The brain updates memories to make them more relevant and useful. It isn’t trying to accurately remember what happened. So, what do you remember that’s wrong?
Science has long known that human memory is far less reliable than most people imagine. For fun, Google [memory not reliable] and when you get a few spare minutes work your way through the 89,300,000 results that pop up.
I first encountered this body of research – not all of it, of course – as an undergrad at Wake Forest in Dr. Jerry Burger’s Intro to Psychology class, and then we studied it a bit more when I later took him for Social Psych. Utterly fascinating was the research on eyewitness memory in criminal investigations. We all imagine that if we’re sitting in a room watching a lecture and a guy bursts in and beats up the professor, we could probably give an accurate enough description and pick him out of a lineup a few minutes later, but it turns out that this isn’t the case nearly as often as you’d imagine.
Some years later I had my own fallibility proven to me. There was this one particularly traumatic evening back in the late ’80s, and when I recalled the events I remembered the driving rainstorm as I sat in my car in a parking lot in South Winston-Salem, my whole world falling apart around me.
There came a time when I had it demonstrated to me, with verifiable weather data, that it hadn’t been raining that night at all. Clear skies, no precipitation for miles.
As I understand the research, stress and trauma damage the ability to remember accurately. Given the magnitude of the crisis that evening it’s amazing I can remember anything at all correctly. And yet, the memories were – still are, to be honest – vivid as hell. It was by god raining cats and dogs that night.
As a result, I now know, for a fact, that I can’t necessarily trust my memory. That’s unsettling.
I note all this because now we have new research that adds even more detail to the question of how memory works – or fails to work. A study in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that our brains overwrite our memories, imposing new data over the old.
The brain edits memories relentlessly, updating the past with new information. Scientists say that this isn’t a question of having a bad memory. Instead, they think the brain updates memories to make them more relevant and useful now — even if they’re not a true representation of the past.
The brain structure that the people in this experiment were using when they were rewriting their memories, the hippocampus, is very involved in autobiographical memory. “It’s essentially as if the hippocampus doesn’t care if it’s putting together two new things,” Voss says.
In some ways this is utterly terrifying. What do I remember that didn’t happen? What has my brain forgotten without me permission? Are the things I remember doing injustice to people from the past? Do other people remember things about me that aren’t right? In at least one case, yes.
One of the more disturbing moments in my life happened when I got together with an old girlfriend from college. We talked about many, many things – our troubled time together, what we had done since we last saw each other, etc. At one point in the conversation she revealed that she had never forgotten the time that I hit her.
Ummm. Wait, what?
She was quite clear in her mind about it. The problem is that I am hardwired to avoid any kind of violence against women. My grandfather made clear to me the first time a girl in the neighborhood beat me up when I was five or so that it didn’t matter what she did. If I ever lifted a hand against a female he was going to make me regret the day I was born. And I believed him. Unfortunately, there was another girl in the neighborhood – a real piece of work, too – who figured all this out and took every opportunity she could find to torment me. She was doing it on the school bus one day and the driver pulled over and threatened to throw her off if she didn’t leave me alone. I’m guessing his father had the same talk with him than Granddaddy had with me.
Do not hurt women (or anyone else who is defenseless against you) has been a foundational principle of my ethical and moral code every day of my life. I’m not honestly sure that I’m capable of striking a female. So I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it is that she remembered. I don’t think she intentionally made it up – I think she honestly believes that I hit her.
The best I can do is speculate. It is fair to say that she was one of the more physical girls I ever dated. This was not an altogether bad thing. But when she got mad – well, she could get a little wild. She certainly hit me often enough, although not in a dangerous way. Open handed slap to chest, stuff like that.
Maybe one time I tried to restrain her to keep her from hitting me? Hell, I don’t know. As I said above, I know better than to trust my memory implicitly, and if not hitting a woman weren’t so deeply embedded in the fabric of my being I’d be sitting here questioning my memory instead of hers.
I don’t like thinking about these kinds of issues. I do so because the research is interesting and the implications for all us significant. I can’t help thinking about all those people in prison who were put away solely on the basis of eyewitness testimony. How many of them are innocent?
So here’s a new tidbit for you to think about, I guess. If you want to make sure you remember it correctly, take a picture….