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How reliable are our memories (how close to the truth)?

January 17, 2015

Tags: memory, memoirs, false memories, reconstructed memories, memory and identity

Updated 9-20-17, 4-3-15.
Whether you are working on a life story or having an argument with friends about an experience you shared years ago, consider what Oliver Sachs, Frank Bruni, Daniel Kahneman, Scott Fraser, Elizabeth Loftus, Maria Popova, Israel Rosenfield, Virginia Woolf, Suzanne Corkin, Joan Didion, Sally Mann, Sarah Manguso and Jane Austen (in the voice of Fanny Bryce) have to say about the nature, malleability, and unreliability of memory, as well as its role in constructing our identity, in the following essays and talks.

Speak Memory. Oliver Sachs's fascinating long essay in the New York Review of Books is must reading about the nature of memory--of particular interest to those writing life stories or helping others do so. It's about how we remember, misremember, and construct memories -- and borrow from what we read! "It is startling to realize that some of our most cherished memories may never have happened—or may have happened to someone else. "

The Lies We Tell Ourselves: Resiliency and Nostalgic Reverie (Steven Schlozman, Huffington Post, 1-15-15) Nowadays, we call these false recollections "nostalgia." But what do we mean when we use this term? Is there a formal definition? And why does this matter in today's sometime grim world?
"We re-sculpt memories all the time, and when the memories mix personal happiness with just a tincture of melancholy, we are quick to acknowledge that we are having a 'nostalgic' moment....It turns out that nostalgic reckoning is associated with measurable psychological resilience....We all need to drink from the well of our own memories with varying amounts of sugar." But we also need to be honest with ourselves about what life was really like.

Storytelling: The Dangerous Art of Identity Formation (Esther Boyd Applied Sentience, 6-20-14) "Over time, and over countless recitations, our stories – specifically how we tell the story of ourselves – helps us to craft our identity. As our understanding of self changes, it’s only natural that the way we tell the stories of our selves change, too. The way I tell the above story in twenty years might be different from how I share it today." Dangerous Degree of Wiggle Room. "Storytelling is essential to identity formation, and there are degrees of wiggle room in terms of truth allowed when sharing stories that help us to define our identity. There is also a great danger here, particularly in how we demonize or exclude others, draw harsh distinctions that may not exist, or claim something to be 'the way it’s always been' rather than looking at the way something could be."

Remembering a Crime That You Didn't Commit (Douglas Starr, New Yorker, 3-5-15) How false memories can be implanted in interrogation, how children's memories can be fabricated (or "involuntarily elaborated," rather than "actually recovered."
'Shaw and Porter’s study also provides further evidence of the inaccuracy and malleability of human memory, evidence that is already compelling enough to have persuaded the state supreme courts of New Jersey and Massachusetts to mandate that judges instruct juries that eyewitness testimony is inherently unreliable. “Evolutionary theorists say memory is good enough—just good enough for us to survive and to reproduce,” Shaw told me. “But, at the very least, this research calls into question whether we should be putting so much weight on any memory in court”—especially in the absence of corroborating proof. ...' (Thanks for lead to Stephanie West Allen, Brains on Purpose

The Interview (Douglas Starr, New Yorker, 12-9-13) Do police interrogation techniques produce false confessions? "A growing number of scientists and legal scholars, though, have raised concerns about Reid-style interrogation. Of the three hundred and eleven people exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing, more than a quarter had given false confessions—including those convicted in such notorious cases as the Central Park Five." The Reid Technique has influenced nearly every aspect of modern police interrogations.

Law professor Richard Leo "has reported that the Miranda decision, which is supposed to shield suspects from involuntary confessions, generally does not: more than eighty per cent decline their Miranda rights, apparently in order to seem coöperative. He and Richard Ofshe, a social psychologist, have observed what they call 'persuaded' false confessions—an innocent suspect, worn down, fabricates a story to satisfy his questioners." Different results are produced when the goal of questioning is information gathering rather than eliciting a confession (the culture of confrontation).

How Our Brains Make Memories (Greg Miller, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2010) Surprising new research about the act of remembering may help people with post-traumatic stress disorder. "Most people have so-called flashbulb memories of where they were and what they were doing when something momentous happened: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, say, or the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. (Unfortunately, staggeringly terrible news seems to come out of the blue more often than staggeringly good news.) But as clear and detailed as these memories feel, psychologists find they are surprisingly inaccurate." "Perhaps it’s better if we can rewrite our memories every time we recall them. Nader suggests that reconsolidation may be the brain’s mechanism for recasting old memories in the light of everything that has happened since. In other words, it just might be what keeps us from living in the past."

• Frank Bruni: "I came to see that our memories aren't really patchy; they're patchworks, oddly and randomly retrieved bits and scraps that we weave together into something we believe to be a more integrated, seamless fabric than it really is....Do I -- do we -- remember only those scenes that fit neatly into the central narrative in which we're most invested, the one that dovetails most cleanly and neatly with the sense of self that we've chosen or that's been imposed on us by the people around us?

"Do we in fact have other, equally interesting life stories that we're unaware of and unable to tell, simply because their building blocks are the memories that fell by the wayside? Possibly. And while those memoirs might undermine the ones we've written, they also might just improve on them. ~ from Memoirs and Memory (by Frank Bruni, author of Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-time Eater

The riddle of experience vs. memory
Daniel Kahneman's fascinating TED talk, February 2010). Using examples from vacations to colonoscopies, Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics, reveals how our "experiencing selves" and our "remembering selves" perceive happiness differently. A must-listen TED talk (or read this transcript (in particular what he says about two different experiences with colonoscopies). Some highlights:

"A very critical part of the story is how it ends....We actually don't choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences. Those are two very different entities, the experiencing self and the remembering self, and getting confused between them is part of the mess about the notion of happiness. Now, the remembering self is a storyteller.... We don't only tell stories when we set out to tell stories. Our memory tells us stories -- that is, what we get to keep from our experiences is a story. ... And that is true of the stories that memory delivers for us, and it's also true of the stories that we make up. What defines a story are changes, significant moments and endings. Endings are very, very important."

"And, by the way, now we are capable of getting a pretty good idea of the happiness of the experiencing self over time. If you ask for the happiness of the remembering self, it's a completely different thing. This is not about how happily a person lives. It is about how satisfied or pleased the person is when that person thinks about her life. Very different notion. "

Scott Fraser: Why eyewitnesses get it wrong "All our memories are recreated memories. They are the product of what happened originally and everything that has happened since. The accuracy of our memories is not measured in how vivid they are or in how certain you are that they are correct."

The fiction of memory (Elizabeth Loftus, an expert on false memories, speaking at TEDGlobal 2013). "Many people believe that memory works like recording device,” says Loftus. “But decades of research has shown that’s not the case. Memory is constructed and reconstructed. It’s more like a Wikipedia page — you can go change it, but so can other people.”

• Fanny Bryce speaking: "How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!...If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out."
~ Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

• Alec Wilkinson: "Memory revises itself endlessly. We remember a vivid person, a remark, a sight that was unexpected, an occasion on which we felt something profoundly. The rest falls away. We become more exalted in our memories than we actually were, or less so. The interior stories we tell about ourselves rarely agree with the truth. People do it all the time: they destroy papers; they leave instructions in their wills for letters to be burned. In the novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell writes, 'Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.'"
~ Alec Wilkinson, Remember This? (The New Yorker, 5-28-07)

Brain Pickings, Maria Popova's intelligent, probing newsletter, has presented several essays on memory, our sense of self, life, and the arts:
---Permanent Present Tense: Pioneering Scientist Suzanne Corkin on How the Famous Amnesiac H.M. Illuminates the Paradoxes of Memory and the Self (8-10-17)“The universe is itself the glue that keeps it going, therefore it is memory in action and in essence, in becoming and in being. Because it remembers itself, it exists. Because it exists, it remembers.” and “Even if we will never completely understand the way the brain works, whatever small part of the truth we are able to learn will bring us one step closer to understanding who we are.”
---The Psychology of Why Creative Work Hinges on Memory and Connecting the Unrelated (9-2-14)“In the course of creative endeavors, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding.”
---Virginia Woolf on the Nature of Memory and How It Threads Our Lives Together (9-26-16)“Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that. Memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither.”
---The Mystery of Personal Identity: What Makes You and Your Childhood Self the Same Person Despite a Lifetime of Change (on Rebecca Goldstein, 10-7-14) Dissecting the philosophical conundrum of our “integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be.”
---Joan Didion on Keeping a Notebook (11-19-12) “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”
---The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten: A Trailblazing Exploration of Consciousness, Memory, and How Our Sense of Self Arises (Israel Rosenfield, 3-17-16) “This is the very essence of memory: its self-referential base, its self-consciousness, ever evolving and ever changing, intrinsically dynamic and subjective.”
---Hold Still: Sally Mann on the Treachery of Memory, the Dark Side of Photography, and the Elusive Locus of the Self (11-29-16) “Photographs economize the truth; they are always moments more or less illusorily abducted from time’s continuum.”
---An Illustrated Meditation on Memory and Its Imperfections, Inspired by Borges (on Cecilia Ruiz, 7-22-15)
---Ongoingness: Sarah Manguso on Time, Memory, Beginnings and Endings, and the True Measure of Aliveness (3-31-15) “Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.”

Comments

  1. October 6, 2014 7:56 PM EDT
    I like this paragraph from Ann Patchett's afterword to Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face: “In the right hands, a memoir is the flecks of gold panned out of a great, muddy river. A memoir is those flecks melted down into a shapable liquid that can then be molded and hammered into a single bright band to be worn on a finger, something you could point to and say, “This? Oh, this is my life.” Everyone has a muddy river, but very few have the vision, patience, and talent to turn it into something so beautiful. This is why the writer matters, so that we can not only learn from her experience but find a way to shape our own. I’m not talking about shaping every life into a work of art. I’m talking about making our life into something we can understand, a portable object that contains the weight and power of an entire terrain.”
    - PM
  2. August 22, 2017 12:18 PM EDT
    See also The nature and malleability of memory as it affects stories and storytelling. More on the subject!
    - PM