Jul 22, 2014

Memory - an Unreliable Tool at Best

Memory, an Unreliably Tool at Best | Business, Life & Design

I don't honestly think that anyone's memory is as good as they think it is.  Everyone trusts their own brain, because how can you not trust the thing that's creating all your thoughts and perceptions?

Reading a book once, the characters were involved in using magic to tamper with memories, and they explained that this is really easy to do, because any one individual's memories are mostly made up anyway.  I laughed and continued reading, but as time goes on, and I hear a bizarre story that someone invented but now is totally convinced is real, or a fact that several people agree upon but turns out to be false, I start to wonder.

I did this myself.  At least once that I know of.  When I was writing the Twilight post, about movies/shows that make things too obvious.  I could have sworn there was an example in Game of Thrones, where they're discussing battle tactics with Danaerys.  In my brain, someone (probably Jorah) said, "You have something they don't... [long, dramatic pause]  Dragons."  And that would have been my second example of "Hey, it was pretty darn obvious and you really didn't need that last bit."

So I looked it up to get the wording right for my post and lo and behold!  It didn't exist.  I couldn't find it on any of the quote websites (and they seriously seem to think every line from every episode is a "quote").  So I rewatched the episode I thought it was in.  And the one before, and the one after.  Nope.  Totally invented.

If I could invent something so easily in order to try and prove a point about something silly that I don't care that much about, how many other people are doing this all the time?  To justify bad behavior?  To win an argument?  To make things turn out the way they want it to?

Another Game of Thrones example: I was arguing with Significant about how Joffrey's death went down in the books vs the show.  He was convinced that the book outright said that Sansa was the killer.  I knew he was wrong.  We roped in Roommate for this.  "Oh yeah, the book says it was Sansa."  They remembered the same scene in the book.

So I looked it up.  The internet was vague, so I found the book, and read all the chapters that involved the feast or conversations that occurred about the incident.  That scene never happened!  But 2 people had been convinced that it had.

Last example: My father has a habit of wildly exaggerating his stories.  I used to think he knew it was an exaggeration or sometimes, he'd manage to rope someone into corroborating the story and I'd think somehow, against all odds, it might even be true.

I know better, now.  We were on a trip to Disney and we were walking past the "swim with sharks" tank.  We've even done this in the past, so we know the sharks are small, and it's really just a cute, mini version of snorkeling.

As we walked by we heard a boy ask a nearby vendor what the people in the tank were doing.  I didn't hear his answer but one of my sisters said, "I think he just told that boy that they were looking for a shark that bit someone."  My dad laughed, and that seemed to be the end of it.

Years later, he starts telling this story, but instead of someone joking to a kid, it actually happened.  Someone had been bitten and they were looking for the shark.  I doubted my memory.  Maybe it was true.

Flash forward even further.  We watched it happen.  Some stupid kid ran to the tank, jumped in, collided with a shark, who in turn chomped his leg.  Blood went everywhere.

What.  The.  F***?!

And, foolishly, he called upon my sisters and me to back him up.  "You were there, you remember?"  But we didn't help him out, because it was too far.  Too ridiculous.  And it stuck with me.  Because he was so totally convinced it was real, and he was so frustrated that none of us "remembered" it.

I think I understand a little better now why my father (and his whole family) exaggerates so much.  Sometimes it's to make themselves look better, or to garner sympathy, but more often than not, it's just to make life more exciting.  Ever notice how a past party is usually more exciting than the current one?  Or the bad moments of a trip just fade away and the good gets better?

I know there were quite a few bad moments on our Europe trip last summer, but when I find myself reminiscing, it all seems surrounded in a golden glow of excitement and adventure.  And I think that's not the worst thing in the world.  As long as you don't allow yourself to totally forget, "Uh, hey we were robbed, and there are dangers to look out for next time" then you might forge happier memories. 

But this magic power we have over our memories doesn't always get used for good.  I know at least one person who, in later life, is so focused on dwelling how life has treated him/her unfairly that most stories and memories are slanted to prove that point.  And I've read about psychiatrists using hypnosis to recover repressed memories, but instead creating new ones!  (See False Memory Syndrome and False Memory Syndrome Foundation)

So say we actually had full control over what memories to leave in our brains, and what shades to tint them.  I believe in being as truthful with yourself as possible, but if I'm going to shift things around, I'd like to remember how kind and caring everyone has been to me, how the world is a fantastic place, and how deserving it and everyone are of my best attitude and effort.


What would you do with your memory?  Have you ever remembered something completely differently from a friend and who was right?

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  1. Researchers at some universities are experimenting with something called "life-logging". You wear a device that actually records your entire life so you can go back and check something or look back at a special occasion, etc. But there's been some discussion about whether you really WANT to remember everything exactly as it happened. Sometimes the passage of time improves things. Interesting thought.

    1. That's really interesting! I would love to see what pieces of my memory are wrong. Especially if the bad ones were really as bad as I thought. But maybe they're right about time improving things, especially for people who are generally positive thinkers anyway.


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