Fallible Memories

If I remember correctly, I was twenty-six when I discovered my first gray hair.  I was actually fairly pleased.  I was young enough to construe gray hair as making me look more “mature” as opposed to “old.”

Still, I was a bit confused.  I didn’t know early gray was part of my heritage.  Just which side of the family was I following and just how fast could I expect it to progress?

I was a late child.  My father was thirty-eight when I was born, but I could still vividly recall his solid, jet black hair in the years when I was growing up.  So no luck there.

My mother, on the other hand, presented a special problem.  She had been dyeing her hair so long I had no idea of its natural color.  Mother had always referred to her original hue as a “mousy brown,” implying that it was so drab she had been forced to dye it.


But it was also possible that she had started to go gray early on and had dyed it for that reason.  Given the fact that she was at that moment (age of sixty) sporting a defiantly vivid brown, a certain reluctance to show her age seemed an obvious possibility.

So, the next time I called, I brought it up to my mother.  Treading lightly, I carefully explained to her how I accepted that the guilty gene could have come from Dad, despite the fact that his hair was coarse, black (mine is fine and mousy brown) and had stayed solid colored for so long, but I doubted it.

Treading even more carefully, I explained that although I had no idea just when she had begun to dye her hair, it was long enough ago that I could not clearly recall her original color nor exactly when she began to go gray.  Could it have been as early as my current age?

She was very nice about it, saying that she thought she had begun to go gray in her late twenties or early thirties.

“But Bill,” she said, “your father started to go gray in college!”

Now I was not going to challenge my mother about this.  Common sense said that if it had been that early there is no question that it would have been remarked upon (knowing my mother, more than once).  Equally, there is no question that “in college” was an unmistakable time frame.

It was, therefore, unquestionably “gospel true.”

However, it was (for me) also second hand.  Alongside it I had a vivid first hand memory of my father having solid black hair while I was growing up.  And he was for darned sure too arrogant to have ever dyed his hair.  With my father, what you saw was what you got and be damned to you!

The answer was as obvious as it was disturbing: My absolutely clear, solidly first person, don’t-argue-with-me-I-was-there-and-saw-it-myself memory was….wrong.

Which brings up one of the oddities of the human brain.  We like to think that perception and memory combine to create a sort of machine-like, infallible recording of what actually happened.  But it seems we have the power to shape our perceptions and thereby “filter” our recording.

The first filter is preconception.  I thought of my father’s hair as black.  Therefore I expected black.  Perceived black.  Recorded black.  Remember black.

Another filter comes from emotion.  Strong emotion colors not only how we recall memories but how we perceive (and record) the original event.  If you were ever totally terrified by some movie you saw as a child, go back and watch it again.  The angry faces you remember as filling the screen may be a little smaller.  The blood that seemed to cover everything might be more localized.  The screaming sounds you couldn’t block out may be closer to normal volume.

But we do not just influence the recording of memories.  There is also a selectivity in our ability to access those memories.  Some memories seem to develop an odd ability to hide from us.  They are still stored away, but another filter has hidden them from us.

In my experience, we are usually made aware of this by another person who claims to remember an event we would swear had never occurred.

Given human nature, our first reaction is to think that it is the other person who is confused and “making things up.”   And some of the time we are right.  But sometimes, as they recite detail after detail, recollection slowly dawns.

These memories, usually painful ones, were never really missing.  They are just masked from us.  Under enough pressure, the memories begin to re-emerge, more or less in the form that other people remember.  (We know a lot more about the mind’s capacity to “create” memories than we did a few years ago.  Unless another person recalls the same event, “recovered” memories should, I think, be considered more symbolic than real.)

But just how accurate are the memories we can call up?  By this I do not mean how well does it reflect reality, but how well does it reflect our actual memories?

This may sound paradoxical, but let me offer an example I suspect is universal: You are having a heated…ah…discussion with someone near and dear about some past event.  Initially, you hold to a different (and clearly more accurate) version of just who said what to whom.  As time goes on, under the bludgeoning effect of argument, you find yourself recollecting that well, yes, perhaps, it was more like what they said.

What is really maddening about this sort of thing is that you start out secure in your memory’s initial rendition of events.  It is quite clear and carries a stamp of truth.  However, as time goes on, you find it subtly shifting into a version that your gut tells you is more accurate (and just happens to agree with the other person’s version).

It is as if your mind originally wanted to offer you a version that was more gentle to your amour propre, but, when coerced, could be made to give you a memory that was more true.

So now we have a fourth filter: Uncomfortable or painful memories may be copied into more bearable versions.  The original memory stays intact (insofar as we can judge) but it is hidden behind the more comfortable copy.

There was a scene in a novel by Len Deighton I remember from years back. It took place in Berlin, in the fifties.  Palmer (Deighton’s British spy) was visiting a German general of the Second World War.  Having lost, he was living in a dingy apartment, doing what all good overaged generals do: he was writing his memoirs.  When Palmer saw his notes and a sand table, the old man said,  “Ah, yes.  I am re-fighting all my old battles.  And you know, each time I do it, I make fewer mistakes.”  He leaned close to Palmer and said, “Do you suppose, if I keep it up long enough, we will have won the war?”

It is natural that we should rewrite our judgements of the past.  As the years go by we tend to be less harshly critical of ourselves and others.  The memories themselves do not change, but the weight and coloration we give them alters.  Some might call that wisdom.

However, the human animal also seems to have the capacity for the actual, permanent editing of the memories themselves.  This is a very different filtering operation and much more fateful.

All of us seem to do this at least a little, no matter how honest we try to be with ourselves.   But there are other folks who seem to use it as a magic solution to their problems.  Things done or undone, promises made or broken, are simply edited as necessary to put them in the best light.  For these people, the past is not a reality to be remembered and understood.  It is a mutable self-portrait, to be adjusted as circumstances require.

This may seem dishonest on a very fundamental level.  I feel that way myself.  But that judgement depends on exactly what we see memory as being for.  The real issue, it seems to me, may not be whether memories are true, because we have seen that they often are not.  The real question may be whether it is necessarily better for us when our memories are accurate.

We could see memory (and I happen to) as the history of our lives.  And history, most believe, should be as accurate as we can make it.  It is, after all, the record against which we can measure our own growth and worth. To fudge it would be to measure ourselves against a dishonest  yardstick: self-deceptive and ultimately futile.

Which is all very good and righteous and Calvinistic.  However, it is also arguable that the life best lived is not the most accurate, but the most happy.  Using that standard,  I think one could argue that a good, powerful editor is a pretty useful tool.

This is a question with which I am profoundly uncomfortable, but here it is:  Which is finally better for the human animal, to be uncomfortably accurate or contentedly edited?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *