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Can We Trust Our Memories?

By Christian Roemer
Since we last talked about memories, we learned that nobody really knows how they work. Whether our brain stores them like a computer or does something completely different, the science isn’t quite settled yet. But what do we know about how accurate our memories are? Luckily, science has tested that, though you might not like what it’s found... Not counting recall issues and diseases such as Alzheimer’s, memories are actually a pretty slippery devil to get a hold of. We can’t plug in a machine and look at a memory, so scientists have had to create tests to try and figure out how reliable our memories actually are.


Most of us live our lives every day assuming that what we recall in our heads is exactly how it happened. Charles Fernyhough says, “The scientists are telling us that memory is a reconstruction, and yet we, as people, tend to stick to our old-fashioned ideas that memory works like a video camera.” Most people function day-to-day thinking that memories are something they pull out of storage to use for a little while, then they put them back when they’re finished. Science says that it’s not that simple. Memories are influenced by tons of different stimuli. Think about your happiest memory. If you recall it, you’ll probably feel a bit of the happiness come back to you. The same thing with sad memories. The problem is that the way you recall the memories can also be influenced by your current state of mind and vice versa. Meaning, your brain can change a memory depending on how you’re feeling at the time, and your memory can also change how you feel. Confusing, huh?


One professor, Ulric Neisser, did an experiment where he gave identical questionnaires two years apart regarding a major historical event, the Challenger explosion. He asked students to tell him exactly what they were doing at the time when they learned about the tragedy. He asked the same question the day after the explosion, then asked it again two years later. After the two years elapsed, he compared the students’ memories to see how much--if any--they changed. The surprising result is that some of the students’ memories changed almost completely. Despite that fact, many of them still felt totally confident that what they were remembering was completely true. So, does that mean we can’t trust any memory at all, since people remember things “incorrectly” all of the time? Well, not exactly.


The truth is that memory plays a huge role in determining how we define ourselves, and they influence our personalities and world views. What some scientists have found, however, suggest that our beliefs and memories actually manipulate how we perceive and store them as well. Put another way, your beliefs will influence how you create and recall memories. If you think about memories, they’re always filtered through your own perception. Even if two people witness the exact same event, those two people may process and store that information in completely different ways. Perhaps one person had a toothache that day, and their headache amplified how loud they perceived an event to be. Another person that wearing headphones all day may say that it wasn’t loud at all. The commonality is that each person’s memory is influenced by the limitations of their own perception. We’re all just filtering and interpreting--none of us are unbiased observers.


So, in a way, memories can be accurate--to your own perception and worldview. The truth is, every memory is somewhat subjective, with thousands of pieces of data contributing to how you store and interpret any given situation. That’s why, if you truly want to cherish and save a memories forever, you’d better take a photo or video. Otherwise, your brain might just sabotage you and change your memory without asking you first!
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