The Notorious Memory

How reliable do you think your memory is?  Can you trust it?  If you are typical, you trust your memory but you don’t trust mine.  If our versions of a story don’t match, you will find it much easier to believe that I have the facts wrong than to believe that you have it wrong.

This inherent trust in our memories stems from the fact that most of us believe everything we tell ourselves and believe everything we feel.  So, of course, we believe our memories and will even fight to defend them, but the truth is memories are very easy to distort and are probably not as accurate as we think.

Memory is a critical skill for learning and it’s an essential part of man’s evolutionary success.   Memories keep track of experiences that have taught us something and allow us to refer back to them for advice as we make decisions.  The more you can remember the more you can learn.

But there is a limit on how much we can remember.  The brain can’t store all the details of our experiences so it applies filters and drops things that seem inconsequential.  There are a few people with unusual brains who apparently remember absolutely everything with clarity, but they aren’t very happy about it.  Here is a link to a story about a woman who remembers everything she’s done since the age of 14:

As this woman tells it, it’s truly debilitating to remember everything.  Evidently, we forget things for a good reason.  If we didn’t filter out some of the information that we receive, our brains would be overflowing with details and the stress would be incredible.  This means that memory is a survival tool, and so is forgetting.

Memory is a great trick and a clever solution to an otherwise insurmountable problem – time only moves forward.  It doesn’t stop and it doesn’t go backwards.  It only goes forward.  But memory sidesteps that problem by giving us the illusion of going back in time with our thoughts.  [As a side note, the opposite of memory is hope.  If memory is holding a thought from the past, hope is holding a thought for the future.  With these two processes firmly in place, memory looking backwards and hope looking forwards, it’s no wonder that most of us struggle to be in the present.]

I’ve become interested in memory because I’ve been practicing a technique called recapitulation where you review past events of your life with great scrutiny in order to let them go.  While it might sound like obsession taken to the nth degree, I find that forcing myself to review the details of my memories with meticulous detail, even when I want to turn away, takes the emotional energy out of them.  In fact, that is the goal of recapitulation – to recapture the energy that was lost in the memory of those past events.

I thought I had a pretty clear idea of the span of my life I wanted to recapitulate, so I started writing.   I was several pages into it when I became stuck on a particular detail.  I thought I might have some email correspondence that would jog my memory, so I went into the archives on my computer and found my old message logs.

As I flipped through the long list of messages, I quickly realized how many mistakes my memory had in it.  I had several events out of order and had completely forgotten other facts.  If it weren’t for the corroboration of my old emails, I would have recapitulated a story that wasn’t correct.  I’m sure I would have believed it, but it wouldn’t be have been correct.

The discovery that my memory had so many holes in it got me to thinking about the unreliability of memory in general.  I started doing some digging to learn more, and honestly, I learned so much that I had to forget a lot of it.  But there were a few pieces that stood out as important and I want to share some of them with you.

The unreliability of memory is well known among psychologists.  Elizabeth Loftus talks about the potential for errors in her book Memory: Surprising New Insights into How We Remember and Why We Forget:

Memory is imperfect. This is because we often do not see things accurately in the first place. But even if we take in a reasonably accurate picture of some experience, it does not necessarily stay perfectly intact in memory. Another force is at work. The memory traces can actually undergo distortion. With the passage of time, with proper motivation, with the introduction of special kinds of interfering facts, the memory traces seem sometimes to change or become transformed. These distortions can be quite frightening, for they can cause us to have memories of things that never happened. Even in the most intelligent among us memory is thus malleable.

This tendency to distort memories is a very human quality, and yet we live much of our lives pretending that there is no distortion.  We choose to believe the story our memory tells us, just like we choose to believe our other thoughts.  We rarely consider that our memories might be wrong, but the fact is, memories are notoriously wrong.

I’m not saying there is no truth in our memories, but there are errors that inevitably tag along and most of the time we aren’t even aware of them.  And yet, we use our memories, both accurate and inaccurate, to develop a personal identity by telling ourselves a story about who we are, what we’ve done and what’s been done to us.  It’s no wonder that so many of us have a skewed perspective of who we are when you consider how unreliable memory is compared to reality.

Memory is not like playing back a video of the event.  It has blurry edges and a fairly low resolution when compared to vision.  This means that our memory retains fewer details than what our eyes are capable of seeing.  It is limited by what we are paying attention to, the filters we apply, and the details we add or subtract through time.

Color is an example of low resolution memory.  The brain tends to categorize between tones (such as light or dark) and categories (such as red, blue, green, etc.) but it doesn’t do very well at storing the memory of hues or intensity.  As a result, people usually remember colors as being brighter and more primary than they actually were.

Sometimes we only remember the pertinent details needed to recognize or distinguish something.  For example, you don’t need to remember everything about penguins in order to recognize one when you see it.  Nor do you need to remember everything about my face in order to recognize it, or every detail of that trip you took that was so much fun.  All you need are the salient details and you can fill in the rest.  As your mind fill in the gaps, however, it sometimes includes information that wasn’t there in the beginning.  This is how we come to completely believe a memory that is only partly true.

Memory is a word like “love” – so many meanings for one little word.  Our language doesn’t have words to express all the nuances of memory and even the behavioral sciences have a hard time describing it.  And yet, there are certain terms that are useful to know.

We can talk about long-term memory, short-term or working memory, explicit memory (requiring conscious thought to retrieve), implicit memory (requiring no conscious thought to retrieve), and autobiographical memory (recall of life experiences).

It is autobiographical memory that I find most interesting.  These are the memories of things that have happened to us, the things that we draw upon as our influences.  We string these memories together, using whatever glue is needed, to create our personal identity based on the story of our life.

Autobiographical memory is distinctly different than the other types of memory because it has strong feelings attached to it.  The other types of memories don’t have this quality.  For example, if I ask you what the capitol of Oregon is, you can think for a moment and your explicit memory will recall that it is Salem.  How does it make you feel that Salem is the capitol of Oregon?  You don’t feel anything, do you?  There is no emotion linked with the recall of an explicit fact.  Likewise, your implicit memory allows you to remember how to perform a physical task, such as brushing your teeth, without being emotional about it.  Once a physical task is learned through repetition, you can perform it without thinking and without emotion.  That’s implicit memory.

But when you access your autobiographical memory, everything is tinged with emotion.  How do you feel about what happened to you today?  How do you feel when you recall your childhood?  Can you think of anything in your life story that doesn’t have some kind of emotion attached to?  Emotions are what put autobiographical memories in a class of their own.

Emotions are accompanied by chemical changes in our brain.  Change the chemicals and you change the emotions.  That’s the whole theory behind pharmaceutical anti-depressants.  Prozac, Xanax and all the rest are man’s attempt to change our mood by changing our brain chemistry.

I have a theory of my own about chemicals in the brain.  My theory is that early in life we recognize that some chemicals (i.e., emotions) feel better than others and that we have the ability to manipulate them.  From this realization we create an ego whose job is to use our thoughts and emotions to trick our brain into producing certain chemicals.

A functioning ego, as I understand it, is one that knows how to manipulate emotions to produce different feelings.  The ego’s purpose, as far as I can tell, is to make us feel things.  Whether it makes us feel good or feel bad, the ego is always making us feel something that gets translated into a rush of chemicals.  The ego doesn’t tell us we are great or important because it is true.  The ego tells us these things, and many more, because it likes the chemicals we produce with those thoughts.   That’s why I think of ego as the addict inside us all and brain chemicals as the drugs.  I don’t even think the ego loves us.  It’s just using us to get the chemicals it wants, just like any addict would.  Since ego uses emotions as the currency for its addiction, wherever you find emotions you will find ego.  This becomes very important when we talk about autobiographical memory.

Since autobiographical memory is filled with emotion, it would stand to reason that ego would be there with it.  In fact, something interesting happens with our autobiographical memory that sheds an interesting light on the role ego plays.

There is something called childhood amnesia that virtually everyone experiences.  It is the loss of all autobiographical memory before the age of about four years.  The interesting thing about childhood amnesia is that only the autobiographical memory is lost.  The implicit and explicit memories are held intact.  We don’t forget how to walk or how to talk when we turn four, but we seem to forget almost everything else about our lives.

I know there is someone reading this right now saying, “Ooh!  Ooh!  I can remember something from when I was only two!”  Well, that may be so but I don’t give a lot of credit to early childhood memories because they are so easily planted.  If your mother told a story about you that happened when you were two, but you were five when you heard the story, you could believe that you were remembering the actual event but it would simply be the memory of the story.  If anyone told me that they remembered their own birth, for example, I would be very skeptical.

I think the explanation for childhood amnesia is that our ego is not fully developed until about the age of four, and the onset of our conscious memories coincides with the onset of our functioning ego.  As soon as ego is born it erases everything that came before it.  Ego is that selfish.  As far as the ego is concerned, life begins when it is born.  The fact that our body had already been around for a few years doesn’t seem to matter to it.  After all, the ego manipulates the functions of our body with its thoughts so it sees itself as separate from and superior to the body.

Since we know that ego is a manipulator, and we know that ego is attached to emotions, and we know that emotions are attached to autobiographical memories, it shouldn’t be hard to accept that the memories that make up our personal story have been manipulated by our ego.

The manipulation of memories by our ego is the most significant source of errors in memory retrieval.  The ego is constantly manipulating our thoughts to mold our memories so they are consistent with whatever perspective we want to maintain.  Psychologists call this memory bias and each type of bias acts like a filter to sharpen or dull or memories.  There are dozens of memory biases that have been identified.

There is something called egotistical bias which causes us to inflate our memories to make us look bigger, better and more beautiful than we really were.  It makes our ego feel good, so we do it.  There is also a victim bias that makes us remember ourselves as being more helpless and weak than we really were.  It’s just another way of feeding the ego with emotions.

There is a humor bias which allows us remember funny events easier than boring ones.  There is a trauma bias which makes painful memories either stay with us or completely disappear.

Selective recollection is a memory bias that causes us to selectively choose particular elements of the story to remember while forgetting others.  The details we recall depend on our perspective and the focus of our attention.  We’ve all heard “Seeing is believing,” but the truth is closer to “Believing is seeing” because our perspective (or our attention) selectively filters out anything we don’t believe and we end up seeing only that which we want to believe, especially when it comes to the emotional significance of our memories.  If you believe that someone was trying to hurt you, then your memories will probably support that conclusion even if they weren’t.  If you believe someone didn’t love you, your memories will support that conclusion as well, even if they did.

I saw an experiment where a group of people were asked to view an interaction between a man and a woman and remember as many details as possible.  During the interaction a man in a gorilla suit walks behind the couple that are talking.  Afterwards, when asked to recall as many details as possible, several people in the study didn’t remember seeing a man in a gorilla suit.  They were so focused on following their instructions to observe the man and woman that they failed to see anything else.  They could hardly believe their own eyes when the videotape was replayed for them.  They would have sworn in a court of law that there was no gorilla in the scene and they wouldn’t be lying.  But they wouldn’t be correct, either.

There are so many factors that play into the faulty retrieval of our memories, especially autobiographical memories, that it makes it hard for me to put much stock in what I recall about my personal history any more.

It makes me question the process of recapitulation, which is how this investigation started for me.  Can we ever really remember what happened to us in the past without flavoring and changing it with our emotions?  Can we understand ourselves any better if we tell ourselves a more detailed story of what happened to us?  Given what I have learned about memory, I think the answer to both questions is “No.”

Any story I tell myself is subjective to the emotions that my ego creates as I tell it, and unless I get my ego completely out of the picture, which is very unlikely, my life story will always be an interpretive work of fiction.

This one fact, that there is no such thing as my “true life story,” spawns several very important questions.

If my personal story is a work of fiction (as is everyone else’s) then why am I putting so much value on it?  Does it really define me as much as I think it does?  Is there any good reason to be attached to who I think I am?

As I attempted to answer these questions about myself I suddenly realized what don Juan meant when he advised Carlos to drop his personal history.  Why work so hard at holding onto something that is just an illusion which limits us through its definition?  I saw the misplaced energy that our attachment to it represents.  I saw that linking my personal identity to my personal history is not only self-limiting, it is not even accurate.

Any attachment I have to who I think I am or who you think I am seems like a futile position to me right now.  It doesn’t feel worth the energy it takes to sustain it.  It feels better to believe that I can be whoever I want to be and whatever life needs of me.  From this position I know for a fact that I am not defined by my past unless I allow it.  The only thing that defines me is the present.

That, my friends, is freedom.  I feel it opening up in my chest like a bird spreading its wings.  It used to be an idea, but now it feels like a fact.  There is no need to hang onto my personal history.  I get it.  It doesn’t mean that I forget all the things that are stored in my memory, but I don’t think of them as facts either.  Memories are cheap knock-offs of the original.  I consider them interpretations and therefore don’t place as much value on them.

I can tell myself whatever story I want and support it with whatever memories I choose, but this new perspective will make it hard from now on to take any story very seriously.  Now that I have disrobed the illusion of my autobiographical memory, can I ever think of it as something that I deserve to cling to? I don’t think I can.

We are all just telling ourselves a story about ourselves.  There is no “true story.”  When we believe our stories are true without acknowledging that they have many biases, it is the equivalent of telling ourselves a lie.  In that regard, I say that we are all liars.  We’re all wearing masks and we all have veils.

Autobiographical memory is notoriously wrong.  I know this for a fact.  And that leads to the inevitable conclusion that the story of my personal history is also notoriously wrong.  No wonder don Juan told Carlos to drop it his attachment to it.  Through our personal history we create a mask that is layered with veils.  Take it off and try on another one, he said.  Put on one that doesn’t limit you so much.   Lose the attachment to who you have told yourself you are.  You are everything and anything, he said.  Choose a mask and wear it, but don’t forget that it is a mask and you can remove it at any time.


About Geography of Life

I look at the world with the eyes of a geographer. I look for patterns and forces to explain the world around me, and share my observations with you. I explore a wide variety of subjects but always have a scientific slant to my thought. I am not politically correct. I say whatever I feel. I explore my ideas, my emotions, and my choices. In the process, some interesting things happen. I am painfully honest about what I am thinking. I divulge my deepest thoughts and fears with you. Sometimes it is like watching a train wreck, other times like taking a nice walk.
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