While it seems obvious, to me, that that not everyone is affected by pop culture in the ways he lists, it seems equally obvious that some people are affected — and in some cases may not even know the cause.
[FROM THE EDITOR — Skeptical Enquirer — May/June 2011]
Pop Culture and Questionable Cases
We are immersed in popular culture. The influences of Hollywood entertainment on what we think, say, believe, and do can seep deeply into our beings. Sometimes, without our even realizing it, this influence can distort our view of the real world. We have two examples in this issue. Both, curiously, involve memory.
The first is our cover article, "A Skeptical Look at a Remarkable Case Report of 'Overnight' Amnesia." Neuroscientists and psychologists Harald Metenbach, Thomas Merten, and our colleague Scott O. Lilienfeld critically examine a study about a supposed new memory disorder published last year in a journal of neuropsychology. After a car accident in 2005, a fifty-one-year-old woman seemingly loses her memories of each day's events overnight. Every day is new to her; her short-term memory is wiped clean only to be filled up the next day and then be lost again that night. The study has gained attention, but too little has been skeptical. Our authors rectify that situation and find major limitations to the report about her case: it lacks crucial background information (how does she carry on her job if she forgets everything from the day before?), fails to exclude feigning or lack of motivation to remember new material, and lacks "connectivity" to the scientific literature (something often under-appreciated)— how exactly would memory be acquired during the day and then wiped out each night? There is no known mechanism for doing that.
These deficiencies of the study lead our authors to suspect that the woman has been strongly influenced by a fictional case depicted in a widely seen Hollywood movie, 50 First Dates, starring Drew Barrymore. The woman saw that movie several times after her accident. The authors of the original study noted that possibility but then dismissed it. Our authors do not. Occam's razor leads them to suggest the study doesn't demonstrate amnesia at all but a kind of simulation of it based on the woman's (mis)understandings of amnesia after seeing the movie. Something similar has happened before. After the airing of the 1976 television film Sybil, which portrayed a woman with supposedly sixteen distinct personalities, the number of such dissociative personality disorder cases "skyrocketed into the thousands."
Our authors draw several lessons from this case; one is that widely viewed television programs and films may influence how patients present or describe their own symptoms. The case reminds us, say Merckelbach, Merten, and Lilienfeld, "that in today's media-driven world, some disorders may be what we term telegenic in origin: induced at least partly by television, films, and news and entertainment media."
A second case is reported in this issue by our deputy editor, Ben Radford. He draws on research for a book he has just published on the supposed bloodsucking chupacabra creature, which suddenly appeared on the scene in 1995. Radford shows that the first sighting of a chupacabra came shortly after the woman who reported it saw a sci-fi horror movie, Species, featuring a creature that bears an uncanny resemblance (twelve morphological similarities, in fact) to her subsequently reported chupacabra. Radford, who flew to Puerto Rico to interview the woman, is convinced that she sincerely believes what she reported. But he is equally sure this movie is what started the chupacabra myth.
Our minds are a wonder. They have grand capacities for creativity. Sometimes, influenced by the pop culture all around us, they create things we then think are real. It's a fascinating, and sobering, set of lessons.