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Chapter 20: Memory


We like to think that we have a single memory, an autobiographical history of ourselves stretching backwards into our past, from the present back to when we were very young. We understand that there are gaps and that it gets more vague the further back we go, but we still have the impression of a single fairly consistent record of time. We rarely question its accuracy. If we say, “He was there. I remember seeing him,” others will likely believe us. We believe that our eyes and ears are like video cameras, relaying sights and sounds to our brain, which records everything for later use like a mental VCR.

Memory isn’t like that at all. In truth, we have a collection of fragments and familiarities. We process only a fraction of the information our senses take in, and far less makes it into our long-term memory. Our long-term memory fades over time, leaving islands of memory in a sea of haze. What’s more, even those islands may be difficult to recall. Many of our memories lie dormant, requiring specific reminders to “jog our memories” and bring them to the surface.

Despite these facts, we tend to feel deeply and viscerally that our memories are reliable and truthful sources of knowledge about the past. We base our attitudes and opinions on our memories; we hinge our entire worldviews on them. How do we maintain the illusion that memory is reliable? The answer, though it might be difficult to believe, is that we fill in the gaps by making stuff up. We paste our current opinions onto the memories of the past. We fill holes in memories with explanations that make sense to us. We reinvent the past in the image of the present.

Memory is blurry; it has far less detail than the original perceptions it comes from. Many people store perceptual memories verbally, turning a scene remembered several times into a game of telephone played with one’s own mind.

Kyeli’s Story: A Bear at the Door

When I was little, my family went on a trip to Colorado. During the entire drive, my dad told us stories about bears. He told us how careful we had to be when outside, how dangerous the bears were, how many of them there were, and how they would eat kids who fought with their parents (hah!). Our first night in the hotel, my mom was in the bathroom bathing my little brother. My dad went to get ice from the ice machine. I was in my nightgown, jumping on the beds.

There was a knock at our hotel door. I jumped down, and being a helpful kid, asked, “Who is it?”

There commenced a growling and scratching at the door, louder and more fierce than anything I’d ever heard in my life. A bear! I just knew it was a bear! I started screaming incoherently. My mother raced out of the bathroom to see why I was screaming my fool head off. I ran into the bathroom, closed and locked the door, and told my brother we were going to be eaten by a bear. He, too, started screaming.

My mother let my father back into the room and he came in sheepishly and apologetically. It took the two of them a good hour to calm us down enough to convince me to unlock the bathroom door and let them in.

This all happened when I was six.

I no longer have any real memory of this event, but growing up, I heard the story from my parents enough to have it blazed into my memory. I’ve told it hundreds of times myself; I even turned it into a short story and won an award for it. But truth be told, it’s all a story to me now.

Memory is inherently biased. We don’t record the actual facts or perceptions of what we experience; we record our interpretation of those perceptions. For example, if we see a cloud, and we interpret it to be shaped like a duck, we will remember “duck-shaped cloud” rather than recording an image of the cloud seen by our eyes. When we later recall the cloud, we will remember it as more duck-shaped than it actually was. This interpretation happens automatically, entirely outside of our conscious mind, and involves such filters as our worldview, our frame of mind, and our mood. This unconscious interpretation occurs before memories are stored. Not only are our memories modified after the fact, they are unreliable from the get-go.

Memories are more extreme than reality. As a rule, we tend to remember colors as being brighter or deeper, slow speeds as being slower, fast speeds as being faster, large things as being larger, small things as being smaller, and duck-shaped things as being duckier. Even without purposeful exaggeration, stories like “The fish was this big!” end up bigger than the truth.

Memory changes with the telling. The more often a memory is recounted, the more distorted it becomes. Each telling rewrites the event, allowing more errors of interpretation to creep in. Quantities become more extreme, events and situations change to better fit into our current opinions of the people and situations involved, and present influences, attitudes, and concepts are written into the past.

A striking example of the fallacy of memory involves a man named Donald Thompson and the most ironic arrest of all time. Thompson, a psychologist doing research into the reliability of eyewitness memory, was brought in for a lineup and positively identified by a rape victim as the man who had raped her. It was later revealed that Thompson had in fact been far away at the time, on live television, in a panel discussion about the unreliability of memory. Despite this, the woman continued to swear under oath that she firmly remembered him as the culprit. Eventually the truth was revealed: the victim’s television had been turned on to that very program during the crime, and the actual rapist had been wearing similar clothes. This was all it took to fabricate a clear and intense memory of Thompson as the criminal.1

Kyeli’s Story: Tom and Flat Cat

My brother and I are only four years apart. We grew up in the same houses with the same parents, usually going to the same schools. We grew up around the same cousins and the same grandparents. We even occasionally had overlapping friends.

If you ask him about our relationship as children, he’ll tell you we mostly got along. In his memory, we were friends for the majority of our lives.

If you ask me, you’ll get a totally different answer! In my memory, we were usually enemies. We fought and argued, punched and kicked and yelled at each other all the time. Our memories are so radically different, I often wonder how we lived the same life for so long!

We had two cats when we were little: Tom and Flat Cat. In my memory, Tom was my cat. I remember this quite clearly; he was the sweetest cat I’ve ever had. He let me put doll clothes on him and carry him around like a baby. Flat Cat, a grouchy pudge of surly gray fur, was my brother’s cat. Again, my memory is crystal clear on this. However, in my brother’s memory, the cats were reversed: Tom was his and Flat Cat was mine. To explain the behavior of Tom, my brother will tell you that Tom was so tolerant it didn’t matter who he belonged to.

We’re each entirely certain of entirely opposite memories!

We make the usual error every time we remember something. Not only are we living with different perceptions, different points of view, different personality types, and different communication styles, we each have our own separate memories — basically our own separate worlds. Quite literally, what happened for you and what happened for someone else can seem totally different, even when a video camera would tell us that the situation was the same. What’s more, unless things have been recorded on film or other objective evidence exists, neither memory can justly be treated as more real than the other.

This sounds like a desperate and confusing situation. What can we do about it? Improving the reliability of our memory isn’t an effective solution because memory by its very nature will always be biased and subjective. If you need an objective account, write it down! If you have an important meeting at work, write down the outcome and email it to everyone involved to make sure everyone has the same understanding. This guards against the fallibility of memory and is also a form of reflection. If you have an important conversation, write down a summary and the outcome. If you keep a journal, use it. That way, if you can’t remember what was said or how you were feeling about a particular event in the past, you can look it up.

These suggestions can help for many cases, but there will always be things that are unwritten and unrecorded. In those cases, there is no way to find out the objective truth. This may feel scary, but people seem to get by pretty well despite this. We feel strongly attached to our memories — we feel that they’re the truth — but arguing about differing memories is usually pointless and rarely leads to a helpful resolution of an argument. When a conflict arises about something in the past, we often find ourselves arguing, attempting to find who has the “best” memory, arguing over our different recollections of what “actually” happened. Instead of arguing, we can remember that our memories are not accurate recordings of the truth, and neither are anyone else’s. Remembering this frees you to explore other options. Regardless of what happened in the past, your feelings in the present are still valid and important, and that’s something that you can talk about constructively. When talking about past events, use “I” statements. When you have the urge to say, “You’re wrong, what really happened was this,” instead say, “My memory is different. The way I remember it is this.” Letting go of the past to focus on the present can be hard, but it’s the best way we’ve found to turn a memory-related conflict into constructive communication.

1. The source for this example is Daniel Schacter’s book Searching for Memory, page 114.

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