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The Memory Kaleidoscope

As we remember, the pieces shift and a new image emerges.

When I was a child, I loved kaleidoscopes. A simple tube filled with pieces of colored glass and mirrors. You rotate a kaleidoscope, the image pieces move, and a new picture forms. Although the pictures are new, they use the same pieces and are similar.

Memory is a kaleidoscope. Pieces of an event move and recombine into new but similar stories every time we remember.

A relative of mine has a lovely antique table, and I’ve asked her about it. Even though my relative has Alzheimer’s disease, she can still remember many events from her life. So she told me the story about how she and her husband got the table.

Ira Hyman
The antique table in question
Source: Ira Hyman

Actually, she has told me several different stories about the table. Much like a kaleidoscope, her memories of the table involve puzzle pieces that recombine with every retelling. The same memory pieces appear but in new combinations. What are the constant pieces? Her husband played a critical role. Apparently, when they found the table, he picked it up and carried it around. They had both decided they liked the table. He wanted to make sure no one else got the table before they did. So he carried it around.

But other pieces of the story move in and out of the picture as the kaleidoscope rotates. Where did they find the table? Sometimes in an antique store, sometimes an estate sale, and other times it was an heirloom from the family farm. Who were the other people who might want the table? Sometimes other people at the shop or sale and sometimes her husband’s siblings. And in some versions, no one else was interested in this wonderful table. My relative also remembers that someone recently cleaned and polished the table for her. But who? Different versions of the story have different people applying the elbow grease.

Someplace in these various stories is how she and her husband really came to own this table. But her memory seems to work like a kaleidoscope (a metaphor suggested to me by my wife). Pieces of this story remain in her memory. Related stories also float in the memory kaleidoscope. She and her husband collected antique furniture. She has many stories of finding and collecting antiques. As she reconsiders this antique table, the kaleidoscope turns, the pieces shift, and a new story emerges.

An interesting aspect of my relative's Alzheimer’s disease is the number of times I’ve heard the story about the table. The table has a prominent location in her apartment. When I come to visit, she sees the table and decides I might be interested in hearing the story of the table. She doesn’t remember that she’s told me the story before. Or rather, that she has told me other versions of the story before. Each time seems to be a new rotation of the kaleidoscope. Because people with Alzheimer’s disease often have difficulty tracking the topics of conversations, they sometimes repeat stories. Sometimes they repeat stories within the same conversation and sometimes across multiple visits (see my earlier blog on conversation loops in Alzheimer’s). If the visual cue is there, then the story comes to mind. Since she doesn’t remember telling me before, she’ll tell me this time.

My relative’s story seems to still have some grounding in what actually happened. But many people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia appear to create completely false stories, confabulations of past events. For these people, the memory loss is more disruptive. But the kaleidoscope pieces remain. They still know how to tell stories. They still want to participate in the conversation. They construct a narrative of the past in the moment. Even confabulations are built with the kaleidoscope pieces. But now the kaleidoscope is using pieces from all sorts of events, from general knowledge, and maybe even from fictional stories. The confabulation becomes their current picture of the past.

The memory kaleidoscope is not unique to Alzheimer’s disease: All of us change and recombine memories. Memories are always reconstructive. When we tell stories about the past, some pieces regularly make their appearance. But other pieces shift into the story as the kaleidoscope turns. This means that everyone creates their version of the past. We can construct a variety of memories using pieces of different events. We can even construct completely false memories when others provide new pieces to us.

Alzheimer’s disease will eventually steal a person’s past, gradually eroding memories. But early in the disease's progression, we see that Alzheimer’s accentuates the nature of memory. Everyone constructs their memories with a kaleidoscope. Everyone can repeat the same stories. In Alzheimer’s, we see these features of memory more clearly.