We all presume our own memory is infallible and that we’ve “recorded” an event accurately. But is the idea of memory as a reliable record of an event real or is it a myth?
Answer: It’s a MYTH!
Contrary to personal conviction, our memories are far from perfect replicas of events we’ve experienced. Even flashbulb memories of emotionally salient or newsworthy events that seem to have a photographic quality change over time.
Recent research on the stability of memories focused on the events of September 11, 2001. Records were taken of the participant’s recall of their experiences that day immediately afterward and then one, three, and ten years later. Every participant had strong memories of what they were doing, who they were with and how they felt when they learned of the airplane attacks. And importantly, they felt very confident about their recollections because of the emotional impact of the day. However, despite the vividness of their memory, at least one third of people relayed their experiences with different details just one year after 9/11.
“It isn’t so astonishing the things that I can remember, as the number of things I can remember that aren’t so.”
– Mark Twain
How do these inconsistencies arise?
Memory is more reconstructive than it is reproductive. That is, new details may be included into a memory each time it is recalled. Long-term memories become susceptible to change when remembered. This is because when you call to mind an event from the past, you bring the memory into your short-term memory. And in the process of recalling, new details may be attached to the old memory and reconsolidated with the memory. The new details can include another person’s recollection of the event, the environment in which you recalled the event and even your physiological state as you remembered it. In addition, we unconsciously layer personal schemas – our mental models based on past learning and experiences – onto memories so that they better fit our sense of self. This helps us reconcile our personal narrative with our past and present experiences and expectations.
So in the case of the participants who were asked to recall the events of 9/11, their memories inevitably included new details that became attached during each recall or retelling. Memories are always adapting; they change each time we remember!
This concept is nicely explained in this video (which will not change each time you watch it!) featuring neuroscientists Dr. Joseph LeDoux and Dr. Elizabeth Phelps, both known for their memory research.
In summary, memory is less like a recording of actual events, but rather a story that is edited each time we tell it. So, the next time you tell a story from your past, think about how accurate your memory of the event really is and even if you are rewriting history by the telling.