Remarkable Insights That Will Make You Question Your Memory

What if you discovered that your memory is quite unreliable?

In fact, the more frequently you've remembered an event, the less accurate the memory will be.

There’s a scene in the 1958 musical Gigi when Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold reminisce about their first date many years prior. They disagree on the accuracy of the details of that date, but rather than argue, Maurice — being an old-fashioned French gentleman — lets Hermione have her own way.

Many of us nowadays are not happy to ‘agree to differ’ on shared memories and people fervently argue their own memories as being ‘the truth’.

So how reliable is your memory?

You can generally rely on your memory for:

  • Repetitive everyday activities; how to dress yourself, wash the dishes, use the toaster, drive a car, add and subtract etc.
  • Recognising people you know, as well as those you don’t know.
  • Identifying the familiar; your car, house, workplace etc.

Memory is not a simple recording device

Just because we rely on our memory for these repetitive activities, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it is particularly accurate in other areas. In fact, memory is notoriously unreliable.

The reason for this is that our powers of recall are not as ‘photographic’ as some would have us believe, but are, in reality plastic and malleable — and reasonably easily influenced. This means that you can —and do — change your memories.

Unfortunately, other people can also alter your memories by subtly implying changes through language or by being deliberately misleading. In other circumstances, where memories are traumatic or negatively persistent, having the ability to alter them can be extraordinarily useful and life enhancing.memory is not photographic

Memory is continually changing

Memory is an ‘active, synthetic, process’* This means that the act of RE-membering something modifies the memory in some way. So by remembering something time and time again, you'll completely change the original memory! And in stressful or traumatic situations your memory is even more likely to be up the creek without a paddle. Just think; if something happened when you were six years old and you're now 42, you have 36 years of life experience colouring your judgement of that event.

Even the word ‘remember’ suggests that we are making things up!

If you dis-member something you pull it apart, partition it off or divide it up.
So if you re-member something — by implication — you put it back together.

But you don’t necessarily put the memory back together in the same way

If the act of remembering something means that, at the same time, you change that memory in some way, how do you know you’ve reassembled the memory accurately? Much research suggests you don’t put it back the same way; that your brain might ‘fill in’ any details not explicitly remembered — especially any early childhood memories.

Memories are constructed and reconstructed.

You probably only need to spend time with your family discussing incidents from your childhood to realise that you all have slightly — or even wildly — different versions of a shared event. And because of brain plasticity, the more frequently you’ve revisited an experience, the less likely your memory is to be accurate. So, before you get into an in-depth discussion or heated argument about how a particular event played out, you might want to re-mind yourself that memory is constantly changing and that no-one might be ‘right’. Take a leaf out of Maurice Chevalier’s book and be a gentleman — or a lady.

*Karl Pribram - Holonomic Brain Theory

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