, writing that term paper or getting all the dinner-party details just right—you’re sure you’ll rise to the occasion.
Me, too. Trouble is, we’re often so very wrong about our overconfident self-assessments—and we are blind to that ignorance because we can’t get a complete view of ourselves, as psychologists David Dunning, Chip Heath and Jerry M. Suls explain in their article “Picture Imperfect.” Our muddled thinking impairs thousands of our everyday decisions, affecting our health, education and interactions in the workplace. Hilariously (at least in hindsight), I became the embodiment of that principle when I promised to shape the authors’ original 35,000-word paper into a 3,500-word story for this issue in “just a few days.” A few weeks later an unsurprised but nonetheless amiable Dunning and company finally saw that edit. Turn to page 20 for the results.
Memories of such embarrassing failures are easy to laugh off. But what about harrowing, even traumatic, events that have been seared into our brains? They can haunt our waking hours and nightmares for years, if we ever make peace with them at all. What if we could simply delete these mental blemishes? In our cover story on “Erasing Memories,” beginning on page 28, neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields reports how research could create the “spotless mind.” Could the work be a balm for an anxiety-ridden culture—or put us on the numbing path of reflexively pill-popping our problems away, Brave New World-style?
By the way, I wasn’t completely teasing about getting to know you. In the past, we have invited readers to sign up as advisers (www.sciam.com/feedback/). Now, in response to feedback, we have added two new features: a Calendar of worthwhile events, on page 19, and Ask the Brains, in which experts answer your questions about psychology and neuroscience, on page 94. We have also expanded the popular Illusions column, by neuroscientists Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Diane Rogers-Ramachandran, starting on page 16. Of course, we think you’ll like them—but we will try to understand it if you tell us we are being overconfident in that self-assessment.