The most stunning science photos of 2017

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A composite image of 21 separate photographs taken with a single fixed camera shows the solar eclipse as it creates the effect of a diamond ring at totality as seen from Clingmans Dome, which at 6,643 feet (2,025m) is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee, U.S. August 21, 2017.

The Arctic skies light up in a blaze of blue and green when solar wind blasts the atmosphere with charged particles. Storms and wildfires leave debris and ash in their trails. And ecosystems and fellow animals are increasingly transformed by human activity.

Looking at the world through the lens of science brings into focus creatures so small they can’t be seen with the naked eye, and galaxies so large they make our world seem no bigger than a microscopic organism.

That creates an opportunity for some pretty stunning photos.

These are some of the most striking science and nature images we encountered in 2017. Some are news photos shot this year, while others made appearances in 2017 photo contests.

SEE ALSO: The most captivating aerial photos taken of Earth from the sky this year

NASA’s Juno probe sent back stunning images of our solar system’s giant planet.

See more of the probe’s stunning images here.

We’ll never think of tapeworms the same way after seeing this monster from Nikon’s Small World image contest, which celebrates microscopic photos.

See more prize-winning Small World images.

Natural events like the volcanic eruption of Bali’s Mount Agung in November caused quite a stir.

The eruption sent ash 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) into the atmosphere and created plumes as high as 3.7 miles (6,000 meters).

See the rest of the story at Business Insider

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This Lightning Network Designer Is Re-Inventing Bitcoin Smart Contracts

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Bitcoin is usually not considered the blockchain best suited for self-executing conditional payments, better known as smart contracts. While it does support basic programmability to enable features like time locks and multi-signature (multisig) schemes, competing projects like Ethereum, Ethereum Classic or Qtum are often expected to better support more advanced applications.

However, a new wave of research is increasingly questioning this assumption. For example, Scriptless Scripts, a project spearheaded by Blockstream mathematician Andrew Poelstra, cleverly utilizes the magic of cryptography to move smart contracts off-chain, while leveraging Bitcoin’s security, but without requiring extensive smart-contract support on the Bitcoin protocol itself.

Along similar conceptual lines, Discreet Log Contracts (DLCs) could deploy another class of smart contracts on top of Bitcoin. A project by one of the authors of the original Lightning Network white paper, Tadge Dryja, and recently presented at Scaling Bitcoin Stanford, DLCs could realize blockchain-enforced insurance companies, futures contracts, dollar-pegged coins and much more.

Here’s how that works.

Bets

Many types of smart contracts essentially boil down to “bets.”

Let’s say, for example, that someone wants to insure himself against being unable to travel due to a potential pilot strike. That person can then “bet” there will be a strike. If there is no strike, the “bet” is lost as if it were an insurance down payment. If there is a strike, on the other hand, the “bet” is won, like an insurance payout.

As a more interesting example perhaps, people can also bet on the price of BTC relative to the US dollar: a futures market. If someone bets that the BTC price will go down, and the BTC price does go down, he “wins” more BTC; if the BTC price goes up, he “loses” some BTC. Interestingly, this can be structured to ensure that the person entering into these “bets” is practically guaranteed to end up with the same USD value in BTC regardless of what happens. This can, in turn, be used to realize a “stablecoin” with fixed USD value on Bitcoin’s blockchain. (It should be noted that there are extreme examples where this doesn’t hold up, like a scenario where Bitcoin fails completely and BTC drops to zero dollars — but, in most cases, it works.)

However, while these types of smart contracts are interesting, they cannot be executed based on blockchain-based data alone. A blockchain cannot tell whether pilots are striking, nor what the USD/BTC exchange rate is. This requires data input from outside of the blockchain, and this is where “oracles” come in.

Oracles

Oracles are essentially trusted sources of information; they provide data that cannot itself be “read” by a blockchain. This data can be inserted into a smart contract, which will then execute based on the oracle’s input.

Since the types of smart contracts described above need to rely on such external data sources anyway, it makes sense to leverage the trust in oracles in order to simplify a smart contract. Instead of more complex solutions, oracles can, for example, be “plugged into” a relatively basic multisig scheme.

As a simple example, let’s say that next summer Alice and Bob want to bet a bitcoin on the FIFA World Cup final between Argentina and Brazil. Alice thinks Argentina will win; Bob thinks Brazil will. To make this bet blockchain-enforceable, Alice and Bob both send one bitcoin to a multisig address that requires two of three signatures to spend the coins. One of these three keys is held by Alice, another key is held by Bob and the third key is held by the oracle.

If Argentina wins, Alice and Bob should both sign a transaction from this address that sends both bitcoins to Alice. Since this requires only two signatures, Alice and Bob’s signatures suffice, and the oracle never comes into play. (Needless to say, if Brazil wins it’s the other way around: Alice and Bob sign a transaction sending both coins to Bob.)

A problem arises only when the losing party — Bob — refuses to sign the transaction. It’s in this scenario that the oracle would use its third key to help Alice claim the two bitcoins. Importantly, exactly because this is an option, Bob really has no reason not to sign. (This is even more true if Alice and Bob put up some collateral so Bob gets refunded some of his BTC if he signs.)

Ideally, the oracle’s signature should hardly ever be needed at all; Alice and Bob can complete the bet on their own.

Still, the basic multisig and oracle solution has its weaknesses. For example, the oracle would probably have to be involved with setting up the bet; or at least it should be available to act as a sort of judge whenever needed. This means that the oracle could potentially be corrupted, for example, if Bob offers the oracle a share of the coins if they collude to steal both. And Alice and Bob also have no privacy from the oracle: the oracle will know exactly what they are betting on and how much they are betting. Meanwhile, the rest of the world can tell that Alice and Bob used an oracle for their bet (and, therefore, that it was a bet).

These are the problems that Discreet Log Contracts could solve. They maintain the benefits of the straightforward multisig and oracle solution — but eliminate most of its weaknesses.

Payment Channels

As mentioned, Dryja, who is currently working for MIT Media Lab’s Digital Currency Initiative, is one of the authors of the lightning network white paper. His DLC project is based on a similar concept.

A key idea behind the lightning network is that two people can open a payment channel, allowing them to transact with each other. Such a payment channel utilizes Bitcoin’s basic programmability (like time locks and multisig addresses) and combines it with some clever tricks to commit transactions to other transactions, all without broadcasting them to the network unless needed.

Over time, as the people in the channel transact with each other, these payment channels are updated with new balances or “channel states.” Either party can then “drop” the latest channel state on the blockchain at any time and claim their balance whenever they want to. And importantly — this is where Bitcoin’s basic programmability is leveraged — both parties can only safely broadcast the latest channel state. If they try to cheat by broadcasting an earlier channel state, their counterparty can actually claim every single coin in the channel.

DLCs works similarly. But where a lightning network payment channel only lets the parties involved broadcast the most recent channel state, DLCs limit them to broadcasting only the channel state reflecting the correct outcome of a bet.

This is where the oracle comes in — but this time combined with some fancy math tricks.

The Oracle Signature

As opposed to 2-of-3 multisig schemes where oracles act a bit like judges, oracles in DLCs more closely resemble broadcasters. For our World Cup bet, it would make sense that the oracle is a sports-betting service, a football news website, perhaps the FIFA or another entity that broadcasts the winner anyway and that is reasonably trusted not to lie about it.

Let’s say the oracle in this case is a sports-betting service that regularly publishes the score and winner of the World Cup final on their website. To enable a DLC, the same sports-betting service only needs to add a minor additional step.

Basically, this “broadcast oracle” has a public key and a private key. (A private key is really just a randomly generated number, while the public key is a seemingly random number derived from that private key.) This public key is published somewhere, most likely on the betting service’s website for anyone to find. The private key is, of course, kept private: This can be used by the oracle to sign a message. (Such a signature, too, is a seemingly random number but is derived from the private key in combination with the message.)

The possible outcomes of the bet are known as well: either Argentina wins the World Cup final or Brazil wins. The sports-betting service, therefore, announces that it will broadcast one of two very specific messages: “Argentina won” or “Brazil won.”

Now, what’s interesting about public key cryptography is that the sports-betting service’s public key can be used to figure out what a signature of the message — “Argentina won” or “Brazil won” — will mathematically “look like.” (“Look like,” in this case, doesn’t mean that Alice and Bob can produce the signature themselves, but they can calculate certain mathematical properties that it will have.)

Because Alice and Bob can calculate what the potential oracle signatures will “look like,” they can use it in their DLC.

The Discreet Log Contract

First, before the World Cup final, Alice and Bob pay one bitcoin to a “funding transaction.” From this funding transaction, several potential transactions are constructed — but these are not yet broadcast over the network.

Here’s where the cryptography gets a bit complex.

What the sports-betting service signatures “look like” is cleverly embedded in these several potential transactions, where each potential signature enables a different transaction. (Specifically, and somewhat unconventionally, what the signatures “look like” is used as public keys in key-pairs for the different transactions.)

In other words, knowing what the oracle’s potential signatures will “look like,” Alice and Bob can construct their payment channels such that the two different potential signatures can be used to validate two different channel states: one where Alice gets two bitcoins and one where Bob gets them.

Then, the actual oracle signature, which is published after the World Cup final is played, is used as private key to validate the winning transaction — and only the winning transaction. If the sports-betting service broadcasts a signature for “Argentina won,” Alice can take this signature, use it as a private key (in combination with her own private key) and claim the two bitcoins from the channel. If the oracle signs a message for “Brazil won,” Bob can. Meanwhile, if either tries to claim the bitcoins without the oracle signature, they will fail, and their counterparty can instead claim both coins.

Further, like lightning network payment channels, the outcome of the bet — two bitcoins for Alice if Argentina wins — can now also be broadcast by Alice and Bob as a fairly regular multisig transaction from the funding transaction. And indeed, exactly because Alice can enforce the outcome with the oracle signature anyway, there is little reason for Bob not to cooperate.

As a result, the “bet” is fully blockchain-enforced through the sports-betting service’s signature, while this service doesn’t need to do anything for this specific bet; it doesn’t even need to know it ever took place.

And, notably, while this bet is relatively simple (either Argentina wins or Brazil wins), in reality DLCs could allow for far more complex scenarios. Exactly because only a fairly regular multisig transaction is broadcasted in the end, it doesn’t really matter if a “bet” has two, 200, or 200,000 potential outcomes.

For more details on DLCs, also see Dryja’s presentation at Scaling Bitcoin Stanford.


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How to Become a Better Street Photographer

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Photo by Ben Fractenberg

I’ve been working as a professional photographer for nearly a decade, but I still get a little nervous every time I head out to take some street shots.

The good thing is, street photography is, in some ways, getting easier. New technology like iPhones allow you to take great candid pics while drawing as little attention to yourself as possible.

Here are a few tips I’ve found have helped me take better shots on city streets.

Get Close

There is an old expression in photojournalism that if your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. This is especially true if you’re shooting with a smart phone, which will lose a lot of quality if you zoom or crop in too much.

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Take this shot for example. By getting closer you can see details like lines in the subject’s face.

I took the photo below while covering protests outside Trump Tower after the election. I saw a demonstrator shouting into a bullhorn. I moved out from the middle of the march and pushed my way right in front of him.

You’re also going to have to get over shyness about talking to strangers. I saw Albert while walking around the French Quarter in New Orleans. I approached him with my phone out and casually explained how I was taking photos around the city and was really loving the experience. People will pick up on your enthusiasm. If you seem excited about what you’re doing, then strangers are more likely to reflect that back to you.

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We chatted for a few minutes and I found out a little about his story before asking to take his portrait. I explained it was for my Instagram feed and showed him a few of my other shots so he could get a sense of my work. I then took a number of shots while continuing to talk to him so he eventually stopped paying attention to my phone and became less guarded.

Wait For It

Another tried and true strategy is to pre-frame your photo and then wait for the right element to come into view. I was walking around downtown Manhattan recently when I noticed a bright mural reflected in a murky puddle.

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That could have been interesting enough, but I wanted to show some movement as well, so knelt down and waited about five minutes until a man walked by wearing all black, which created some more action and contrast to the scene. People can usually tell I’m taking a photo so aren’t too concerned (not that New Yorkers aren’t used to seeing others acting strangely even without an explanation…). But I do often have to let them know it’s ok to walk in front of me.

In the photo below, I waited for someone to walk by who popped against the green wall and I could frame inside the peeled tape rectangle. I thought this woman stuck out, and showed some movement as well.

Keep Your Finger on the Trigger

I try to keep my phone in my hand and stay aware of my surroundings. If you are in a hectic city like New York you never know when something out of the ordinary will suddenly present itself and then disappear just as quickly.

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One trick if you’re using an iPhone is that you can access your camera without even having to unlock your phone by swiping up from the bottom and then selecting the camera button on the lower right corner.

This guy (in the photo below) passed me on a rainy day in Midtown. I would have been haunted by his image if I missed the shot. Luckily, I had time to see him approaching from the other intersection, so had time to get my phone out and walk closer to him. It looks like he noticed me, which actually made the photo a little more interesting. If you’re in a crowded street people are usually too preoccupied to notice you, and if they do notice, they’re often in too much of a hurry to stop and ask what you’re shooting.

And if I’m walking around with another camera, I keep it slung over one of my shoulders close to either hand. This way you can also literally shoot from the hip if you don’t have time to look through viewfinder or want to go unnoticed. This requires some practice to get a sense of what will be in the frame depending on how your lens is positioned. It may be best to start out using a wide-angle, if you have one, so you’re more likely to capture your subject. You can always crop in.

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Another tip if you’re using a camera is to shoot around f8 so more of foreground and background are likely to be in focus. This increases your odds of getting the shot.

The Decisive Moment

Keeping your phone or camera close at hand will also allow you to capture peak emotion or action. I was at a café when this couple next to me started to intensely make out.

I was quick on the draw and captured this. Creepy? Perhaps. But you’ll have to get over those concerns if you want to capture real human interaction. Sometimes I’ll show the person the photo I’ve gotten, but if it’s for your Instagram feed and documenting the environment you’re in, then you shouldn’t feel the need to show every subject your shot — especially if it’s a very public place.

Chase the Light

Nothing can ruin an interestingly composed photo than bad lighting. Try to go out just after sunrise or about an hour before sunset to catch golden hour, when the light is softer and warm.

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Cloudy days create diffuse light so you don’t have harsh shadows. This is a plus if you’re taking portraits, since the light will fall more evenly on your subject. Late fall and winter are also great times to shoot when the sun is lower on the horizon. This will create stark, long shadows and add some more drama to your scene.

For example, I was able to get these shadows while walking around Midtown last February.

Also keep in mind where the sun is if you’re shooting during a bright day. If you’re going to take someone’s portrait, for example, you may want to make sure the sun is behind them so they’re not backlit—unless, of course, you want them silhouetted.

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Here’s an example of a backlit subject. You can see how washed out the street is, which can look nice if you’re trying to show it’s a hot summer day.

Think About Composition

Street photography may not afford you the same amount of time to compose a photo, but it’s still important to think about where you’re placing your subjects.

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One rule to live by is to try not to always put someone right smack dab in the middle of the frame. You can vary your shots by using techniques like the rule of thirds, which simply means you break your frame into thirds and place your subject or subjects in a third away from the middle or at a point where two lines intersect.

Here’s a pretty literal example of it.

Using this technique can better ensure people looking at your photos will not only pay attention to your subject, but also their environment.

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You can also think about how lines going either horizontally or vertically through the shot will naturally draw someone’s eyes through the frame.

In the photo below, the s-shaped lines in the sidewalk draw you from foreground toward the person holding the cross near the background—who, again, is not positioned directly in the middle.

It’s all About the Details

It’s not just about people and sweeping vistas. Think about those little details that tell us something about time and place.

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When I came across it, I thought this would make a funny still life about that once-iconic NYC coffee cup.

I’m not sure what I was trying to capture here, but, you know, things can get pretty gross riding the subways.

We often have pretty universal feelings about things we find funny or out of place. So if you see something you find fascinating, chances are others will, too.

Think About the Captions

A good caption should add to a photo and not just tell us what we already see. If you take someone’s portrait, why not get their name and some details about who they are? That will create more context for your viewers, who will appreciate getting a little more of a story from your feed.

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I think the quote in this ‘gram allows the subject to tell about the state of our veteran affairs and economic struggles millions are facing in this country.

If you’re looking to increase your visibility and social media following, think about what hashtags can draw in new viewers. Instagram now allows you to see how many people have already used the tag so you can get a sense of how many extra eyeballs you may reach.

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Just don’t overdo it. I find using three or four hashtags is good. Any more than that and people will get annoyed. But if you’re looking to tag as aggressively as possible, some folks will place a single period on a few lines and then have their tags several spaces below their captions, so their viewers are not hit with a block of text.

My colleague Anthony DelMundo is quite adept at this.

Use a Photo App

There are apps out there like Camera+, which allow you to better control your phone’s camera functions. Sometimes, for example, you may want to have the ability to focus on a subject, but then set your exposure to another part of the shot.

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I was traveling down the California coast with my wife when we stopped to walk along some Big Sur bluffs. In this shot, I focused on my wife as she walked through a tunnel ahead of me. I then exposed for the ocean in the background so she became silhouetted and the tunnel completely black.

Some of these tips should hopefully get you taking better shots, but also keep in mind that improving as a photographer requires a lot of patience. We’re always learning new techniques and pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, and the only way to get better is just to get out there and do it!

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NASA engineers stare at the sun to see shockwaves from supersonic flight

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Before the eclipse this summer, NASA warned us over and over again not to stare directly at the sun — but now they’re doing just that. Its researchers have reinvented a photography technique more than a century old, using the sun itself as a backdrop in order to capture the shockwave produced by a new supersonic jet.

Schlieren imaging was invented by a German physicist in the 19th century as a way to capture objects moving at supersonic speeds; it basically works by tracking tiny distortions to a uniform background illumination that are produced when the air is disturbed by a passing object.

The results are striking and you’ve likely seen them before. But traditional Schlieren imaging is limited in its range and scale; NASA’s Background Oriented Schlieren using Celestial Objects (BOSCO) allows the sun itself to be used as the background, and not only that, but it’s reliable enough to be used from a chaser plane 10,000 feet up.

Another Schlieren photo from NASA that uses the edge of the sun as its uniform background; BOSCO uses the disc itself.

Previous background oriented Schlieren imaging efforts for viewing the distortion patterns of planes in flight have been shot top-down with a featureless landscape as their background, or bottom-up using the edge of the sun (as you see above). But BOSCO aims its telescopic camera directly at the disc of the sun, capturing the aircraft as it causes a partial, highly local eclipse.

In order not to be completely blown out, the camera system uses a “hydrogen alpha filter,” which only lets in a very specific wavelength of light, which is produced by the sun in a nice granular pattern.

You can see it in action in this video, which does double duty to remind you that much science is done in circumstances that are decidedly less than glorious but nevertheless awesome:

How cool is that? (Although I do have to say that aesthetically speaking, the smooth gradients of film photography better suit this type of imagery.)

Don’t try this at home.

They’re not just doing this for fun, though. BOSCO is part of NASA’s Quiet Supersonic Technology program, which aims (as you might have guessed already) to create a supersonic aircraft that doesn’t create that vexing sonic boom wherever it goes. Such a craft could help bring back consumer supersonic flight, and would even be able to do overland routes.

The future Low Boom aircraft would likely fly at around 60,000 feet, though, but since it would be difficult for a ground-based system to capture good shots of a plane flying that high, the team needed to create something that create this kind of imagery from the air.

So the latest development is the deployment of a new, miniaturized BOSCO that can fit into the wing pod of a chaser aircraft. This lets the researchers capture images from as close as 10,000 feet, while the target plane is actually flying at the target altitude.

“The main objective here was to see what the image looks like at close range, including what kind of shockwave structure we can make out,” said BOSCO principal investigator Mike Hill in a NASA news release. “We needed to use our new compact camera system in order to get an idea of the quality of the images of those shockwaves using a smaller system.”

The new setup is what was being tested in the video above; the flight you see was at 20,000 feet, but subsequent ones were at 15,000 and 10,000 feet, proving that the technique works at the range likely to be encountered during an air-to-air shoot.

Of course, getting a clear shot of one supersonic jet from the wing of a second is a major challenge in and of itself — but at least they know the camera works.

Featured Image: NASA

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Our brains sometimes create ‘false memories’ — but science suggests we could be better off this way

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photo memory

  • We all trust our own memories, but we might not be remembering things exactly as they happened.
  • Memories can be distorted, or even completely made up.
  • False memories have been manipulated to make people confess to crimes they didn’t commit.
  • ‘Fuzzy trace theory’ helps explain where false memories come from.
  • In some cases, having adaptable minds could be advantageous to us, rather than looking at things objectively all the time.

Have you ever had an argument because you disagree about the way something happened? You were both there, you saw the same thing, but you remember it differently.

This happens quite a lot, because human memories are imperfect. As much as we all like to think we can trust our own minds, memories can be altered over time.

Elizabeth F. Loftus is a researcher and professor of cognitive psychology and human memory. She is well known in the field for her work on the creation and nature of false memories, and how people can be influenced by information after an event has happened, event consulting or providing expert witness testimony for hundreds of court cases.

Her research has shown how memories can be distorted. For example, in one study, subjects were shown videos of simulated crimes or accidents, then were afterwards made to believe the car in the accident went through a stop sign instead of a yield sign, or the thief running from the scene of the crime had curly hair instead of straight hair.

"It’s pretty easy to distort memories for the details of what they actually saw by supplying them with suggestive information," Loftus told Business Insider. "But then later we began to ask just how far could you go with people. Could you implant entire false memories into the minds of people for things that never happened?"

The answer was yes. Loftus and other researchers such as Julia Shaw have successfully planted memories into the minds of otherwise healthy people. For example, in one study, 70% of subjects were made to believe they had committed a crime such as theft, assault, or assault with a weapon, simply by using memory-retrieval techniques in interviews.

False memory research began over a hundred years ago…

Salvador Dali famously said: "The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant."

This could help explain why we are so quick to believe false accounts of something that happened.

The idea of memory distortion dates back over a hundred years to the work of psychologist Hugo Münsterberg, who in 1906 was the chair of the psychology laboratory at Harvard University and president of the American Psychological Association.

Münsterberg wrote in the Times Magazine about a case where a woman had been found dead in Chicago. A farmer’s son was stopped and accused of the murder, and after being questioned by the police he confessed to killing the woman — despite having an alibi.

"He was quite willing to repeat his confession again and again," Münsterberg wrote. "Each time it became richer in detail."

He wrote that on every telling of the young man’s story, it became more absurd and contradictory — a bit like his imagination was running away with the story, but he couldn’t tell he was making it all up.

Münsterberg concluded it was clear that the man was falling victim to "involuntary elaboration of a suggestion" from the policemen interrogating him.

…but it took several decades for it to be studied in detail.

Unfortunatley, Münsterberg’s ideas were too radical for the time, and the boy was hanged a week later.

It would be decades until the idea of false memories and memory distortion would be studied properly, and considered to be able to influence confessions.

Nowadays, it is quite well understood that false confessions happen under intense interrogation for crimes, like murder. This is what a lot of people think happen in the Netflix series "Making a Murderer," for instance.

Whether a false confession involves someone really believing they committed a crime, or whether they just want the interrogation to end is determined on a case-by-case basis. But Loftus said that unless you have reason to suspect somebody’s memory is distorted, then there’s no way you would be able to tell they are recounting a false memory just by listening to them.

However, more hope may lie in our biology.

Neuroscientists have looked at brain scans of people having real memories and false memories to see if there’s a difference. In one study from Daegu University in South Korea, 11 people were asked to read lists of words that fall into categories, like "farm animals." Then they were asked whether specific words appeared on the original lists, while functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) detected changes in blood flow to different areas of the brain.

When study participants had confidence in their answers and were correct, blood flow increased to the hippocamput — the region of the brain that is important for memory. If they were confident in their answer but were wrong, which happened about 20% of the time, the frontoparietal region lit up — the area associated with "a sense of familiarity."

memory film

‘Fuzzy trace theory’ helps explain the phenomenon

One theory for why our brains come up with false memories is called "fuzzy trace theory." The term was coined by researchers Charles Brainerd and Valerie F. Reyna, and was the first theory offered to explain the Deese–Roediger–McDermott (DRM) paradigm.

The DRM paradigm is less complicated than it sounds. It involves giving people a list of related words, like bed, sleep, tired, dream, and yawn, and then asking them to recall as many words as possible. Typically, subjects recall words that are related to the words listed, like snooze, or nap, which weren’t actually on the list in the first place.

"People will produce words reliably that weren’t on the list, and they’ll be really confident about that, so that’s definitely false memory," Reyna told Business Insider. "It’s a really powerful, psychological phenomenon. A reality mismatch. It’s not ‘I can’t remember,’ which is forgetting, but ‘I remember vividly something that didn’t happen.’ So fuzzy trace theory was the first theory applied to explain that."

There are two types of memory — and they both have benefits

At first, researchers assumed it was something to do with associations between words. But when this was accounted for in experiments, the same results were shown. Instead, fuzzy trace theory puts forward the idea that there are two types of memory: verbatim and gist.

Verbatim memory is when we can vividly remember something in detail, whereas gist memories are fuzzy representations of a past event — hence why the theory is called "fuzzy trace."

"As we age, we rely more on gist and less on verbatim," Reyna said. "Almost everything important happens in life after a delay. For example, if you’re a student you have to apply your knowledge not just on the quiz, but you have to remember it for the next semester, or in a job situation… It’s not what you’ve just memorised that day or that week, it’s remembering over a longer period. And gist has a much more powerful influence after a delay, as opposed to verbatim."

Fuzzy trace theory correctly predicts this dramatic effect of age on our memories, called a "developmental reversal effect." It basically means that as you go from childhood to adulthood, you get an improvement in verbatim memory — you can recall events in detail a lot better — but at the same time you also get an increase in gist memory.

This means you become more likely to say that a related word appeared on a list that actually wasn’t there, but you’ll also be more likely to remember the whole list.

"What that means is the net accuracy of children is higher than the net accuracy of adults, if you consider all of what they got right and what they got wrong," explained Reyna. "So your tendency to connect the dots of meaning and then to report that rather than just the verbatim reality, that tendency to rely on the gist, that goes up with age. [A person becomes] much more of a meaning maker."

So it’s not that your memory necessarily gets worse as you age, but our brains get more biased towards finding meaning at a faster rate. Since the theory was presented, it has been replicated over 50 times by other researchers.

Memento

False memories aren’t always cause for concern

Many were skeptical of the theory at first, as adults tend to do better than children at almost everything. But that’s perhaps because we rely on our minds a lot, and any suggestion they are not to be trusted, or they get less accurate as we age, is a frightening prospect.

In reality, even though all of us will have manufactured false memories at some point, according to Reyna, we get along just fine.

From an evolutionary perspective, it might even be beneficial for us to get better at relying on gist memory.

For example, Reyna’s research found that gist memory helps people make healthier decisions in terms of risk taking. If we went through life only looking at things objectively in a black-and-white sense, we might see things mathematically, and go for the highest expected value every time.

The Allais paradox — a choice problem designed by Maurice Allais in 1953— helps explain this. In the problem, people are given the choice of taking Gamble A, which was a 100% chance of $1 million, or Gamble B, which offers a 89% of $1 million, a 10% chance of $5 million, and a 1% chance of nothing.

From an economic perspective, if you do all the maths, the highest expected value is actually Gamble B. But that doesn’t mean most people go for it. In fact, most people choose Gamble A and walk away with $1 million for sure — because why wouldn’t you?

"Most people say wait a minute, a whole lot of money is better than the possibility of getting nothing — which is gist," said Reyna. "The gist and the tendency to pick things in that way goes up in age to adulthood. It’s not about maximising the money, it’s about looking at these categorical possibilities.

"That bottom line realisation is what drives your preference there. Just like the gist drives your memory for the words in the word test."

Reyna said that false memories can make people concerned about the way they see the world, but they shouldn’t think of it this way. Rather than thinking of imperfect memory being a negative impact of ageing, it’s more likely to be something that actually helps us make safer, more informed choices. 

"People can rely on gist very well in the world," she said. "The average college student has a very affluent memory on average, but they have all sorts of inaccuracies too, they just don’t realise it. So it’s not that memory is this stable accurate record all the time. We just have that illusion because our minds fill in the gaps."

Gist memory is another way our brains have shown how good they are at adapting to our surroundings. That’s not to say the idea of losing your memory as a result of dementia is any less scary, but until that point, it isn’t something you should necessarily worry about.

"Folks as they age will have good days and bad days, they’ll have days where they don’t remember the literal details, but they can compensate a lot by relying on their memory for gist," Reyna said. "So I think as we get older we shouldn’t be quite as concerned that our memories are somehow broken. They were never really fully intact to begin with."

SEE ALSO: Scientists have created brain implants that could boost our memory by up to 30%

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