In the Brain of the Beholder

A closer look at how we experience art and film

Reconstructing Memories With the Stories We Tell

Our memories define who we are as individuals or at least who we think we are.

"Stories We Tell," Lionsgate

In the recent documentary, Stories We Tell, filmmaker Sarah Polley presents her own story of the search for her biological father. Through interviews with friends and relative, snapshots, and re-enactments of pertinent events that look like old home movies, the film moves like a real-life Rashomon, wherein bits of the "truth" are revealed from various points of views. The stories revolve around Sarah's mother, Diane Polley, a stage actress who died of cancer when Sarah was 11 years old. The "seminal" event, if you will, took place nine months before Sarah's birth, when her mother took an extended leave from home and family and moved hundreds of miles away to perform in a play in Montreal. As such, there was plenty of opportunity and several prime suspects in the mystery of Sarah's biological father.

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Around the diningroom table, jokes were often made that Sarah didn't really look like anyone else in the family, particularly Michael, Sarah's putative father. Michael, however, never questioned his paternity as he did visit Diane in Montreal during her time away. The film starts with Michael's perspective, though we very soon encounter the disparity of interpretations from other players, including Sarah's biological father (part of the fun is the revelation of who this man is, and I won't spoil the fun). With Sarah's mother unable to provide her own recollections, we are left with Michael's story, the biological father's story (which has its own depth and poignancy), and Sarah's perspective in terms of how she decided to edit the interviews and what she decided to include in her re-enactments. Indeed, an essential and wonderfully pertinent aspect of the movie is the way Polley shows how our memories are reconstructed "stories" built from episodes of true experiences plastered with fictional additions and modifications.

Memory researchers have long viewed recollections as stories that are reconstituted each time we tell them. As we replay our memories, we add to and color the past. In a chilling retelling of a life event, New York Times columnist and former drug addict David Carr documented his recollection of a day twenty years earlier when he was fired from a job. Carr remembers going to a bar with an old college buddy, Donald, to "celebrate" his firing. Spiked with pills, booze, and cocaine, Carr's behavior became so erratic that he was asked to leave the bar. Outside the premises, Donald complained about Carr's behavior, and in response Carr shoved Donald against his friend's Ford. Carr remembers Donald driving off without him, though later phoning his friend and saying in a menacing voice, "I'm coming over." Donald warns Carr not to come and says he has a gun. Ignoring the warning, Carr arrives at Donald's door and confronts his friend who has "a handgun at his side." An altercation ensues with Carr smashing a window with his fist and Donald calling the cops and saying: "You should leave. They're coming right now." Twenty years later, Carr discussed his recollections with Donald, who confirmed much of the story, except for a critical feature—it was Carr who had the gun (for further details, see Carr, 2008, The Night of the Gun and interview).

 The preeminent psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has conducted ingenious experiments about the malleability of our memories and how life events can interfere with each other and blend across time. She has shown that our recollections are indeed reconstructions that are partly true and partly fiction. She has even managed to convince individuals of remembering that they were once lost in a shopping mall, though the "memory" was actually planted by Loftus in cahoots with a family member.

Brain scientists have shown that when we have a strong recollection of a past event (even if it's a false memory), the posterior parietal cortex (PPC) is particularly active. This brain region has been viewed as a convergence zone or integrative area. That is, pieces of an event are stored in various parts of the brain—such as visual memories stored along paths emanating from the back of the brain (V1). When we try to retrieve a past experience, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) helps guide and search for the stray pieces, and the PPC glues the pieces together as an encapsulated "episodic" memory, such as remembering a particularly good meal with friends at a new restaurant (see Shimamura, 2011; figure from Shimamura, 2013).

 Whenever we reminisce about the past, we build stories based on "re-collecting" details of prior events. Movies act as a powerful means of visually narrating personal stories, and Polley's film offers both a documentation of her past and a lesson in how memories can be colored and distorted. During the movie, one realizes that what looks like old home movies taken with a shaky Super 8 camera are actually re-enactments, the kind of dramatizations often presented in history documentaries seen on TV. I tend to dislike such portrayals, yet in Polley's film these re-creations foster the notion that our own memories are reconstructions of the past. One moral of "Stories We Tell" is that we may never fully know how we got to where we are today. As David Carr has said about his own recollections: "You can't know the whole truth, but if there is one it lies in the space between people."

 

Arthur P. Shimamura, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

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