We all carry a lifetime of memories with us, but modern science has cast into doubt whether they reflect reality.
Last month we released a collection of stories from people all over the world who shared their memories of September 11th. These recollections were told 15 years after the attacks took place, and many from people who were children at the time. With so much time having passed, could people’s memories really be accurate?
It turns out that while memories aren’t perfect records of experiences, they still reflect important truths about our lives and the world we live in.
5 impressive new facts about our memories
1. Memories don’t simply fade, they change
This interesting article by Greg Miller in Smithsonian Magazine describes ‘flashbulb memories’. These are the perception of time, place, and activities when something shocking or momentous happens. He discusses how these flashbulb memories have been proven to be frequently counterfactual.
Why? Oliver Hardt, a neuroscientific researcher, explains that every time a memory comes to mind to changes. It cannot help but be influenced and reshaped according to your current state of mind.
When you retell it, the memory becomes plastic, and whatever is present around you in the environment can interfere with the original content of the memory. In the days following September 11, for example, people likely repeatedly rehashed their own personal stories—’where were you when you heard the news?’—in conversations with friends and family, perhaps allowing details of other people’s stories to mix with their own.
This accounts for the high rate of misremembered accounts of 9/11: in 2003, a study found that 73% of a sample of college students described watching the first tower of the World Trade Center being hit by an airplane live on television. In reality, that footage was not released until the next day.
2. Our brains make up what we don’t remember
Dr. Martin Conway, a memory expert and head of the psychology department at the University of London, thinks that’s exactly what we do. A study he completed with neuroscientist Catherine Loveday shows we fill in the gaps in our memories. We insert details we didn’t notice to begin with or failed to remember. Incredibly, we can also reorder and compress memories, and integrate things we imagined happened into the narrative of events.
In fact, there has been so much evidence that the ‘original’ memory may not reflect the literal sequence of events, it has already undermined some credibility in eyewitness testimonies.
3. You can change someone else’s memories simply by listening
It’s amazing but, there is research that shows simply how we talk to people we can magnify or erode someone else’s memory! As a listener, you have superpowers to make or break history!
If we are really engaged when we listen to someone’s story we will strengthen that particular memory (whether accurate or not). Our listening can also add to the sense of the secondary meaning associated with it, such as redemption, learning, a life stage. These secondary meanings determine how we feel about how our lives have worked out.
On the other hand, your superpowers can make someone forget something…just by seeming disinterested!
4. Imperfect memories still reflect history
Oral historian Alessandro Portelli encountered consistent factual errors in recollections of events in Italian history. He realized that there was a deeper meaning to why certain details were omitted, distorted, or invented.
‘I realized that memory was itself an event on which we needed to reflect…Memory is not just a mirror of what has happened, it is one of the things that happens, which merits study….Oral sources tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing and what they now think they did.’
History Professor Luisa Passerini agrees with this. He insists should understand oral accounts not as a collection of factual statements, but rather as “forms of culture and the testimonies of the the changes of these forms over time.”
5. Changing a memory can be a good thing
The process of forgetting, softening, or recasting an experience in a different light can be important for us to carry on with our lives.
There are also benefits for the majority of people. As Greg Miller points out, rewriting memories in light of subsequent life events prevents us from living in the past:
If fond memories of an early love weren’t tempered by the knowledge of a disastrous breakup, or if recollections of difficult times weren’t offset by knowledge that things worked out in the end, we might not reap the benefits of these hard-earned life lessons. Perhaps it’s better if we can rewrite our memories every time we recall them.