Memory is a great artist. For every man and for every woman it makes the recollection of his or her life a work of art and an unfaithful record.
Did you ever recount an experience from your past, only to be told that’s not how it happened? Or listened to someone else retell a story and think, that’s not exactly accurate? Or observed someone’s embellished “fishing story” to become, over time and repetition, the version they believe is true? Or while looking through a family album, reminisce on a scene, only to be told that you could not possibly remember it because you were not there?
Or consider the classic question asked in all TV crime investigations, “Where were you on the night of August 22nd?” Unless I was already aware of some extraordinary event that burned that date into my memory, I would have to turn to my daybook to answer that question. If it were a seemingly ordinary day, I would have to try to construct the most likely progression of my actions given the information I had noted about appointments and events on the calendar. I wouldn’t really be “remembering,” per se, as much as filling in the proverbial blanks.
We like to think of our memories as the file cabinets of our life experiences, our computer database accessed to reflect on our personal history. But, in reality, human memory is not so unambiguous, or, it turns out, not so reliable.
Why do we remember what we remember? Why do we not remember the things we don’t remember? How can we be sure these recollections are true and accurate? And what does it say about ourselves and our experiences if we cannot?
What Psychology Says . . .
Ever since Freud changed the course of psychology by arguing for an unconscious aspect of our psyche that influences our conscious behavior, we have been probing for insight into those enigmatic chasms of the human mind. He used the term repression to refer to a common defense mechanism whereby individuals block painful and traumatic experiences from conscious thought. While most psychologists and average citizens alike acknowledge the existence of an unconscious, the role of repressed memories is hotly debated in both professional and casual contexts.
Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has conducted extensive research on the topics of misinformation in memories, eyewitness recollection and false memories. She has directed various studies in real world scenarios, which revealed that the recall of memories is much more a process of construction than a process of the accurate representation of a witnessed event. Specifically, her work indicated that details of recall could be manipulated by the wording of questions or the introduction of misleading information. This led Loftus to propose the misinformation effect, whereby the recall of episodic memory (autobiographical events) is altered, particularly by information or suggestions introduced after the event, thus calling into question the permanence and reliability of our most revered aspect of human memory—the recall of our own experience. In short, contrary to popular belief, human memory is less like a permanent recording of details and more like a Wikipedia page where the information can be altered by oneself and others.
Loftus gives a fascinating TEDtalk on her work. In it she states, “Most people cherish their memories, know that they represent their identity—who they are; where they came from. And I appreciate that. I feel that way too. But I know from my work how much fiction is already in there. If I’ve learned anything from decades of working on these problems, it’s this: Just because somebody tells you something and they say it with confidence, just because they say it with lots of detail, just because they express emotion when they say it, it doesn’t mean that it really happened. We can’t reliably distinguish true memories from false memories. Memory—like liberty—is a fragile thing.”
Just because somebody tells you something and they say it with confidence, just because they say it with lots of detail, just because they express emotion when they say it, it doesn’t mean that it really happened.
Although the precise mechanisms that contribute to the development of pseudomemories remain elusive, psychologists posit several basic explanations, including the inaccurate or incomplete coding of the original information at the time of the event and/or the blending of original information and any subsequent detail we absorb about the event from other sources (other accounts, media, etc.). In fact, often newly acquired, even misleading or contradictory, information is stronger because it is more recent and thus easier to retrieve. Additionally, the passage of time and the extent of exposure to alternative accounts, all influence the version of an event that we recall.
Repressed memories, recovered memories, false memories and pseudo-memories—all of these are points of controversy in modern psychology. Most practicing professionals believe that it is possible, under certain conditions and to a certain extent, for memories to be repressed and later recovered. Conversely, however, most also believe that it is possible, under certain conditions and to a certain extent, for false memories to be introduced, intentionally or unintentionally, into the recollections of others. What is not well understood is the mechanism by which these occur and how they can be clearly and accurately distinguished from one another. Until these are better understood experts conclude that the best we can do is look for corroborating information to help distinguish the truth from the created or embellished memory.
Until that time, as we seek the truth, we must be skeptical. As Salvador Dali 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.”