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What Memory is … and is Not

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By Joel Wade

February 25, 2018

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“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
― Marcel Proust

“Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.”
― Steven Wright

Understanding what memory is—and is not—can do wonders for our relationships, our self-awareness, and our peace of mind.

Understanding what memory is—and is not—can do wonders for our relationships, our self-awareness, and our peace of mind.

Sitting around the table at Thanksgiving, a family member might recount a memory of an event from your childhood, talking about what you experienced as though it’s a fact. How do you feel? Probably at least a little annoyed. He, after all, did not have your memory, he had his memory.

You were both there in the same place at the same time, but you were having your experience of the event, and he was having his. The two experiences could be worlds apart.

We’ve all had those arguments, where one of us remembers things one way, and the other remembers it differently. “Remember a few years ago when we were at the lake, and you fell in with all your clothes on?” “I didn’t fall in, you pushed me in!” “Did not!” Did so!” and the battle ensues to determine whose story is true.

Can you ever remember one of those arguments ending well? Such debates are fueled by a mistake: the idea that our memories are an accurate recording of facts, like a biological video camera with unlimited storage capacity. The question usually turns into who has a “good” memory, and who has a “bad” memory. It’s a win/lose discussion, which never turns out so well, even with the best of intentions.

The truth is, it’s likely that neither is accurate.

Memories are less like a factual data recorder, and more like stories we’ve created of our personal experience; an amalgam of emotions, perspective, and interpretations of events.

Memories are less like a factual data recorder, and more like stories we’ve created of our personal experience; an amalgam of emotions, perspective, and interpretations of events. We remember the meaning we made of the events at the time. Over time, our memories change, adapting to our changing sense of self and our different perspectives—and in the process that meaning can change as well.

In the backyard of my childhood home, we had what we called “The Forest.” My memory was of a deeply wooded area, with massive trees. But that memory was formed when I was little. Visiting that yard as a young adult, I was surprised to find that it was really just a few relatively smallish trees in an area about the size of your average garage; hardly the dense wilderness of my childhood recollection.

Our memories can even be totally bogus.

Elizabeth Loftus of the University of Michigan has done extensive research into how malleable our story memories can be. In one of her more famous studies, a number of people recalled that on a shopping trip at the age of about five years old, they got lost for an extended period, cried, received aid and comfort from an elderly woman and, finally, were reunited with their family.

The fascinating thing about this is … none of it ever happened.

The story was completely made up by the researchers. Relatives had been asked to write a short paragraph of three actual events from the person’s childhood, and then this fourth, phony story was included in the mix. After reading these four stories, as told by their relatives, these folks were asked if   they remembered them or not. One-fourth of the participants claimed that they remembered the made up one—even though it never happened.

Loftus’s work has been a pivotal blessing in bringing to our awareness the danger of false memories that can be encouraged by overzealous therapists, or in the courtroom by manipulative legal teams. It reminds us that our memories are stories that contain facts, but they are not reliably factual. This doesn’t mean there is “no reality.” It’s just that our memories are malleable, and we don’t have to dig our heels in so hard when there’s a difference between our recollection and another person’s.

Memories are a powerful force in our lives; they weave into stories, they give us meaning and continuity, they allow us to carry a sense of ourselves over time, and they connect us with the people and events that have influenced and shaped us.

In Ancient Greek mythology, Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory, inventor of speech and writing, and the mother of the nine muses who brought inspiration to poets, musicians, playwrights, dancers … even astronomers. Without memory, there can be no creativity, for there can be no story to draw from, no inspiration to create.

But the fluid quality of our story memories can also be a blessing in another way. When we hold onto past painful memories as precisely true, they can imprison us in the pain of a moment, and bind us to that pain for a lifetime.

But the fluid quality of our story memories can also be a blessing in another way. When we hold onto past painful memories as precisely true, they can imprison us in the pain of a moment, and bind us to that pain for a lifetime. I have had clients who have spent decades ruminating over very specific painful memories, feeling the same pain each time they think of it, holding the memories tightly in the foreground of their experience.

There is no good that comes from this kind of reliving of awful experiences. We don’t have to deny anything in order to allow past hurts to take their proper place in history.

Over time, it’s healthy to allow life’s hurts and disappointments to fade, but we can speed this process along by looking to other stories we remember that remind us of people who loved us, challenges we overcame, and opportunities we can feel grateful for. By actively searching for the good people, events, and opportunities of our past, we color the overall tone of our memories, and we can allow their natural fluidity to heal the old wounds, as a tree will grow its bark around an old injury.

There is also a deeper layer of memory, the implicit memories. These are involved in the less conscious and more automatic things we do.

Implicit memory is what allows us to remember how to ride a bike or play a sport. Our bodies remember the movements, the focus, and the feeling of the actions, and we’re able to dive right into it again.

Have you ever had a feeling that you recognize someone—without remembering the story, just sort of a gut or body sense? I don’t have a story memory of visiting my grandparents in Santa Barbara, I was very little when they lived there; but when we drove recently through the neighborhood where they lived, I could “feel” that I had been there before. Those are implicit memories. No story, no clear images, but a body/emotional sense.

In the case of my grandparents, they were good people and it was a good safe, joyful feeling that I had. I felt like going toward it. We can also have experiences that were hurtful or scary, and then the feeling would be to move away from that place—even if we don’t know consciously what it is we’re trying to get away from. Our implicit memories are like this, very deep, very primitive really. They are the basis of our “gut” feelings to go towards or away from something or someone.

Understanding the fluid quality of our story memories can help us to grow and strengthen ourselves from some of our painful, rigidly held stories, toward more expansive, hopeful ones. Paying attention to the subtler and deeper flow of our implicit memories can help us be more in tune to enjoy a flourishing sense of connection—or to trust our gut to avoid potential danger.

It can even make for a more enjoyable Thanksgiving.
 

 

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