Rewriting Memory

Once upon a time I read a book that had a scene from post-war Berlin. An Englishman was visiting an old man who had been a general in the German army during the war. His apartment was bleak, but it had a large sand table right in the middle of it. (For those who don’t know, a sand table is a big pile of dirt where soldiers can model the terrain over which battles are fought.)   The old man gestured at it and said he was replaying his battles from the war. He smiled and said something like, “You know, each time I refight my battles, I seem to make fewer mistakes.” Then he laughed and said, “Who knows, if I keep it up long enough, maybe we’ll win the War!”

This brings up the whole question of memory. How do we remember things, how accurate are our memories, and, perhaps most important, how stable are our memories?

We tend to think of our memories as being like a collection of pictures, both still and moving. Call up the memory of, say, the house we grew up in, and it’s likely to be a pretty still picture we can pan across, with a yard, a porch, a door, etc. Recall an old friend or a relative, and we’re likely to get a moving picture of some flash of expression or characteristic gesture.

Point is, we think of our memory as a reproductive organ. We imagine that the images are simply stored away, to be reproduced at will. A fair amount of early brain studies were directed at finding exactly which part of our brains are used to store memories.

But later studies suggested it wasn’t that simple. There isn’t some discrete set of ganglia that stores your mother’s face and all the associations it conveys to you. Memory is a distributed function involving different parts of the brain. The cortex is the main storage area, but the hippocampus is involved in memory formation and recall and the amygdala seems to be the place where we store the emotions related to a memory. Even within the cortex, different types of memory are stored in different regions.

The upshot of all this is that memory is not reproductive. We don’t simply access the single point where a memory is stored and re-experience it. Memory is constructive. Different bits and pieces are called up from the different places where they are stored and then constructed into the memory we perceive.

Think about that. Not only are your memories scattered throughout your brain, they are reconstructed each and every time you recall them…and the reconstruction process is not perfect. So each and every time you experience a memory, it is probably altered just a bit.

That has a logical consequence all its own. Our most important memories are usually also our most vivid memories. They retain a stark clarity and emotional weight. They are the ones we revisit the most. But another way of saying that is that they are reconstructed the most. So over the years they have probably been subtly altered. If we were somehow magically able to go back and relive them, we would probably find that the peripheral details were quite wrong and the core was vaguely different.

But recall isn’t just a matter of biology. All that reconstruction allows us to do a bit of editing.

And we do it constantly.

With the best will in the world, human beings cannot help but edit their own pasts, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively.

Think about Uncle Harry.

We all have an Uncle Harry. He’s the guy (or gal) who likes to dominate the conversation at family gatherings. He the one where everything someone else says (in a desperate attempt to divert the conversation) reminds him of yet another story. A story probably from way back in the past. At the drop of a hat he’ll tell you all about the girls he used to know, the coup he pulled off at work, or what he did in the war.

But if you pay attention (hard though that is to do), you’ll notice something interesting about Uncle Harry’s stories. As the years go by, the girls in his stories get a little prettier, the coups more profitable and the war more horrific. It’s not that Harry is a bald-faced liar, artfully embroidering his past. I’m sure good old Harry is honestly unaware that his tales are mutating. The problem is that every time we revisit a memory, we have the power to do a little enhancing. Being human, that’s often exactly what we do.

It’s what makes eyewitness testimony at once so credible and so unreliable. Every gesture, every facial expression, every bit of body language shows that the witness has a perfectly clear memory, is totally sincere, and is telling the absolute truth.

It just may not conform to reality.

I think we all do this, just in varying degrees. I have to say that I have known some people whose narratives could be absolutely depended upon to be wrong. Wrong in big things or wrong in little things, but dependably wrong. I’ve known some others that I thought were pretty darned reliable, at least on objective matters.

Subjectivity kind of alters the odds. At one time I dated a lady who was solidly reliable on objective matters. However, over the years that I knew her I could see her editing her own role in things. In the bad stories, she became a bit more innocent. In the good stories she became a bit more self-sacrificing. As a corollary, in the bad stories the other people became a bit more guilty. In the good stories, the others became a bit more unappreciative.

In time, she became my object lesson: Even sincere people (mea culpa) cannot be relied upon when their self-image is involved. Memory editing is a tool for the ego’s survival.

I haven’t seen that lady in years but, who knows, maybe she’s won the War by now.

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