Everything I Remember Might be Wrong

And so might everything you remember.

As a young married couple, from time to time my wife and I butted heads over simple domestic things. Like, say, I’d finished off the last of some food. Being in a rush, I'd set the container on the counter to remind one of us to put it on the shopping list. My wife took umbrage at this. I wasn’t sure at the time what was offensive—was it the being in a rush or leaving trash out?—but I took care not to repeat the situation. Thereafter I tried both to add the item to the shopping list myself and to dispose of the container.

Last week, we had some friends over. While discussing family histories, my wife told them about how, in my family, we’d put empty containers back into the cupboards because that was the way we reminded ourselves to get more. I realized that she was likely referring to the same incident I just described, but with a few key differences and a completely different set of takeaways.

How did we arrive at such different memories? Where, in fact, did the truth lie? At this point I can’t say for sure, but the nearest I can guess is that I put the container in a place which I thought was out in the open, but which to her seemed tucked away, and that those differing perceptions became our truths. But how exactly did the real story get replaced by these personalized versions?

To answer that, let’s take a look at what memory actually looks like within the brain. It's not unlike the process of reporting the news. A reporter on the scene records all the details that they can manage through video, audio or furious note-taking. This is essentially the role of our sensory memory. It records tremendous detail about everything our senses detect, but it’s very short-lived (seconds at best).

Now let’s say there are lots of reporters out there, each thinking that their story may be worth the public’s attention but also that it’s up to the editors to decide which are worth pursuing further and fashioning into publishable stories. Our brains exercise this editorial control by applying attention filters to winnow through our sensory inputs, so that we’re not pulled to and fro by every random stimulus. In selecting which information to publish, the stories also get simplified to present only the most relevant (or juicy) details. The rest is reduced to an outline, an impression, a trace of what really happened. With the brain editor’s approval, these traces become short-term memories, which then mingle with thoughts and form the basis for most of what we think of as consciousness: reasoning, decision-making, feeling. These abbreviated reports get sent out across the syndication wire to anyone who might care to publish them.

Some reports take hold in the public consciousness, especially when common themes from multiple sources are repeated. This is similar to how long-term memory coalesces from a blending of short-term memories. Once there, they may lie dormant for a long time, but they can jump back to full vigor when the right retrieval cues get triggered. These cues may vary widely: a place, a smell, a snatch of melody. But once the story has been told, the telephone game begins. Sometimes multiple stories end up getting jumbled together and a detail from one place gets slotted into another. Once it gets retold, the details of the retelling may prove easier to store than the original memories—especially if it fits more neatly into the landscape of our existing memories. What began as faithful fact reporting turns very easily into urban legend.

Does this sound familiar? Take the shameful case of suspended NBC news anchor Brian Williams. Why would he have chosen consciously to lie about events that have been so clearly recorded? Is there any chance his brain played telephone with itself for long enough that he simply lost track of the truth? There but for the grace of God . . .

We think of our memories as iron-clad, but they’re more like sand on the beach. I’ve gotten a lot of things right when it comes to remembering or making educated guesses. But this has gone to my head and led me to defend vehemently things that I’d completely misremembered. When something is worth remembering accurately, it’s worth committing the evidence to something less fleeting than our neural pathways.

In Christopher Nolan’s 2000 movie Memento, the central character Leonard suffers from anterograde amnesia, an inability to form new memories. He has normal memories of his life only up to an attack which left his wife dead and him with major brain trauma. In his search for justice, he pieces together the mystery and leaves himself physical reminders (including tattoos) to remind himself of what he’s discovered. Tattoos may not be your thing, but a good, honest journal may be a useful reality check for your future self. My college a cappella group recently asked me for anecdotes and reflections to pass on to current and future members, and I would have been at a loss if it weren’t for my journals. It was disturbing, though, to read them and see what a whiner I was. This wasn’t my memory of the man (or boy) that I was.

If we’re so prone to lapses and self-deception, maybe we should cut others the slack we ourselves need. Paraphrasing Hanlon’s razor, we should be reluctant to “attribute to malice [or other moral failings] that which is adequately explained by stupidity [or other neurological pitfalls].”

Back to Memento: Leonard reaches a point where his messages to himself go from “just the facts” to taking liberties with the truth in order to assert control over his future view of reality. By physically replacing photographic evidence with a few choice sentences, he models something we do unconsciously every day. When we put our experiences into language (by writing them down or telling them to others), we arm our brains with an extremely economical representation of the past—and the brain loves nothing more than efficient operation. The stories we tell, to others and to ourselves, can take on a life of their own that gathers parts of our psyche together and splits others, like tectonic plates shifting and changing our mental landscape.

Despite his extreme tactics, Leonard inspires me. I’ve long had trouble appropriately recognizing my own fault in relational problems, including my marriage. My typical self-narrative focuses on the many reasons why my actions or reactions make sense, and rehashing those justifications only entrenches my memories of being right. But taking care to acknowledge and rehearse others' versions of events is slowly transforming me. Not nearly as fast as my wife might hope. Maybe barely fast enough to keep us moving forward. But as I replace my self-aggrandizement with more fair and balanced accounts, I’m no longer the default hero of my own story. I gain enough perspective to transcend my faults and have a shot at becoming an actual hero to my family and friends.

Taking opportunities instead to retell tales of others' awesomeness, I find myself awash in gratitude for such people in my life. Take my wife, my inspiration for overcoming, for working courageously to make the most of a bad hand. I can often feel guilty about having better cards than most people and, at the same time, close my eyes to the many bad cards that have dogged me all my life. This is a recipe for complacency and under-achievement, but I’m learning through Julie to get off my duff, embrace the best and worst of who I really am, and move forward.

These are richer and more life-giving things with which to fill my mind than distorted tallies of (mostly my) pluses and (obviously others's) minuses. That way lies the slow path toward death. So, turning instead towards living more fully, I recall and recount stories that stretch me beyond my petty inner world. These stories may start with a dark past, but they point to a brighter future.

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