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Your Memory Isn't What You Think It Is

Memories change each time we remember.

Who hasn’t experienced something like this with old friends?

"That was a great day in the park." "No, it was the beach."

"It rained." "There was sun."

"We wore overcoats." "We went without shoes."

It is our friend’s memory that is faulty, not ours, we say. We are certain we’re right because the picture is so clear to us. We may forget much about what happened, but what we do remember we are sure is correct. Of course, our friends believe the same about their memories.

Now Daniela Schiller of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and her former colleagues from New York University give us a new insight into the nature of memory.

Not only are our memories faulty (anyone who has uncovered old diaries knows that), but more importantly, Schiller says, our memories change each time they are recalled. What we recall is only a facsimile of things gone by.

Schiller says that memories are malleable constructs that are reconstructed with each recall. We all recognize that our memories are like Swiss cheese; what we now know is that they are more like processed cheese.

What we remember changes each time we recall the event. The slightly changed memory is now embedded as “real,” only to be reconstructed with the next recall.

One implication of Schiller’s work is that memory isn’t like a file in our brain but more like a story that is edited every time we tell it. To each re-telling, there are attached emotional details. So when the story is altered, feelings are also reshaped.

Schiller says, “My conclusion is that memory is what you are now. Not in pictures, not in recordings. Your memory is who you are now.” So if we tell our stories differently, the emotions that are elicited will also differ. An altered story is also an altered interior life.

In his MIT Technology Review article about this work, Stephen S. Hall writes that Schiller’s work “suggests radical nonpharmacological approaches to treating pathologies like post-traumatic stress disorder, other fear-based anxiety disorders, and even addictive behaviors.”

In an intriguing way, Schiller’s highly technical work on the biological functioning of the brain brings us back to an earlier time when talking therapy held sway and the humanities for psychological healing were as valued as the hard sciences. We’ll have to see how far this new direction will take us.

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