Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Unreliability Of Memory

I'm currently reading Tara Westover's best selling memoir Educated. Early in the book, she recounts a traumatic scene from when she was a girl, one that would have been emblazoned forever into anyone's memory. Her details are lurid and clear the way one would expect from such a terrifying experience. There were three other family members present during the incident, however, and in a footnote and also in an endnote, Westover tells us that they disagree about what actually happened, not just recalling different details in different ways, which could be accounted for by their varying perspectives, but rather fundamental things like who was actually present and what actually happened. Indeed, precious few aspects of the event appear to be consistent across all of their memories except that it was terrifying. As the author of a memoir, Westover resolves this by telling the story from her own memory, while acknowledging the alternative memories of her family members which, I think, is fair if one's concern is truth.

As disinterested observers, of course, we all know that only one thing could have happened. If the event had been recorded on video, for instance, we would know the truth and the participants, whatever their memories tell them, would be forced to acknowledge that their memories are faulty.

Increasingly, science is coming to grips with the unreliability of memory. For a long time, we assumed that memories worked a lot like that video recorder and that given the right kinds of probing introspection we could find objective truth which must be in there, somewhere. But we are now understanding that while life happens but once, memories tend to happen over and over, especially emotional ones like the one in Westover's book, and each time we conjure up the past our brains in subtle and not so subtle ways, alter those memories making them something new each time. Indeed, the more often we've remembered something the more we've altered it, meaning that our memories are more works of fiction than fact. Of course, they feel true, because they are our memories, and there is a greater truth embedded in there somewhere, but not the sort of objective truth one finds on video recordings.

I imagine this idea is upsetting to some people. It is to me. It means that much of what I believe to have happened in my past may have never happened, or at least not in the way I remember it. But I also know the phenomenon is real. I can't tell you how often I've gone over old times with people, especially people I've not seen in a long time, only to find that our memories are wildly divergent and we either wind up in an unresolvable argument or, more often, desperately seeking for some grain of "truth" upon which we can both agree.

What we call our memories are really just the stories we tell about what happened and those stories are edited each time we retell them.

While we cannot recall actual events with objective accuracy, it does seem that we never forget how those events made us feel. Westover may or may not have described the actual incident accurately, but the feelings the event evoke -- fear, sadness, confusion -- are as real today as they were back then and upon that all of her family members agree. I think of the children in our care, these people who are busy creating memories that they will turn into stories. Most of us remember very little from before we were five years old, at least when it comes to those concrete memories of actual events, but how those events made us feel will be with us forever. This is why our love is more important than any activity or experience or toy. That is the thing that will endure even the unreliability of memory.

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