Our unreliable memory

When I was 13, I used to hang out a lot at a friend's house. The other day, the same friend and I reminisced about those days. He asked me: "Remember the dog?" I asked him: "what dog?" He replied: "My dog!" I had absolutely no recollection of his dog!

Then, trying to get in the swing of things, I said: "oh hang on, yes, yes, it was a brown dog wasn't it?" He laughed. "No, it was black, it was a big black dog. Don't you remember?" he asked. I did not.

According to "Memory the Self-Justifying Historian", Chapter Three of "Mistakes Were Made", my inability to remember the dog is not surprising. Our minds forget selectively, all the time.


Summary - part 1

Memory is our personal, live-in, self-justifying historian.

History is written by the victors, and when we write our own histories, we do so just as the conquerors of nations do: to justify our actions and make us look and feel good about ourselves and what we did, or what we failed to do. If mistakes were made, memory helps remember that they were made by someone else.
Of course, memories can be remarkably detailed and accurate, too. We remember first kisses and favorite teachers. We remember family stories, movies, dates, baseball stats, childhood humiliations and triumphs. We remember the central events of our life stories. But when we do misremember, our mistakes aren't random. The everyday, dissonance-reducing distortions of memory help us make sense of the world and our place in it, protecting our decisions and beliefs. The distortion is even more powerful when it is motivated by the need to keep our self-concept consistent; by the wish to be right; by the need to preserve self-esteem; by the need to excuse failures or bad decisions; or by the need to find an explanation, preferably one safely in the past, of current problems. Confabulation, distortion and plain forgetting are the foot soldiers of memory, and they are summoned to the front lines when the totalitarian ego wants to protect us from the pain and embarrassment of actions we took that are dissonant with our core self-images: "I did that?"
One of the authors of the book gives an example of a vivid memory she had, rich in detail and emotion, that turned out to be indisputably wrong.

Being absolutely, positively sure a memory is accurate does not mean that it is; our errors in memory support our current feelings and beliefs.
We do not remember everything that happens to us; we select only highlights. Moreover, recovering a memory is like watching a few unconnected frames of a film and then figuring out what the rest of the scene must have been like. Because memory is reconstructive, it is subject to confabulation - "source confusion"".

The author of Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Mary McCarthy, at the end of each chapter, subjected her memories to the evidence for or against them. The evidence killed some good stories! It is likely she had fused memories in order to have story-lines consonant with her feelings, in order to justify her present-day feelings.

You have memories about your father that are salient to you and that represent the man he was and the relationship you had with him. What have you forgotten? You remember that time when you were disobedient and he swatted you. But could you have been the kind of kid a father couldn't explain things to, because you were impatient and impulsive and didn't listen?
Every parent has been an unwilling player in the you-can't-win game.

Betsy Petersen produced a full-bodied whine in her memoir Dancing With Daddy, blaming her parents for only giving her swimming lessons, trampoline lessons, horseback-riding lessons, and tennis lessons, but not ballet lessons. "The only thing I wanted, they would not give me," she wrote. Parent blaming is a popular and convenient form of self-justification because it allows people to live less uncomfortably with their regrets and imperfections. Mistakes were made, by them. Never mind that I raised hell about those lessons or stubbornly refused to take advantage of them. Memory thus minimizes our responsibility and exaggerates theirs.


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